Corporate Rebels has finally appeared as a book. Two hundred twenty-eight pages that go down in a breeze, as they bring up a significant result: the quest that Joost and Pim had started in Barcelona, to try to find ways to make work more fun, was a success. There are organisations and leaders around the world that have successfully challenged the traditional command-and-control management model, organised around lasting hierarchies, and are making a strong business case for alternatives based on engagement, transparency, empowerment and fun.
The book summarises the exploratory work that the two founders of Corporate Rebels have done in the past years. Exploring the world of different managerial ideas through a continuously nourished “Bucket List” of thinkers and companies that they are meeting around the world and are considering “pioneers”. It examines in detail the eight trends that the two authors have identified already on their blog. Each gets its own chapter, with a focus on the primary examples that they have been able to interview and explore.
1. From Profit to Purpose and Values
The first chapter focuses on the experience of Patagonia and reasons on what is the real source of motivation for employees: having a higher purpose. The authors focus on the necessity to have a Purpose that is genuinely shared by the employees, not imposed top-down as a marketing effort. Zappos, Tony’s Chocolonely, Beetroot and Hollands Kroon Council are other examples put forward the fact that Purpose is about authenticity.
They identify five levers to ensure the transition to a more progressive organisation. Having a Bold Purpose comes first, followed by ensuring that the message gets to everyone. An important aspect is to enable this by hiring for culture then training for skills, an experience learnt particularly well from Spotify. Measurement of progress is critical, as well as ensuring maximum consistency by putting your money where your mouth is.
2. From Hierarchical Pyramid to Network of Teams
Chapter 2 focuses on the tale of Haier, the Chinese Household Giant that under the leadership of CEO Zhang Ruimin has evolved multiple times trying different organisational models, and landing today to a network composed of more than 4000 microenterprises through their RenDanHeYi corporate model. Other organisations have experimented with similar networking structures. Handelsbanken is one of them. In many ways, a crisis has been the catalyst of some of these rebellious choices.
Instead of the hierarchical pyramid, these pioneers create an environment of flexibility, speed, and involvement.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
Five possible structures are identified as possible alternative models to the traditional hierarchy:
- Inverted Pyramid
- Autonomous Teams
- Flat Organisation with Autonomous Teams
- Network of Teams
- Ecosystem of Mini-Companies
The scale of transformation goes higher in the way you progress through the models, but each can serve its Purpose depending on the need of the organisation.
3. From Directive to Supportive Leadership
Examples of this are shared in chapter 3, starting with that of Zingerman’s Community of Business, held by a CEO that took onboard anarchist principles to make them part of his management style. On the opposite side of the spectrum, UKTV with its experimentation of “tearing down hierarchy by design”.
The advice here boils down to substantially the awareness that the Highest Paid Person is not always the best to decide on every matter. Which is why “Beware of Hippos” becomes a key slogan. And calls for a real change of leadership model from Directive to Supportive.
we find supportive senior staff that lead by example, who ask their employees the best way to help and support them. They show an admirable combination of authenticity, modesty, rebelliousness and stubbornness. They have a clear vision and inspire their people to action. At the same time, they are available for feedback and criticism. They listen to the ideas of those on the front line. This is Supportive Leadership.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
4. From Plan & Predict to Experiment and Adapt
The tale of Irizar, a Spanish Bus Building enterprise, is the key example analysed in chapter 4. A case that deserves more attention probably, and that also shows how some of the pioneers try to expand their ideas beyond the starting point. Also, here crisis was the focal point for a transformation. And the understanding that traditional planning tools were not working in the new environment. Flexibility becomes a critical component. And so does the ability to learn from mistakes and experimentation. Spotify becomes the case of learning here.
Again five practices are identified. Ruthlessly experiment is the basis for it all. Killing the Budget Cycle is another element (in line with what we have seen in the Beyond Budget book review). Giving Rebel Time, for experimentation to employees is another example of genuinely transforming.
5. From Rules & Control to Freedom and Trust
Chapter five focuses on one of the most interesting case studies analysed by Corporate Rebels, that of Frank von Massenhove and the Belgian Ministry of Social Security. The fact that he has been able to create a truly rebellious workplace, based on trust and freedom, in a civil service organisation, usually heavily regulated, indeed shows that everything is possible. But giving freedom is not easy, because too many managers stick to the illusion of control.
Many pioneers agree that only three percent of the workforce is likely to take advantage of the system. This means that rules are implemented to keep this rogue three percent in line, which stifles the productivity, autonomy and joy of the 97 percent.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
WCLC and Brugging & Van der Velden are two other cases analysed, in this case, focused on full autonomy of working time. Both companies have reduced the working week to 4 days. It all distils down to more trust in the employees that produced more engagement. Working becomes results-based, not hourly based.
6. From Centralised to Distributed Authority
Chapter 6 derives its content from the story of American Navy submarine commander David Marquet. Posed with a difficult leadership challenge, he found that only by collaborating with the entire team, he could reach his objectives. And this could only happen through real empowerment.
The result of centralised decision-making is frustration, an unwillingness to take responsibility, inertia, poor choices and endless “co-ordination”.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
One of the critical attributes for leaders able to transform their organisations, is what Tom Peters had already called “management by wandering about”. The issue is that way too often there is an asymmetry in the information. The challenges known by top management are often widely misunderstood by frontline staff, and vice-versa. Delegation becomes the only viable option to ensure that decisions are taken nearest to where the issue happens. Morning Star is another example of a company that applies this thoroughly.
What’s important here is the focus on a new language to describe the decision-making process, experimenting with crowdsourcing of ideas and democratic principles applied to business.
7. From Secrecy to Radical Transparency
One of the primary sources of inspiration for Corporate Rebels was Ricardo Semler, the Brazilian author of the bestseller Maverick. His company Semco was profoundly restructured in the eighties and nineties against principles of empowerment and participation by the employees, in something that was truly pioneering. He also went along in dismantling the hierarchical pyramid and create a network of teams. To make this work, transparency is critical, as people need to have access to all information to be fully engaged. A case confirmed by the experience of Smarkets, where radical transparency also involves salaries.
When openness becomes the default, positive things tend to happen across the entire organisation, with an increased sense of responsibility.
8. From Job Descriptions to Talent & Mastery
The last chapter draws most of the inspiration by the case of dutch home care organisation Buurtzorg. The focus of this experience is to move away from rigid role description, and allow people to express their talent and skills autonomously. The focus becomes Mastery, which is about building on what comes naturally. Discover your strengths, then your preferred tasks – and make these your own. Nearsoft is another example used in the book to prove this principle. Job Crafting becomes an activity of constant reinvention, allowing the organisation to be truly flexible.
The book builds a case for Rebellious Transformation, based on experimentation. The authors are, however, clear: it’s not just about taking one current management trendy topic and trying to squeeze it into the organisation.
The pioneers we’ve visited have moved beyond buzzwords and hype to employ healthy experimentation: new products, revised services, alternative ways to carry out work.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
Transformation needs to be holistic and focused on the entire organisation. When starting from so many case studies, the issue is that many react immediately with incredulity, or begin building alibi of why things cannot work. Also, the fact that there is not one easy recipe to just copy and apply makes the work challenging.
It often happens that people hear these success stories, and immediately assume that this should be the new norm. Resist the urge. The most important thing is to establish what does and does not work. One thing we have learned, is that there is no holy grail, no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all. The point is that every organisation should dare to experiment to gain new insights and see if there is a better way.Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, Corporate Rebels
With the Corporate Rebels book, Joost and Pim have confirmed to be on the right path of discovery of what an XXist century organisation should stand for. It is truly the time of Rebels, to succeed in current and new markets, and avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant. It’s something that involves the entire design of the organisation, and ultimately the effort of making it more humane.