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Liberated Companies – The Book

I started writing this book in 2017 to explore how companies can truly “go digital”. As a former CIO I knew that technologies, however powerful they are, are fiendishly hard to get to work at their full potential. The more my thoughts matured, the more I realized that a company is to benefit from technology, the more careful it must be setup to give people the space to work with, experiment with, and learn from people and technology alike.

After two years of writing, a lot of reading and some application in companies who cared to work with me on the subject, the book has finally arrived on Amazon.

You should read ‘Liberated Companies’ if…

  • You often despair about the mediocre ways of your company
  • You suspect that the workplace could be both, more challenging and more comforting to everyone in it
  • You have seen too many management fashions and appeals and seek changes that really make a difference

What you will learn from reading the book is…

  • Any organization can be described as a collection of about 20 to 50 Work Designs
  • Companies can use work designs to actively configure themselves in any way they choose, from ruthless executors to mindful innovators
  • Configuring companies with work designs in a development process, not an implementation

What awaits you is…

  • A novel way to think about technology as an entity with a trajectory on which companies can place themselves
  • A way to address, the profound, underlying challenges of changing power structures
  • A bunch of practicable methods, like the Liberation Scale, the Liberated Company Map and the 11 Principles of Liberated Companies

I wrote this book because I felt that there is something wrong with the way most companies are managed. At the same time, I felt that alternative recipes, such as more empowerment, participation, and self-Management, are very hard to put into practice. What I propose in this book is a way to set in motion more organizational dynamics that are useful to both those who prefer incremental action and those with revolutionary purpose.

Learn more on www.Liberated.Company or order at Amazon.com, Amazon.de (Germany) or any other Amazon Site- just search for “Liberated Companies” or my name “Frank Thun”. The printed version is available in most western countries, and the ebook is available worldwide.

Let me know what you think!

The Do-Good Ideology of New Work

A lot of the narratives about progressive companies are colored with positive moral statements about how work should be organized. While this is certainly inspirational, I always suspect these statements to be misleading. Isn’t it better to have a cold, more rational view of businesses?

A Normative Canon of New Work

Last week, I came across an 18 point list of belives about business management, put forward by Ari Weinzweig. Ari is an author of a series of excellent, unique business books and the founder of a group of progressive businesses in the US. Let’s dissect this list of belives in two categories: Normative Statement and Recipes.

Normative statements:

Design work that…

1. brings joy, purpose and creative passion

2. builds an organization that helps people be themselves

3. makes a business a tool for positive change where everyone comes out ahead

4. chooses quality Over quantity

Oh, hell, yes! Everyone should experience joy, purpose, and make the world a better place in every minute of working. I fully subscribe to these statements. However, there is a snag. Most businesses are not like that. Given the need to make a living most people confine themselves to just making profits – and relegate all other considerations to a secondary priority. Turning out a profit is hard enough, why weigh oneself with other considerations? It might be simpler to just follow those recipes, which give a higher chance of making those profits, which keep a company afloat. Let’s have a look at such recipes next.

A Utilitarian Canon of New Work

The remaining 14 principles on Ari Weinzweigs List are recipes likely to work well in modern companies: 

Recipes

1. Don’t Just Enforce, Engage!

2. Don’t just teach people how to do a job, help them learn to run the business

3. You Need Great People to Make a Great Organization

4. Share an Inspiring Vision of the Future

5. Tap the Powerful Nature of Purpose

6. Put Autonomy into Practice

7. Create Creativity

8. Practice Continuous Improvement

9. Collaboration Counts; Diversity and Discussion Make a Meaningful Difference

10. Honor the Power of Beliefs in Business

11. Training Is Terrific

12. Don’t Settle for So-So When You Can Go for Greatness!

13. It’s All About Self-Awareness

14. Ends and Means Must Be Congruent

The Do-Good Ideologists of New Work vs. the Cybernetic Manipulators

Recipes assume a utilitarian outlook on the world, an orange world view (for those versed in Frederick Laloux’s version of Ken Wilbers Spiral Dynamics), a predictable relationship between cause and effect, between costs and benefits: Do X and you will get Y. They are interventions into organizational systems that might be done for whatever motives, good or bad. They can be elements of a positive utopian workplace as well as devious schemes of exploitation.

Cybernetic manipulation of work designs is what is mainstream, even in the realm of progressive organizations. Agreed, few people are aware of the term “cybernetic manipulation”. Still, the way people apply calls for more psychological safety, more diversity, more autonomy in organizations solely for better economic results is nothing but cybernetic manipulation. It is entirely in sync with today’s (orange) focus to use whatever works to achieve better results.

Progressive Ideology versus Deliberate Thinking

I think that everyone interested in progressive organizations needs to be aware of whether one pushes normative statements or utilitarian recipes. 

  1. An Ideologue pushes normative statements – which is excellent to rouse oneself and others in a quest to make the workplace a better place.  
  2. A deliberate thinker pushes recipes– which is useful to better the organization but often lacks a moral compass.

My point is: We need both, the Ideologues and the deliberate thinkers. My fault, as reflected in my work on liberated.company and the upcoming book, which should be in stores in January after some delays in printing over the holiday period, is undoubtedly to veer too much on the deliberate thinker, cybernetic manipulator side. 

Mobilization needs Ideology – Truth needs Deliberation – Progress needs both: Ideology and Deliberation.

The deliberate Ideologist

Ari Weinzweig is a deliberate ideologist. He recently wrote an excellent, 60-page essay “Going Into Business with Emma Goldman: 18 Anarchist Lessons for Business and Life“. It makes an excellent read over the holidays.

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This post is inspired by a post by Ari Weinzweig on Corporate Rebels.  Ari’s four-book series “Zingermans Guide to Good Leading” is his premier work on business management and leadership. Zingerman is the name of the restaurant and deli group of companies that Ari co-founded and managed during the last decades in Ann Arbour, Michigan. His texts have been an inspiration for my upcoming book “Liberated Companies: How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” 

Why Liberating Companies Is a Bad Idea

There are excellent reasons to be suspicious about an author who sets out to blast his own work, so you should certainly take this with a grain of salt. Still, what you will find in this post is an honest attempt to critique the thoughts spelled out in the soon to be released book “Liberated Companies.” 

Let’s start with a definition: 

A Liberated Company is a learning organization that evolves its work designs in a holistic manner towards a more egalitarian distribution of power. It aims to free people of oppression to put itself on the trajectory of technology, thereby maximizing its number of options over time. #liberatedcompany

Ready to shoot holes in it? Ready. Aim. Fire!

A) The claim to “liberate companies” is pretentious. 

Companies are coercive systems. By their very nature, they need people to submit to the needs of the company. Liberating people is unrealistic; it’s Anarchy. Companies need discipline and submission.

The Defense: If the way power is wielded in today’s companies is corrosive to a companies performance, and people’s and society’s wellbeing, liberation is indeed what is needed.

Agreed, a company needs to align people’s actions to its needs. But there are better ways to achieve that alignment than the formula “money for submission.” In a more and more knowledge-driven and dynamic economy, people’s creative problem-solving potential goes to waste, if an organization does not utilize people’s intrinsic motivation. Running companies on coercion or incentives is outdated.

Yet, liberation is a weak term. It describes the release of some constraints, but it does not represent the target itself. If the current way of running companies is to be replaced with something, what is it? It is undoubtedly not Anarchy, as Anarchy is often understood as an absence of rules. 

In a liberated company there are, actually, more rules than in traditional, more hierarchical companies. These rules are there to regulate the distribution of power between people so that everyone in an organization becomes more powerful while still enabling decisive action and focus of effort.

Companies need discipline and submission. But that discipline and the submission is to rules, not towards superior managers. The paradox of liberated companies is that, as a rule of thumb, the more liberated organizations are, the more regulations (in the form of work designs) they have. The crucial point to understand is that freedom is not the absence of regulation. Instead, freedom is the balance between autonomy and loyalty – between managing and being managed. In a traditional organization, that balance is out of whack, as most people are being managed instead of being in charge of their own work. 

We need to use work designs more deliberately to correct this imbalance. Which brings us to the second critique.

 B) Work designs are secondary: All it takes is excellent leadership – everything else will follow suit. 

Great leaders know what works and whatnot. They will come up with the right organization on their own initiative. It is their decisiveness and strategic thinking that is all-important to a company.

The Defense: Are we not beyond the strong man theory of management?

The strong man theory has all but been debunked in management and organizational research. The systems of work used in a company (and its expressions, the mindsets of coworkers, and the culture of a company) are more important than any individual, and be that the CEO. Chapter two of the book “Liberated Companies” lists all the evidence.

C) The concept of work designs is too fluffy, too open for interpretation, to be actionable.

Just look at the list of work designs on the Liberated Company Map: How can work hack’s like Kanban Boards, or the Advice Process change companies for the scale? All these work designs are not even solidly defined – they mean different things to different people.

The Defense: You got to deal with the complexity of businesses. To remain blind-sighted is not a good option.

Agreed, there are no norms for work designs, and no single work design is likely to be truly important for a company. Yet, any company is made up of work designs, and progressive companies evidently use different ones than traditional companies. Plus, they use more of them and in a more deliberate manner. The evidence about this in academic studies about progressive companies is hard to ignore. 

No work design will likely ever be precisely the same in two companies. That is not what is needed, what is ultimately crucial that work designs are used in a manner and composition to create a self-supporting configuration of work-designs.  

Reality is messy. Still, this shouldn’t keep us from describing the patterns we see in companies and develop a model to get to grips with this complexity. Work Designs, the Liberated Company Map, the 11 Principles of Liberated Companies, and others are all elements of such a model.

D) Well, work designs and liberation might be a thing – but there are more important things to focus on in businesses.

Product Innovation, Business Model Design, Talent Management, Restructuring, Systems Implementation, Cost-cutting, Growth, Business Transformation is all more important. All these initiatives have direct impacts on companies’ survival. Organizational efforts might be useful, but work more indirectly and are therefore of lesser priority.

The Defense: (i) The point is not to stop these initiatives but to supplement them with organizational measures that foster their success: More liberated work designs.

Every business initiative has an organizational dimension to it. After all, what else are business initiatives than people collaborating with another? No matter what a business is up to, it should do it by using the most ingenious work designs it can come up with. So the question is not to delay any necessary initiative but to use it as a vehicle to start weaving more liberated work designs into their very fabric.   

The Defense (ii) Liberating companies is more than a supplement to business initiatives: It is a worthy target on its own. 

Many companies struggle to get to grips with the digital age. In chapter one, “The Trajectory of Technology,” I argue that companies can be made much more technophile, i.e., able to absorb technologies and put them to good use, by adopting more adequate work designs.

Did I deflect all critiques? I do not think so, and I do not believe that I ever will. The concepts laid down in liberated companies are just a model, and there will be better ones in the future. Hell, there might even be better, more accurate, and more practical models out there today. If you know one, let me know.

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

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

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

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.

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

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

A Beginners Guide to Liberated Companies

“Liberated Companies” is a new approach to organize companies or teams. Its unique perspective is to make the work designs- i.e., those structures, processes, and routines used to collaborate inside an organization- explicit and evolve them. 

Every company uses work designs: Meetings, decision-making, task allocation, information and communication, performance management, project methods, and business processes. There is no way for any company or team not to use work designs. The thing is: Most companies are not aware of what often disastrous effects their incumbent work designs have on their performance as on people. Overwhelmingly, companies plow ahead and use those work-designs their managers learned by imitation from past generations’ managers.

Progressive Organizations, many Technology Companies, the Agile, New Work, and Lean Start-up Movement demonstrate that better results can be realized for everyone by using ever more refined work designs. Work designs that enhance people’s collaboration by eliminating fear in the work-place, creating the space for more mindful, holistic, and finally more ingenious solutions.

Liberated Companies provides a model and methods to utilize these advanced work designs at scale. Just imagine what good follows from activating people all those 85% more or less disengaged people in today’s companies, of people bringing their whole to work instead of turning into a mini-sized version of themselves once they entered the office!

Six challenges for todays organizations

Every work design carries in it a message. Hierarchical decision making, for example, however it is done, carries with it a clear message of discretionary, paternalizing power. It tends to disenfranchise people, making them retreat into their inner shells. More participative decision making, more open communication, more dynamic systems of distributing power between people, reduces these negative messages and systematically encourages people to speak up. 

Another example: Giving feedback. The way that managers give managers feedback but teach people to become subservient underlings. Not because all managers suck at it, but because feedback is usually delivered from a position of great power, teaching people that manipulating the perceptions of superiors is more important than truth.

Or think of meetings. Meetings are often only thinly structured discussions on agenda points that do not reflect what people actually need and that do not strive in any way to elicit people’s genuine opinions.  

Work designs are not merely structures to get things done. They all carry messages in them that are detrimental or beneficial for an organization’s mission and growth. Every time a meeting is done, a review is done, a decision is taken, information is disseminated, a project is set up, it sends a message to people. It teaches them how to behave, what to say, and it impacts their self-esteem and personal agency. 

The “Liberated Company Map”- A map of work designs.

Systems change people much more than people change systems. The unreflected systems of work designs most companies are using today are not working as good as they could. “Liberated Companies” mean to change that.

A Liberated Company is (i) a learning organization that (ii) evolves its work designs in an (iii) holistic manner, often (iii) towards a more egalitarian distribution of power. It aims to free people of oppression to put itself on the trajectory of technology, thereby maximizing its number of options over time.

“Liberated Companies” is an approach to creatively configure and evolve the work designs of any organiz ation, company or team.

An Introduction to Liberated Companies

Let’s change the system and start evolving work designs to make companies and teams into ever better versions of themselves – for the benefit of everything that a company touches.

This book shows how: Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.

To learn more:

Or contact us via linkedin.

Why are Agile, Lean and New Work Getting Stale?

Because they ignore power. Take the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions > processes and tools
  • Working software > comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration > contract negotiation
  • Responding to change > following a plan

There is nothing in there about power.

Or take the main underlying of one of the main expressions of Agile, Scrum. It’s main six underlying principles are iteration, self-management, empirics, collaboration, value, and time boxing. Only one of these, self-management, is about power but merely on team level. It ignores the power dynamics that teams are subjected to in organizations. Yes, there are approaches to scale Agile to multiteam level, namely LeSS, SaFEE and Nexus, but these approaches are nothing more than prescriptions for multi-project management.

It speaks volumes that Scrum, which for many is the epitome of Agile, strangely ignores the first line of the Agile Manifesto.

How on earth can one put individuals and interactions over processes and tools and at the same time slavishly obey SCRUM processes?

A silly, obvious contradiction. But that is the state of Agile. It becomes more and more captured by the powers in charge as just another set of management processes which are to be adhered to. Most companies “upgrade” their project management processes from waterfall to agile by replacing one set of processes and measurements with another. Still, the operating system that these processes are running on remains the same, the organizational hierarchy. 

In a conventional organizational hierarchy Agile is an impossibility at any level above the team:

  • Processes > Interactions: 
  • Control > Results
  • Adherence to your manager > Collaboration
  • Execution of a plan > Sensing & Evolving

A hierarchy expects adherence and submission. It is basically built on control. Individuals and interactions are secondary concerns.

There is just no way you can scale Agile in purely hierarchical organizations. Instead we need an update not of this or that process, but on the underlying operating system that agile runs on, the hierarchy. 

No, that does NOT mean that all companies need to become self-managed. Neither does it mean that middle management needs to be eliminated.

To liberate companies we need to (i) update the mechanisms to distribute power between people in (ii) a manner that is much more complex than just exchanging hierarchy for self-management.

 As Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom and many others have shown, there are many more alternative models of governing. These are not even new, we just got to rediscover them. We are better equipped in bringing to live these new, progressive organizations than ever before in history: Digital Technologies and the transparency they offer, enable forms of human collaboration, that are much closer to the needs of organizations, people and technological progress itself. 

We are more than ever before in human history able, ready and in need of new ways of collaborating with one another. 

If you like to learn more, sign-up for “Liberated Companies”. You will receive regular updates my upcoming book about configuring progressive organizations.

And: Spread the word, if you like the concepts you find on www.liberated.company.

P.S. I expect the book “Liberated Companies” to launch by end of November!

Sources

  • Agile Manifesto https://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html
  • Keith Sutherland (2015) Scrum: The Art of Doing twice the work in half the time
  • Elinor Ostrom (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action