The 8 habits of the world’s most progressive workplaces

The Corporate Rebels has travelled the globe to learned from the most progressive organizations, and learn how to make work better, and funnier.

by Joost Minnaar

Future of work 07 December 2017

“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.