Future of Work : Riding the third wave to success

Margot’s first degree at the University of Sydney was a Bachelor of Education. She moved to Darwin where she headed up Darwin Family Centers. This organization provided child care and family support for the families across the top end of Australia. It was while studying for her MBA that she started working as a business consultant, at the youthful age of 24. Margot works with some of the world’s top companies at executive level, helping organizations in times of crisis, such as after mergers and takeovers. She mentors numerous leading international business figures and conducts workshops and conferences.

She is the author of "Approaching the Corporate Heart", ISBN 0-7318-0655-7, Simon & Schuster.  

Margot is Chairman of Zaffyre International, and can be reached at mcairnes@zaffyre.com. See also her websites at www.zaffyre.com  and www.margotcairnes.com


In her last trip to Australia, US futurist Dr Sue Mehrtens held audiences transfixed with her predictions for the coming Third Wave of social, economic and business activity. Mehrtens was convincing in her argument that social and biological systems have life cycles - nothing lasts forever. As one system is in decline another is developing. Then there is a crossover point when the old system dies and the new system matures before it too becomes outdated and falls away.

Mehrtens claims we are now experiencing the decline of the Second Wave - economic instability, growth of fundamentalism ( as people seek certainty ), massive social dislocation through downsizing, reengineering, huge mergers and industry restructures. We are also experiencing the birth of a new era - the rapid growth of small business, many informed by what Mehrtens calls "female values" of openness, forthright persuasion, cooperation, trust, androgyny and empowerment.

The incredible growth of the New Age movement while scary and distasteful to many is testament to the fact that people are searching for new learning, growth and new ways forward, that encompass the whole of their being - body, mind, emotion and spirit. According to Mehrtens, in the Third Wave small is beautiful so we can expect continued growth of flexible, open small business and the increasing breakdown of big business as witnessed by the breakup of AT&T.

One fascinating aspect of Mehrtens' thesis is that when parts of large Second Wave companies ( she cites Dupont and AT&T ) have embraced Third Wave philosophies and practices they have been outrageously successful. This absolutely supports my own experience in major international and Australian organizations.

The incredible success of the Third Wave offshoots in companies naturally brings attention from the top. What one might then expect is that the pioneers are rewarded. Not so, says Mehrtens. Experience shows that once the big brass know how their Third Wave employees have obtained outstanding results they panic - insist on a "back to basics" approach and do things like sack the people involved, close down their division or promote a Second Wave type above them.

One major international oil company engaged a benchmarking expert to discover which oil refinery managers were the most successful. The idea was to chronicle their competencies and use those as the benchmark for training, evaluation and selection. The reviewers discovered that the leading plant managers exhibited Third Wave values such as team/community participation, long-term thinking, courage and openness. A follow-up study one year later found that all the "outstanding" plant managers were no longer there, they had been moved, fired or had left.

It turns out that while Second Wave rhetoric is for increased business success, the reality is a lot more political. When it comes to practice, Second Wave leaders want conformity to the known, expediency, secretiveness and control. So the paradox is raised. Outstanding bottom-line results can be achieved through doing things differently, however, if you let reactionary Second Wave managers see that you are operating in a Third Wave way you are likely to be penalized, even sacked.

However, operating in an environment of trust, cooperation, team participation, openness and empowerment is fun, enlivening, exhilarating and therefore very hard to give up once you have tasted it and seen its results. The only option then becomes to live one way but be seen to live another - to have a Third Wave onsite persona and Second Wave in-HQ facade. If you think living with this kind of dichotomy is hard, you are right. However, many Third Wave leaders are deciding that it is better to live a double life some of the time than to buckle under restrictive ( and doomed ) Second Wave dictums all the time.

Ironically some of the best role models for this double existence come from groups against which Second Wave businesses have always discriminated. Women and gay people have for decades had to hide who they really are to survive in Second Wave businesses. Women's gentleness and intuition have for years been off limits in business and therefore something they have to hide in public while using it extensively ( as a competitive advantage ) in private. Gay people too have used their difference to strengthen their creativity and inner resolve while ensuring that their sexual identity remained hidden in the business arena. The growing gay and women's networks have provided these groups with validation of their innate qualities thus allowing them to maintain their difference while masking their true identity in the world of work.

Times of great change are always risky. They are also times of great opportunity. To seize the opportunity and manage the risks is going to be key for those who will emerge as the winners in the coming age. With a new age come new rules, and new rules bring new ways of thinking and operating. Those who are today seen and penalized as different might well be the big winners tomorrow.


© Margot Cairnes

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