Secrets Of Success: A Case Study On Self-Organization

Henk
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- 9 min read

CHECK IN: Today, I enjoy happiness and pride working at Consumentenbond, a Dutch non-profit organization. I wasn’t always so lucky!

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Spoon fed

At 22 I was a Customer Services Supervisor in another company. I experienced several promotions and management positions. I was also exposed to lots of training, assessments and challenging situations with direct reports. I was spoon fed on hierarchy, KPI’s, performance reviews and appraisals. While the latter were usually complimentary, there was strong focus on things not achieved.

As I grew older, I started to question traditional ways. For example, how can I truly judge the accomplishments of teammates? How fair is a raise based on my judgement? What’s the chance of a person ticking all the boxes in a job description?

Change

Now I am glad to work in an environment free of a classic hierarchy. At the Consumentenbond we do have goals and fixed job descriptions, but all roles are adjustable. We define work, based on a role, with purpose, determine responsibilities, think of a name for the role, and finally find people for the task.

Our way of working mixes Holacratic principles with our views and core values. Despite initial skepticism, I am now a believer in self organization. And we know it works for us.

More consumers find our website (+26%), more choose a membership (+15%), more members choose our services (+21%), and are happier for doing so (NPS +22%). In short, we honor our purpose: To help consumers make right choices and get what they are entitled to.

Need for change

Why did we engineer this radical makeover? How do we ensure success?

We are a Dutch non-profit that exists to protect consumers and help them make wise decisions. We are a membership organization with ~400,000 members and 230 employees. We continuously search for members, and adapt services to their needs.

But, during a gradual decline of members, lacking a feedback culture, and with departments claiming to collaborate, we had to find a new way. So, in 2018 we defined our strategies and ‘must reach goals’. This could be another story. But, for now, let me focus on the operating model that resulted.

The secrets of success?

1. Values. In an early step, we redefined our core values. Think of ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘honesty’ (of which much is heard in lots of companies). We focused on giving everybody freedom to suggest ideas, and a structure that supports rather than criticizes an idea. One of the questions we use (and that I love) is: ‘Is it safe enough to try this idea for one day?’ We pose the question this way to support the person who has the idea, rather than highlight the objections of others. Another credo we embrace is ‘progression over perfection’ and our decision making is based on consent rather than consensus. We now have a year-long online cultural program with RSPND.org that focuses on communicating above or below the line, and raising awareness of fixed and growth mindsets. Our goals are to remain connected in an online world, by knowing each other better, and growing our internal pride.

2. Governance. We don’t have managers anymore, nor the job titles. We started with a complete redesign of the organization. Imagine our company as one XXL circle with one goal. Within this are XL circles, in the XL circles you have large circles, within which are medium sized circles and so on. Each circle has a defined purpose, responsibility and role. All roles follow this same structure. They define their own work objectives or have work assigned matching their responsibilities. Circle goals are cascaded and aligned goals derived from the company goal.

3. Circles. The XXL company circle consists mainly of C-level roles we now refer to as ‘Navigators’. The XL circles are divided into three entities:

  • ONE: The Proposition teams. These ‘commercial’ teams are responsible for business models and revenue streams. They are multidisciplinary with roles provided by
  • TWO: Guilds. The guilds consist of subject matter experts and vary in their domains, such as Brand & Internal Communication, Content, Communication Channels, Publications, Technology and Development, Customer Value etc.
  • THREE: Lastly, our Strategic Programs, also consisting of Guild representatives. Without Guild experts, the other entities would be empty.

4. Meetings. The weekly tactical meeting is our backbone. It ensures team alignment, creates space to process tensions and review next-actions and projects. All circles have weekly meetings of an hour. Before the new operating model, meetings lasting 1.5 - 2 hours were not uncommon. Now, they rarely exceed an hour, even with 20+ agenda items. They are completely unlike those in my earlier managerial life. How many times, then, did I go to a meeting with a great idea, but exit with rejection, and decimated self-esteem—after 10 people offered 20 opinions on why my idea wouldn’t work. This is not possible now. Ideas usually receive rocket fuel and take flight. We always follow the same structure:

  • A CHECK IN at the beginning and a CHECK OUT at the end. During the check in the facilitator will ask attendees one by one what they would like to share. This raises distractions and allows room for empathy. Maybe something in your private or business life is bothering you, or making you happy.
  • After check in come the CHECKLIST questions. These may only be answered with a Yes or No. They are intended to bring transparency to recurring actions, to gather (new) information for the agenda or help facilitate new behavior. In practice the checklist questions also help us think of items that may have been forgotten and should now be added to the agenda.
  • Then it’s METRICS time—discussing metrics of the circle or specific roles. How healthy are we? Are we on track with our metrics?
  • We then discuss current PROJECTS. Each role owner gives an update. If there are none, the simple response is ‘No update’. Clarifying questions are allowed, but no discussion. If anyone wants to discuss the project, he/she can add an agenda item.
  • The AGENDA. The facilitator will go through the items and ask item owners: ‘What do you need, and from which role?’ After addressing the item, the facilitator asks if the owner received what was needed. The goal is not to over-analyze, make long speeches or discuss issues in-depth, but to quickly resolve tensions and have a clear idea of what the next step should be. This allows us to process 20-30 items in a meeting. Progress is noted by the secretary, and transparent to the entire organization.
  • We conclude with a CHECK OUT. This is usually used to reflect on the meeting: what we learned, or how we feel before exiting. This creates an environment of continuous feedback.

The structure is always the same, but agenda items don’t have to be shared beforehand, and don’t have to be prepared. This means there is a low threshold to add agenda extensions. You can add an item as the meeting progresses, as long as it’s clear what is needed from which role. The facilitator helps this process. Because work is discussed in the circles, bilateral meetings are greatly reduced. All meeting output -including the Navigators’- is visible to everyone in the company. Full transparency.

5. OKR. Short for Objectives and Key Results. In the digital world, we needed to react faster to consumer needs and market developments. OKR’s give direction to our autonomy and ensure circles work towards the same company goals. Each quarter we have a companywide prioritization process based on strategic goals. We have mid to long term, inspiring, guiding Objectives. Connected to these, we decide on ambitious, measurable Key Results that we strive to accomplish in the quarter.

6. Baarda Model. Without an appraisal process, or fixed jobs, we need to find ways to reward people. We are still looking for suitable systems, some things are already agreed. Everyone receives a yearly increase. The idea is to use the Baarda model that divides work complexity into 8 roles: instead of linking a person's salary to his job description, this links salary to the added value a person brings. Each of the 8 roles has a learning path and is connected to a salary scale. To place someone on a learning path, (academic) knowledge is considered as well as problem solving capability and skills.

7. Academy. To enable personal and professional growth we have an education portal with over a thousand (online) courses. These offer webinars, internal or external training, and personal assessment. One thing we offer is the ODC measurement tool. (ODC = Odin Development Compass.) This measures conscious and subconscious elements of personality, behavior and hidden potential. We believe that if everyone is aware of these, and we have the ability to assign roles based on potential, you will realize an ultimate role fit. We will be doing what we are good at and love to do. This gives us energy—and should lead to higher performance and engagement, plus an organization with happier employees.

Perfect?

None of this would have worked without everyone’s commitment, and the total buy-in of our leadership team. They were one of the first circles to adopt the new structure. Our operating model rolled out in Q4, 2018. Since then, we pivot as we go, without achieving, nor aiming for, perfection. Every step counts and if something doesn’t work, we learn, change and try again. There are plenty of things that we are still figuring out. But as long as it’s safe enough to try for one day, we will go for it.

CHECK OUT: I could never work in a traditionally organized company ever again. After reading this, could you?

This is a guest post by Henk de Torbal, Lead Link Customer Value at Consumentenbond, a Dutch non-profit organization. For more information on Henk and the organization, check out his rebel page.

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Replies (4)

Iain

Iain

This sounds so exciting and the company I worked for edged towards this... but now, with changes at the top, it has been a massive pivot back to good old traditional leadership. Hammered day in and day out, demotivated and depressed. but yet, from the outside we are the biggest and most exciting company on the planet. Oh how we deceive.

| | 2 | Flag
Pim

Pim

Curious to learn which company that is. Can you share?

This sounds so exciting and the company I worked for edged towards this... but now, with changes at the top, it has been a massive pivot back to good old traditional leadership. Hammered day in and day out, demotivated and depressed. but yet, from the outside we are the biggest and most exciting company on the planet. Oh how we deceive.

Iain

| | 2 | Flag
Henk

Henk

Too bad to hear that Iain 😔. Hope you can still find the motivation within yourself🙏🏽

This sounds so exciting and the company I worked for edged towards this... but now, with changes at the top, it has been a massive pivot back to good old traditional leadership. Hammered day in and day out, demotivated and depressed. but yet, from the outside we are the biggest and most exciting company on the planet. Oh how we deceive.

Iain

| | 1 | Flag
I

I

Hi Pim,
You are probably using one of the devices that my company make, we change the world and I believe we do. It's never an apples for apples comparison but the changes we see now are very much about compliance with consequences and this is a real shift from the commitment driven ethos that had permeated throughout the retail arm of the company. Covid has masked some of the changes as the company has been outstanding in their support, but I fear that in a years time it will be unrecognisable as the culture will have drastically changed. PM me for more details.

| | 4 | Flag
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