How to Liberate a Company

Suppose you have embraced the following three truths:

  1. To truly engage people, with all their capabilities you need to distribute power between people more equally 
  2. To truly utilize technology, with all the unique solutions it can provide, you need to unleash the creative problem-solving potential of people at all levels in an organization
  3. Psychological Safety, Mindfulness, System Thinking – three significant tenets of every healthy organization – can not be achieved by appeals; instead, you need to weave them into the day to day work designs of a company

Armed with these beliefs, you are ready to liberate your company or team. There are two different, complementary ways to do that. Bottom-up or top-down.

Bottom-Up Liberation: The Company Board

There are five steps to do that:

  1. List and visualize your current work designs
  2. Learn about new work designs
  3. Experiment with some promising work designs
  4. Evaluate Work Designs together
  5. Adopt those that work for your organization – discard those that don’t
  6. Repeat & Evolve

The Liberated Company Map is a great tool to list and visualize your current work designs. Besides, it is useful to learn about the plethora of possibilities, their interdependences concerning the level of power inequalities existing in your organization, and the risk you expose yourself to in the experiment.

The Liberated Company Map

While the Liberated Company Map is a map of the current all work designs of a company or team, a second tool is useful to show and track the dynamics of the experimentation process: The Company Board. The company board is a KANBAN board in which columns show the stage that a work design is in, from idea, to test, to evaluation, to adopted or discarded. The key to working with the company board is to let everyone bring up the work design she or he likes to try – everyone at their own pace. Work designs are not mandated, but they are discussed and evaluated openly before a decision is made to include them into the DNA of work designs of a company. 

The Company Board

I have worked with customers who skipped step one and jumped directly into action two without too much upfront deliberation. That worked fine, also. The crucial thing in this bottom-up process is to evaluate and decide on adopting work designs together (steps 4 and 5). While this or that work hack can enter one’s personal portfolio of work techniques, the major work designs that organizations use should be aligned. Having a “zoo” of work designs is confusing, counterproductive, and ultimately doomed to fail. There needs to be consistency in the overall work designs of an organization.

Bottom-up Liberation works like a charm because it brings order to all the Agile, New Work, Work Hack, or other management initiatives that exist in a company. It provides a holistic picture of how work is done in a company, from the simple status meeting to complex decision-making procedures, and a way to evolve it. Even better, it lets people experience that it is worthwhile to re-think the ways they work together or manage.

Most of my clients choose to do iterate and evolve their work designs in three-month cycles. That’s one 4 hour workshop every three months. Compare this tiny investment with the cost of never reflecting holistically about the way people work together at all. After twenty-five years me being in the business of organizational development, I never experienced something as effective.

Top-Down Liberation: The Themes

But all is not well. Bottom-up Liberation is excellent to get started and evolve companies or teams, but it sometimes is not intentional enough. A company is a living system, but it also a target-oriented system. The intention of a company, its purposes, should be reflected in its overall configuration of work designs.

Bottom-up experimentation with work designs will definitely make a company better but is not a surefire way to link a vision or strategy to the inner workings of a company. A certain amount of top-down design is needed to inject intentionality into the bottom-up, evolutionary process.

These kinds of top-down interventions into organizations are quite tricky. Managers, Researchers, and organizational design practitioners have been pondering about providing optimal work environments intensively since the days of Stafford Beer, the father of cybernetic design of organizations, in the 1960s. “Cybernetic design” is really just a fancy phrase for the quest to learn how to provide a good or productive work environment. Its basic premise is that you can design an environment in a way that it best supports the purpose of a company, by manipulating all the social and psychological strengths and vulnerabilities of people in a professional manner. 

It is certainly not for lack of trying, but even today, effective cybernetic is as rare as it is ethically dubious. So, how can top-down liberation work? After analyzing progressive organizations, I got a hunch. Each of these organizations seems to have an underlying theme to the way it had configured itself with work designs. While the theme might not have been apparent at the start of a company, I think it can be clearly discerned in their current configuration of work designs.

Some companies are about decisions (like Bridgewater, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds), others about entrepreneurship (like Haier, a world-class manufacturer of appliances), and others still about service (like Buurtzorg, a 14.000 healthcare company). 

The question is, what is your company (or team) about? I have dissected this high-level question into five major ideas:

  1. The idea of Technology: What’s the role that technology has in your company?
  2. The idea of Performance: What constitutes good performance for your company?
  3. The idea of Ruling: How is power wielded and distributed between people?
  4. The idea of Work: What exactly is work in your company i.e., what are the criteria that should play a role when selecting work designs?
  5. The idea of Life: What does it mean to lead a meaningful life while being a part of your company?
What are your and what are your organizations deeply held ideas?

Of course, there are many other ideas possible, but I think that those five ideas describe essential underlying themes around which companies can be built. Even better: Around which companies can configure their work designs too – like the four companies listed in the table below did.

A comparison of one traditional and three progressive companies

You can start at any level

As explained in this post, you can begin the journey of liberation anywhere in a company, at any level, at the top of companies, somewhere in middle management, or at the team level. Both bottom-up and top-down avenues to liberation are possible at any level. However, the lower you are on the hierarchical level, the more restricted your options to use work design are, and the more your themes need to be aligned to the overall organization.

That’s it for the post. “Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” will be in stores at the end of this month.

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More details can be found on www.liberated.company.

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