Post Normal – work

Alastair Somerville
6 min readApr 28, 2019

I’ve been talking about Post Normal Design for about 18 months now. Mostly as a Lightning Talk but sometimes for longer.

Lately I have started with workshops and have used a couple of specific areas to enable discussion:

  • How can we change induction to enable power and resilience?
  • How do we maintain value of divergent opinions in product research and development?

It’s the first point I’ll work with here. All of this is vague: I’m not sure and, deep down, I don’t want to say there are clear solutions. Everything in this post is a guess that exists to be critiqued.

Human Centered Life/Organisation Centered Work

Personalisation and individual consumerism are key ideas in modern life.

Making things work for the person so they get to do what they want. Things change to fit what the person needs.

Apart from modern work.

At work, people are asked to change to fit what the organisation needs. The organisation is the center, not the person. However, organisations aren’t human. They work on explicit rules and overt systems. For something to work in an organisation, it must be stated, planned,agreed, shared, measured, reported and analysed.

Work is not human centered.

And that is normal.

Work is where people are recruited to posts with known titles, qualifications and tasks. Work is planned about the unimportance of any individual to the organisation. It is the old industrial model of F.W. Taylor: de-risk production management by breaking it into simple tasks and de-power workers so they cannot affect production schedules. (See note at bottom of post about why this freaks me out).

So what could be Post Normal Work?

What is human centered Work?

Human centered Work

I’ve been asking people about what Post Normal work might be in workshops. I have framed the discussions (mostly for time availability reasons) around the induction to new job moment.

This is because of some interesting examples in Todd Rose’s “The End of Average” about Costco and, in particular, the Morning Star Company. Both companies recruit people to fit holes in their organisation’s capacities but they then enable the people to define their roles.

This is interesting. Centering around the new recruit and their capacities in order to change the organisation to benefit all the employees.

I have also seen this lately in some art projects. Rather than concentrating on managing the product delivery, people curate the relationships to enable delivery. They trust the artists to deliver the best they can (within the time and budget available). What matters is ensuring the artists can cope emotionally and socially. The relationships are core to success when skills and trust are presumed to be present.

A question I ask in workshops is to think about induction of a new team member when Fit is about how the team (and organisation) change rather than the person. I use the example of Personal Mission Statement as one possibility.

Such statements are in use now. They enable teams to shift work around as they recognise how the worth of personal skills and experiences changes as new skills and experiences are introduced. Again, it’s not about measuring the person against the stated role but changing the team to maximise the benefit of a new person and their capacities.

Change starts with the person and ripples away from them. Thru the team. Thru the projects. Thru the organisation.

Human centered work can work in Post Normal.

Other possibilities

There are additional possibilities that Post Normal Work could you have involve.

The diagram above has three possibilities:

  • Respect
  • Trust
  • Improvement

These are all centered on the individual and, again, radiate out.

These ideas are drawn from some research into non-Western epistemologies. There are many discussions of changing business ethics and methods but they seem fixated on the the normal of Western philosophy.

I have been reading Julian Baggini’s “How the world thinks” and it is a helpful start to considering alternatives.

I will finish this post with two points that come up in the book.


Ethics in business are a big topic lately given the misbehaviour of so many large companies.

However, ethics is always phrased as if a checklist or a code of conduct will be enough. This is, rather like the organisation of work, viewed as normal. The organisation will be ethical because it has made an explicit list of good/bad behaviours that employees will follow.

Again, this is organisation centered thinking.

Human centered ethics is more about morals and virtue. Self-cultivating virtue is an idea that was dropped by Western philosophers but maintained in Asian philosophy.

Enabling the building of that strength of virtue matters. Enabling virtuous people to criticise toxic people and terrible ideas is important. Relationships become a matter of ethics too. Abuse of control is clearly wrong, not because it breaks a rule in a manual (that is so often ignored) but because the person, in the team, is empowered to use their sense of virtue to say it is wrong. Again, trust matters.


Harmony is the final point for now. Harmony is often confused with weakness and compliance.

Harmony, however, can be about difference and respect. To work harmoniously is to work together and use the differing capacities and opinions to do what is best. People converge on achieving shared goals but that does not mean they cannot diverge in other ways. Trust that people with a shared sense of purpose will work towards it.


As I said at the start, this is a post about possibilities rather than certainties.

The only thing I am sure of is that what we think is normal cannot keep going. It is neither resilient nor sustainable.

What comes next – what Post Normal is – I don’t know. This post has some ideas drawn from practice at some companies and possibilities drawn from research reading.

Overall, human centered work is essential. Recognising and enabling the strengths of individuals is necessary. Perhaps virtue and harmony may matter: I’d hope so.

But this isn’t about what I hope. It’s about everyone realising that normal is dead and something different can take its place.

Note at bottom of the post

This stuff freaks me out because I’m amazed that this kind of Scientific Management has survived and thrived in a digital knowledge economy. I studied Taylorism at university in the mid 80’s and it was known to be old then. I ran my family’s nail making factory for 10 years and it was entirely based on these ideas. It worked there because it nail making (like pin making written about by Adam Smith) is a process that is a) really suited to the process ideas b) really old.

Wandering into digital agencies and organisations that seem utterly unaware of why Taylorism is a bad idea when valuing high personal knowledge matters and when there is a high variance of finished product worries me.

Digital is not nailmaking so stop using methods we thought were old fashioned in the 80’s.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX