Hanno Burmester is author of several books and one of the founders of Innocracy, Europe’s major conference on democratic transformation. With his company Unlearn, he designs and facilitates transformation processes in private and public organisations. In the past, he has worked in the German Parliament, the headquarters of a big political party and as an investigative journalist. In his most recent work, Unlearn: A Compass for Radical Transformation, which was published in 2021, he ponders on ways to transform society in a way that unleashes its positive, creative potentials, instead of its violent, destructive ones.
Why are current parties unable to meet the challenges the world faces?
Most parties are stuck in a dying political paradigm. Over decades, democratic politics has willingly subjugated itself under the needs of the market. Instead of focusing on societal well-being in the long term, political parties devoted all their energy to maximising individual material well-being in the short-term.
Our era asks for something completely different: a focus on long-term systemic well-being. Which means that parties need to come back to understanding politics as the force that designs and rewrites the ground rules of both society and the market. Doing so requires a fairly fundamental self-inquiry: what are we here for? What is our purpose? What must we unlearn to live up to our responsibility?
What are the top three aspects they struggle with?
First, traditional parties have an operational system that keeps them stuck in incrementalist politics. Second, most parties are unable to hold the complexity necessary to co-create political solutions that suffice the historic moment. Third, most parties do an awful job when it comes to trusting and unfolding the human potential of their members and supporters.
How do you envision the future political organisation?
I see a party that truly accepts its societal responsibility. It comes up with radical political ideas that have the potential to tackle today’s challenges at their roots. It understands that politics in the 21st century requires to think from the perspective of those born seven generations from now, roughly people living in the year 2200. It is transformative, both in its political impact and perspective and the way it unlocks its human potential on the inside.
Please describe core aspects of your ideal party?
The transformative party honours the worth of incremental policy-making, but always prioritises a transformative political approach. It boldly thinks and acts from a future perspective. It is European by DNA and structure, and locally connected. It is fluid – it adapts its structure and processes constantly, while carefully nourishing a culture of active collaboration, decentral decision-making, and responsible leadership.
How can modern parties react to the diversification of societies?
To state the obvious: by becoming more diverse. In our book, we differentiated between Diversity 1.0 and 2.0. Diversity 1.0 means attracting and retaining active supporters with different backgrounds, whatever they may be. This is where most parties stop: they want new faces, but they don’t want these faces to change the existing mode of collaboration.
This is where Diversity 2.0 kicks in. It refers to a culture that successfully accesses the co-creative potentials of this diversity. In a nutshell, this means to not only become more diverse on the surface, but to be able to use all perspectives in the room for a smarter kind of collaboration and decision-making. When people master Diversity 2.0, they start to self-reflect and take perspective – which, in itself, is a transformative experience, and potentially a tremendous enrichment for everyone involved. For political parties, Diversity 2.0 holds the promise to come up with new, better solutions for the political challenges of our times.
One key term is “unlearn” – what does it mean regarding organisational unlearning?
Like individuals, organisations have cultivated patterns in the past that hinder them from realising their best potential today and tomorrow. Usually, these patterns are “silent”, or unconscious. They keep us stuck in a status quo that is not fit for our times. This is why unlearning matters: to consciously acknowledge the patterns that are there, to then let go of them and replace them with something better. Doing so is a prerequisite for successful transformation. I wrote more about this in my recent book “Unlearn. A Compass for Radical Transformation”, where I share stories from various organisations that successfully mastered this challenge.
What are some best practices political parties can implement right away?
Best practice is a guarantee for incremental change within the boundaries of the mediocre. I advise all my clients to trust in their capability to co-create solutions that lie way beyond what comparable organisations do.
Many people are not ready to change because they fear experiencing disadvantages as a result of the changes, for example losing their position or status, being fired, etc. What is your approach in this situation?
Yes, and by continuously focusing on this part of society, we keep reducing our collective drive towards transformative change. I believe we should give equal attention to those citizens who are willing to decisively tackle the existential challenges we face.
That being said: regarding the more timid parts of society, the challenge lies in enabling them to imagine – and thus experience – a future that has more to offer than this deadly exhausted present. Only then will they be able to enter the unknown. Future thinking and its techniques can help us catalyse the mindshift we need. Transformative parties could be the organisations that facilitate this change in perspective.
If you look 10 years into the future from your perspective, what forms of organisation do you foresee?
Across the sectors, there will be more and more organisations with self-organised operational systems. They are highly decentral, a lot more adaptive, and by default digital. This shift is already happening. If political parties do not adapt their organisations and cultures to this, they will continue to lose legitimacy, at least among those who are an active part of the workforce.
How can parties strike a balance between short-term interest and the long-term needs of citizens?
By telling people openly how it is: if we continue to prioritise material short-term interest, we will be existentially fucked – within a very short span of time.