New Ways Of Working: The 5 Strange Choices We Made
As a consulting firm we help companies transform every day. We regularly explore with them ‘new ways of organizing’, and topics like being purpose driven, servant leadership and self-management. But how can we give insights on these profound topics if we don’t practice them ourselves?
We decided we should reflect what we believe organizations could, and should, look like in the future. I’ll skip our endless brainstorms, night-wakings, and trial and error in finding the best model for us. And the difficult discussions that usually accompanied ‘radical’ decisions.
Let me focus on some ‘strange’ choices we made, and the lessons we learned.
Some quick examples:
- We define each other’s salaries
- We are completely self-organizing
- We have no policies for things like reimbursement
- We have an unlimited number of leave days
- We have no financial targets
- We don’t monitor billable hours or have sales targets
- We make everything transparent, including all finances
Our intuition and sensing guide important decisions. We co-create company strategy with no stronger voice for the partners. And yes, we are still growing. None of this happened overnight. Nor was it without trial and trepidation. Here are the 5 most important lessons we learned on the way.
1. Treating everybody the same is far from fair
We started with the view that equality is important. We still hold to that, but we’ve added to it. Instead of saying everybody is equal, we now say; everybody is equal as a person, but not everybody is the same. We found that if we want to make our model work, it’s all about fairness. And fairness means treating people equally where they are equal and differently when they are different.
By denying difference, as we did at first (coming from the desire to be an ‘all equal’ company), we created a lot of tension and unfairness. Even when everybody was OK with ‘giving up’ some of their rightful share to others, we still found this created a strange imbalance in relationships, almost to the point of inequality.
Treating everybody the same is far from fair. Fairness means treating people equally where they are equal and differently when they are different.
So, do yourself a favour—just try to be honest with each other. Not everyone is the same (in skill, drive, etc.). Treating and rewarding each other differently on these grounds is as fair as it gets, as long as people are never seen as unequal.
2. There is nothing worse than denying the difference in responsibility for leadership
Yes, we are a completely self-managing company. But, for now, my partner and I own the place. We felt that, as a self-managing company, everybody should have the same level of responsibility, and experience it that way.
Of course, we were wrong again. There are always boundaries to what people can decide by themselves. There are always things that can be overruled by somebody in ‘another echelon’. And that is not a problem! What is a problem, is denying that simple fact.
Self-management doesn’t mean endless autonomy. Nor does it mean you do whatever you like. Boundaries are important to success. And so are open discussions on the ‘extra responsibilities’ of ‘leadership/ownership’. Eliminating ambiguity on this topic, makes it safer to make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.
Obviously, leadership responsibilities should never remove those that lie inherently with everyone (like using common sense to make the right decisions for the company). But they should protect ‘organization-critical boundaries’, like holding true to purpose and (the collectively decided) strategic focus.
3. Be prepared to kill your darlings
We had so many brilliant ideas. I had so many brilliant ideas. Some things I worked on diligently were perfect on paper—and are dearly loved by me still. However, some just didn’t flow. Maybe they have design flaws. Maybe reality isn’t perfect. Maybe the organization isn’t ready.
It doesn’t really matter. It works or it doesn’t. Everybody notices and feels it. On some level, even I noticed and felt it. So now the real test starts. Does the feedback culture in your company really work? Do people feel safe enough to tell you the truth; that your baby’s got to go?
Then the second test, will you listen? You wouldn’t be the first or last to hold on to something that isn’t working because ego got in the way. But be aware, if you don’t kill your darlings, you will kill your feedback culture (and innovation along with it)!
4. Personal reflection and development are the biggest levers for success
Basically, all the things that we have put in place have one disclaimer. Be prepared to check your ego at the door, and be brutally honest with yourself and others. This is easier said than done. Maybe it’s impossible to completely do this in one’s lifetime. But you can try. And to make this ‘new way of organizing’ work, you must!
We have definitively experienced this as the biggest lever for success. A lot of focus on personal development, meditating before important meetings, and honest reflection on personal pitfalls, helps discussions take place on the right level. These factors make it possible to hold a good balance between the interests of individuals and the interests of the collective (if they conflict).
Making personal development a collective journey (e.g.hiring people that strive for personal development, monthly team coaching sessions, etc.) the norm becomes to reflect honestly, and the vulnerability that comes with that is constantly created. Then, the collective helps an individual to ‘stay true’ during the difficult moments everyone experiences.
5. The only way to do it is to go all-in and stay true to your purpose
Whatever you decide to do, go all-in with what you choose. By that I mean that if you choose to give more responsibility in some area, do it fully. This means making it very clear what area falls under this new ‘own responsibility’ rule and then never, and I mean never ever, cross that boundary and take back responsibility. That is the only way to make it work (or the best way to make it fail instantly).
Therefore, carefully define your design principles, and the scope of what you are going for. It must be very clear to you and others what the rules are, so people see that you take them seriously. Play by those rules, and build the trust to experiment within those boundaries. And, of course, you need to link the goal and design principles of your ‘defined new space’ directly to your company purpose. That is the anchor. You need it to ride out any storm.
If you choose to give more responsibility in some area, do it fully. And then never, and I mean never ever, cross that boundary and take back responsibility.
When times get rough – and they will – and you are challenged by internal or external factors, you need something to hold on to. Something you believe in—for better or for worse. Because it is your purpose!
I hope this helps your journey of reinvention.
Throughout his career Roeland Dikker Hupkes has focused on connecting the ‘hard’ side of strategy and organizational change, with the ‘soft’ elements of culture and leadership. In 2015 he co-founded The Change Collective, a Dutch consultancy firm that supports organizations in making the transformation to ‘the new economy’. They frequently guide their clients on topics like self-management, servant leadership, and becoming purpose driven. All daily practice in their own organization.
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It has been a week of thinking about "killing my darlings" for me, challenging my thinking over the choices I have made and the path ahead. Each time I think I am doing things differently I can slip back into a comfortable space of doing things the same - so the element of self reflection and gathering insights on myself from others has been a key element to explore that slip.
Very relevant for me right now, thanks.
In early 2018 I took on a new challenge. After two years in the popular management world I decided to take a leap into academic life. I started a part-time PhD program in Business at the VU University Amsterdam. Since then I have researched how large organizations (with thousands of employees) can scale and organize without the need for middle management. It’s time to share what we’ve learned.