"We are not going to do this for another 40 years!" my friend Joost and I told each other in the summer of 2015. Only two years into our engineering jobs, we were completely frustrated with the old-fashioned organization structures of our employers. We were tired of the endless bureaucracy, the pointless report writing, and the lack of freedom and entrepreneurship. There has to be a better way, we thought: a new future of work. We were convinced of it. We did not, however, have any clue as to what "alternative" workplaces would look like. So, we quit our jobs and set out to find answers. We had lots of questions, but one big aim: How to make work more fun. We formed Corporate Rebels, and we have now traveled the globe for four years. We've learned from the most progressive organizations we could find. The results? We have visited and learned from over 100 workplace pioneers, entrepreneurs, academics, organizations and leaders, each of whom has succeeded by working in radically different ways.
1. From profit to purpose and values
Progressive organizations no longer focus solely on increasing shareholder value. They focus on building a workplace around common purpose and values. Having purpose and meaning gives people the energy, passion and motivation to get out of bed in the morning. To be clear: We are not talking about a mission statement full of pretentious banalities (or what Americans call corporate bullshit). We are talking about crisp and clear causes that activate people inside and outside the organization. This purpose should be translated into organization, team and individual goals, to ensure everyone is aligned. How to get there:
- Craft a crisp and clear mission that unites and activates all people within the organization. Translate this purpose to departments, teams and even individuals.
- Replace rules and protocols by a set of clear values.
In Amsterdam, we visited one of the those pioneering companies that puts purpose before profit: confectioner Tony's Chocolonely. Tony's works to eliminate the slave labor that has plagued the cocoa industry and made chocolate an increasingly guilty pleasure. For example, Tony's pay a premium (higher than fair-trade premiums) to farmers to ensure proper pay. They actively track down and combat child labor. Their beans are 100% traceable to ensure transparency and fairness. In short: Tony's Chocolonely puts its money, and chocolate, where its mouth is. And it works business-wise too. Tony's Chocolonely has never spent a dime on advertising. Can you believe that? They're the market leader in The Netherlands, almost everyone knows the company and their chocolate, and in 2018 they generated revenues of over 55 million (a 22% increase) while not spending a single euro on advertising.
2. From hierarchical pyramids to a network of teams
Progressive organizations know the familiar hierarchical pyramid is outdated. It simply does not fit with today's quickly changing environment. The rigidity of command-and-control does not promote agility, speed and engagement. We find that progressive organizations tend to adopt alternative structures. Typically, they turn the rigid pyramid into an agile network of teams. Teams are often organized as networks of teams of up to 15 people. They are responsible for their own results. We've come across progressive organizations in all shapes and sizes, and in a host of cultures and industries. We visited the nurses and carers at Dutch Buurtzorg, the builders of Breman, the IT-ers of Nearsoft, the developers of Smarkets, the financial advisers of Finext, the technicians of TMC, and the consultants at Swedish Centigo. One powerful example is Chinese major appliance manufacturer Haier. The company has demolished a hierarchical pyramid with 75,000 employees and replaced it with a network of more than 4,000 microenterprises. These small companies interact in a marketplace-like environment. Their responsibilities go way beyond those at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid. Employees (or entrepreneurs, as Haier refers to them) select their own leaders, enjoy profit-sharing and can take ownership in their microenterprise. Each team has skin in the game. They feel the impact of their (financial) successes and failures. This increases responsibility, entrepreneurship, communication, adaptability and the willingness to support each other. The rigid organization belongs in the graveyard. How to get there:
- Create a network of multidisciplinary teams that are result- and mission-driven.
- Make teams responsible for their own results and give them a financial stake in the outcome.
3. From directive leadership to supportive leadership
Stop pushing decisions down the chain of command. It neglects the wisdom of the crowd and disengages those who are closest to the customer. The most inspiring leaders craft a mission, walk the talk and encourage people to act. Authority is no longer linked to hierarchical positions, but rather to the ability to lead by example and build and guide teams that flourish. How to get there:
- Destroy ivory towers and get rid of status symbols, job titles, and privileges.
- Let teams elect their own managers.
4. From predict and plan to experiment and adapt
Long-term strategic business planning and budgeting are all based on the outdated belief that we can predict the future. Let go of your extensive predictions and start embracing experimentation in your daily work. Experiment, learn and adapt. And don't be afraid to fail, it is an important part of the process. How to get there:
- Encourage experimentation, make it visible and award it.
- Communicate successes and failures during "F*ck-up nights."
5. From rules and control to freedom and trust
Get rid of the old-fashioned command-and-control structures, allow people to work autonomously and trust that they will act in the company's best interest. This freedom, however, is not a one-way street. A high degree of freedom should come hand in hand with a high degree of responsibility. How to get there:
- Get rid of most rules and liberate people from structural control mechanisms.
- Let people decide for themselves how, where and when to work.
6. From centralized authority to distributed authority
Aim to distribute authority to individuals and teams in order to be able to adapt constantly to the rapidly changing business environment. Trust your people to make the right decisions. Be aware that with the responsibility of decision making comes the accountability for the result. How to get there:
- Push authority down the organization chart as much as possible.
- Make better decisions with "the advice process."
7. From secrecy to radical transparency
Traditional organizations tend to limit valuable information only to the leaders. They, then, must call all the important shots. To be able to distribute authority to frontline employees requires a culture of radical transparency. Avoid secrecy by applying an "open by default" policy, and an "ask me anything" mentality. Make data available in real time and provide people with the right information at the right moment, in order to increase the speed and accuracy of decision making. Don't be shy, and leverage the power of technology. How to get there:
- Grant company-wide access to data, documents, salaries, financials and other information.
- Boost transparency through town hall meetings.
8. From job descriptions to talents and mastery
Traditional organizations tend to distribute activities based on job titles and descriptions. However, many of these descriptions are out-of-date the moment they are crafted. The result? Employees don't use their main talents in their day-to-day activities. A study from Dutch research firm Markteffect found that 67% of employees did not use their chief talents in their daily work. That's an absolute waste! Make better use of the diversity of skills and talents that are present within your organization. Get rid of the job descriptions that are obsolete from the moment they are crafted. Let people work on things they like and which best fit their interest, talents and strengths. Doing what you are good at increases motivation and engagement. How to get there:
- Let people choose their own tasks and responsibilities. Let them sculpt and tailor their job.
- Provide an unlimited training budget.
We've visited five continents and more than 30 countries, investigated over 100 pioneers and conducted more than a thousand interviews. A more human version of the future of work is already here. All we need to do is spread it.
Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree is the co-founder of Corporate Rebels.