The irrisistable future…

The irrisistable future of self-organisation: the Swedish way

Learning expeditions are always a great moment to step out of our day to day bubble and challenge our beliefs. We decided on Sweden because we had heard that they were “cutting edge” in self-organisation. The wonderful three days we organised in Stockholm in August with some clients and friends was a truly eye-opening experience.

Flat organisations that work

“What is organic needs no organisation”

Erik Ringertz, CEO of Netlight, a 1000 employee digital development consulting company based in Sweden.

When I first heard this, I thought he must be exaggerating. In my experience of helping move companies from a mechanical to a living systems approach, no matter how self-managing and agile they are, there always remains some formal structure. I quickly realised however that Netlight and others here in Sweden are attempting an even bolder experiment, perhaps the ultimate step towards truly living organisations. I needed to shift into a newer paradigm to truly appreciate what he was doing.

At Netlight people are emboldened by principles that you may find in other self-management disciplines like Holacracy and Teal organisations: they have for example multiple roles, leadership is distributed and when something needs to be decided, there are always open forums or strategic management meetings where the participants evolve according on the subject. And yet they would probably not recognized themselves in these categories, or as Eric Ringertz helpfully supplied “boxes, just useful for dead people”.

As subjects arise, people spontaneously organise and reorganise themselves accordingly. There is for instance, an IT leader who manages a budget, decided by an adhoc strategy committee on IT, but he uses the collaborative tools at his disposal to consult with the right actors on how he should spend it and inform what his priorities should be. Many are using the advice process from sociocracy to solve most of their issues.

One of the key success factors to make this happen is undoubtedly the heavy use of digital tools such as Slack/Yammer which allow self-organisation to flourish once companies become too big. “We chat a lot”, continues Ringertz.

It is true that not that many large organisations have transitioned 100% to this model of organisation, but some are tantalisingly close at reaching “MVB”, or Minimum Viable Bureucracy: Spotify, an Agile Swedish company from Day One, has only a thin layer of line management or (“MVB”), over its swarm of Agile “squads” and Chapters.

It’s not a process, it’s not a mindset, it’s both!

Some people see companies as a kind of mechanical box, to use Ringertz words, in which we input “corporate values” and behaviors from one end, and processes from the other, and then just push everything through – sometimes disguising it as a “bottom-up initiative”. All of these approaches are outside in. In reality, we should see companies as a continuum: processes spring into being from shared energy and mindsets of employees and vice versa. This way of working is possible because these organisations have clearly defined and shared Purposes which trickles down to every employee.

The only really formal structures these new organisations retain are things like client delivery processes, compensation processes etc… but they are not permanently owned by anyone in particular and can be torn down and replaced when needed. They evolve as the mindset evolves on a given subject, again using either the sociocratic advice model, or consent based decision-making models. All decisions and group decisions are transparent, except for salaries although people know how much eachother makes anyways.

The fuel for all day-to-day activity is intrinsic motivation. While not a new topic in management consulting circles, it has been taken to new levels here. The CEO of another Swedish company, Tenant & Partners, Torbjörn Eriksson described their way of working as “a holistic stakeholder approach anchored on intrinsic motivation”. To those of you who dismiss the reality and power of intrinsic motivation, I suggest you take a look at Dan Pink’s TED talk which never grows stale:

Sensing & adjusting instead of command & control

So the transition from traditional matrix-pyramid organisations towards living systems seems well under way in Sweden. I was tempted for a moment when flying back to my “real world” to think that it was Swedish culture that allowed these new ways of working to be stretched so far. After all, a country that has not been at war for 200 years where people in cities leave their door open still in 2018, is pretty fertile ground for trying out new things.

But I kept coming back to my initial puzzlement: what is the “secret sauce” that allows all this to happen? After some thought, I think one of the keys may lie in skillfull participation. I first heard the term used by a Finnish consultant and thinking Esko Kilpi a few years ago who has put a lot of thought into cooperation in complex environments. There are two components to skillful participation as we define it at Fabric:

  • The first is the ability to leverage the natural capacity of cooperation in humans which is the source of human intelligence at a group level. The value-added of an employee is not in his or her skills per se, but in their capacity to interact with others with a set of skills.
  • The second is the capacity of becoming aware of oneself with regards to the system: mindfulness in short. The research of John Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts is unequivocal: mindful meditation makes you more aware of your environment and allows you to participate in a much fuller way in the generative conversations of an organisations. And it makes you experience your work in a deeper and more meaningful way. Every organisation we met in Sweden is experimenting or actively using mindfulness training at work.

The most important ingredient: Trust

These new organisational approaches cannot exist without a fundamental ingredient: trust. And trust normally comes from the example of the leader, who is the first one to embody this mindset.

Yet, for large multinationals there is certainly a scaling issue once you reach the tens of thousands of employees spread all over the world. And these companies were born and live today in a corporate culture that is often the opposite of living systems, where the further you go up in an organisation, the more political things become and the less operational.

In this context, the best option is to start from one team/unit/department in the organisation and spread this culture in order to affect more and more people. Managers play the role of leaders.

At Fabric we have worked with many successful teams in this manner and remain ever more committed to accompany this transition in the rest of the world. Employees in these new organisations are leading fulfilling lives and their companies are prospering.

And a hearty “Tack!” to our inspiring Swedish friends!