Greg Parsons on the new world of work

Here’s the video for an interview I did with Greg Parsons in Chicago on June 11.  The event behind us was NEOCON, the design event that happens each year in Chicago.  It was an impromptu interview so not only are my questions “not prepared,” they are unprepared. I shot the interview on my iPhone which I thought did really well given the noise and the commotion. I have to declare a conflict of interest.  I consulted for Herman Miller on this project.  Which, I have to say, does nothing to augment my admiration for the undertaking. If only I could always work for clients this gifted.

And here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: …do? [laughs]

Greg Parsons: Oh no, no. I won’t be able to take it again. [laughs]

Interviewer: No, look! We can just keep doing it until we get a take you like.

Greg: Huh? [jokingly] No.

Interviewer: We’ll just keep throwing them away. I love what you just said about getting things together, getting people together, telling them the purpose and then turning them loose.

Greg: The way we manage has been…You line people up, you tell them what to do, you get a piece, you know their outcome. You make sure and you monitor, and you see how it’s all tied together. The future is actually much more complex and free in that you actually take people…You align them around passion and purpose, but then you set them free. You don’t pin them down, and they bounce off against each other. They build relationships and together they find the next direction.

As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve, and a clear set of purpose and principles, that will do just fine. You teach them how to make decisions together, so it’s not pinned down. Everything have a process map. It’s actually let people be free, and it’s counterintuitive for people to do that.

Interviewer: Yeah. It feels like we should send in a group of people called pattern recognizers.

Greg: No, I agree.

Interviewer: Who go in and say, “This is an idea.” They just lift it off, as you would transparency. You just lift that off and people keep thinking, keep lifting ideas off.

Greg: That’s exactly how we’ve designed this. We had a big idea around the living office. It’s very general. It’s very abstract. We started to say, we think there’s eight parts of this. And then we said, no, there are nine and we actually have landed on 12 parts and it’s everything from a shared vision to a place design paradigm to a set of products and a set of services. There are 12 things and we’ve put one person who’s passionate and qualified in charge of each of the 12, haven’t told them what to do in their area, but we all get together and do the nodes of our offer. Those nodes keep developing and evolving, which causes the one next to them to develop and evolve, to form new relationships and new matrixes and new networks.

It’s incredibly organic and it’s incredibly uncertain and it’s incredibly invigorating and surprising. Sometimes you go off the rails and you pull people back, but it works, and we got to where we are twice as fast as I think we would have. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would be here today if we tried to set a process and tell everyone what they needed to do and have a process, the Microsoft project map for everything. We wouldn’t even have the map done by now.

We just had a shared view, got people who were passionate, told them their area of the percolate and we just bounce of each other and build connections as we go.
Interviewer: In a sense the concept of the living office came from a living office.

Greg: It came from the principles of life and we said “What are the principles of life?” It’s the elements of surprise and uncertainty, and it’s freedom, these loose systems of things, interacting, each evolving on their own, but together forming an ecosystem. We said “Let’s apply that to places, let’s apply that to tools and technology, and let’s apply that to actually how you manage people.” Herman Miller has always managed this way, but we didn’t know what it was, so our founder talks about covenant relationships, not contracts. We’re all about innovation and imagining and delivering things that didn’t exist.

It’s very hard to do that in a contract relationship where you define what you need by when because you don’t even know what you’re doing, and so Herman Miller has always said covenant relationships, where you agree on the purpose, the goal, the objective, the loose vision.

You agree who’s responsible for which areas and then you set people free and you keep kneading and bouncing off each other to get out [inaudible 03:48] . Very different, very frightening to most companies.

Completely the opposite to what we’re taught is a good process for management, but it’s the mode of living, it’s how people live, and it’s how life happens and so we believe it’s probably how organizations should work…

Interviewer: You have a design degree, and an MBA, both?

Greg: I have a fine art degree, a degree in history, and an MBA.

Interviewer: Right. Your most recent degree was an MBA?

Greg: Yes. I was the wacko artist at the University of Chicago where everybody else was an investment banker.

Interviewer: [laughs] Could you see then what you’re witnessing now, that the world of work, that capitalism would be flexible and fluid in this way?

Greg: No. Basically, when I went to business school, I was learning design at Herman Miller, and how we do it, which is a lot of what I’m telling you about, when we apply onto products, and then I went to business school and said “What if we applied this to business instead of products?”, and it works. To me, this is how Herman Miller is innovative, but we just don’t know it as a practice, and so we’re getting better and better at knowing it as our practice.

Interviewer: In a manner of speaking, Herman Miller, with this new living office is exporting its corporate culture to other corporate cultures.

Greg: Exactly. We’re learning it better ourselves. Most people, we do our thing and we don’t even know what we do and that’s how Herman Miller has an organization. It’s just who we are, it’s our culture, and we don’t really see what we’re doing, and so we’re trying to step back a bit and see what we’re doing so that we do it better and we actually find that we are a network organization. We are a living organization. There are these principles that we’re talking about that are actually coming from us, so why shouldn’t we share them with the world, because they’ve worked incredibly well for us in terms of innovation.
It’s not necessarily right for all work, so if you’re making 500,000 of the same thing, it’s probably not the way to manage. But if you want to reinvent that next thing you’re going to make 500,000 of, it is the right way to manage.

Interviewer: Yes, and to the extent that whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’re also in the game of reinventing who they are and what they will do in the next moment.

Greg: That’s the other thing we are seeing. Every large company started as a small company with a big idea. Most Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies have many of these big ideas that they expand globally, expand and extend into niche markets. They drive down costs as low as possible, but then they have to reinvent the idea, because the Earth is only so big and most of these companies are global. They found the most efficient means to manufacture so costs are approaching zero or as low as possible. Now what’s left is reinventing the big idea, and many of them try and apply the same principles that they have to optimize to how they invent, and it doesn’t work. You have to apply what we’re talking about, which is this mode of living management which is freeing people, giving them shared purpose, giving them shared direction, connecting right capabilities and passions, and then letting them evolve their part of the organization or the living organism.
That’s how life works.

Interviewer: Are there any early adopters out there who will be the first ones into the Living Office and will be a laboratory for you?

Greg: Yes, there are. I probably can’t share them, but, frankly, there are a number of companies we’re talking to that received pieces of this. Actually, we saw it in them before we saw it in ourselves. “Hey,” we said, “they’re doing this. We do that, too,” and we were realizing we do many pieces of it, but a lot of those pieces do live elsewhere. One fundamental thing that most of them seem to share is our perspective on purpose. When I went to business school, we were asked in a lecture hall of 40, “What’s the purpose of a business?” 39 hands went up to say “to make money.” I was the only one who said “to solve a problem really well.” I was told that I was crazy and I left thinking I was crazy.
What I learned was Herman Miller was founded on that idea, that if you actually solve a real problem for people, you’ll get rewarded much more highly financially than you would if you were trying to achieve a financial goal. The way we look at it is, if you want to make more money, don’t focus on money, focus on your purpose and your passion and the money will come.

What you get is very counterintuitive, but companies like Johnson and Johnson and Herman Miller and IBM were all founded on this principle. About 10 percent of businesses seem to pursue it, and those are the ones that have lasted for many decades and have outperformed the stock market.

Interviewer: Darn, I just…Hey, there he is, Jim.

Greg: You saved me from this.

(Transcribed by Castingwords.com)  

2 thoughts on “Greg Parsons on the new world of work”

  1. Any idea when Greg was at business school. I found his anecdote utterly depressing and, at odds, with my classroom experience.

  2. John, I think he’s about 10 years out. But then again he was at the University of Chicago b school, a place notoriously hostile to cultural considerations. Grant

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