How This Italian Workplace Pioneer Is Rebelling Against The Status Quo

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar August 30, 2018

Arguably, the most wonderful Bucket List location we have come across is a farm just outside Venice, Italy. We have now visited H-Farm several times, and are always amazed to find ourselves working in one of the wonderful corners of this estate.

H-Farm is the brainchild of Riccardo Donadon (founder and CEO) and Maurizio Rossi (co-founder and VP). In the early 2000s, Riccardo decided to sell his digital agency and, as a result, made a small fortune. To enjoy his freedom, Riccardo decided to begin with a year of gardening and farming—two of his biggest passions.

Then, in 2005, he bought the farm next door to his garden, and launched there the first venture incubator in the world.

The most beautiful innovation hub in Europe

Since then, H-Farm has become the leading private incubator in Italy. It is an entrepreneurial ecosystem breathing creativity and innovation unlike any other. The campus has grown to include many buildings on an area about the size of 60 football-fields. The aim? To be the most important innovation hub in Europe.

To see more of this place—where Italian traditions and entrepreneurial minds co-exist on a daily basis—check out the video below.

Main activities

Nowadays the main activities of H-Farm can be divided into three separate pillars.

1. Investment

H-Farm invests in small, innovative ideas and companies they think will move the world forward.

2. Education

H-Farm is dedicated to design the future of education, for both students and enterprises.

3. Digital transformation

H-Farm guides, consults to, and works with enterprises in their digital transformation efforts.

We, the Corporate Rebels, collaborate most with the 60-odd people in the digital transformation team. Their mission is to design an internal culture that triggers the non-stop ability to explore, discover and innovate.

They often see themselves as the “beta testers” of strategies they recommend to partners and customers. They aim to “constantly challenge the boundaries of what one is and what one does”.

This is what Tomas Barazza (leader of the digital transformation team) told us when we met him and Moriella Kowalski to learn more about the “organizational monster” they had been creating over recent years—and about their recent transformation to tame the monster into something useful again.

The organizational monster

The digital transformation team started like any other start-up. They had a simple structure that covered just three areas—design, technology and story.

Each of these was led by a manager whose role was:

  • To identify what expertise was lacking
  • To find the right mix of people to join their area

But as the team was growing they realized (like many other start-ups) that their structure imposed severe limitations. It was turning into an “organizational monster”. For example, most important decisions were taken by a small group of people. And the majority of team members felt they were not utilizing all the talents and potential.

The start of their own transformation

So, they decided to transform themselves. Because, as Tomas says, “The way a company or team is structured has more implications than just the practical aspects of organization and mission effectiveness.”

To Tomas it is how a team works that sets the basis for the culture of the team. To him there are three things that ultimately define the culture of the teams:

  • The levels of autonomy and responsibility given to the team members
  • The values that guide decision making
  • The behaviours that are rewarded

“If you get these right, this is where the ability to attract, motivate and retain talented people comes from. And this is without any doubt the most essential aspect of a successful business.”

The new guiding principles

When they rethought their own structure, they used the following guiding principles:

  • Develop autonomy and entrepreneurship
  • Leverage passion and interests to stimulate open-minded behaviour
  • Avoid positions and the stratification of roles
  • Minimize ego without erasing healthy ambition
  • Encourage collaboration over competition
  • Promote personal development paths

But, while thinking and talking about redesigning the structure was relatively easy, doing it was less straightforward.

“Finding the right conditions to redesign the structure, and to start from scratch, required everyone to look beyond their own role. People had to put their own responsibilities back on the table and jointly imagine the best way to redistribute those. It was a hard exercise, and required a large amount of mutual trust.”

The new structure

In the new structure, there is no longer a place for areas or units run by managers. “Internal staff roles for planning, control and HR are all eliminated. This doesn’t mean no-one is held accountable for those tasks. But they are now equally distributed among the team.”

While thinking and talking about redesigning the structure was relatively easy, doing it was less straightforward.
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The central planning entity is replaced by a new structure based on two criteria:

  • Project teams (with a designated project manager) follow the initiatives designed and created for customers.
  • Crews that take care of research and development—to keep improving and learning.

“Within project teams, people gather around specific project needs in a process where teams self-form and self-adjust based on continuous peer-to-peer negotiation. The teams and their project manager now enjoy full freedom, within the limits of a shared budget, to involve anyone within the staff they consider useful and suitable.”

The research and development crews

These crews act as self-organizing entities that work for a whole year on self-proposed topics. But there are clear boundaries:

  • “At the beginning of each year, anyone, regardless of their role or seniority, can initiate a crew on a topic they consider relevant for further investigation.
  • In order to make a proposal, the initiator needs to convince two other colleagues to join the crew. If you can’t convince at least two colleagues of the value of your project, you’re probably off the mark.
  • The newly formed crew presents a two-page proposal that includes the motivation and its connection to our purpose. It should include a rough plan, three measurable goals to be achieved within the year, and an estimated budget.
  • A committee elected by employees called the Teepee is responsible for the R&D budget and decides which crews can launch initiatives and which cannot.
  • At the end of the year, each crew presents the results of their research and dissolves the crew. Sure, if there are good-enough reasons, the crew can form again in the following year.”

In this way, all employees can position themselves to actively change what the organization is doing and how they will do it. “The only thing that is required is the will, the knowledge, and the ability to persuade others that their initiative is worth giving a try.”

Mentors and sponsors

In this new fluid structure, project teams and crews needed some guidance on personal development. So, it was decided “to introduce the roles of mentors and sponsors.

  • Mentors help team members dive into the company’s culture and advise them on aspects related to the work environment.
  • Sponsors assist team members to design a professional growth path, and provide them with feedback.

Everyone chooses two people within the organization as points of reference—a mentor and a sponsor. They can replace them whenever they consider it necessary.”

Not the end of the game

Tomas acknowledges that this is probably the biggest step they have taken in years. He also realizes that is not the end of the game, yet.

At the end of the day, it’s nothing but a work in progress. We constantly acknowledge what works and what doesn’t and adapt our way of working along the way.
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“At the end of the day, it’s nothing but a work in progress. We constantly acknowledge what works and what doesn’t and adapt our way of working along the way. We are aware there is no perfect solution, and that constant prototyping is needed in a permanently changing business context. H-Farm is no exception.”

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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