Return to site

The Metamodern Institution Part I

The Party’s over but the Revolution has just begun

I contend that somewhere inside you you’ve always know that you are some kind of secret revolutionary. You just never seemed to have found the right time to express your rage and now, perhaps the world has become too complex for rage to have a coherent grip on anything and, well.. maybe you’re just a bit old for that kind-of-thing.


Actually, what’s happening is that you are leading the vanguard of revolutionary change, you just haven’t recognised it yet. This is because the symbols and tropes of the revolution you’re leading don’t following the standards and norms of the ones you read about in school. This revolution is quiet, secret, vastly more expansive and profound than any that have gone before with all their smoke, blood and angst (but don’t worry, there is plenty of suffering ahead, it’s just that it’s more of an ontological, smash-your-world-view-and-all-that-you-held-dear kind of violence rather than the more visceral kind we associate with barricades in the streets) and you’re a key member of the revolutionary vanguard.

Why a Revolution?

Our institutions don’t work.


Your workplace doesn’t work.


It’s hardly a stretch to say the entire model of public (and even private-sector) governance doesn’t work and it’s no stretch at all to say that they are not effectively providing the public goods they were constituted to deliver.


It is a truism of course that we live in complex and complexifying times (and I’m not quite sure we’ve really grappled with the fact that this is just the beginning of complexity). That can be used as a legitimate excuse for resistance, overwhelm or inaction but, given the gravity of the challenges we’re facing, it’s a pretty poor one.


The truth is the entire mental model that dreamt-up the institutional structures we are living with (and increasingly inside of, both at work and at home) are pretty much not up-to-the job. We know it, we rail against it but there you are. It’s just true.


So, we look for answers: disruptions to the institutional status quo that provide new models and new answers to the multi-dimensional challenges we are trying to navigate. They are out there, but there aren’t many and they don’t seem to provide real scalable examples for grappling with large-scale social, cross-sectoral, cross-border challenges.


Many of us respond by doing what I call working inside/out: we create ‘bubbles’, generally at the intersections of departments, institutions, social and stakeholder groups, in which we seem to be able to embody and exercise a more fluid, creative and interactive kind of operational efficiency that is just so much more human. Great stuff happens in these bubbles, most of it hidden from the institutions we work for. The processes and outcomes that accrue from the formation and, dare-I-say, exploitation (in the positive sense) of these relationships must be translated into the bureaucratic language of performance, strategy and work-plans (and if we’re lucky our boss/manager is ‘inside the bubble’ and can play that role). The people who know how to do this translation work are worth their weight in gold!


What’s happening is that you are not only breaking-your-brain trying to get great-stuff-done despite, rather than thanks-to your institutional environment, but you are actually in the process of cannibalising and progressively transforming what an institution is.

You’re Already Doing it

What you are doing is what the political scientist and criminologist Hanzi Freinacht in The Listening Society calls metamodern politics. It’s a subversive and deeply progressive (in the sense of envisioning a future first and only then trying to figure out how to get there) approach to the creation and delivery of public goods (amongst other things).

Just so you can recognise when you are acting out your revolutionary urges, I’ll describe one of the desperately subversive things you do that both defines the boundaries of your bubble (who you let in and why) and what actually goes on inside them. Speaking ironically, you are ‘subverting the dominant paradigm’ every time you focus on process (how something gets done) before you focus on product (what gets done).

You do this because, consciously or otherwise, you recognise that that the ‘who’ that’s getting something done is actually the most important variable (and that’s without getting into what ‘who’ really means, which is really fun[1]). You get (and action) the realisation that despite our illusions and desperate hopes to the contrary (and our best, most sophisticated planning mechanisms or any amount of ever-greater computational power) we can’t and have never been able can’t actually plan the future. At best we can extrapolate one or a range of linear progressions from the past forward and hope nothing unexpected knocks our nice straight lines askew (don’t hold your breath). By the same token, we realise that (at least in the Anthropocene age, if not before) we do have a profound (possibly absolute) influence on what shows-up in the world around us[2].

So, how to reconcile these two positions? If we can’t plan the future but we are the key determinants of what’s going to show-up… where does the future come from? If you asked the ancient Greeks they’ll tell you a Muse gave it you. They’re about as close to the truth anyone has gotten. The future must be pulled out of somewhere (imagined) and created (and then created, recreated, created and recreated again and again until we die). With that realisation (something I assert you figured out somewhere in your late teens, or, if you’re not a millennial like me, probably your late twenties… sigh…) came the progressive understanding that what’s going on behind someone’s eyes is way more important to what actually happens in the material world than what they know how to do (their skills) or where they are positioned (their access to resources and authority through hierarchical positioning). Give Hitler of Ghandi control of a government department (both with no bureaucratic experience) and I vouch you’ll get a different result.

The point I want to make, and leave you with in this and probably every article I ever write, is that you are part of a really big, and really global shift in how governance is done; what institutions actually mean, where their boundaries are, what they can and should accomplish, and most importantly, what their real function is!

This is the functional crux because, as Hanzi puts it in the abstract:

The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psych­o­logical growth. Humans develop much better if you fulfil their inner­­most psych­ological needs. So we’re looking for a “deeper” society; a civilization more soc­ially apt, emotionally intelligent and existentially mature.

In these three sentences, Hanzi has both encapsulated the end-stage and the access to it.

In your daily work, this comes down to the fundamental question of where you (as a worker/manager/general conversationalist) put your attention if you want to get stuff done: on outcomes or on the development of people. In the end, it is a focus on the development of people, in the micro (your daily work) and the macro (the absolute function of the institution itself) that will get the best stuff done.

This shift, miniscule as it seems, is so profound that, as you progressively implement the norms and behaviours around it in your little bubbles, you shift the entire operating environment of your work and your society, and much faster than you think!

This is how we cut the Gordian knot that is the bureaucracies’ attempt to manage increasing complexity with increased control (of populations and of bureaucrats). This is how we find a clear and unambiguous focus for managerial effort in the face of the overlapping, multi-dimensional nature of the modern problem-set. This is how we address the issue of the ever-expanding remit of public (and private bureaucracies) and the ever-diminishing absolute material resources available for their fulfilment.

[1] It’s what you see when you look at teams separate to the individuals who constitute them, like norms and organisational culture but a bit more nuanced. Essentially, when you start identifying the existence of transpersonal norms and attributes that essentially flow through, or ‘use’ individuals for their expression-in-the-world, the ‘individual’ as a rational actor ‘deciding what to’ starts to break-down in surprising ways with some pretty radical implications for what it means to manage and organise a ‘good’ society… but that’ll do with all that… it’s a bit woo-woo for here.

[2] I’m not just talking envisioning it and then crossing your fingers but rather that the world has a disquieting habit of fulfilling our deepest hopes, fears and expectations, the most extreme and elegant of which could be our deep-seated desire, represented most forcefully in our most influential cultural texts like the Christian Bible to be responsible for our material environment, to have the whole material plane at our finger-tips. Well, sometime in the 1990’s we got there, we just haven’t quite decided what to do with it yet.

Why You

It’s simple really… and oh-so, not-so simple because you can’t just go ahead and do it (even if you’re in an hierarchical position where you have the putative authority for organisational change). Wouldn’t you love to just expand and join-up your bubbles to include the whole unit, department, institution, sector? It seems so obvious really.

In your quiet moments you can probably smell the possibility of it: a smoothly functioning conversational flow anchored in ‘topic nodes’ that pull in the experiences, skills and resources as required to get-stuff-done. Institutions and people mobilised with minimal friction for the pursuit of societal-level goals, hijacked and discarded as the needs of the meta-goal metastasizes and evolves. This is how to get non-linear results, where the outcomes do not match, and vastly multiply, the resources that were available. This is what we’re talking about…. except, you can’t do it. Not yet. Sorry. Unfortunately, not everyone can play in that space. You can carry some along through the translation mechanism mentioned before but that is a substantial drain on limited imaginative and cognitive resources, so you can only include a few people that way and the higher up the contemporary organisational chain you go, the harder it gets.

Cognitive dissonance between the modern and the meta-modern mind-state is one (substantial) barrier. The other, more insidious and less excusable, is the commitment of many people, despite the bombardment of evidence to the contrary, to continue the party like it can go on for ever, and consequently not look at who they have to be to see change implemented. Across large swathes of the population and deeply embedded in the walls, organisational charts and vocabulary of the modern institution, lies the presupposition that nothing really has to change (at least until I’ve retired).

Guys… the disco-party ended years ago… stop dancing!

Doing this work in board-rooms, training halls, and community centres around the world, what I have found is that what we call ‘resistance to change’ is actually more like a highly charged stimuli-response to the gentle-brushing of these soft pink places in the psyche. It’s the almost certain knowledge that the future looks nothing like the past and that, perhaps more importantly, many people can’t recognise what’s going on in the environment they’re living (and working) in. They just can’t see it!

This is where you get real, and sometimes surprisingly aggressive (and potentially job-shattering) push-back. Beyond the bureaucratic, linguistic and procedural shenanigans that keep your bubbles of metamodern operation small and separates lies a deep, dark reef of assumption and self-identity that threatens to, and often serves to, hole any small craft brave/foolish enough to attempt to bridge the divide without the proper tools. This reef is a deeply rooted belief that somewhere in the 1990’s/2000’s (and especially after we did-away with that last pesky shibboleth of reactionist competition for the human future, the Soviet Union) we finally reached the apogee of human conceptual development and any attempt to profoundly alter the forms that hold us in that place is not only an attack on this epochal success, but also on the generation who were the global stewards when it happened. It’s not an of course, but for some it can occur that way.

You see, if you want to understand what is really stymying your attempts to link-up your bubbles of metamodern efficiency (which make so much sense to you), you need to understand what you’re actually dealing with.

For many people, the mid-century social, sexual and economic revolutions that seemingly reached full expression in these decades continues to represent the ultimate end-state of millennia of human struggle to understand ourselves and master our environment. From this perspective, the rest of human history (from out when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 is really just a mopping-up operation aimed at dismantling the last of the oppressive hierarchies and pesky inequalities that have kept human beings shackled from their natural right to struct-the-stage and author their personal destinies[1] (and maybe engaging in a little interstellar colonisation while-we’re at it). An entire generation were fed on this triumphalist brew. It’s heady-stuff and it positions the rational individual (you) as the “master of your universe” with extraordinary discretion to tell the world what you would like and a reasonable expectation of getting it. You can see why it’s quite hard to let go.

Then along comes someone like you who sees an alternative way-of-doing things (and is actually doing them) and whose large-scale implementation seems to go way-beyond tinkering with current systems (represented in the final accounting by increased layers of procedural and bureaucratic complexity). Let’s be blunt: for many people, creating alternative operating methods that don’t follow the standard operating-procedures of the ‘modern’ institutional environment (which is actually the metamodern institutional environment, but they just haven’t caught-up yet) is a direct attack on who they know themselves to be in the world, and the value they think they have provided over their life-times. Since the transpersonal values you are exhibiting when you focus on process before product and on personal development as the core concern of your working life, can’t even be recognised as separate from you as-an-individual (the rational, “master-of-the-universe” individual who won the cold war), you, yourself must be the enemy.


[1] This idea was most famously encapsulated in Robert Kawasaki’s epochal bookend: The End of History and The Last Man, which essentially posits this triumphalist world-view. To continue the literary theme, Ian M. Banks beautifully and seductively captured the implicit future represented the modern mind-set in his Culture series of Science Fiction novels where humans have colonised universe-spanning spaces with idyllic, peace and fun-loving communities of billions. In The Culture, virtually all material constraints and risk have been eliminated through the mobilisation of advanced robotics and especially AI, and people are pretty-much bored-out-of-their-brains (interestingly, in Banks’ stories, this idyllic world simply provides the backdrop for the characters who are in positions to assume real risk and interesting things happen to them).

The Beauty of The Revolution

So, if more, bigger and increasingly interconnected bubbles of metamodern operation are what we’re looking for: how do we get there?

Well, obviously, you should keep doing what you’re doing, cannibalising the system from within. Unfortunately, this can be hard, unrewarding and ultimately, lonely. The moments of victory and sympathy can be few and far between. The trouble with quiet, hidden revolutions like ours is that it’s so easy to feel like you’re doing it alone. You know you’re not because you keep seeing the occasional YouTube or TED talk (or article, hopefully) that speaks to you, or bumping into people who just ‘get it’ (and, if you’re like me you get all frothy and share what you’re accomplishing and how it’s getting done). However, most-of-the-time it’s just a grind. So, what’s the answer?

Well, having now worked with literally thousands of people who are grappling with these issues (young, old and in-between) going head-to-head is clearly a hiding-to-no-where. Not only are all the cards stacked against you (even if you’re the CEO) you’ll just upsets people, it’s disrespectful and it doesn’t work. There are other ways (which I’ll get to in a moment) which are way more elegant, productive and leave everyone singing Kum-Baya in the lunch-breaks. Ways that don’t require any (much) confrontation and can radically move a group or institution.

You see, the real beauty of this revolution is that though the difference is profound, the changes required to achieve them are camouflaged by the fact they are really just a doubling-down on what we’re already doing: a slight (massive) change-of-focus in how we do things; a doubling-down on values we’ve already espoused; a slightly more rigorous process for measuring and tracking attributes (who people are being), and, perhaps most importantly a very clear-eyed and consciously crafted vision of the future(s)/end-states we’re working towards.


It’s this last access that requires the most direct and conscious ‘intervention’ and returns the greatest ‘bang-for-energetic-buck’, but I’m going to have to leave you hanging for a sequel…. And go do some more deep thinking!


Au Revoir and Vive La Revolution!

Nb. If you like this, and you think there are people who would get-a-kick out of it (code for see the world in a slightly new, and more ‘meta’ way), or just find some peace and a little compassion for themselves and their fellow-humans, please share it by posting this in LinkedIn or Facebook. Thanks!

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly