Get Rid of Your Outdated Industrial Age Thinking and Let Your People Go Surfing

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar July 16, 2017

Traditional organizations have lots of bureaucracy in place to ensure employees neatly follow the rules. It helps them to predict and control the outcomes of the work people do. But more and more, this bureaucracy becomes an important barrier to both engagement and success.

It stands in the way of autonomy, innovation and creativity and is therefore becoming a bigger and bigger liability for organizations. So, no matter what business you're in, it is about time to get rid of all kinds of control mechanisms and the outdated industrial age thinking. Instead, introduce high levels of freedom and trust.


Once organizations successfully get rid of the command-and-control structures and allow their people to work autonomously, productivity skyrockets. We have witnessed it all around the world. The outdated beliefs of traditional management are replaced by new ideas about how to treat employees.

Outdated beliefs of traditional management are replaced by new ideas about how to treat employees.

A beautiful example of a workplace where such new ideas have come to life, is the Belgian Department of Social Security in Brussels. On an average day, only one tenth of the employees show up at the office. Why? Because they have the freedom to work when and where they want. Director Frank van Massenhove couldn't care less where and when his staff works: "As long as everyone gets his or her job done, everyone's happy."

Just get your shit done

He allows his people in the department to work in their own way and on their own terms. They don't have fixed working hours and they only show up when they want to. All evaluations are based on results, not on time spent at the office. They just need to get their shit done.

When they do it, how they do it and where they do it is completely up to them. This kind of result based working encourages employees to contribute actively to the organization rather then to just showing up at the office and wait for time to pass.

Daniel Pink, Bucket list hero and writer of the influential book Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us, points at the importance of experiencing autonomy over similar aspects of our work. He calls it the four T's; autonomy over what people do (Task), when they do it (Time), how they do it (Technique), and with who they do it (Team).

The benefits of autonomy

The results of the civil servant's new way of working speak for itself. Since their transformation, employee engagement, productivity, and client satisfaction have increased tremendously while costs and the number of burnouts have gone down significantly. Frank estimates that on average his employees only work 30 hours a week, as he does himself too. Additionally, the department's long lasting problem with attracting young talent has been resolved as 93% of the applicants prefer to work for Frank’s department nowadays (as compared to only 18% back in 2002). The replies they receive on an average job vacancy have risen from 3 to 57!

We have seen this happen in many other progressive organizations. They simply get rid of most of their rules. Instead, they treat their employees as responsible adults and let them decide how to do their job, how to solve problems and how to grasp opportunities.

Just think about it: people perform best while enjoying high degrees of freedom and autonomy to do their job in the way they see fit. It's all about creating the conditions for employees to do their work the best they can. Let them decide for themselves what they need to perform best. And trust them while doing it. Then they will do the right thing for themselves and for the organization.

Free time for innovation

Frank van Massenhove encourage everyone in the organization to be innovative and to continuously challenge the status quo. That's why at his department he only allows his employees to plan 80% of their working hours with prescribed roles and tasks. Of the remaining time 10% is reserved for unforeseen activities and the other 10% should be used for innovation projects. But this practice is nothing new.

It has a long tradition and was mainly pioneered by the American multinational 3M in the 1930's. Their famous president William McKnight introduced a practice where technical people could spend 15% of their time on any project of their choosing. It worked wonders for them as great innovations as Post-its where born because of it. In more recent years, Google followed in their footsteps and established their famous 20% rule in which employees can do whatever they think benefits Google, even if this is out of their scope of work. Products that were derived from this 20% time include Gmail, Google Translate and AdSense. (Unfortunately, when we visited the Googleplex some time ago it seemed that the 20% time rule is no longer a standard practice at Google.)


Progressive organizations trust their employees to manage their own work, their own teams and execute projects in their own way. Research shows that nearly half of the employees would give up a 20% raise for increased control over how they work. The moment employees are trusted to work on projects they think are most valuable, they will focus their talents and energy on what needs to be done most.

We encountered beautiful examples when we visited the Morning Star Company the largest processor of tomatoes in the world, in California. At Morning Star, employees are trusted to organize themselves and to work on things they are most interested by. It keeps their jobs fluent because when the business changes, so do the employee's jobs. They are trusted to do this in the best interest of the organization. Morning Star's employee Brandon’s example illustrates the beauty of this process:

Trust pays off

After working in customer service for 2 years, Brandon started in his current role 5 years ago. His new role was mainly to figure out what customers wanted. He started cold calling customers to find out what their needs were. His calls helped him to reveal that customers that were located in more distant places felt they had to pay too much for Morning Star’s products. Brandon got together a few colleagues to figure out how they could meet this need.

They decided that various distribution centers would help to solve the problem. But how would they go about this? Brandon had no prior experience in distribution centers and therefore requested the support of a more experienced colleague. Together, they started to investigate how they could set up the various distribution centers. Fast forward; a few months later Brandon and his colleague were setting up various distribution centers around the country.

As you can see, Brandon's job and his responsibilities quickly evolved. You can imagine what this did to Brandon’s pride, personal growth and motivation for working at the Morning Star Company.

The one-rule travel policy

Another great example of a trusting environment is Netflix. Their travel policy is so simple that it only consists of 5 words: Act in Netflix's best interest. Where in some companies you have to fill in cumbersome expense claims that have to be approved by managers and support staff, at Netflix all responsibility lies at the employees themselves.

If you think a fancy 5-star hotel will help you to get an important deal, go for it. If you think you can do it with less, that's fine too. As an employee you are fully trusted you will make the right mistake. Imagine the time, money, and frustration you can save by not having to go through that awful expense claim process.

Putting freedom and trust into practice

Lots of companies and leaders talk about freedom and trust but only a few actually put it into practice and give high amounts of freedom and trust to the people in the organization. Here are some of the best practices we've seen around the world:

Treat people as adults

Having increased freedom and trust is not a one way street. It comes with increased levels of responsibility, accountability, and a sense of purpose. So, no matter what managing system you have in place, people need to be held accountable for their work.

It's about treating people as responsible adults, not as kids. In fact, most of the progressive organization we studied presume that people want to be held accountable for their work. Because their employees want to have full control over how they work, when they work, where they work and with who they work. It's simply their pathway to success.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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