ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - September 2000

Issue Highlight - Remembering What Matters
-  Peter Block explains the need to look deeper than fashion and technological trends to find meaning in our homes and workplaces.

 In This Issue...
Living Impossible Dreams
Ouch! Is it Time to Redesign Your Systems?
Searching Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Believe It or Not— Workplace Bias Still Exists

Bedtime Stories for Your Organization
Economy Breeds Short-Sightedness

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

Remembering What Matters

 Christopher Alexander is an architect who, for thirty years, has been arguing to bring feeling, humanity and beauty into construction of the built environment. His writing about buildings is really a set of beliefs about the way we construct the world around us. Here is how he begins his 1985 book entitled, “The Production of Houses.”

 “In the modern world, the idea that houses can be loved and beautiful has been eliminated almost altogether. For most of the world’s housing, the task of building houses has been reduced to a grim business of facts and figures, an uphill struggle against the relentless surge of technology and bureaucracy, in which human feeling has almost been forgotten. Even in those few houses, which openly concern themselves with their appearance, beauty has also been forgotten. What happens there is something remote from feeling, an almost disgusting concern with opulence, with the taste of the marketplace, and with fashion? Here, too, the simple values of the human heart do not exist.

  The real meaning of beauty, the idea of houses as places which express one’s life, directly and simply, the connection between the vitality of the people and the shape of their houses, the connection between the force of social movements and the beauty and vigor of the places where people live—this is all forgotten, vaguely remembered as the elements of some imaginary golden age.”

  When I read these words, they seemed to be describing the modern workplace. If you simply replace the word house with the word organization, and reread these two paragraphs, you find a description of the institutions where most of us dwell. It is becoming rare that people express any love for their workplace. Our organizations are being driven by facts and figures, pulled by technology and the taste of the marketplace. Remote from feeling, distant from words connoting beauty; the ideas of loyalty, long-term commitment and care seem to be disappearing from our vocabulary.

  The idea that our workplace might be a place worthy of long-term commitment is increasingly quaint. We now have evolved to an instrumental relationship with our employer, if we have one at all. The relationship between employer and employee has become commodified, defined by barter and open to constant re-negotiation from both sides. We have free agency, staying and signing bonuses, outsourcing, full-time temporaries and on it goes. We even speak with pride of the virtual organization, one that exists only on paper, which can be born in an instant and dissolved in a day.

  This all comes with a cost that Alexander’s words warn us about. What we create in the outer world is eventually reflected in our inner world. When we create houses or organizations that eliminate love and beauty, and where human feelings are considered an unaffordable luxury, then we have created that same landscape within ourselves. And this will also be the defining feature of our relationships.

  In a virtual work world, I experience myself as a virtual being, one whose value is primarily defined by facts and figures, and is constantly open to reinvention. I begin to expect myself to change as rapidly as the marketplace, finding my identity coming from the product I have become. I begin to substitute networks for relationships. I think of intimate conversations as taking place “offline” instead of being the point. This virtual and instrumental culture is reducing the experience of our own freedom, even though it is supposedly our freedom that this virtual world is offering us.

Freedom vs. Liberty

 It is common to confuse the experience of freedom with obtaining our liberty. Liberty is about the absence of oppression; the lessening of external constraints on our actions. The virtual and instrumental culture may, in fact, give us more liberty and reduce constraints. We have no boss or many bosses, we work more at home, we dress casual, we have portable pensions, no loyalty oaths and soon we might be able to manage our own social security accounts.

  These liberties, however appealing, have little to do with our freedom.

  Freedom is an inside job. It is having the will to construct our own house, our own way of seeing reality, and having a mind that runs independent of convention. It is the capacity to define the world as we see and experience it, rather than to follow fashion and let others define it for us. It is finding a calling and vision from God or from within ourselves and not from top management. No job structure can create or restrict the integrity of our own experience. Our freedom has to be given away, it can’t be taken. Freedom is having the courage to pursue meaning and beauty and has more to do with our subjective experience of what Alexander calls the “simple values of the human heart.”

  Alexander speaks of houses that “can be loved and beautiful.” This would be strange language to apply to the new economy, but maybe these are appropriate words to
use if our freedom were the point, and the marketplace were just a place to discover
it. The importance of freedom is that it creates real accountability: I will care for what
I have constructed. For example, what we need to recapture in the midst of this new economy is to care for the whole even though the whole no longer seems to care for
us. Who will care for our institutions if not us, even if the old threads of loyalty and
a long relationship have disappeared?

Fashion or Fate

  While a virtual and instrumental world may seem inevitable, and a requirement of the marketplace, Alexander also suggests in his statement that our attraction to technology and a virtual existence may be driven more by fashion than necessity. This is especially true in the business world where a herd instinct towards popular ideas is common. Every organization says it wants to be a leader, but is reluctant to try anything that has not been proven first by others. It is possible that all the language about free agency, the exponential rate of change, the need for agility, and the fundamental shift caused by the Internet are a sea of modern fashion that we happen to be swimming in.

  What Christopher Alexander has given his work-life to is stated in another beautiful passage in his book, where he offers the possibility that we can create houses in which, “Human feeling and human dignity come first; in which the housing process is reestablished as the fundamental human process in which people integrate their values and themselves, in which they form social bonds, in which they become anchored in the earth, in which the houses which are made have, above all, human worth, in the simple, old fashioned sense that people feel proud and happy to be living in them and would not give them up for anything because they...are the concrete expression of their place in the world, the concrete expression of themselves.”

  Our workplace and organizations are the daytime social houses in which we dwell. Why would we not build more permanent, rather than virtual, places for our selves, in the face of our infatuation with modern fashion and a address? It only requires that we understand the existence of our freedom and know that our organizations can still become what we decide to imagine them to become.

 September 2000 NFC Homepage


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