Metamorphosis is the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Metamorphosis is a biological process that occurs in many organisms. During metamorphosis, certain tissues and organs are broken down and reassembled into new structures, often with different functions than in the previous stage. The duration of metamorphosis varies depending on the species and environmental factors, but it typically involves a period of growth and development followed by a period of maturation and reproduction.
A couple of years back I got lost in a thought experiment. What would happen if an organization would stop operating for one day and all people working there would re-assemble them on their own terms and choices, based on the way they liked to work? How would the result look like? How different would it be to the status quo? What sounds ridiculously at first, turns out not to be such a stupid idea, if you spend some thinking about it. People who do the job, usually know much better how to organize themselves, they know the most effective way to create value; they know how their own knowledge connects to the rest, they know how to create “flow” for themselves, they know who they love to work together with and where good ideas come from. Even after years, I couldn't put this idea to rest; it became tattooed on my mind. It was based on an observation that I made throughout my working life over and over again, both with my clients as well as with my colleagues. It was the realization that most organisational structures tend to undermine impact and innovation instead of facilitating it. Even well-intended frameworks like agile, OKR etc. have led to endless, tedious processes and checklists, and more average ideas than anyone can make sense of (there's probably nothing I despise more than a daily). If we’re being honest: most of the times, great things and innovation happen not because of the structure, but despite of it. By people having successfully navigated across it or having completed subverted it.
Isn’t there any other way?
The system made me do it!
The interesting part about it is that most people seem to be aware to work in false systems, but no-one seems to try to do something about it. On leadership level, most are scared of some long and expensive re-org where good chances are you end up with an equally bad or even worse result than you began with. On team level, very few people see themselves actually having the power of changing anything at all. There are two ways people dealing with this: (1) cynic eye roll, or (2)- even worse - some scary talk about working in an abstract system that you cannot influence and that makes you do things you don’t even believe, you don’t trust to work or you don’t want in the first place. (!The system made me do it")
To sum it up: The way we work doesn't work.
- It is usually bias toward maintaining the status quo. Which means it complicates the pursuit of a strategy, a strategic pact, instead of driving it
- Innovation or innovative results are usually caused by the action of a few individuals who act in spite of and not in line with the organisation
- Overpowering process destroy individual working flows, most of which only exist for exerting control that would be unnecessary if everyone was trusted to do their job
- It actually reproduces behavior that is destructive in the long-term: not caring, getting uncomfortable, following KPIs instead of the right thing, attributing personal power instead of collective growth...the list is endless
- Processes strip people from their own agency, influencing their own decisions or turning them into passive objects
-Bad processes put an immense mental and emotional load on people, because they constantly have to resolve systemic tension on an individual level (this means, they have to solve the same issues over and over again)
(A small anecdote from a couple year’s back. A friend of mine asked me what I actually do all day at the office and after giving her a small account, she joked: “I thought you are in consulting, it sounds rather like you are a kindergartner.” Funny at first, the depressing truth about it: it’s actually true. The way how traditional leadership and organization is designed, is making us treat employees like children who cannot be trusted with making decisions, who need to be micro-managed, kids that don’t really have any own agency but need to be given directions etc. So, you could also rephrase the question from above into: How does an organisation look like that is built for actual adults?)
A thought experiment turned into reality
Thankfully I chose to work at a company that is is pretty courageous and pretty serious when it comes to reimagining the future - even if it means questioning ourselves. Especially in times, where we as a society need to come up with more resilient, more collaborative and more regenerative businesses, organisations and networks, we can't just continue as before. The challenges we all face with all their complexity and brutal force request something smarter than what we all have in place. We simply can’t afford to work in a way that makes dealing with these problems harder than it needs to be, that actually hinders us in succeeding in solving them, that puts more load on us than we already carry. So, it was time for us to translate this thought experiment and much more into reality and take some radical action in order to design a regenerative organization.
Never change a running system? Wrong!!!
Side note: It was not a thing of not being successful. There was no immanent threat or problem that stared us straight in the face. It was nothing more, but also nothing less than the realization the way we worked together doesn’t do justice to the humans, to the size of our ambition, our aspiration, our courage. It was the realization that we all want and expect more than the current system allowed us to do, that the structure held us small instead of maximizing our impact. It was the acknowledgement that you don’t need to wait until things don’t work any longer to create a sense of change, but that being on top of things is the perfect position to reach even higher. Waiting to change, until you’re standing with your back against the wall is the most stupid thing you can do and still most organisation wait until it's too late. We had simply outgrown our organizational reality and were ready for our own metamorphosis.
Metamorphosis is the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
Stage 1: Breaking down structures and tissues.
So how do you go on about building such a company? Short answer: by letting go. By shifting the focus from adding stuff to getting rid of things. By radical unlearning of the patterns that you have adopted and that might even have been the reason why you became successful in the first place. By making space for things to emerge that you won’t be able to fully control.
How does an organization look like that is designed around the concept of maximizing meaning?
We dealt with question like:
- How does an organization look like that is designed around the concept of maximizing meaning instead of busyness?
- How do you design an organization for people who truly care (beyond the immediate)?
- How do you radically design for collaboration beyond disciplines and domains?
- How to design an organisation that systematically innovates itself continuously and that is not based on one person calling the shots - where innovation, impact and responsibility are regenerative and distributed?
- What happens if control is replaced by trust?
- How to design a system that is prepared for all possible futures?
We broke down, we reassembled, we let go, we reimagined, we swallowed our egos and made space for other people than ourselves, we dared to try out, we thought harder, we hold the space of not knowing, we designed together, we learned to work with gaps and iterated again and again.
Stage 2: Complete change in body structure and function
So how does our new system look like? Very different to before ;) In order to find our own way of organizing meaningfully, we made some radical changes together :
Goodbye squared boxes, hello living organism
- We don't work with any fixed team structure any longer
- We translated our offering into a dynamic innovation portfolio that is managed based on investment logics and innovation best practices, forcing us to constantly evaluate performance and product-market fit and ensuring that our clients receive the best possible portfolio at all times. What doesn’t work is iterated or abandoned.
- We also separated, how we design our portfolio from the way how we organize as humans. Less dependencies make us more honest in what works and what doesn't.
Goodbye linear career paths, hello fluid learning hubs.
- We value individuality and let people decide for themselves how they will evolve, what interests they want to pursue, in what fields they can best contribute - independent of role, discipline, or level
- We decided to move from a hierarchical organisation to a role-based organization, where hierarchy has no meaning beyond being an indicator of depth of experience
- We distributed new roles by focusing on competence, experience and passion, rather than title, level or the simple reason that this person had filled this role before.
Goodbye Management, hello self-leadership and coaching
- We got rid of almost all classic management roles. Instead we operate mainly via self-management, supported by coaching and mentoring roles where it matters. The motto is: No more parenting!
- “Leading or mentoring other people” is super important to us. Thus, leadership is nothing required by everyone in order to get ahead. Instead it’s a role like any other, that is handed over to those who have the capabilities, the training and the passion for developing and mentoring others
So yes, we changed a lot about how we work together, except for current client relationships and accounts. So there was no turmoil whatsoever for our clients (most of them didn't even notice the transition) and they would get the best of both worlds: Continuity in the relationship, while directly benefiting from more future-proof skills, the best possible offering at any point in time and more effective work flows.
The result is an organisation that looks and feels completely different than before and still somehow reconnects to some inherent knowledge that we all seem to have. An organization that works with the most minimal fixed structures and leaves the rest to entrepreneurial minds that make smart decisions. An organization, that is in is basic way leaner, more focused and thus, more impactful.
And this is not the time to
Yes, we did it right. ”Right“ - not in the sense that success will be guaranteed. It’s way too early for any sort of evaluation and time and return on meaning will decide. What I mean with “doing it right” is: we took this step fully, full of courage and self-confidence, making as few compromises along the way as possible. Trying our hardest not to fall into the easy trap of watering down a radical strategic decision the moment you put it to practice, just because it feels uncomfortable. Discomfort is part of the process. I’m certain, there will be many adaptations, changes and iterations happening. There is much more future space to unfold, and we’re far from knowing. The nice part about this: this outlook doesn’t scare or unsettle anyone of us; it’s just a practiced part of our work. And one that is done super-fast, because everything is built for adaptation and learning. We got everything in place to make sense of the future, whatever way it will emerge. No-one knows how it will be, but we’re curious to find out.
[Some words of love (feel free to skip the cheesiness)
This whole process has been one of pure excitement for me. Obviously - What a time to be alive! Having the privilege of being able to initiate transformation on such a large and radical level, is just a fascinating endeavor. Especially, when the act of transforming other human beings and setting them into motion, is your personal mission & raison d’être (thanks Allyson & Raffella for helping me in the process of figuring this out for me).
However, these last weeks have felt particularly special. Morphing into this more mature version has been one of the most intense, most rewarding and most personally meaningful experiences in my business life. I’ve spent a lot of thought on why that is and have arrived at a guess. I believe, that never before has there been such a huge overlap between my personal ambition and beliefs and the official “task” that I was trusted with; never before has there been such an inseparability between me as my personal self and the official role that I’m filling; never before has there been a bigger match between the strategy that we set out on as an organisation and what I would do intuitively as a private indiviual. So I truly love being where I am at the moment, sometimes exhausted from coping with all what is happening, most of the times jumping through the office with the wonder of a little kid and just hoping that it will turn out great for the people I do it for and with. Thanks to all who have poured their heart, their ideas and their hopes, but also their worries, their fears and their doubts in this whole process. All of it has truly made a difference. Thanks for doing you.
To close with words by my colleague Anton because I couldn’t have put it in a better way:
“Usually, we mostly help other organizations break down old structures and develop the courage to move ahead. Now it's our turn. You could say: High on our own supply.”