Books

Book Review: Unboss by Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter

Unboss is a book from danish authors Lars Kolind (a veteran leader and board member for various firms) in and Jacob Bøtter (a “millennial” serial start-upper). Originally published in Denmark in 2012, this book anticipates many of the topics we have already been discussing over time here on this blog, about the necessity to establish a new way of working that bypasses the traditional bureaucratic-hierarchial organisation model. A big part of the drive for this book is derived from Lars Kolind experience at Oticon, where he established the so-called “Spaghetti Organisation” (often referenced in the book), which was the first attempt, in the Nineties, to bìuild a network-based organisation that moved away from the traditional hierarchy.

The core message of the book is about “Unbossing”: i.e. reinventing management to be more human-centric and less bureaucratic. It ticks most of the marks on the ideas of organisational reinvention that we have seen in books such as Corporate RebelsHumanocracyReinventing Organisations, falling short probably on entirely demolishing the concept of management.

Unboss is an invitation to expand the knowledge base for the work that your organisation is involved in and look at more than just technical skills.

Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

This book has the merit of starting a holistic discussion. It’s not just the way managers work that is put under discussion, or the way organisations are structured. Instead, it looks at all components of the way an organisation works, from strategy to operations, from Human Resources to Sales and Marketing.
The book is not just made up of the contribution of the two authors but is the result of a collective brainstorming of ideas coming from many different sources and experiences. This probably gives the only negative aspect of the way the book is written. Sometimes the presentation of the concepts is fragmented, not entirely consequential, with sentences that appear more slogans isolated from context. However, this element only affects the reading, not the value of the ideas suggested.

Reinventing Management

The traditional concept of management is reinvented, with different priorities and different working styles. Middle-management is re-imagined to become a supporter rather than a controller. Concepts of servant leadership are applied in the description of the management model, which also works on the redefinition of the entire working relationship.

The unboss is more servant than master. The unboss is somebody who makes things possible instead of issuing orders. A leader rather than a boss. A designer rather than a producer.

Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

Reinventing the Organisation

Unboss thinking redefines the company as a social network or community with a purpose – in other words, a movement.

Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

The book suggests a new model of organisation that is defined Unlimited, which tries to review the core assumptions and mental models of traditional bureaucracy and profit-based firms.

It doesn’t sell products to customers – it creates value along with customers. It doesn’t have employees, just partners. It includes rather than excludes, it is unlimited rather than limited, it focuses on learning rather than relying on the familiar, it’s run by leaders rather than bosses, and it’s based on values rather than power.

Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

One of the basic assumptions that the book tries to challenge is the “constant conflict between workers and employers”, as they consider this has “simply become irrelevant” in a scenario where knowledge workers are now seemingly more relevant than traditional “tayloristic” work. The idea is to consider workers as individuals rather than means of production.

LIMITED ORGANISATIONUNLIMITED ORGANISATION
Built on one or more shareholder(s), and focused on creating maximum return for shareholdersBuilt on a common passion, and focused on improving the situation of the customer or society as a whole
Involves employees and managers, who work under contractInvolves anyone who shares the purpose and the passion. Some are paid, others are volunteers
Employees are incentivised by salary, bonuses and promotions – also referred to as external motivationEmployees are incentivised by the meaning and importance of the work and the company, and by the opportunities for personal development that the work provides – also referred to as internal motivation
Tightly structured functional hierarchy that ensures co-ordination and cohesionLoosely structured network with self-regulatory mechanisms that ensure co-operation and cohesion
Primarily physicalPrimarily virtual
Limited Organisation and Unlimited Organisation compared. Source: Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

The table above highlights the differences between the traditional model and the newly suggested model; each of this aspect is explored in detail in the book. Let me pick three elements:

  1. Companies need to be guided based on purpose, not just shareholder value.
  2. The concept of employment is reinvented.
  3. Compensation mechanics need to be reviewed.
  4. Offices become less relevant as the organisation can become virtual.

This last point is probably one of the most interesting, as it anticipates one of the key trends we see today as part of the Covid-19 pandemics reaction. The authors are stressing the need to prepare organisations to be able to work remotely, but they also see it as part of a natural transition.

Conclusion

The book lays on the experience developed at Oticon, but also from a network of great thinkers that posed all the right questions. Unfortunately, as with many management books, some of the examples and case studies presented, have aged incredibly fast. However, the book poses all of the right questions, and I appreciate the fact that it advocates for a full redefinition of the organisation. It suggests that all the critical components of an organisation, from production to customer service, from HR to R&D, from Marketing to the entire Workplace. Each needs a specific strategy and is useful to consider as part of a more significant strategy

Overall a great read, despite the ageing of some of the examples, and a writing style that sometimes “limps” in expressing consistency in the main contents. It will definitely enter in my list of Rebel at Work List of Books.

Did you read “Unboss”? How did you find it?

Unboss
Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter
EBook | 312 pp. | Jyllands-Postens Forlag | 01/06/2012 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9788740009392
Buy on Amazon
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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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