Slaying the organizational monster

How simple is it to redesign an organisation from scratch and challenge traditional structures and the status quo?

by Tomas Barazza


For an organisation like H-FARM, that deals with Human Innovation Culture  (HIC) on a daily basis, it is essential to design a culture that triggers a non-stop ability to explore, discover and innovate — with the aim of constantly challenging the boundaries between what one is and what one does.

Our mission is to foster a positive attitude towards change and innovation, through a streamlined process that combines thought and action. To prove it, we see ourselves as the “beta testers” of the strategies we recommend to our partners and customers.

The way a company (or even a team) is structured has much more relevant implications than just the practical aspects of its organisation and mission effectiveness.

Defining how a team works sets the basis of how the culture within it operates: the values ​​that guide any decision, what needs to be rewarded or improved, the autonomy and sense of responsibility required. This is where the ability to attract, motivate and retain talented people comes from, which for many companies — including ours — is without a shadow of a doubt the most essential aspect of a successful business.

Back to the Origins

Our team is based in a beautiful place, where entrepreneurial spirit feels like a natural element. Most of the people who’ve transited through this place have somehow experienced what it feels like to be part of a startup: that mixture of dream and excitement of doing something unique, as well as the anxiety of having big goals to achieve with limited resources and little time.

Just like every startup at its inception, we had a simple structure that covered three areas: design, technology, story. Each area was led by a manager whose role was to deal with its evolving needs: the expertise we lacked, the competences we had to acquire, the people and the talents we needed to find and onboard.

As we grew, however, we realised that such a structure had limitations. For example, all of the decisions regarding investments in research projects, training and recruiting were taken by a small group of people, the other team members’ potential wasn’t fulfilled: how do you provide a space that helps everyone’s talents to grow? How do you create attractive roles for people you want to onboard?

The main risk here was to stratify positions and decisions, eventually leading to an “organizational monster” that would entangle the way we operate, think, risk, and change. There is worse than ego as an obstacle to evolution.

Redesigning the Organization from Scratch

Even if you’re eager to change, you’ll hardly ever be immediately positioned in the conditions to do so smoothly; a ‘greenfield’ approach is very rare when it comes to redesigning an organization. First, there is a pre-existing structure with set positions and internal balances to deal with.

Finding the right conditions to reset and start from scratch requires everyone to look beyond their role, put their responsibilities back on the table and together reimagine the best way to redistribute them — a hard exercise requiring a great amount of mutual trust.

When it came to rethinking our own organization, these are the principles we followed:

  • Develop autonomy and entrepreneurship;
  • Leverage passions and interests in order to stimulate open-minded  behaviour;
  • Avoid positions and the stratification of roles;
  • Minimize everyone’s ego, without erasing healthy ambition;
  • Encourage collaboration when it comes to competition;
  • Promote personal development paths;

Today, our team is made up of approximately 60 people and we don’t have any pre-set areas or units led by managers or resource managers; we have no internal staff roles for planning, control or HR either. This doesn’t mean that no-one is accountable for such tasks: they are simply equally distributed within the team.

Our team organization is based on two criteria: the project teams follow the initiatives we design and create for our customers, while the crews take care of research and development — and therefore expand our horizons and potential to improve and learn.

Free and Happy Project Managers

Considering our organization from a project perspective, we seem to be very similar to any other service company: akin to a larger-than-life Tetris, people aggregate according to each project’s specific needs.

However, if you look more closely at how the planning is set, you’ll notice a main difference from traditional structures: project teams self-form and self-adjust based on continuous peer-to-peer negotiation. There is no central planning entity: a project manager doesn’t have to scale in order to bring an internal graphic designer or developer in; they have full freedom, within the limits of a shared budget, to involve anyone within the staff they consider useful and suitable.

If a period is very busy, the project manager will negotiate with their peers a plan adjustment that meet the needs of ongoing projects. If no solution is found, the issue scales and is tackled by onboarding new resources or outsourcing a specific activity. An indirect (but not secondary) advantage of this workflow is the fact that it promotes collaboration: the more available a project manager is, the more flexible their colleagues will be.

Empowering Research and Development: the Crews

Things are quite different when it comes to know-how. The training, experimenting and prototyping budget for internal projects is assigned to self-constituted entities working for a whole year on freely proposed topics.

We have simple rules here:

  • At the beginning of each year, anyone, regardless of their role and seniority, can promote the creation of a crew on a topic they consider relevant to research on;
  • In order to make a proposal, you need a team of three people: if you can’t convince at least two colleagues of the value of your project, you’re probably off the mark;
  • The team promoting the crew presents a two-page document proposal which includes the motivation, its connection to our purpose as well as a macro planning, three measurable goals to be achieved within the year and an estimated time and budget;
  • The Teepee (a committee elected by all) is responsible to allocate the R&D budget, choosing which crews to launch;
  • Throughout the year, each crew launches its project and attends conferences or courses using their given budget;
  • At the end of the year, each crew presents the results of its research and dissolves. If there is a good enough reason, a crew can form again in the following year;

Basically, anyone can challenge our boundaries by changing what we do and how we do it: all that is required is the will, the knowledge, and be ability to persuade their peers that it’s worth a try — which is no small thing. There are no limits related to roles nor seniority: this approach is just about having skills, ideas, motivation and leadership.

People, Orientation, Growth

In such a fluid model, where projects are constantly assembled and dismantled and where even research and development is brought forward by one-year teams, it is essential not to lose control on the way. At the beginning of our journey, each area and its manager were responsible for onboarding people, guaranteeing their growth, providing reference models – today, projects and crews only partially fulfill this task. Without any organizational unit or area, we were forced to design new ways that guaranteed these fundamental aspects but in a more modern, free-thinking way.

Everyone here at HIC chooses two persons as points of reference, a mentor and a sponsor, and can replace them whenever they consider it necessary. The mentor helps them to dive into the company’s culture and advise them on general aspects related to work environment. The sponsor, instead, assists them in designing their professional growth path, and provides them with feedback and stimuli.

This idea is not new, but the responsibility of choosing one’s own reference person without having them assigned top-down, empowers each member with agency, producing leading actors and not just a cameos. It also triggers a positive feedback mechanism that benefits the team in its entirety.

What does my LinkedIn Page read?

Knowing how to describe your work and communicate your role is a relevant topic: this applies to both customer and community relationships. There is a strong sense of pride and professionalism in defining your position and mirroring yourself in the organisation you work for.

But how can one do this in a context that has no labels nor set rules? We decided to trust people’s intelligence: anyone can independently define their role (and put it on LinkedIn) following two guidelines. First, it must be a good description of what they do and not include words such as ‘Head’, ‘Manager’ or ‘Director’ — as these titles do nothing but nurture the ego. Second, at least two colleagues must consider it appropriate.

These are the main features of our model. Today, HIC et nunc. At the end of the day, it’s nothing but a work in progress: we constantly acknowledge what works and what doesn’t, and adapt the workflow on the way. Being open to iterative prototyping and aware that there is no perfect solution are essential features of a permanently changing context: our organization is no exception.

Acknowledging this is probably the biggest step forward we have taken so far.