A plea for wise organisations

In about half a year, I will have graduated and hopefully have found my first job. When I tell people this, they often respond with something like “So fun time is almost over!” or “Are you ready to take on the corporate jungle?” Despite their good intentions, I don’t think the picture of a working life is like that at all. In fact, the idea of having a life made up of just work is outdated and misses the point.

In his inspirational TED talk, Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler proposes an alternative to the rigid, bureaucratic and short-sighted structure of organisations. According to his philosophy, we have come to the stage of building organisations based on wisdom. This might sound pompous but his main principle is actually quite simple: purpose. Everything that you do as an employee must be connected to your personal purpose in life. He explains this by referring to his “terminal days”, which are days of the week when you do the things you would do if you were to be terminally ill. So if climbing that mountain or writing that book has always been your goal in life, then do it. Not when you’re retired, but now. Let’s all aim for an empty bucket list!

In the same vein, we need to embrace a form of corporate democracy. I know this sounds utopian, but Semler has proved it can work. One of his companies keeps two board room seats open for the first employees who show up. As a result, it has had a cleaning lady vote on executive decisions. This practice has kept everyone in the organisation honest and committed. Similarly, employees are encouraged to decide themselves what their salaries should be, how many vacation days they have and who they will have as their direct superior.

Insane, right? Perhaps it is. Yet the most important point becomes clear at the end of his talk. Namely that we have to be able to radically rethink any structure or system that we find ourselves in. Be it the school or university you attend, the company you work for, or the political system you subscribe to. One of my fears is that once we lose this ability, we end up with a study, job or political system that we do not truly identify with. So it is crucial to learn this ability at a young age, before the system takes away all incentive for radical questions. What is your radical idea going to be?


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