What I've learned from the first 30% of Reinventing Organizations

· April 21, 2015

I’m reading Reinventing Organizations right now and it’s an inspiring read to say the least. Finally someone puts words and structure to what I’ve tried to do, achieve and explain to others.

And the stories about the self-organization, trust-embracing, hierarchy-demolishing, performance-through-the-roof, best-place-to-work-organizations are truly truly amazing.

I’ve several times wiped tears from my face reading these stories. Not because it’s so great but because it comes down to trusting the people in the organization. As one founder of such organization puts it when he describes his organization FAVI:

The organization that believes that mankind is good

I don’t care what they are doing - I want to work there. I know I can belong! Luckily I work for a company, Aptitud, that strives towards this.

But what is common for these organizations?

Mind you I’ve only read 1/3 of the book… this might be answered later and then I’ll will be ashamed of my feeble attempts to explain this here.

Change the world - to one without the problem

The first thing that stands out is; when they face a problem, thats hindering them to become what they want, they solve it. Even if it means going against conventional wisdom or “the way we used to do things”.

For example;

  • projects are hard to coordinate over a big organization - how can we change the way we work to not do projects?
  • with power at the top and less power at the bottom of an organization we create a “us” and “them” - how can we change our organization so that power is not a question?
  • people are disengaged, bored and scared to make errors at the workplace - how can we change the way we work to show that we trust them and through that increase engagement, joy and sense of security?

Did you notice the repeated reasoning there? “How can we change the way we work”. Let’s break it down:

  • We - yes. We can change this. It’s us. If not us, who? Someone higher up, further away from the problem? Or we? What would you want?
  • Change - assuming that “mankind is good” and that we try to do good, we also have to realize that we need to change to improve
  • the way we work - not our goal, not our vision and not our dreams but the way we “always have done things around here”. The processes, the policies, even the law sometimes (although that might take time).

Especially the last point has grown very important to me. Yes I can and I should question the current state. Yes, even if it’s already decided.

Sometimes we might not change things but get a deeper understanding of how it works. Since I’m slow to pick somethings up here (cultural difference and language barriers being my two biggest hurdles) I often do that; “question to learn”.

Yes, even religion. In other words. I think that you could question Jesus too. Now, since I believe that he is both man and God that means that we will not find any errors in him, but by questioning we gain deeper understanding. And by the way, if you want to read about someone that questioned and challenged the status quo - spend sometime reading about Jesus and the current leadership. Matthew is a good start

Quickly - out of religion-stuff, before it gets scary.

But “Yes, question things, even if it’s the law.” too. I didn’t say break the law… but how do you think changes in laws have come about? By someone questioning it, of course. Naturally it will take more time the vaster the reach of a policy (or law) has, but that doesn’t matter if it’s wrong.

In my industry we are good at changing and questioning the status quo. But sometimes I’m surprised to see the fighting back to cling on to old ways. One particular example about this is the #NoEstimates movement.

I have not followed it for sometime because it makes me sad in two ways:

Firstly; people that I hold in high regard gets a lot of bad mouthing, harsh statements and generally angry comments. Quite frankly; I don’t want to tweet anything about that out of “fear” (for lack of better words)

Secondly, and this makes me even more sad; the people getting angry at the #NoEstimates guys don’t want to look for better. Because that’s basically what #NoEstimates is: “Hey, estimates is hard and we often do a bad job - what if we changed the way we work so that we do not need estimates? Or at least check if that’s possible? Maybe we’ll learn something that can make us better?”

But the answer is often things like: “How is that supposed to work in XXX situation?”, “Explain to me how I’m going to XXX?”

It reminds me of a comment a friend got as he introduced Scrum to a team:

How am I going to work like before now that you've changed everything?

Nobody in #NoEstimates have ever said: “Don’t do estimates”. All of them have said: “Let’s see if there’s another way. Maybe it’s better.” I like that.

The other day I heard a conversation between a father and his son (not me):

Father: “Why, why, why? Always you ask why?” Son (after thinking for 10 seconds): “Just one question more: Why don’t you want me to ask ‘Why’?”

ZING! Exactly. If you don’t want me to ask Why, what’s your reason for that? How am I supposed to learn?

Small teams - with trust and authority

All of the organizations that is described in the book, as “reinvented organizations” is built around small teams. 10-25 people. Because it scales so well, he said to stop further discussions around scaling.

Not only that; all the “teal organizations” (as Frederic Laloux calls them) have pushed much, if not all, authority to those teams. Salaries, hiring / firing, “management”, HR, strategic planning, etc. etc. is managed within the team.

All the teams are cross-functional and built to be autonomous.

You: “But how can that possible work?! It …” Me: “Ap ap ap… They’ve changed the way the work to not have those problems. See above.”

This goes hand in hand with trust and transparency. Pushing all those responsibility all the way down to the individual teams means that you need to trust the teams to do the right thing. Often this is combined with unprecedented transparency around information - which acts as information sharing mechanism.

For example in Aptitud we are allowed to buy stuff that we think that we need, without consulting any leaders. If it’s “a lot” of money we consult another Aptidude (yes, sorry… that’s what we call ourselves). BUT, we share the receipts with everyone. Shopping on the Aptitud account means that an email is sent to everyone in the company. If you buy a big flat-screen-TV with Aptitud-money people will see that. And probably ask you questions.

You: “But how would this work at scale? There will be …” Me: “Ap ap ap… They’ve changed the way the work to not have those problems. See above.”

Also, remember the Spotify answer on how to scale Agile:

Agile at scale, requires trust at scale

And me adding:

And current control can be replaced by transparency

Leader/coaches over managers

The organizations mentioned have very few managers. They have a lot of leaders though… and the make leaders within their own ranks. A trademark of a healthy organization if you ask me.

One common trait for all the organizations is the people “higher up” in the hierarchy have no authority over the people “lower down”. The CEO is only advisory. And great care has been taken to make sure that it stays like that, even in the teams.

People are encouraged to leave the teams should they not like the ways things are run (Spotify for example). “Running meetings” is rotated so that not one single person is always running meeting (Buurtzorg). The same goes for other duties such as budgeting, planning, buying equipment etc (FAVI).

Hierarchy have a tendency to “creep in” to our organizations should we not be careful. The organizations mentioned have simple control systems to make sure that doesn’t happen.

One of these, that also seems, common is that the HQ is very small and they shy away from stabs functions, tries to find other ways. One organization of 7000 nurses have only 30 people in the HQ (all without authority over the team). For the 40000 people strong organization doing power plants all over the world, the stab is only ca 100 people.

Value driven - the goals will follow

All of the organizations described in driven by values (“We are these kind of people”, “We want to see employees live fulfilled lives”) and leaves the goal (“In the next quarter we are going to …”, “Our sales target for 2015 are”, “In the employee survey we will score …”) out for grabs.

There’s merely a WHY stated and the WHO, WHAT and HOW are left to the teams to figure out and solve. In their way. Another way to put this is that they teams are trusted to come up with the WHO, WHAT and HOW

the people are out there making decisions as if the CEO was standing behind them. And if it's not the same decision it's actually **a better decision**.

David L Marqueet again


To me the most important thing here is that these organizations have started with values and then relentlessly changed how the work in order to better live up to those values.

They are never done. They have no goal for their efforts. They don’t know how the future will look. They have no long-term plans for how to reach this.

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