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The 8 habits of the world’s most progressive workplaces

“We are not going to do this for another 40 years!” is what we told each other in the summer of 2015. Only two years into our engineering jobs we were completely frustrated with the old-fashioned organization structures of our employers. We were tired of the endless bureaucracy, the pointless report writing, and the lack of freedom and entrepreneurship. “There has to be a better way”, we said. We were convinced of that!

We did not, however, have any clue as to what ‘alternative’ workplaces would look like. So, we quit our jobs and set out to find answers. We had lots of questions, but one big aim: How to make work more fun.

As the Corporate Rebels, we have now travelled the globe for 2 years. We’ve learned from the most progressive organizations we could find. The results? We have ticked off 65+ “items” on the “Bucket List” we built. It now includes over 100+ workplace pioneers, entrepreneurs, academics, organizations and leaders—each of whom has succeeded by working in radically different ways.

Perhaps you are now thinking of names like Patagonia, Semco, Spotify and Haier. And yes, we’ve visited many of these. But we are also intrigued by the unknown stories. We discovered they can be even more inspiring.

“But what makes those utopian-sounding workplaces really different to my own?” you might ask us. This is a not an easy question to answer. But we now think we have identified 8 habits which clearly distinguish the truly progressive organizations from the others. Here they are.

#1 From profit to purpose & values

Progressive organizations no longer focus solely on increasing shareholder value. They also focus on building a workplace around common purpose and values. Because having purpose and meaning gives people the energy, passion and motivation to get out of bed in the morning.

It also fosters communities of like-minded employees, customers, suppliers and others. They come together with shared ideals. As a result, inspiring work cuts through bureaucracies, silos, and egos to unleash the potential of an organization.

To be clear: we are not talking about a mission statement full of pretentious banalities (or what Americans call corporate bullshit). We are talking about crisp and clear causes that activate people inside and outside the organization. This purpose should be translated into organization, team and individual goals—to ensure everyone is aligned.

Along with clarity of mission come values, behaviours and skills that are shared by colleagues. Values are multifunctional within a business. They are not prescribed rules, but guidelines to speed decision-making, and not hiring based on skills (only), but also hiring for culture. Skills can be trained.

#2. From hierarchical pyramids to networks of teams

Progressive organizations know the familiar pyramid is out-dated. It simply does not fit with today’s quickly changing environment. The rigidity of command-and-control does not promote agility, speed, and engagement.

This is why we find progressive organizations tend to adopt alternative structures. Typically, they turn the rigid pyramid into an agile network of teams. Teams are often organized as networks of up to 15 people. They may be multidisciplinary. They are responsible for their own results. They are connected as needed to other networks to form networks of networks.

Each team has skin in the game. They feel the impact of their (financial) successes and failures. This increases responsibility, entrepreneurship, communication, adaptability and the willingness to support each other. The rigid organization belongs in the graveyard.

#3. From directive to supportive leadership

Most command-and-control structures operate with a directive leadership style. Team leaders, supervisors, managers, vice presidents and directors ‘direct’ their subordinates. This form of leadership is based on fear, control, and telling others what and how to do their job. It tends to neglect the wisdom of the crowd. It disengages those lower down in the organization.

Within progressive organizations, we see another type of leadership: strong leaders who are supportive of those ‘closest to the fire’. They constantly challenge the status quo – the way we’ve always done things – and encourage the entire organization to do the same.

These leaders walk the talk. They embody organization mission and values. They are crucial to an organization’s culture. They do everything in their power to remove barriers. They help their employees thrive. Authority is no longer linked to rank, but rather to the ability to lead by example.

#4. From plan & predict to experiment & adapt

Plan and predict is a fundamental tenet of traditional management in which yearly budgeting, resource allocation, and plans are all cascaded down the organization chart.

But they are based on the false belief that we can (still) predict the future. The new reality is, that as the environment gets more complex, it’s impossible to make precise predictions. Adaptability is now much more important. Progressive organizations abandon guesses masquerading as precise predictions. They focus on experimentation instead.

And they embrace experimentation in everything they do: products, ways of working, and even structures. Change is no longer a once-in-a-year event. It’s a part of every-day work. The adaptive organizations we’ve studied believe it’s better to experiment and fail than to never make mistakes at all.

#5. From rules & control to freedom & trust

One could argue that traditional organizations have such bureaucracy in place that ensures employees neatly follow the rules. It can be tempting to formulate a policy for what might happen. It ends up trying to predict and control the outcomes of what people do.

More and more, this bureaucracy becomes a barrier to engagement and success. It hinders autonomy, innovation and creativity. Thus it becomes a liability for the organization.

Progressive organizations, on the contrary, act on the belief that employees are responsible adults who can be trusted. They don’t need extensive control. They perform best when given a high degree of autonomy. They can be trusted to do their job in the way they see fit. They let employees decide where, when and with whom to work.

#6. From centralized authority to distributed decision making

An important feature of the traditional organization is centralization. This suggests that decision-making competence rises with the position in the hierarchy. This is obviously nonsense.

Progressive organizations tend to be highly decentralized. They act on the belief that employees on the frontline have the best understanding of customers, suppliers, and production machines. Therefore, frontline employees should make the majority of the decisions—if the aim is to be agile in responding to clients.

In progressive organizations, we see distributed authority and decision-making. But don’t be fooled. With freedom of decision making comes responsibility and accountability.

#7. From secrecy to radical transparency

Traditional organizations tend to limit valuable information only to the leaders. They, then, must call all the important shots. To be able to distribute authority to frontline employees requires a culture of radical transparency.

Frontline employees need access to the latest information for speedy and accurate decision-making. Progressive organizations thrive when they are ‘open by default’. This policy turns radical transparency into a valuable tool. It fosters an ‘ask anything’ mentality. It requires more trust from both team members and leaders.

To make this a success, progressive organizations grant company-wide access to data, documents, financials—in real-time. They give people the right information at the right moment. This means better decisions, faster, and problems solved sooner. It promotes collaboration in and outside the organization.

#8. From job descriptions to talents & mastery

Traditional organizations tend to distribute activities based on job titles and descriptions.  But many of these are out-of-date the moment they are crafted.  This old habit forces people to work on things they are supposed to do, but not necessarily disposed to do. People prefer working on tasks they like; ones that fit their talents and strengths. We know that doing what you are good at increases motivation and engagement.

Progressive organizations leverage this dynamic. They try to make use of the diverse talents present in the whole organization. They offer people the freedom to choose their tasks and responsibilities. In progressive organizations, employees ‘sculpt’ their jobs based on their interest, talents and strengths. Often, a ‘work of art’ results!

This list is not a blueprint for success, nor a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. Please use it carefully—solely for inspiration. And please note: we haven’t visited yet, in 2 years, any workplace that has fully developed all these 8 points.

There is a good reason for this. Most inspiring workplaces find a unique way to success. While these ways are different for every single workplace, the mindset is not. It is this particular mindset that sets them apart from the crowd. We summarize it in three simple points:

Listen to your employees. The most progressive organizations have leaders who truly listen. They constantly ask employees: “What do you want? What support do you need to be able to perform better?” They use the 8 trends as inspiration for proper dialogue; to ensure all are heard, and then they act. The key is doing everything they can to implement the suggestions—thereby giving respect to their employees.

Search for inspiration. The most progressive organizations understand that they rarely need to re-invent the wheel. They know it has probably been done before. So, when they encounter an opportunity, a challenge, or a problem, they start a search. They search both inside and outside their organization. They know others may have faced a similar issue, and found a good solution.

Conduct experiments. Arguably the most important thing about progressive organizations is that they ‘just do it’. Because it’s only with constant experimentation that they move on. And when this is done well, we see that radical ways of working in the workplace are rarely more than a combination of outside inspiration, gut feeling and common sense—all acted on.

Three-dimensional thinking: Updating the design process

With 3D printing, it doesn’t matter how complex an object is. The cost and build time of an object is primarily determined by the amount and type of material used and not by the shape and structure of the part.

Consequently, the process needs to be completely different to that of traditional manufacturing methods. If anything, its main process of manufacturing makes it more akin to how nature works than anything else: both 3D printing and nature work additively, building from the ground up. This similarity is important to remember as in nature we see incredibly intricate and complex designs that we as humans have yet to come even close to. With 3D printers, we are now better equipped to create increasingly sophisticated designs that work, and being able to utilize this additive manufacturing process opens up to us a new world of creativity.

Counter to this, however, engineers are trained to radically simplify shapes and functionality, because of the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes. Whenever possible, they try to use standard off-the-shelf parts, that can be mass-produced. In the traditional production paradigm, mass produced objects are cheap and customization is prohibitively expensive because it complicates the manufacturing process. This mindset is limited, and will soon be proven outdated as more industries tap into the potential of 3D printing.

Taking nature as an example again: a tree outside grows using the absolute minimum amount of material and energy and it then self-optimises for that specific location, yet it is incredibly complex and individualized. The result is a perfectly adapted object for its unique environment, something only possible through the additive process nature uses. It’s time for engineers to think more like nature and move away from the old paradigm.

But how will engineers change their minds about the design process? I think the secret to this unlocking of potential is to expose people to 3D printers from an early age. I see an analogy to the world of software. Many coders never studied computer science or coding, they taught themselves to write computer programs as kids because they were excited about it. This method of learning is as playful as it is efficient – and is a testament to how out-the-box thinking can really invigorate progress in a particular field.

Software is one of the most malleable and creative mediums to work with – if you can imagine something, you can write the code and bring it to life. There are no real limits or wrong answers – and the same can be said of 3D printing.

The biggest breakthrough we had in developing software came from people getting exposed to home computers early on in their lives. The experimental mindset that this fostered goes against the formulaic traditions of engineering, and it is only once engineers un-train themselves that 3D printing will reach its apex.

Understandably people are only just beginning to think in this way because 3D printing for end-use parts is still uncommon, and considered a relatively slow and often expensive process. But now that the printers have gotten better and cheaper, engineers are beginning to use this technology to design complex objects, that cannot be built in any other way, starting with aerospace and prosthetic parts, but increasingly in other fields as well.

So what needs to happen is a revolution in thinking about the design process. And we have to train engineers to think more along these lines, by exposing people to the world of 3D printing from an early age – that’s when 3D printing will make a breakthrough. 3D printers are the only way you can print objects that edge closer to nature’s complexity. Traditional engineering approaches do not take advantage of the intricacies possible through Additive Manufacturing. But I believe, that when this paradigm shift in thinking happens, the world of manufacturing and design will be transformed forever.

Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be more rapid, deeper and more radical than any that have come before it. Are we ready to deal with such a change? We already know that the impact on jobs will be huge, but what about our education systems? Do they provide us with the right skills to navigate these unchartered waters? The answer is currently is “no” but before putting the blame on the ship and its builder, let’s talk about the incumbent storm, which is exceptional in size and strength.

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report titled “The Future of Jobs Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The document provides a synthetic but thorough description of what is happening: “Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another”. In short, this revolution is different: it has multiple drivers behind it and is not bound by country nor region. It is occurring simultaneously everywhere.

Luciano Floridi, Oxford Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab there released a book entitled The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. “The first revolution that changed our society, the agricultural one, took thousands of years to fully develop its effects; the industrial revolution needed centuries to do the same. This last revolution will take just a few decades”, he writes. Inevitably jobs will be affected. The WEF reports that, between 2015 and 2020 alone, 7.1 million jobs will be lost, and, according to the World Bank, more than 600 million new jobs have to be created in the next 15 years to keep the pace with the population growth rate.

In a speech given in Liverpool last December, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said that over 15 million jobs could be automated in the coming years in the UK alone. Alarms have been raised in the US also, as Forrester Research, an influential advisory firm, predicted that the net effect of this technological revolution will be the loss of 7% of US jobs by 2025. A 2016 World Bank Development Report revealed that in the States 47% of jobs are at risk of automation (35% in the UK, 77% in China, 69% in India, 65% in Argentina, 85% in Ethiopia). A study published last August estimated that 80% of jobs in transportation, warehousing, and logistics are susceptible to automation as a consequence of the trends observed in technology and predicted that retail employment would be the most affected.

One clear solution to this haphazard employment reality is developing multiple skills. A recent study by he US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before they turn forty. In 2012, another survey by Future Workplace found that Millennials will have 15 to 20 jobs in their entire working career. Job-hopping, being agile and flexible to change will characterise the careers of this generation.

Long gone are the days of the baby boomers, where one could be optimistic about their chances to find a job, hold onto it , settle down and raise a family — Millennials and Generation Z can’t do the same. This has already had a deep impact on the economy: precarious workers have to cut consumptions or give up on the prospect of purchasing a house. As seen, the booming of sharing economy, which is consumption without ownership, can be partly understood as a consequence of this lack of stable jobs.

Brutal but true, our education system isn’t preparing people adequately for this shift. There are many who will struggle to apply many of the skills they are taught into their work. Classic job roles are on the retreat, and it is likely that they may falter altogether over the coming years. Identifying which subjects (or even whether or not we should have subjects at all) is paramount in the fourth revolution. As an example, the world economy is becoming more and more data-driven. Who can work with this amount of data? Who can use software such as Anaconda, Apache Spark, GNU Octave, Orange Data Mining or Python? Much of these classes are not taught in classic brick and mortar schools, but on virtual platforms.

The aforementioned WEF report states that “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist”. New jobs require new skills and new paths to be learnt but there is a question of time. “During the previous industrial revolutions” the report continues “it has often taken decades to build the training systems and labor market institutions needed to develop major new skill sets on a large scale. However, given the upcoming pace and scale of disruption brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution this may simply not be an option”. Things are changing rapidly, and it is worth noting that one-third of the 2020’s core skills set is not included in 2015’s.

It is becoming apparent that many universities are growing disconnected from the off-campus world. “Not enough people are innovating enough in higher education,” former Harvard President Larry Summers told Quartz. “General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975”. Many believe that we have to rethink our education system since it is proving too sector-based, too old and too prone to rewarding mnemonic abilities – which is nonsensical in the Information age.

Already in 2010, The Tech, MIT’s main newspaper expressed distrust towards the current 200-year old system, since many practices in public education are outdated and rooted in old contexts. What is the reason behind the summer vacation? Because the summer holidays were for allowing students time to help their families tend to their crops. Why do students have to be taught in rows of desks in box-shaped classrooms? Classrooms are arranged this way because they are functional to the lecturing method of teaching. Why is math believed to be more important than arts? Because math and science were given a higher status due to the education system being engineered during the First Industrial Revolution. Since then, several centuries have passed and the world has changed.

As the world advances, education must too. Never before has our job markets seen such a diabolical forecast, and neither have any of us witnessed within our lifetimes a workforce so underprepared.