The Million-Dollar Question Every Organization Needs To Answer

Written by in Transformations
- 6 min read

The work we do at Corporate Rebels is beautifully diverse. One day we’re giving a keynote presentation, another hosting workshops, and the next writing for our blog or upcoming book. And on yet another day, we are supporting the transformation of organizations, big or small.

Interestingly, in all these roles, one question always comes up. It’s the question that everyone asks. In this blog post, we provide not just one, but four answers to this million-dollar-question.

And the million-dollar-question is?

"How to transform into a truly engaging workplace?"

This is a burning question for executives, department heads, team leaders, and employees. Why? Because many feel their current way of working simply isn’t working. They experience an incredible amount of untapped potential; each and every day.

And while many seem to think they need to change something, only a few are clear about exactly what to change. Even for those who are clear about what, it is still difficult to understand how to transform into a highly progressive workplace.

Based on visits to 60+ workplace pioneers we offer 4 pathways to successful change. (The images representing the different pathways are inspired by Frederic Laloux‘s Illustrated version of Reinventing Organizations.)

1. All-at-once

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This is the most ambitious path. And it is not for the fainthearted. It requires tremendous conviction, perseverance and, most importantly, courage.

We’ve seen the all-at-once approach succeed in two different ways.

Top-down decision

The CEO is able to convince stakeholders that a radical transformation is the right path. And even if not all stakeholders are aligned (which is most likely the case) the CEO still needs to push through his or her plans with clear conviction.

While it is certainly not the easiest path, various pioneers have shown this approach can indeed work. Among them is Lars Kolind. He transformed Danish hearing aid manufacturer Oticon in an all-at-once fashion.

Collective decision

Another way to start all-at-once is the approach used by Spanish consultancy K2K Emocionando. Using their radical approach they have successfully transformed more than 50 companies. The start of their process is as beautiful as it is radical.

Before transformation starts, they require clients to make damn sure they’re serious about it. The CEO has to sign a document that states that, if he or she stands in the way of a successful transformation (at any point in time), he or she can be replaced by K2K Emocionando.

Additionally, they let all the employees vote for or against the change. If less than 80% vote in favor, they won’t start. They will only do so when 80% or more employees vote for change.

However the decision is made, organizations that act all-at-once have one big advantage. They can move quickly. The disadvantage? It’s hard to get commitment at the very start.

But if the all-at-once approach is not an option, there are other ways to successfully transform.

2. Start with one unit

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Some organizations we’ve observed start with a single team, department, or business unit. This unit experiments with new ways of working while the rest of the organization continues in traditional ways.

Once the pioneering unit has successfully redesigned its work, the rest follow. Other teams/departments/business units join the movement and gradually the organization as a whole transforms.

Dutch online retailer has shown the power of such a viral approach to change. What started with one team has quickly become a massive transformation. The beauty of it all? Nobody was forced to change. All teams that joined the movement wanted it for themselves—a truly viral effect.

Dutch IT company Incentro is another example. They experiment with self management in one department. Based on the lessons learned, other departments are likely to follow.

The advantages? It’s less risky, and it allows you to start with the most enthusiastic part of the organization. Other parts of the organization benefit from the lessons of the pioneers.

The disadvantages?  It takes longer, and sometimes it’s hard to combine a progressive way of working with a traditional one. Also, it could be hard to get the rest of the organization to follow the movement—and to reach the so-called tipping point.

3. Scattered experiments

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In the third approach, the organization invites all employees to start experimenting with new ways of working. Throughout the organization employees initiate experiments. There’s freedom for the employees to choose their own improvements and to eventually redesign their way of working.

The most successful experiments are promoted to other areas. Via continuous and simultaneous experimentation, the organization reinvents itself.

In our consulting work we’ve recently supported a Dutch high tech company. We chose a combination of scattered experiments and start with one unit approaches. In two separate business units we’ve coached teams to design and execute experiments.

Several have now been executed successfully and are being translated to other business units. And, as interest from other business units has increased, we are now scaling up to grow internal change in a viral way.

The advantage of the scattered experiments approach is that change happens where there’s enthusiasm. Another benefit is that it allows for a large number of experiments to be executed simultaneously.

A disadvantage is that it’s also hard to maintain excitement for new experiments. Tackling company-wide issues is a challenge using this approach.

4. Upgrade practices one by one

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The fourth pathway is by upgrading company-wide practices one by one. It’s a low-risk approach, focused on one practice at a time.

Examples of practices might be compensation, budgeting, hiring, firing, on-boarding, performance management, feedback, decision making, or meetings. A single practice can be changed at once for the entire organization.

Polish IT company u2i has transformed their practices one by one. From evaluations to promotions and from salary transparency to rewards. Over time they changed so many practices they are now one of the most progressive organizations in the world.

The same holds for Swiss company Haufe Umantis. One by one they transformed their decision-making, hiring, and leadership evaluation practices. They continue to challenge current practices and push themselves to become even more progressive.

The advantage is that it’s a very low risk approach to change. It helps an organization move ahead step by step, and figure out what is the next best step to take at each point in time.

The main disadvantage of this approach is that it takes a lot of time to become a true workplace pioneer. With every new practice comes a new round of convincing, negotiating, and pushing the boundaries of the current organization.

Mix it up

These approaches all show different ways to success. There’s no one right or wrong way. All have advantages and disadvantages. And reality will likely be a mix of all four approaches.

Most importantly, it’s up to each and every organization to find the approach that fits best and then go for it. Don’t over-analyze and don’t look for perfection. It simply isn’t there. Take off, experiment and fine tune your approach as you make progress.

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Replies (2)

John Mortimer

John Mortimer

Those are very interesting 'structural' change options, that have roots in reality - rather than theory. Great!
When I help a service transform, it is both easy and very difficult.
The easy bit - help the leaders to see an alternative view of their service. Then they can start to work towards it.
The difficult bit - when they realise that the change has to happen to their concepts of how a business functions. Many of them have a limited capacity to change their mindset. Other managers can, but need help nd someone has to work with them at their own pace They have to experience it.
An example is Toyota - probably one of the most advanced management approach in the world. They have been receiving visitors since the early 1970's, and still people cannot replicate what they do.
The best way I have found, is to develop the new view of their service - based on evidence and a design thinking methodology, then help them to experiment with a new service design using a trial prototype. So they can touch and see it themselves. Then, the the choice of which implementation approach you mention above becomes much more obvious.

| | 1 | Flag
Jean Letourneau

Jean Letourneau

Anti-systemic or systemic transformation?

| | 0 | Flag
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