New Ways Of Working: Stop Reinventing The Wheel!

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar April 08, 2023

So, last month, we were interviewed by Erica Primal of the Italian magazine Confindustria Como. Recently, they published the interview in print and in a digital version. However, as you might expect, the interview is in Italian. Below, you will find our rough English translation of it.

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Erica: What was the idea that started it all?

It was not really an idea that started it all—it was an experience. A frustrating experience. In fact, it was our joint frustration with the dreadful workplaces we were working in characterized by bureaucracy, inertia, and a lack of motivation.

In short, we were frustrated with the traditional, outdated approaches to work. We knew there had to be a better way. So, in January 2016, we decided to leave our frustrating corporate jobs behind and started to travel around the globe to visit the world’s most inspiring pioneers to learn what they do differently to make work more fun.

We put together a so-called Bucket List of these pioneers for us to visit in person. And since the day we quit our jobs, we’ve been checking off our Bucket List by visiting them. We learn from them, share their insights, and try to inspire others to change for the better and create a more inspiring workplace. We do all those things through our platform, Corporate Rebels, to fight today’s disengaging workplaces—and make work more fun.

Erica: Up until now, who is the pioneer or the company that struck you the most and why?

It is hard to pick one out of the more than 150 pioneers we have visited so far. This includes organizations, companies, entrepreneurs, academics, and business leaders who all challenge the status quo of frustrating workplaces. But I can list a few of the many highlights.

Visiting the folks at Patagonia was very inspiring. Not only because we went surfing with them in California but because everything in the company revolves around their mission: “We’re in business to save our home planet.”

Closer to home, we visited the Dutch healthcare provider Buurtzorg that proves you can organize thousands of people without having any middle manager in the organization.

In China, we visited Haier, a large manufacturing company of white goods that shows that everyone can be an entrepreneur by basically dividing their company of 70,000 people into 4,000 separate start-ups.

In between, we visited all kinds of inspiring entrepreneurs and thinkers like Ricardo Semler, Daniel Pink, and the late Dee Hock. But I will stop here, as I can keep going on for some time…

“What is important to us is the fact that we want to learn what works in practice. Not just the theory. Instead, we want to see, hear, and experience what organizations do in real life; we want to discover and understand their day-to-day practices.”

Erica: Do you think the pandemic had an impact on companies, serving as a sort of trigger for improving and becoming more progressive, or do you think most of the workplaces are still “broken”?

The pandemic has shifted the conversation about our workplaces significantly. For example, if we wrote or talked about remote work before the pandemic, many people would respond with the typical answer, “It is nice that it works over there, but this will never work in our company because of [include any random excuse].”

Now, this attitude seems to have changed. Most now know that people can work just fine from home and that most colleagues can be trusted and handle freedom responsibly, even if they are not always present in a workplace full of rules. But unfortunately, it had to take a global crisis to realize this simple point.

So, yes, the pandemic has triggered people to think differently about this part of work. Although we now see some signs of some workplaces reversing this trend.

Moreover, there are still a lot of other things that are fundamentally broken at most traditional workplaces.

For example, imagine how your organization would look if it focused more on its purpose and values and less on maximizing profit. If it was structured like a network of autonomous teams instead of a hierarchical pyramid. If it decentralized authority to the frontline as much as possible instead of centralizing it to the big bosses.

If it was flexible, agile, adaptive, and open to experimentation, instead of relying on predicting the future and trying to budget the year ahead. If it shared information transparently with everyone by default, instead of keeping things secret by default.

And if it focused on people developing their talents instead of forcing them to stick to their job descriptions.

Wouldn’t that make your work more fun?

Erica: These past few years were complicated for everyone, but you did not remain idle and even launched an Academy. How important is the learning process to you?

The learning process is very important for us. It is the main reason that we visit all these pioneers to make sure we can learn how they actively engage their workforce. We want to learn what other people already have figured out.

What is important to us is the fact that we want to learn what works in practice. Not just the theory. Instead, we want to see, hear, and experience what organizations do in real life; we want to discover and understand their day-to-day practices.

And we want to spread our learnings with others, so people can also learn how to make their own organizations more progressive. That is why we launched our Academy during the pandemic.

We launched the Academy so people can learn from the pioneers, other community members, and us.

Because if you want to reinvent your workplace, you do not constantly have to reinvent the wheel yourself. There is a whole community out there that can help you and your organization in your quest to become a better workplace.

Research has already shown for years that, in the end, all people are motivated by the same things at work. They want to be autonomous, experience a sense of purpose, and develop themselves.
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Erica: Do you think a lack of education can generate boring workplaces and directive leaders? Or are there other factors involved?

I think it is actually the opposite. The entrepreneurs that have founded the most pioneering firms often have no management education. So, instead of relying on a fancy MBA title, they figured out all things related to management themselves. They often did so by applying common-sense principles and a no-jargon management style.

Most importantly, most of them seem to be guided by one fundamental principle. That is, they believe that most people are inherently good. They believe that most people can be trusted and that most people take initiative and accountability if you give them the opportunity to do so.

As a result, they treat their people as adults in the workplace, and they believe that this makes their organizations perform better than their more traditional competitors.

Because most of these traditional competitors rely on more traditional management thinking. And that thinking is based on a completely different belief—a belief that is grounded in the idea that most people cannot be trusted, require orders to start working, and need to be controlled and micromanaged to perform well.

As a result, most traditional workplaces treat people as either kids or as disposable assets. It is no wonder that most people are so disengaged at work.

That’s also directly the reason why we so badly need a revolution in how we think about work.

Erica: You have already talked about H-Farm in your blog. Is there any other Italian company you are going to visit soon or a specific Italian pioneer you want to meet, and why?

We love visiting Italy, but unfortunately, there are no current plans to visit Italy soon.

However, there is one Italian pioneer we would love to visit to learn more from: Massimo Bottura, the chef patron of Osteria Francescana.

In fact, he is very high on our wish list. We would jump on the plane tomorrow if he would open the doors to us and explain to us how he is able to build a workplace that keeps encouraging rebelliousness over the years and keeps fighting against food waste and for a more equitable and sustainable food industry.

Erica: In Italy, we struggle to change our point of view on failure, as it is strongly attached to defeat and blame. Is there anything we can do to change that, particularly for younger generations that are starting their careers or finding their way?

Let me be clear here, failing is not fun. It absolutely sucks. For everyone.

Still, it is important to try to embrace failure instead of avoiding it. Because without failing we can never progress.

That is why most pioneers create an environment where it is safe to experiment, try new things, fail, and learn from failure. Doing this last part is often done by celebrating and sharing the lessons learned from failures.

Pioneering organizations tend to create a particular rhythm (weekly, monthly, or quarterly) of meetings where people are invited to share with their colleagues not only their biggest achievements but also their biggest failures.

They create a safe environment where people are invited to tell their colleagues why they failed, what they think went right and wrong, what important insight they gained along the way, and what others can learn from that.

Some pioneers then go even as far as to celebrate these lessons learned by toasting a glass of champagne—or prosecco, in your case.

So, for younger and older generations, I would suggest trying to find a workplace where they create a psychologically safe workplace.

Erica: Speaking of younger generations: what do you think companies need to do to make themselves attractive to younger talents—and to keep the ones they already have—and what should they avoid?

I don’t think this is only about the younger generation. We should make work more attractive to all people—to the younger generations, but just as much to the older generations.

Research has already shown for years that, in the end, all people are motivated by the same things at work. They want to be autonomous, experience a sense of purpose, and develop themselves.

For that reason, organizations would be wise to keep or introduce organizational practices which promote those things—practices that enable people to have autonomy while also bearing the responsibility and accountability for that freedom. Practices that enable people to experience a sense of purpose by being aware of how their work contributes, on a daily basis, to the bigger mission of the organization. And practices that enable people to develop and make use of their talents.

Obviously, organizations would be wise to also, if possible, get rid of the practices that don’t promote autonomy, purpose, and mastery.

As a result, these companies boast higher engagement, higher productivity, lower absenteeism, higher salaries, and more profit.
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Erica: What do you see in Corporate Rebels' future?

We always aim to create more impact by learning, exploring, and inspiring.

We will keep doing this by discovering new workplace pioneers, visiting them, and sharing their learnings. This is the most important thing we will keep doing in the near and long-term.

We are also growing our team and growing our Academy. The community of our Academy currently consists of hundreds of members but will grow to thousands in the future.

Moreover, last year, we launched our most ambitious venture so far–Krisos, a venture aimed at facilitating a transition towards more humane organizations.

With this venture, we buy struggling SME businesses and radically transform them into more engaging workplaces by reducing hierarchy, implementing self-managing, creating more equality, introducing radical transparency, sharing profits, and distributing decision-making.

As a result, these companies boast higher engagement, higher productivity, lower absenteeism, higher salaries, and more profit.

After the transformations, we aim to sell the companies either as co-ops to the employees or move them into a steward-ownership structure to ensure sustainability, independence, and long-term purpose.

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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