After an inspiring week at Davos 2020, I have decided to write a series of articles highlighting the work of leaders who are disrupting the way we work to create workplaces that work better for all. My personal quest is to bring together a community of one million #DisruptForGood leaders. One of these leaders who is inspiring me today is Joost Minnaar, cofounder at Corporate Rebels. He is the coauthor of a new book (you guessed the title: Corporate Rebels) that just launched this week. It’s story-telling at its best as Joost and his co-rebel-in-crime Pim de Morree take road trips to meet people and companies on their bucket list.
Their bucket list is a collection of pioneers, rebels and revolutionaries (organizations, entrepreneurs, academics and business leaders) who change the status quo of frustrating workplaces. I recommend the book as a great read for anyone who wants to be part of a movement to make work both more fun and more productive.
Henna Inam: Share your story. What gave you the idea to write this book?
Joost Minnaar: In the summer of 2015, in a crowded beer garden in Barcelona, we talked about work—the work we were doing then. It was a rather sad conversation, because the bottom line was that our jobs were uninspiring at best. Work was making us anything but happy.
We weren’t frustrated with the work itself. It was interesting, challenging, and a good fit for our engineering degrees. What was driving us nuts was the way our employers arranged things. That, and the fact that we were treated like children. It was frustrating to be forced to follow archaic and outdated procedures and protocols that held no room for creativity, offered no leeway. There was a complete lack of appreciation for any sliver of lateral thinking or entrepreneurship. Any idea that might poke the status quo in the ribs was immediately shot down. We weren’t experienced in the ways of business, but we knew we could set out on our own if we could just think what, exactly, we should do.
Ever since our university days we had been fascinated by pioneers, the brave souls who tackled “work” in a radically different way. We were inspired by companies that kept their employees engaged and connected. We found inspiration in the philosophies of workplace gurus such as Simon Sinek and Dan Pink. We dived into the extraordinary company cultures of Google and Spotify. There was a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between these inspiring stories and the drudgery of our day-to-day lives.
We quit our jobs in a quest to make our working lives—and yours—more fun. That’s why we started Corporate Rebels, drafted our bucket list, and set out to meet our heroes. Our bucket list is graced with inspiring companies found in the most unlikely places—and that is sometimes part of their strength. It’s direct evidence that you can make work enjoyable and rewarding, even in the most challenging environments. It is possible in every company, and can be applied in every industry, everywhere in the world. It was time to start ticking off these names.
That day in the Barcelona beer garden now seems a long way back. For four years we’ve been travelling and researching the world’s most progressive workplaces. The frustration of our corporate jobs has long since dissipated. We now get to research topics that impassion us. We meet pioneers around the globe who are as enthusiastic about these things as we are. We work with them and learn from their experiences. We share all this with fellow rebels through our blog, talks and workshops, and online via the Corporate Rebels community.
Our first book to document our adventures is published this week. It does not pretend to be a ready-made solution, a magic spell to turn your workplace into paradise. The ideas within are inspiration for change. Take from it what you need. Our book is an overture to options, ideas, and inspiration, not a doctrine to follow.
Inam: What are the eight ways for organizations to make work more fun?
Minnaar: In the book while checking off our Bucket List, we share what we have learned so far. We have identified eight trends that are unleashing a workplace revolution. We see progressive organizations moving:
1. From profits to purpose and values.
2. From hierarchical pyramid to network of teams.
3. From directive to supportive leadership.
4. From plan and predict to experiment and adapt.
5. From rules and control to freedom and trust.
6. From centralized to distributed authority.
7. From secrecy to radical transparency.
8. From job descriptions to talents and mastery.
For some these trends will not be completely new. But that’s hardly the point. What matters is that most traditional organizations battle to understand how to build cultures where these trends could possibly work. The pioneering companies we visited and describe in our book have pioneered in creating workplaces where these principles are rather the norm than the exception. But note. Our book is not a “how-to” book; no one can tell you how to create the perfect workplace. But you can be inspired by others, learn from pioneers and experiment with new ways of working. Change doesn’t have to start at the top. A few confident rebels have changed entire corporations. No matter your role, there’s always a way for you to challenge the status quo.
Inam: Who are some of the role-model leaders that you met that are leading the way? What are some of the characteristics you saw in these leaders?
Minaar: Of the 100-plus Bucket List organizations we have visited, most have one thing in common: a lack of directive leadership. Instead we find supportive senior staff that lead by example, who ask their employees the best way to help and support them. Think about role-models like Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s and Jos de Blok from Buurtzorg. They show an admirable combination of authenticity, modesty, rebelliousness and stubbornness. They have a clear vision and inspire their people to action. At the same time, they are available for feedback and criticism. They listen to the ideas of those on the front line. We call this Supportive Leadership. Because “if you want to be a leader, you’d better find some followers.’’ That motto may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a wonderful piece of advice. Letting employees choose their own leader is one of the most rebellious solutions we witnessed. We saw that those that have the strength to do this will be rewarded. Create a voting process, allow people to select their mentors, or go for continuously changing leadership; the way you achieve this doesn’t matter, just go for it.
Inam: Digital disruption will impact hundreds of millions of jobs globally. Which of these shifts will be most important for organizations to embrace to handle the future of work?
Minnaar: From hierarchical pyramid to network of teams. Because we believe companies should embrace a network of teams structure to handle the future of work. It is simple and painfully obvious: the system in which many people still work was created for a stable, slow and predictable world that no longer exists. Today the system falters and fails and it is time to find a new way forward. We talked to many companies that have changed their corporate structure to bring liberty. Instead of the hierarchical pyramid, these pioneers create an environment of flexibility, speed, and involvement. The structure we encounter most often at progressive organisations is the network of teams. We have come across them in all shapes and sizes, and in a host of cultures and industries.
We visited the nurses and carers at Buurtzorg, the builders of Breman, the IT-ers of Nearsoft, the developers of Smarkets, the financial advisors of Finext, the technicians of TMC, the Chinese factory workers at Haier and the consultants at Swedish Centigo. They are all networks built out of small, autonomous teams. Buurtzorg, for example, has over 1,000 autonomous teams. This structure allows the teams to determine their own way of working and carry full responsibility. In most cases, they ensure that multidisciplinary teams don’t exceed 10 to 15 employees. Most create a healthy form of competition by giving the teams skin in the game. Teams then become little companies that decide when and where they work, how, and with whom.
The true radicals go one step further: as well as creating the network of teams, an online platform is built to give access to other stakeholders. This is exactly what the Chinese company Haier does with 70,000 employees organizing themselves in over 4,000 mini-companies spread across multiple online platforms. They worry about internal competition as well as pressure from external stakeholders. For example: Is the HR team fulfilling expectations? If not, an external party is brought in. This dynamic ensures that only the teams that add real value will remain. The role of top management is still to determine the long-term strategy, but other than that they focus mainly on investing in the mini-companies they believe in and funding the start-ups.
Inam: How can those who want to get involved in your movement participate?
Minnaar: The stories in our book are the tip of the iceberg. People can find more inspiration at the Corporate Rebels blog. Our blog is read by hundreds of thousands in more than 100 countries. Our online forum is a meeting place for workplace rebels. People can join the revolution by subscribing to our newsletter and by becoming a member of the community on Corporate-Rebels.com.
At the end of our interview Joost left me with a challenge I will happily embrace. If you were to build your own bucket list of organizations and people to learn from, who would they be? Thank you for the challenge Joost. I will embrace it and be blogging about it on Forbes and LinkedIn.
Now over to you, the reader. Who is on your bucket list to learn from? In the future of work, staying curious will be a great skill to grow.