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This Transformation Story Teaches You How To Become A True Corporate Rebel

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree June 18, 2017

We arrive at Dutch e-commerce company bol.com. Upon entry, we tighten our safety shoes, pass the tight security and get a tour through the brand new building. And it’s not just bol.com’s building that is brand new. Within bol.com, a true revolution is taking place when it comes to their way of working. A revolution for more engagement, motivation and success.

Bol.com is one of the most popular online shops from the Netherlands and Belgium, offering around 15 million articles. The company was founded in 1999 and was bought in 2012 by Ahold Delhaize for 350M Euro. Currently bol.com employees about 1200 people, of which 300 work in the IT department.

The reason bol.com is one of the pioneering companies on our Bucket List? Well, it's not so much the way they work, but more specifically the way they are transforming themselves to this new way of working.

In our previous blog for the Huffington Post, we dubbed this approach the ‘Rebel Approach’. In this post we dive into the specifics of this ‘Rebel Approach’.

Way of working

Since bol.com was founded in 1999 it has always operated with a flat organizational structure and high levels of autonomy. But, while expanding over the years, it became increasingly difficult to keep this flat organizational structure in place. Only the IT department managed to keep the department 'flat' due to their Agile Scrum approach. The other departments, however, failed to successfully adopt this approach. They simply felt the Agile Scrum approach did not fit their needs.

On one hand, the high levels of autonomy within bol.com make it hard for top-down change programs to succeed. On the other hand, the same levels of autonomy provide the necessary freedom for new bottom-up initiates to arise. Harm Jans, Business lead WMS, took matter into his own hands, decided to use the freedom, and started experimenting within his own team.

Harm Jans

Harm Jans is part for bol.com since 2008 and worked in different roles within the logistics department, mostly as a leader of multiple teams. Since his initiative started to grow, part of his job has become dedicated to the development of the new way of working within the company. He gathered 6 part-time coaches to support the teams in their change. Harm: “We are constantly improving our way to facilitate the teams. Every new team that starts, is getting better support and results are increasing.”

Check out Harm’s own blog about this change process here

The start of a movement

While Harm was looking for ways to improve their way of working, he discovered that an all-in change program with a top down decree of the board was no option. Harm: “My problem was that people at Bol.com were, and are, not used to an all-in transformation program and certainly not if that decision is made at the top. The only way to go was to inspire change and start experimenting with enthusiastic people to create the first results." Harm used four main steps to create this movement: experiment, communicate, measure and go viral.

Experiment

Harm believed Holacracy could make a difference for bol.com. Inspired by Holacracy, he therefore started experimenting with his own teams (40 employees) within the logistics department. Overtime they moved away from Holacracy and developed their own way of working, which they now call Spark. The team started experimenting with new meeting structures and role definitions. And while experimenting, the team quickly felt that engagement and productivity was on the rise. They knew they were on the right track.

Communicate

After the first quick wins, and in an effort to inspire others within the company to join his movement for better work, Harm decided to take every chance he got to share the story of their new way of working. Even more importantly, the team members themselves were so enthusiastic about their new way of working that they started communicating their results on their own. By means of an internal platform and by presentations throughout the organization, they constantly spread the word of their journey.

Measure

In their period of experimentation, Harm and his teams started measuring how people experienced their way of working. They measured the so-called Net Promoter Score of the team (this NPS is a tool to measure the willingness of people to recommend a process or product). Subsequently, those measurements were used to foster a dialogue within the team on how to further improve their way of working so the entire team could become a promoter of the way they worked.

Go viral

Once employees become promoters of their new way of working other teams will hear frequently about the experiments and the enthusiastic stories. At bol.com this resulted in the fact that lots of other teams got excited to join the movement. Harm: “Based on the many phone-calls I received of new teams that were willing to start at the beginning, I knew there was something going on”. To be able to support the new teams the best they could, bol.com grew an internal team of part-time coaches to facilitate the new teams on their path to change.

The powerful lessons

The beauty of the story of bol.com is that now, 18 months later, one third (300 employees) of the non-IT part of the company is working with Spark. Still, additional teams are joining the movement right now and changing the way bol.com is working from the inside out.

Some powerful lessons can be learned from the ongoing transformation story of bol.com:

  • One size doesn’t fit all : While experimenting with their new way of working, Harm and his team discovered that there was not a simple off-the-shelf solution available to them. Agile Scrum didn’t work for them and Holacracy did not 100% fit their needs either. Instead, they looked for inspiration from various sources and molded this inspiration into their own unique way of working.
  • Don’t force change, inspire change: Most organizational transformations are forced upon employees in a top down manner. This might be part of the reason that more than 70% of organizational change programs fail. At Bol.com, they inspire change rather than forcing it. Over time, the change is growing organically from within.
  • Freedom to experiment: Although this wasn’t a top-down approach, the CEO provided the teams with the necessary freedom to experiment with new ways of working. This freedom allowed the teams to keep on experimenting while not having to bother about traditional command-and-control issues.
  • Start small: Teams were not offered the full 'Spark experience' from the beginning. They first started off with some quick wins. After these initial successes, they became excited and even more motivated to improve their way of working. Over time, this developed into Spark.


Conclusion

Only time will tell whether this approach will successfully lead to a sustainable way of working for the entire organization. The Spark journey has only just begun, but the beginning looks rather promising.

One of the most valuable lessons that can be learned from the journey of bol.com is the fact that everyone can become a Corporate Rebel. You don’t necessarily have to be the CEO of a company to have a significant impact on the way an entire organization works. As Harm is showing right now, through hard work and dedication, a true corporate revolution can be started. It might not be easy, but it shows that everyone can become a Corporate Rebel...

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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