Serve People Organized Chaos. They Will Thrive.

By David Bruel & Frank Pagano

Spoiler Alert

This short piece is not about innovation. It’s about the culture needed to win in an ever changing marketplace, especially after Covid 19. Yes, you will need chaos – yet of a special kind – to survive, thrive and win, all thanks to the right people. All you have to do is serve them an unorthodox career path, with apparently unstructured processes. Go wild.   

A Lifetime Made of Yearly Goals (Frank)

Here is a small slice from today’s corporate life: is this in line with my job description? Could we please sit down and agree on my yearly goals? My bonus depends on them, by the way. Whose job is it anyway? Will this move make me a Manager?

These lines will be obsolete soon. I would actually say, forget about job descriptions and yearly goals, completely. The workplace of the future has no time for that. Would that be so bad? Dream or nightmare? Just reality. Get ready for business as unusual.

I was recently with a founder of a small Swiss tech startup, and he was all over the ‘how’ they are squeezing value out of a step-change technology, to generate as many user cases as possible, whichever they are. What shocked me was that his focus was less on the what to do, and more on the ‘how’ to systematically spit out new business opportunities in a fast, free flow. The group will make it, he is sure. He created the right conditions. He just doesn’t know when and what exactly will make them win. Yes, it’s the usual startup fairy tale: no power games, small gangs of geeks trying to solve people’s real problems and a fast failing approach. His main concern? He paradoxically doesn’t look forward to the moment when he will succeed with one user case, which will create a core business to protect. He will lose it all: the price of success is that you need a boring corporate machine to run it, don’t you? 

Be Fast Or Be Gone (David)

There is a silent but steady movement that has started in the past couple of years. Many employers are quietly walking away from yearly objectives and from the controversial year end review process. Have you ever enjoyed your reviews? Or found them useful at all? In case you haven’t noticed, all of this is disappearing; for example, here is a great read from HBR (note #1).

Why change our people management rituals? Because they slow us down and are becoming an obstacle. Truth is: yearly objectives clash with the speed at which the business evolves. The good old VUCA (note #2) is still with us, and it is increasing pressure on how fast we need to adapt to change, and most importantly how quickly we have to test & scale up new business opportunities. Whatever your company size, if you are not fast enough, someone else will beat you. It is a jungle out there. 

The most successful and innovative companies did not even exist ten years ago, and they are redefining the global competitive landscape (note #3). One of Facebook’s mottos is Done is better than Perfect.

And Agility For All

Successful companies, especially when they are small, start from the greatest gift that life can give them: lack of resources. The first thing that you would notice about them is that people’s work revolves around a key concept, agility. Say, you are not an agile organization. If agility is, indeed, the oxygen to survive overtime, how can we inject more and more of it into your company? Here is our take. It is not exhaustive, of course. This is a conversation starter.

Big Moves, Like Jagger

Let’s list some bold moves, almost like a menu of potential actions for any company:

  • Go superflat. Can business units, or overall organizations, have no more than three hierarchical layers, from top  to bottom? Do you even need formal titles and classes of employees, which divide more than unite teams? One reference case is Zappos, the US DTC platform that inspired the likes of Zalando. Or the accenture model. It works.
  • Create cross functional, autonomous teams, with end to end responsibility. Spotify calls them Squads (note #4). These are usually product development small groups, fully empowered to bring to the world innovation or upgrades, controlling in full the when and the how. Take the word ‘empowerment’ seriously. Yes, resist the temptation to involve the C room for all development gates. 
  • Stand up, vertically. Where appropriate, like for customer service or supply chain projects, build vertical, ultra specialized and fully accountable groups, who set own KPIs and milestones.

Good Riddance

And, let’s list some old stuff that can go right away:

  • Who manages who? The role of the multi-year people manager, as we know it, will die. Who needs that, when you have team coaches, in charge of groups & specific tasks? People will naturally gravitate around projects that make them grow. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of a people manager?
  • You don’t know my name. Job descriptions need to evolve. Have your personal approach and past results speak for you. Job content will be defined by the mission and assignment of your group, quarter by quarter. Job content will then change once the task is completed, or – of course – if the project is abandoned, after its post mortem. Shop the right people and have them crack a real problem, which solves a conflict or creates a wow for a consumer or for the organization.
  • Your feedback is being served to you, right here and now. Team coaches will become super important to ensure performance is not slowed by the wrong team dynamics. The group will also need to learn how to provide immediate feedback to each other, based on the project development. And, rather than who you are, feedback will focus on what you do. Nobody is perfect and nobody lectures. Everybody is needed to solve a concrete issue, right now.
  • Talk, talk, talk. If there is one thing that we would love to keep after Covid 19 is the need to abuse technology and communication platforms, for teams to continuously share and exchange. All projects and processes will be open sourced. Your process and your Gant are not the bible.

Yeah, Good Luck You

Now, many of us may think: how can you control such an organization? How can you avoid duplication of work and guarantee efficiency? Well, the answer is as simple as you can’t. Welcome to the ‘Organic’ company, one where ideas and success bubble up, almost spontaneously. And, the only way to run a company is by having the strongest culture ever, which will breed the right behaviors. This is the sole purpose of having Management: their only job is to create a safe space that allows things to move, without mistakes and people being stigmatized.

An agile culture focuses on empowering and developing people, and on service vs. control. The only job description that should be written when recruiting should be: must collaborate, must coach, must deliver exceptional results. And, must respect the culture, first of all (see the examples of Zappos or Ideo – culture first, note #5).

Holy Chaos

The future of the workplace will be one where, under apparent chaos – and there will be chaos, in market success will bubble from the bottom up, through the contribution of empowered and purpose-driven contributors.

Will that be a nightmare? Maybe. Or, would you rather prefer to die quietly, in a well structured hive? I would hate it if people said at my funeral: man, was he structured!

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Francesco Pagano

Experienced Marketing & Business Leader. Global profile, passionate about innovation, brand management, brand communication and international business. Always up for irresistible product concepts, ultimate communication integrated campaigns & great Italian food.

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