The Working Dead Part II: How to survive the plague of the undead institution, kick ass and create brains

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Note: Jason Theodore presented this at FITC earlier this year and we are proud to rerun his incredible post on ARCOMPANY’s blog. This is Part II of the two-part series of the Working Dead. 

If you haven’t read Part I of these series please go to: The Working Dead Part I: The Plague of the Undead Institution.

The 8 Steps to Jobvana

But there is hope! The current structure, this hierarchical pyramid, is doomed. It is a remnant of ancient times, of the Industrial Age. It is built for factories, not the future. It is built to repress, not inspire. Perhaps that’s why Maynard Webb, author of Rebooting Work, calls this the Age of Entrepreneurship. “Most young people don’t want to work for companies; they want to start companies.” While it might be easier to feel bad about what you (don’t) have rather than build what you want, the cost in the long run is higher. The interest on those deferred dreams could kill you. Thankfully there are signs that the restrictive, hierarchical Workpocalypse is slowly turning on its head.

Not only do culture and mindsets shift with successive generations, but technology is enabling this transformation to happen at exponential speeds. Then why does it feel so slow sometimes? Because we’re in flux. We’re in the awkward ‘tween stages. We’re unsure of our footing and afraid of missteps. But given the right tools in the right environment, we might not only survive, but thrive.

Here are my 8 Steps to Jobvana: the unicorn company where everyone’s life-purpose is fulfilled and there is such a thing as a free lunch.

STEP 1: PURPOSE VS preservation:

It’s nice to have something to wake up for every morning. But do you get up to make the world a better place, or to defend what you already own? That’s the difference between Purpose and Preservation, between hope and fear.

Jim Stengel, the author of Grow, says that “top performing brands are built on ideas, higher-order purposes that transcend products and services.” It is precisely these ideals that create meaningful differentiation from their competitors. So it is in a company’s best interest to look beyond the base desire to get rich, and to focus on something more powerful: purpose. (A decade-long study of over 50,000 brands found the Top 50 to be driven by brand ideals.) Here are some examples:

  • To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. — Facebook
  • Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. —Google
  • To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. — Nike (*if you have a body, you’re an athlete)
  • A collaborative project to produce a free and complete encyclopedia in every language. — Wikipedia
  • To make the world laugh a little every day. —

Ben Huh of warns that the company motto should not be turned into motivational posters and put on the walls. This turns your purpose into dogma, it externalizes it. Now it is something told to you, that you may rebel against. Any hypocrisy will be glaringly obvious and create cynicism. And cynicism is a deadly virus that can turn your organization into a Zombany: a company filled with working dead, people devoid of passion or purpose, collecting a paycheque. Don’t get bit! Instead, keep your distance, stay quiet, and run away at the first safe opportunity.

When I worked at Ogilvy, founded by one of the most quotable ad guys in history, his words were plastered on every available wall-space. Every day people in the halls would exclaim, “If David [Ogilvy] knew what we were doing now, he would roll over in his grave.” Steve Jobs said dogma was “living with the results of other people’s thinking” that might “drown out your own inner voice.” True to his nature, Jobs never had a formal purpose statement for Apple, although his Think Different ad campaign might be considered his mission.

Create a reason for people to participate in the work and take pride in it

Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left. — Simon Sinek, Start With Why

STEP 2: PARTNERSHIP vs clique:


What is it called when you are forced to do demeaning things, often suffering grave abuse, with no monetary compensation? (Hint: parenthood is a close second.) If you still have free will, we call this survival; if you don’t it’s called slavery. Doing what you are told just because you are being paid for it is called prostitution; the money might be better than slavery, but it still robs you of self-esteem.

[W]hen big business feels the squeeze, marketing budgets suffer first. Agencies clamber over one another for client work, saying yes to any and all opportunities, bad-mouthing each other, and winging it on work they shouldn’t have attempted in the first place, instead of prioritising shared value and fighting for mutual respect. — Mike Stopforth, Cerebra founder & CEO

Why do we forgo meaningful relationships with our employers, employees and clients? Why do we resort to cliques, special interest groups and fiefdoms? It stems from the protectionist attitudes of self preservation in the face of uncertainty. But their safety is an illusion.

The barbarians are at the gate. The old guards, the inner-circles, the boys clubs… the ancient practice of demanding respect is waning. A position of authority is no longer enough to demand it. If you have mad skills and decades of experience, you won’t last long as an emperor in Jobvana. Instead, it’s in your best interest to be generous with your knowledge through collaborative coaching and mentorship.

If you think this is all starting to sound too airy-fairy, tell that to billionaire Sir Richard Bransen who helped create New Ways of Working, a massive report which includes a beautiful illustration of what collaborative leadership looks like in contrast to the ‘old school’ model.


Let employees collaborate with their peers and give them access to executives. They want to be included in the conversation and feel as if they are part of something. — Maynard Webb, Rebooting Work

STEP 3: TRUST vs paranoia:

Trust starts when micromanaging stops. You hired them, now let them do their jobs. Giving people some ownership over their vocation creates true accountability and empowerment.

This doesn’t mean you ‘demand and abandon’. It doesn’t mean giving employees just enough rope to hang themselves. Trust means that your team, including its most senior members, won’t let you fail. This gives you some leeway to explore, to go out on a limb sometimes, to learn and grow. It also means you aren’t constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re not the scape goat when a mismanaged project falls apart.

A virtuous cycle of engagement and wellbeing can be initiated which creates far more benefits than paranoia ever could.


Trust in this new world of work can come in many forms. Just like a healthy family, everyone believes they are a part of something, and knows that whatever is being done is ultimately in the group’s best interest.

This is important in the new world of technology. So many people in management are afraid of being taken advantage of. If given too much leeway, employees are going to ‘screw the pooch’, and the business is going to fall apart. As a consequence their hires are paranoid about being late or taking too long a break, or working from home, or leaving too early.

I feel the reverse is true. If I can instill purpose and trust, I gain respect. People don’t ‘screw over’ people they respect. And they will be working hardfrom wherever they are. They are adults who can decide what works best for them and their team. Plus, if they are respecting each other through collaboration, there will be no surprises. The manager will already know where the project is at, and doesn’t have to send out petty reprimands from his or her office email.

STEP 4: TRANSPARENCY vs control:


Trust leads to more sharing. Instead of hiding mistakes for fear of a group shaming, they become opportunities for group learning and realtime feedback, something Millennials expect due to their affinity with social media.

Transparency means you know what your responsibilities are and know who to talk to if you can’t do your job. Transparency means there are no locked doors, iron curtains, or secret meetings. Transparency means you know what is happening and are kept in the loop. There is no exclusion, there is no patronizing protection from details. People know where you are coming from.

Pixar did something like this internally when they were making movies. Nothing was precious or hidden only to be seen when completed. Everything was shared out in the open, commented on by everyone. This lead to an unprecidented streak of 13 block-buster movies in a row. Ed Catmull, current president of both Pixar and Disney Animation, describes why his company used transparant ‘dailies’ to show everyone on the team their work in progress.

There are several benefits. First, once people get over the embarrassment of showing work still in progress, they become more creative. Second, the director or creative leads guiding the review process can communicate important points to the entire crew at the same time. Third, people learn from and inspire each other; a highly creative piece of animation will spark others to raise their game. Finally, there are no surprises at the end: When you’re done, you’re done. People’s overwhelming desire to make sure their work is “good” before they show it to others increases the possibility that their finished version won’t be what the director wants. The daily process avoids such wasted efforts.
And transparency isn’t just so management can watch their employees swim around in a glass cage. It isn’t so they can see every move, and control all the pieces. Intead, the more responsibility you have, the more transparent your actions should be.

Social business consultant Catherine Shinners suggests leaders employ the practice of “creating observable work — letting others view, contribute, co-create, participate in the process — and narrating your work — surfacing and making it visible so that others can use, engage, or purpose it for new context.”

When you work transparently… you inherently model “working out loud,” and, as such, provide tacit mentoring to those with whom you engage. The dynamics of working transparently support a climate of trust that allows people to negotiate their way forward in a work environment replete with the ambiguities and complexity of change. — Catherine Shinners, Changing The World of Work





When you are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, when someone else holds the key to your basic needs, they totally control you. Some managers, as the saying goes, treat their workers like mushrooms: feed them shit and keep them in the dark. Their employees are constantly stressed out and worried about when the next hammer will fall.

These conditions will never inspire greatness. Instead, fear breeds all the conditions of the Workpocalypse: preservation, cliquiness, paranoia, and a desire for control.

When fear rules our lives, even the most amazing calling in life can be downgraded to a career. On the trajectory of fear, careers wane through the grey purgatory of jobs, and jobs break down in quivering heaps at the fiery gates of slavery. — Matt Steel, The abundance of slowness

As a fledgling Creative Director, I once suggested to senior management that we stop putting individual names on our award submissions. I argued that morale was low due to a few privilaged teams taking all the credit for the hard work that everyone was doing. If we banded together, we could all take credit, and our agency would stand out. It might encourage more collaboration between the silos of our org chart, and boost everyone’s effort. I was told that I obviously didn’t know how things worked, and was literally laughed out of the room. As a consequence, I kept quiet about my other transformative ideas.

In an organization where managerially-generated fear reigns, people are always striving to “be safe”. However, if fear is systematically removed, then people start to feel safe around each other and their leaders. Trust begins to form, and collaboration emerges and finally teamwork. — Richard Sheridan, Joy Inc.

The first four steps to Jobvana are criteria, conditions. The last four are results; they are the outcome of the first. The conditions of purpose, partnership, trust, and transparency allow for fearlessness. It could not exist otherwise. Fearlessness allows people to act like — and be — themselves. It builds confidence. This is one of the most gratifying ways to work.

Confidence stems from knowing what you’re good at and applying it effectively. One of my favourite tools is Strengthsfinder 2.0 — a book and comprehensive assessment that uncovers your five core strengths. Once you know them, you feel empowered to build on them. It’s like finding out your superpowers. And it allows you and your teams to collaborate in new ways that take advantage of each other’s abilities. Here are mine:

Strategic · Ideation · Futuristic · Intellection · Activator

Discovering my top five strengths motivated me to pivot my career more toward thinking, learning, and writing about the future of marketing, technology, and creativity. It gave me more confidence to share my thoughts and activate my own entrepreneurial endeavours.

STEP 6: ADAPTION VS reaction:


Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done. — Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework

Working harder doesn’t mean working better, but in the Workpocalypse, reactive managers always need to look busy. They get frenzied, lash out, and have knee-jerk reactions to the events happening around them. Often they are emulating their own bosses, and other times they are trying to protect their own private parts in a broken organization that hasn’t managed to transform.

‘Transformation’ — the word so often used in these cases — suggests a sweet caterpillar re-emerging as a gorgeous butterfly. In reality it’s more like gender reassignment surgery — complex, awkward, painful and utterly confusing for everyone around. — Camilla Grey, Full Stack Strategy on Medium

Change is hard. But it’s already here. Between the shifting generational attitudes and the huge strides in technology, there is no escaping the changing workplace. So if you can’t beat’em join’em. Or at least put everyone together and strive for a shift in perspective. Billionaire Peter Diamandis co-founded the Singularity University to encourage modern entrepreneurship. The world’s top executives take his courses beside young, tech-saavy Millennials. This is how he described the process to Inc. Magazine:

You’ve got these executives who would normally be inside the siloed walls of their own company, hanging out next to twentysomethings who are working on 3-D printing or autonomous drones or synthetic biology or A.I., and it puts them in a brand-new thinking regime, because how you think really matters. Most innovation dies inside companies if it’s anything other than incremental, because it threatens the beast. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. And crazy ideas do not survive well inside well-established companies.

It’s no coincidence that the newer workforce thrives on change and embodies the adaptive entrepreneurial spirit. They were never promised life-long careers and would reject them anyway. They want to be where the action is. And if your company isn’t interesting enough they have no problem leaving and trying their own thing. Chris Messina calls this trait ‘full-stack.’ I’ll let him explain:

Full stack employees have an insatiable appetite for new ideas, best practices, and ways to be more productive and happy. They’re curious about the world, what makes it work, and how to make their mark on it. It’s this aspect above others that defines and separates the full stack employee from previous generations. Full stack employees can’t put blinders on once they land a job; instead they must stay up on developments in their industry and others, because they know that innovation is found at the boundaries between disciplines, not by narrowly focusing in one sphere.

Adaptation means you wear many hats. You are a polymath. You love to learn and explore. Things are moving too fast to just specialize. A recent study just showed that most entrepreneurs are generalists who hire specialists. Don’t be afraid to change — or pivot — your skill set.

The offensive role, the adaptive stance, is to meet your challenges head on, learn through your failures, and share your successes. Innovation instigates transformation. It is the breaking down of old assumptions and the creation of something different and possibly disruptive. While this can be stressful and devastating to some, it can also be incredibly exciting.

STEP 7:  ROLES vs. rules:

Almost a decade ago I had another crazy, fledgling idea. Hierarchy was demotivating to my staff, and they kept pointing out the hypocrisies of senior leadership: so-and-so told them to stay until 5 on Fridays but would always leave early for his cottage on long-weekends; what’s-her-name would complain if someone was watching YouTube videos while crunching graphics, but she could talk on the phone with her sister for hours. That kind of thing. There was a clear delineation between The Working Dead and management. One group was expected to do what they were told, and maybe one day they would be rewarded by the better group and move slowly up the corporate ladder. It was old school.

I wanted to remove the ladder. As middle management, I didn’t want to be up in an ivory tower, I wanted my teams to benefit from my experience and connections within the organization. I wanted them to respect me as a partner, not a plantation owner. I wanted to work with them, on the same level, yet with a different role, a different mandate. At the time, concepts like holacracy didn’t exist, and ‘flat’ organizations weren’t really talked about in advertising circles.

My idea was really just a shift in language: instead of top-down, it was centre-out. Everyone had a sphere of responsibility, something they were responsible and accountable for. Some would be responsible for the look-and-feel of a brand, or its voice. Others would be responsible for groups of brands, and need to interface with Subject Matter Experts to keep up to date with technology. Managers would have a sphere that encompassed theirgroup. Executive management and the C-Suite had the most responsibility of all, which they would share with clients. It was a beautiful thing.

I presented this concept to my staff first to get feedback, then to the senior executive team. The latter party was not impressed. Their big spheres were definitely felt by me that day. I left the company not long afterward.


At first I was bitter, but I eventually realized my own naiveté. I didn’t have the authority to actually empower my staff. We might not have walls among us, but they would quickly see that I had built my little flat world at the bottom of yet another rung.

Flattening an organisation isn’t just about rearranging an organizational chart. It’s about empowering employees to make and participate in decision and communicate with everyone across the company. — Jacob Morgan, The Future of Work

Rules are not inspiring, they are instructional. They are for safety or efficiency or some other pragmatic reason. Name the last time you were motivated by practicality. But it is exciting to be given ownership, to be given trust, to be given the opportunity to solve your own problems. More companies need to experiment with structures and systems that transcend the remnants of the Industrial Age. We need to experiment with more empowerment, more accountability, to usher in the Entrepreneurial Age.

Some creative leaders — like’s Eve Williams and Zappos’ Tony Hsieh — are experimenting with a fairly radical new system called Holacracy. Without getting too technical, it’s “an organization structure based on clearly defined roles. It allows for greater clarity into who has authority over what and who is accountable for what.”

I find it interesting that we are starting to model our organizations in a similar fashion to software. Holacracy is, in fact, an operating system. A solid OS is the foundation that allows everything to work together in a consistent manner. It is a framework, more than a set of hard and fast rules. It is flexible, allowing for customization and personalization based on your role. It is adaptable and can be optimized and updated based on needs or feedback. Perhaps this is a fitting metaphor for the 21st Century.

STEP 8:  GREATNESS vs. money:


If you build a company who’s only desire is to make money, enforce the rules, only react when things go wrong, inspire fear, control and paranoia, and surround your clique with walls to preserve yourself from your own workers, you’re doing it wrong. You’ve created a Workpocalypse. And while most companies don’t have all of these things to the extreme, there’s still a pandemic of working dead out there, struggling to find meaning and purpose.

Peter Diamandis, co-author of Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, is still extremely optimistic about Jobvana and the coming Entrepreneurial Age. Want to become a billionaire? He says it’s simple: find a way to help over a billion people. Find your purpose. Do good.

It’s time to flip the script. It’s time to look at the world of work differently. If you have a purpose, you can look for great partners to share it with. With enough trust you can create a transparent, learning organization that can fearlessly adapt to the fast changing world. With the right purpose, people, and clear roles, your company can achieve greatness. You might change the world. You might even attain Jobvana.


If there is any hope of change, it must first start with you. YOU must change. Yet, in most discussions I have with leaders they say they don’t think they can get their teams to go along with change. And when I talk to their teams, most say their leaders would never buy into the ideas… I have an antidote for that moment… I want to arm you with one simple phrase:

“Yup! I know, but instead of defeating the idea before we even try it, let’s run a small experiment and see what happens.”

— Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc.: How We Build a Workplace People Love

Sometimes you need to keep your head down and survive. You do things, sometimes terrible things, just to get by. There can be no judgment. This is, after all, the Workpocalypse. But if you get a reprieve, if you get a chance to breathe, if your basic needs are met and you have an opportunity to re-evaluate your situation — then consider this fate: do you want to survive or thrive? Remember, work-life is still your life.

Be soft.
Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness.
Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree,
you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
— Kurt Vonnegut

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