Granted, liberating companies is the way to go in this Digital Age. For-profit, for innovation, for resilience, for the liberation of people – whatever – pick your motive. But how to pull off the Liberation? I think you need to weave your revolutionary tapestry of actions using 6 steps.
Step 1: Plan & Adjust
The target is to build a high-performance organization, one that lets people engage and brings out their talents for the benefit of the organization and themselves.
The first step is to plan out this journey. I suggest planning on three levels: Mindsets, Habits, and Practices.
You start with describing the Mindset the organization should show, according to the situation the business is in and where it (probably) needs to go. Next, you break these high-level mindsets down into a list of principles. A principle is a basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something happens or works. While coming up with principles, you will need to address each of the ten habits of liberated organizations and determine where your organization will take a stand, as explained in The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations.
The third step is a bit easier, as it is more analytical: Choose the first set of liberated Management Practices that are by the principles. By practicing these new ways of engaging people, the organization and will work itself into a new mindset.
A word of caution: Do not copy any existing approach: Creating a learning organization requires building an agile mindset which can only be learned step by step. If you choose to copy an approach, chances are you, and your organization won’t be ready enough to sustain it.
By embracing new, agile, liberated management practices the final goal is not the practice. These will change and morph. All practices are just a way to create an agile mindset. Gaining a Growth Mindset is what a Learning organization is all about.
The important thing is:
- Plan for the Mindset and the Principles you think your organization needs to embrace
- Then, choose the first set of Liberated Management Practices that support those Principles and Mindset
- Try out and implement those Liberated Management Practices.
Do not approach the new mindset directly, like a traditional change management effort would.
Instead, approach it from an oblique angle: An organization will work itself into a new mindset over time
Step 2: What to Liberate (next)?
Start with what you have and let it grow. The “Capability Maturity Matrix for Liberated Organizations” might provide you with some orientation.
Pick any of these dimensions or combinations as your next target. Then, pick some concrete Agile Practices to make the make the transformation tangible.
Step 3: Decide on the Angle of Attack
Now that you know what to liberate, determine how to do that. Typically, in best piece by piece”elephant-eating” manner, some parts or practices of organizations go first, while others continue to operate as before.
You may choose to approach the liberation from multiple angles. For example by selecting a unit that advances in their management practices, while the whole organization is just trying out – for instance -new ways of meeting or delegating. Or you might set up a community of interest who act as change agents in whatever parts of the organizations they happen to be, and let them conduct experiments of their own choosing. Every approach is valid, every combination can be helpful, according to local circumstances. To know more, have a look at Joost Minaars Post on Corporate Rebels.
But do yourself a favor and choose units or practices that face off to customers. These might be external or internal customers, it doesn’t matter. By making the Liberation outward looking you will achieve:
- Much more significant business impacts, as most value is created on the interface with customers
- much more sticky results, as chances are that the customer will like what the new way to collaborate
- that the Liberation initiative has a lower chance to bog down and degenerate into just another corporate meta-exercise: Well meant, but not crucial. The Management fad du jour that may be ignored.
Step 4: Establish a clear Schwerpunkt
Now that you know what and where to attack, muster your forces and concentrate them with explicit focal attention on the point of decision. In other words, don’t do a bit of all, instead do a few things that really matter, decisively.
What is decisive in a Liberation? Well, as in any other Revolution it is getting to the Tipping point: Making people stand up for the new status and sweep away the status quo. Create a momentum that makes the Liberation self-sustaining. Luckily, Malcolm Gladwell as some advice for this.
Here is some guideline how to set a Schwerpunkt in an organizational transformation:
- Set the Schwerpunkt where decisive results can be expected. The stronger the business need or historical trend or chance, the better.
- Do not try to energize any groups with more than 150 people. The more anonymous the team gets – and it empirically research that people can not make that more than 150 somewhat meaningful relations – the more energy will dissipate into the realm of corporate entropy. Keep the target population small, and the social dynamic will drive the change effort forward.
- Gather and keep a close circle of change agents nearby you. Focus your attention (and time!) on these promoters. Most valuable are people that are adept at connecting people with one another (“Connectors”), people that facilitate solutions (“Mavens”) and people adapt in convincing others (“Salesman”)
- Do whatever you choose to liberate in a high-quality fashion that captures hearts and minds of people. If working in the new liberated way creates new perspectives and experiences people will wake up, be energized and become promoters of the liberation effort themselves
Seeing the liberation as an exercise to create a “tipping point” is important. Other, more traditional change management practices won’t help much. After all, it’s a social movement that needs to strive towards these new ways to run a company. There are no things like command, control or cozying up to please the boss. Agile practices will always fail if it fails to capture hearts and minds of people. Agile is, at its core, a mindset
Step 5: Coordinate your Forces
These days KANBAN is used to track all kind of things in the Lean or Agile Community. So why not using it to coordinate the evolution of Management practices. I developed such a board for a typical, traditionally run company.
- Only Management practices are shown on this board. This includes Leadership practices and some HR practices (Development, Hiring) as well as some systems which main intent is to coordinate work (mostly Workflow Systems)
- Each Card on the board shows one managerial practice. There can be some overlap between practices, as the components of the realm of management are not as simple to define. It is rather impossible to have practices defined in a mutually exclusive or a collectively exhaustive manner. Do not crazy in over defining. Embrace ambiguity instead.
- Each column indicates which state a management practice is in. On this board, it’s either part of the organizational DNA or a new initiative which is somewhere on the horizon or something in the implementation
A Company Board of Managerial Practices
Have a look at an example. Maybe the kind of organizational DNA that this (actual) company has sounds similar to your (traditional) organization.
As I worked to fill the board, I struggled to come up with new management initiatives that are currently being tried in this sample organization. It is actually quite shocking that nothing much is going on regarding new or revised management practices. Isn’t the digital revolution out there? Isn’t it time to raise hell and get the f..ck going with changing management and leadership practices? So why are so few things to be listed in the two leftmost columns?
I think the reason is that this company, and others, are first of all way to static in general (a result of the formalistic hierarchy) and second, companies tend to work on the wrong things. Lots of people still believe that digitalization is about fancy new IT Systems, so they are working on those, with lots of people and lots of time. I think there are two reasons for this:
- To mistake Digitalization for IT is an easily understandable misperception. The deeper workings of Digitalization,i.e., experimenting, accelerating, making sense out of data, allowing failure, let a thousand Nerds blossom, sense-making which re-engages workers to the cause of the customer
- By spending all this money on Systems and Business Processes, no one is really threatened. The Internal hierarchy stays all the same. Noone needs to shift her or his mind to the digital age. Noone needs to change behaviors. Spending money is easy. Shifting Worldviews and Habits are hard.
But you know what? Revolutions are tough. And the Revolution is here and real. Now. So better get going.
Here is what a Liberation Board for a progressive company could look like. This company does the hard but vital stuff and changes its managerial practices and (thereby) mindsets. This board is not based on a waterfall view of transformation (e.g., Plan, Implement, Operate), but on an evolutionary view of the company and its managerial practices: Practices are experimented with, modified until shelved or proven and then scaled.
By viewing managerial practices as evolutionary results that may stay, change or die according to the needs of an organization, the organization is transforming on its deepest level. The level that governs the relations between all people in the organization and its customers, too.
Any evolutionary learning model can be used for this. Kata‘s, the Deming PDCA Cycle or the OODA Loop. Personally, I favor that the OODA loop. The ODODA loop has been invented by John Boyd, a trainer of elite fighter pilots in the US Top Gun Program. And that alone makes it makes it my favorite. Deming (PDCA) and Taichii Ohno (Kata) were engineers. Nothing against engineers, but to pull off a corporate revolution, I am going with the fighter pilot.
To learn more about the OODA loops origin, check out Taylor Pearsons Post.
Picturing the transformation on a Kanban Board has many advantages:
- It visualizes status and progress
- It communicates who is working on what
- People can choose to volunteer to experiment or scale with this or that initiative. They do not necessarily need to be assigned
- It helps to keep the number of changes (the WIP “Work in progress” under control)
Last, not least it spells out the organizational DNA explicitly. Of course, this requires a lot of openness, which is tough, as it lays open the hard assumptions that managers have about people: Tell me how you manage people, and I tell you what your attitude you have about them.
If a company is just beginning its journey towards liberation, there will be the natural and tactful tendency to sugarcoat things. After all, some kind of consensus needs to be built about the transformation of the company to a liberated model or organizing. You got to start somewhere, over time trust and openness, even when it comes to talking about weaknesses and vulnerabilities, will increase.
Step 6: Set-up Overwatch
The Liberation effort needs to be organized with a team driving it, and informed and active agents in the organization.
The first step is to prepare the cut-over, by deciding on the rationale and the scope of the overall liberation effort. Steps 1 to 6 of this post provide a good guideline for this.
Second, all colleagues need to be involved. They need to understand that they, from now on and more and more, are invited to work in a different, more liberated manner. To list the current management practices is a good starting point.
Next, make clear what the limits are. Some practices like negotiating salaries or significant investment decisions might not be on the list of practices to liberate. Designate the practices that may be liberated if people choose to do so.
Not only the choice which practices to liberate is up to the colleagues. They need to have a say if a unit wants to transform certain or any management practices at all. Pushing down management practices on people is likely to be counterproductive: Enforced liberation is tyranny. People need to actively opt for liberated practices.
After co-workers have understood the intention of the Liberation effort and their unusual strong say in this effort, compared with all other conventional corporate change initiatives, it is time to try out different liberated management practices. By doing this, people and the organizational units work themselves into new behaviors and mindsets. As a result of this, people start to experiment with more advanced practices and pull those inside the organization, too. A positive feedback loop will drive the revolution forward.
To have a dedicated transit team, that supports the rest of the organization in this, is very useful here. On the tool side, the Liberation KANBAN Board can be helpful in planning, monitoring and coordinating the effort.
To scale liberated management practices is unlike traditional scaling methods. Traditionally a standard is set for, let’s say the way a store operates or an IT system works. This standard “Template” of processes and systems is then trained and imposed on an increasing number of stores or business units. There is not much of a say that the targets of “Roll-outs” have.
To become a more liberated company by imposing things won’t work. Scaling liberated practices means to offer colleagues to come forward and drive things. It is an offer, that can be turned down. Naturally, there will be some units or groups of people who actively pull in new practices. If those are better than the old management practices, the chances are that more reluctant units will follow. This process might take months or even years, depending on the size of the company.
The final stage is not a static one. It is one where the company keeps on adapting to changing customer needs and the business environment. It is forever evolving through implicit or explicit experimentation (using, for example, the OODA Loop). It is forever seeking to learn and improve.
Let Thousands Nerds Blossom
The last sentence sounds like an incredibly high aspiration. But I am not saying that the company will forever optimize itself and find a new optimal state with every challenge thrown at it. That would be unrealistic since social forms of collaboration have a certain degree of stickiness, too. They won’t always be optimal. In many cases, they will just muddle through, just like hierarchies do.
But with the right degree of stewardship, a servant leader, a Gardner- like attitude to leadership, a lot of trust, that lets everyone open up and speak up, liberated companies will be much better positioned to deliver better business results in an ever-changing world.
After all, evolution is all about survival of the fittest. Dinosaurs had there time until some nimbler competitors took over. In a digital, knowledge-driven economy we need liberated organizations that let “A thousand Nerds blossom”.
This is what I think. What do you think?
- Gladwell, Malcom “Tipping Point“, 2001
- Claudia Schroeder and Bernd Oesterreich, “Das kollegiale geführte Unternehmen“, 2017 (English Version not yet available)
- Corporate Rebels Blog Post: “The Million Dollar question every Company needs to answer“, 2018
- Pearson, Taylor “The ultimate guide to the OODA Loop“, Blog Post on TaylorPearson.me.
Featured image by Bettina Dittman