Three Crucial Ingredients To Successfully Transform Into A Future-Proof Workplace
This is an article we wrote for The Huffington Post this week.
During our travels as Corporate Rebels we visited lots of organizations that managed to make a successful organizational transformation. They have transformed an outdated, command-and-control organization to one that is future-proof and highly progressive. And we didn’t just visit the lucky few. We visited plenty of organizations in all shapes and sizes, in different countries and from a variety of industries.
We visited governmental organizations such as the US Navy. But what do they have in common? How did they make this change happen and what seem to be essential ingredients to transform in such successful way?
1. A crystal clear vision
In the transformations we’ve witnessed, a crystal clear vision was in place before the transformation was initiated. At the pioneering workplaces we visited this vision is often crafted and extensively communicated by the leadership.
The beauty of this vision is that the rebels who start the change are doing this with a completely empty canvas. They inspire the organization to dream of what is possible and to look beyond what is the current status quo. They draw inspiration from others and challenge their employees to come up with bold and new ideas. They ask themselves and the rest of the organization the question: “How would this organization look like if it didn’t exist yet?”
The bigger picture for the Belgian Department of Social Security? ‘Becoming an efficient government where the employees are happy.’ And for the Dutch municipality Hollands Kroon? ‘Becoming the smartest municipality of The Netherlands’. These are both beautiful examples of crystal clear and relatively easy to understand visions where the employees can strongly and easily relate to. The clear vision can be used as a powerful guideline during the entire transformation process.
Subsequently, all changes that need to be done or decisions that need to be made during the transformation, must be in line with the established vision. Therefore, all acts and movements should be in line with this bigger picture.
Once the organization starts to make changes and decisions that are not in line with the bigger picture, the people will not be able to identify themselves with the ongoing transformation anymore. The vision will lose its credibility and the transformation is doomed to fail.
2. Employee involvement is key
We would like to stress the fact that we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution for any transformational process. But we do witness two things that seem to be a common trend; a clear vision and employees that take control of the actual implementation. After all, the employees are the ones that need to invent, execute, and accomplish the transformation. The leadership is only there to share the vision, to lead by example and to guard the culture.
It’s not something that’s just anecdotal evidence from our research, a recent study by McKinsey shows that employee involvement during organizational transformations is key. Moreover, successful transformations take time and proper communication plays an important role. The transformation at the Belgium Department of Social Security for example, took at least three years. During the entire process employees were constantly encouraged to be involved with the process as much as possible.
Transformations are therefore only successful if they are executed and supported by the employees. And employees will only support the transformation when they are convinced that this new direction will be able to make them happy, or when the new direction will remove something that made them unhappy. That’s why most inspiring leaders constantly ask their employees what they need, as it enables them to learn from it and directly act upon it.
And if this is done well, you will witness that the new methods and the new ways of working that take over the workplace are all based on a combination of outside inspiration, gut feeling and common sense. This makes that the most radical and efficient methods we came across are relatively simple and break with all of the conventional management beliefs and habits that still rule in most contemporary workplaces.
3. Go all-in or go viral
The actual implementation of the transformation can be initiated in two completely different approaches. On the one hand we visited organizations that go directly all-in with their new ways of working. We’ve seen transformation processes that move from the old to the new situation from one day to another.
Those ‘all-in approaches’ are often designed as one big project labelled with its own symbolic name. The Belgium Department of Social Security for example called their project ‘NoVo’, after the Latin term ‘arise from the new’. The Dutch municipality called their project simply ‘The Dot 2018’.
But you don’t necessary need such a dramatic change to make a successful transformation. We witnessed an alternative approach as well. In this approach the desired new ways of working are gradually spread within the entire organization as some kind of virus. We call this the ‘rebel approach’ to change.
We not only use this ‘rebel approach’ when we support organizations on their way to become more inspiring workplaces, we’ve also seen it recently in a Dutch company called Bol.com. Within this e-commerce company, team lead Harm Jans decided he wanted to start experimenting with new ways of working. After implementing some changes in meeting structures and role definitions, the team quickly felt that engagement and productivity was on the rise.
After the first quick wins, Harm decided to take every chance he got to share the story of their new way of working in an effort to inspire others to join his movement for better work. Now, 18 months later, one third of the non-IT part of the company (the IT part already works fine with Agile Scrum) is working the way Harm’s team started. It spreads like a virus and continues to spread increasingly. The movement is growing and becoming inevitable for the rest of the organization.
Create, involve, go!
To successfully transform into an engaging and successful workplace, it’s important to create a clear vision. Involve your employees in the process, but even more important: involve them in defining the “how” of the transformation. Let them find their own way to realize the vision.
Then, you can go all-in and radically change from one day to another, or, you can follow the ‘rebel approach’. Find fellow rebels, build a movement, and change the organization from within. By doing this, you can be the rebel who can overthrow the old-fashioned, outdated, command-and-control structures that make so many people unhappy at work. You can be the one who changes the system for the better from within; regardless of your formal power and regardless of your position.
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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.