Rebels with a cause

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 26/01/2018

Rebels with a causeThe road to business success can be a bumpy one, so it’s not surprising that certain bosses – so-called corporate rebels – are coming up with new ways of getting there

We’ve all noticed those crazy firms based somewhere hip like Silicon Valley, whose rebellious ways spark jealousy or incredulity. Maybe it’s unlimited staff holiday, no managers, or setting your own salary that catch the eye. But which of these corporate rebels are really pioneering radicals using groundbreaking strategies to give themselves a competitive edge, and which are the wannabes clumsily following new trends? 

And what can the rest of us learn from them? According to Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, there are two types of rebellious firm. The first is the start-up with a founder who deliberately seeks to create a countercultural way of working. 

Take software start-up Valve, based in Seattle, whose founders decided to run it without any hierarchy or managers. 

Other examples from the tech world include Riot Games in LA, and Supercell in Helsinki, both of which also eschewed the traditional corporate hierarchy. “These are companies that were founded in typically very tech-friendly sectors with visionary chief executives who said: ‘I want to create a different type of company’,” says Birkinshaw.

They’re able to try out radical ideas because they’re so small, he explains. If a company has 150 employees or fewer, a founder can know everyone and get things done through personal relationships. The company has the freedom to organise itself in whatever wacky way it likes, and still enjoy success. “Once you get beyond that magic number, you’ve got to start building some kind of rules and structures to cope with size, otherwise the system collapses,” says Birkinshaw. 

This is when things get interesting. As the radical tech start-ups grow into huge companies – Spotify, Amazon and Facebook, for example – they look to resolving the tension between being small and radical with the demands of running a large organisation. This means taking corporate rebellion to the next level, where experimentation with new ways of organising work and people can provide inspirational lessons to other medium-sized and large organisations.

Original thinkers

Alternative or crazy management systems aren’t the sole purview of Silicon Valley. There are famous examples of pioneering companies elsewhere that over the decades have dared to do things differently. 

These include Danish hearing aid company Oticon, famous for its ‘spaghetti’ style of management. In 1990, its new boss scrapped formal job titles and no employee had a desk or role of their own, except one they chose from a list of projects on a bulletin board. Managers became coordinators and each self-managed their own projects. 

Then there’s Brazilian manufacturer Semco Partners, run by Ricardo Semler, who turned the company around by adopting a radical, highly democratic and transparent approach to organising employees. He got rid of rules, working hours and most layers of management, and introduced profit sharing – with astonishing results. 

“The trouble is that, as soon as you start picking up on this stuff, you start going a bit crazy because you realise there’s no new idea under the sun,” says Birkinshaw. 

Pim de Morree is one of the Dutch self-styled Corporate Rebels, whose mission is to visit 60 fellow rebels around the world who challenge the status quo. “One of the biggest differences is that they give a lot of responsibility, freedom and trust to the employees to make the most important decisions in the business,” he says. 

Corporate Rebels has identified eight rebellious traits: swapping rules for a clear set of values; replacing the traditional corporate hierarchy with a network of small teams; favouring supportive leadership over directive leadership; moving from trying to predict and plan to experimentation and adaptability; giving people freedom and trust instead of rules and control; having authority distributed not centralised; being radically transparent about the organisation not secretive; and letting people create their own job descriptions. 

De Morree holds up two radical examples from his ‘bucket list’ of pioneers. One is Buurtzorg, a Dutch healthcare start-up that employs 14,000 homecare nurses. It’s run with teams of 12 nurses who completely self-manage themselves and are entirely responsible for running their own neighbourhood team – from planning the work and executing it, to hiring staff. They operate without rules or guidelines and there are no managers. As long as the teams produce the right results, head office doesn’t interfere.

“They manage themselves, so there’s no appointed team leader,” explains de Morree. “But, of course, in such things when there’s no official hierarchy, a natural form of hierarchy arises. So, the people with the more natural leadership skills will be the ones who take more leadership within the team.” 

De Morree’s other surprising example of a rebellious pioneer is the Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs (see box).

Reaping the rewards

The benefits these corporate rebels describe are numerous. Henry Stewart founded computer training business Happy 25 years ago along the radical lines that Ricardo Semler set out at Semco. 

“If you trust people and instead of telling them what to do, support them and coach them, you’ll get a better place to work, and they’ll be more productive and innovative,” says Stewart. “Everything we’ve done has proven that.” Not only will employees be more engaged and therefore more productive, they will also be easy to recruit and retain.

“The motivation [behind corporate rebellion] is sometimes productivity-based, sometimes it’s a conviction on the part of a chief executive that they want to do good in the world,” says Birkinshaw. 

“They want to have a happy workforce who are therefore more engaged, and they want to be more agile – they want to be able to compete with Silicon Valley start-ups. They want to attract the next generation of workers, who want to have meaning in their work. There’s always a business imperative.”

However, the path to corporate rebellion doesn’t just involve the wholesale transplant of another organisation’s way of doing things. 

“The biggest mistake you can make as a big company is to say: ‘That’s what Spotify’s doing, so we’re just going to do that ourselves’,” cautions Birkinshaw. “Almost certainly, that will fail because you haven’t built the surrounding set of capabilities or processes to support whatever it is Spotify is doing. What you have to do is extract the principle and make it your own.” 

De Morree agrees. “The Spotify model is very hip, but when we visited Spotify, the first thing they said was: ‘This Spotify model everybody talks about isn’t the way we work ourselves – it’s way too fixed’. Because people have seen a blogpost and a video on how we work, they take this as the complete truth. They don’t look at the nuance behind this system, which is that all the teams at Spotify can determine their own way of working. When other companies start implementing this Spotify model, they’re really implementing a fixed way of working which is completely against the whole idea that Spotify itself has.”

Even so, de Morree says the biggest risk for most companies is to continue working the way they do. What corporate rebels are really good at is asking employees how their work can be better organised, what barriers can be removed, and involving them in running the business. “By doing that, you don’t have to make this crazy transformation from one day to another, you can simply start making small changes, start experimenting and moving from there,” he says.

Not every radical idea works, however. “Doing away with managers altogether – maybe it has worked for some, but I don’t go that far,” says Henry Stewart. “You have to work out the balance that works for you and for your people. Try it out, see if it works. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all.” 

Case study: The Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs

frank-van-massenhoveThe Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs began a massive transformation in 2004, under its new Secretary General, Frank van Massenhove (pictured). He employed radical techniques to turn around the ailing department, which he described as “the worst government ministry in the western hemisphere”. 
Although the transformation was led by van Massenhove, employees were very much involved in determining how the government department should be run. 
“It gave its employees a huge amount of freedom and trust to make their decisions,” explains Pim de Morree from Corporate Rebels. 
“These people are allowed to work whenever and wherever they want, so they don’t need to be in the office from nine to five. The only thing they have to 
take care of is that they get the stuff done. On an average day, there are only 10 per cent of employees actually in the office and the rest are either working from home or not working.” 
The result? Year-on-year double-digit productivity growth despite fewer hours worked – and people knocking down its door to work there.


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