Why Are Rebels So Rare?

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- 7 min read

There are many examples of self-management on the Corporate Rebels Bucket List, all of which have very few layers of management, if any, and they are mostly highly successful. So this raises the question “If this is such a good way of organising work, why isn’t everyone doing it?”.

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This is a question I put to Andrew Holm and Julian Wilson of Matt Black Systems. They have successfully transformed a small manufacturing company, increasing productivity by 500% whilst improving the quality and delivery of their aerospace components. What have they done that other organisations need to copy in order to produce similar results?

Personal values of leaders

The answer is buried deep in the personal values of the leaders of the organisation. It’s what drives them on to run a radically different structure compared with the traditional 20th Century hierarchical organisation. The successful leader in the past has been one who is powerful and decisive, who impresses the shareholders with a personal vision and surrounds himself (it’s usually a man) with people who think similarly. They like having power, enjoy being in a position of authority and in many cases are ruthless in the way they treat people. They know best, which is why they are paid hundreds of multiples of the average salary in the rest of the organisation. They come in, make the ‘difficult decisions’ stripping assets, cutting the workforce and implementing top-down financial controls. They promote people who think the same way and get rid of the ‘rebels’ that dare to think otherwise.

This explains why it’s so difficult for existing organisations to change. There is no incentive for the existing leaders to reduce their own position of power and it’s not in their psychological make-up to want to do so. They have always lived in a world where power, information and authority come from the top and they cannot conceive of running an enterprise any other way. They will shuffle people around on the organisation chart, reorganise divisions and tinker with the operations of the business, but are stuck with the hierarchical, siloed model that is the only one they know.

Empowerment of employees

If you look down the Corporate Rebels list of leaders you find people like Jos De Blok of Buurtzorg, Zhang Ruimin of Haier and Ricardo Semler of Semco. They are all people who are not aiming for personal glory and power. They are modest individuals who are motivated by seeing their organisations flourish without their interference. They genuinely ‘empower’ employees instead of just talking about it and follow the philosophy that ‘everyone can be a CEO’.

This is also the position of Andrew and Julian at Matt Black Systems. They believe that leadership has to come from the bottom, not from the top. The overall business direction results from the decisions of the individual, self-leading, virtual companies that make up the whole enterprise. They describe their organisation as self-leading rather than self-managing; as not only do they give their employees the choice of how to do something, they also give them the choice of what to do. If you go to the company’s premises you won’t find Andrew and Julian there. They moved out years ago so the employees could truly run their individual virtual companies.

The driving force behind the evolution at Matt Black Systems was the survival of the business and its ability to compete on a global stage. The cost of their traditional hierarchical and functional organisation couldn’t be supported if they wanted their business to survive. Patching their existing organisational model with Lean and Agile tools failed to deliver any sustainable results and transformation was going to have to be something that looked very different.

Perfect example of a fractal organisation

In his blog in August Joost highlighted the Atlas project and Visa as examples of ‘membership cooperatives’ without traditional hierarchies and bureaucracies. He then explained the ‘fractal’ nature of their structures where the same pattern is repeated at different levels. Matt Black Systems is the perfect example of a fractal organisation. The responsibilities of running the whole company are replicated at the individual level. Every employee has a profit and loss account and balance sheet, they have their own customers, suppliers and internal investors and run their own administration. There is no finance department, central stores or marketing manager. Individuals choose to collaborate when they wish, if there is some advantage in working together. Each is responsible for meeting the legal and regulatory requirements for their own virtual company. This ensures that the whole business meets the external obligations placed on it, in true fractal fashion.

The key to this change is the transformation from an internal ‘currency’ of time to one of value. Andrew and Julian describe this as “a shift from clock to contract”. Essential to the network of virtual companies at Matt Black Systems, are the explicit agreements between the virtual companies. These are like any other contract: they describe a product or service to be supplied in exchange for money. It is the money that values the product and not the time it takes.

The result is a highly effective operation. There is no need for management coordination between specialist departments. Every employee is a generalist running their own virtual company making their own decisions. They have to be multi-skilled and know when they need to pay for specialist advice or bring in help with their workload. It needs an entrepreneurial mindset that is not easy to find amongst the average manufacturing workforce. As a result, only one of the original 30 employees of Matt Black Systems has survived the evolution from a traditional time-based structure to a new value-based one.

A fundamental new approach

Two decades ago when the company was failing, Andrew and Julian realised they had to take a fundamental new approach to the organisational redesign. They describe this as the difference between the pilot and the designer of an aeroplane. CEO’s and leaders in conventional organisations are ‘flying the plane’ like a pilot. They have skills in operating the machine and finding the best way to make it work. But they are not aircraft designers, who have a different skillset.

The heroes on the Corporate Rebels Bucket List are people who have realised that they have to redesign the plane and not just pilot it. They get their satisfaction from seeing it fly well, not from being at the controls and telling the rest of the crew what to do. It takes real talent to be able to redesign the plane whilst you are still in the pilot seat, which is why the bucket list is quite short. Companies like Buurtzorg started from scratch with a new model in mind but Matt Black Systems had to go through a painful process of evolution from the old to the new. Most leaders would have given up the fight and let the company fail, but Andrew and Julian were determined to be ‘rebels’ and find a way to make the company ‘fly’. Now they are happy to share their experiences with others brave enough to follow.

Peter Thomson is Director of the Future Work Forum and runs Wisework Ltd. He has teamed up with Andrew and Julian to write a new book ‘500%, How Two Pioneers Transformed Productivity' about the journey taken by Matt Black Systems. Find more at Fractalwork: a free resource for people interested in self-leading organisations.

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Replies (17)



Very insightful - thanks for this!

| | 1 | Flag


“If this is such a good way of organising work, why isn’t everyone doing it?”

If you are a functioning (if not flourishing) organisation, there are many good reasons not to embrace "the new way of working" as found on this and other platforms. Because the change as presented to them is supposed to be "radical" (Gary Hamel in Humanocracy), and the "trends" listen in connection with this new way of working are extremes on a scale proposed by A. Sachs and A. Kundu in their 2015 blogpost [1].

Without a clear message and in absence of underlying principles as to what this new way of working sets out to achieve, offering little more than examples of successful organisations (many of which had little to loose as they were on the brink of bankruptcy, many of which had visionaries at the helm, many of which started from scratch) which can't be copied anyway as they achieved their success in their own unique circumstances, and with much of the guidance coming down to "just begin and experiment", would you risk spending crucial resources on an adventure which might run your organisation into the ground?

I'll argue — and am very open to be proven wrong — that more organisations don't adopt a more rewarding way of working because of a range misconceptions about the new way of working [2]:
1. Change must be radical
2. Hierarchy must be flattened
3. It is all about trust
4. Experimentation must be embraced
5. Self-management is key
6. Control is part of the problem
7. It is all about people.

Unless the goal is transparent, the underlying principles explained, and the required change can be implemented at a pace suitable to the particular organisation (gradual, local, reversible), the question this article begins with will be asked for a long time to come.

Reference [2] is an attempt at offering the goal and principles which would allow organisations to make this much needed change.

[1] https://www.thoughtworks.com/insights/blog/unfinished-business-organizational-transformation
[2] "7 misconceptions about “the New way of working” — Which are hampering a wider adoption of its potential benefits by existing organisations; https://decisionfreesolutions.com/publication/7-misconceptions-about-the-new-way-of-working/

| | 15 | Flag


Because they inevitably become corporate (sic) rebels 😉

| | 0 | Flag
Kirsten Gibbs

Kirsten Gibbs

Fantastic to see Matt Black Systems in your blog. An inspiring company.

Book ordered.

| | 0 | Flag
Nick Pulley

Nick Pulley

Very insightful and an approach I entirely applaud. As founder/CEO of a specialist tour operator, with an 'old-world hierarchal structure', the past year should have been disastrous. And in a sense it has been if you consider the redundancies and focus only on the balance sheet.
However, the ability to get off the hamster wheel and accept that (significant) financial losses were an inevitability, afforded us the time required to lose the fatty middle structure, strip out all the hierarchy and develop a fully autonomous, adaptive structure aided by smart use of technology.
This is still very much WIP however the results in just 6 months have been staggering as we resign the business from the bottom up. We revisited and reconsidered our values, started afresh with purpose and vision understanding and we worked upwards.
For me, it’s been the most rewarding year in business since the start-up phase, at a time when I should feel the opposite. I suppose the message here is, that whilst I was convinced that the much of what I had read from forward thinking contributors and designers such as Corporate Rebels amongst others, was never going to be possible for us, these past months have given me the capacity and the fresh initiative to completely rethink that. It’s never too late, be bold, decisive and be direct in your approach. You will smash some eggs, you will likely lose some clients but the gains are immeasurable.

| | 9 | Flag


Its also because people who are more neurodivergent, are more psychologically open, and statistically are rare. If in-the-box, linear thinking leaders made a bit more room for neurodivergent, creative, outside of the box thinkers, there’d be more *visible* rebels. ;)

| | 6 | Flag
Andrew Holm

Andrew Holm

I like Jorn's comments https://corporate-rebels.com/why-are-rebels-so-rare/#13635. It highlights a valid point, as often new ways of working all seem a bit of a stretch (or sold as that!). However moving from centralised to devolved organisations does not have to be a huge leap but rather a vision, something that guides day to day decision making.
I would rather place emphasis, not on the destination (new Organisational Model), but rather encouraging people to engage in the Organisational Design process and to come up with their own model or way of working.
I don't believe in the one size fits all organisational model, but rather a very diverse range of models all designed to fit an organisations particular context.
Why are most organisations rigid, functional and hierarchical, structures especially when, often, their context demands leanness and agility? It makes little sense.
When people require an individual purpose and a passion why is it that organisational approaches remove this from them?
I would love to see a huge diversity in organisational designs which includes for all current forms, which are still valid models within a particular context.
One size does not fit all...

| | 4 | Flag


This sounds really cool, Nick! How about a guest post with more details?

This is still very much WIP however the results in just 6 months have been staggering as we resign the business from the bottom up. We revisited and reconsidered our values, started afresh with purpose and vision understanding and we worked upwards.
For me, it’s been the most rewarding year in business since the start-up phase, at a time when I should feel the opposite.

Nick Pulley

| | 2 | Flag


An excellent comment from John, highlighting that it is not as simply as explaining or telling someone. It is not about giving a senior manager a list of attributes they need to have.
A manager in todays business environment is looking for calm and stability before the next crisis. Some of the tactics mentioned in this site will save them shitless!
To engage leaders, I have found;
- start where they are right now, not some ideal of the future.
- start with a problem they have right now, that you can help solve with these new approaches.
- go at the pace and in the direction that suits them. It is their learning journey.

| | 1 | Flag


I'd love to Pim, please let me know any required details

| | 0 | Flag
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