Making Work Fun
Hi, I'm Joe Cahill, I’m the Chief Customer Officer for Project Management Institute. PMI is the professional society for project professionals and changemakers.
Today's podcast focuses on two changemakers who disrupted their own professional paths to pursue their passion to make work fun. Listen to their story and explore how they are enabling transformational change and helping to reshape the future of work.
Hello everyone, and thanks for joining us for this Center Stage podcast. I'm Steve Townsend, PMI’s Networks Engagement Facilitator, sitting in for Joe Cahill.
There's a lot of talk about the organization of the future, from flat structures to accountable teams, enabling leadership, high productivity and engaged employees. Is that the future, or is it now? We are going to explore that question and others about the future of work and making work fun with today's guests.
Pim de Morree and Joost Minnaar co-founded Corporate Rebels, whose mission is to make work more fun by identifying companies that have innovated how to engage people with their work to produce stronger result. They've written the book “Corporate Rebels: Make Work More Fun.”
We're joined today by Pim de Morree. Pim’s educational background is in industrial engineering. And after working three years in a corporate job, he became frustrated with the outdated working practices that challenge productivity, creativity and performance. With his partner Joost, he set off to research, write about and share knowledge of organizations that make work fun.
Pim, thank you so much for joining us today. I reached out to my network and I said, “Who should we be talking to about the future of work?” and your name came up more than once, so I really appreciate this opportunity to talk to you today.
PIM DE MORREE:
Thanks a lot for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Now you and Joost refer to yourself as rebels who quit your corporate jobs in workplaces that you felt were bureaucratic and uninspiring. Can you set the scene for our listeners back in 2016. What industries and sectors were you working in, and what about that prompted you to throw caution to the wind.
Yeah, so going five years back in time, it's a completely different time that we were then living in, and the jobs we were having back then were completely different to what we're doing now. As you mentioned, I studied industrial engineering, and after I graduated, I started working for a large company, a Dutch company.
I'm from the Netherlands, and was working for this Dutch company that's making baggage handling systems for airports, and it perfectly fits with what I studied for. So I was actually doing the thing I loved, but the while the work itself was quite interesting and I really enjoyed that, but the way the company was structured, the way the work was organized, was actually getting in the way of me truly enjoying my work.
And Joost had exactly the same experience. We've been friends from a very young age, and known each other from high school, and we both worked in completely different fields. Joost studied nanotechnology. He started to work for big German company, but lived in Barcelona for that job, really doing the really nerdy stuff, like really nanotechnology stuff they were doing in the laboratories there.
And he loved that work as well. He had been trained for it, studied for it for a very long time, and then started to work in these labs which he thoroughly enjoyed. The problem however once again was not so much with the work itself, but with the work environment.
And so the fact that there were bosses telling him what to do, the same as I experienced. The fact that there was no freedom to, for example, set your own working hours, or determine your own working location. Decision making was slow and frustrating and unclear and all kinds of other things that a lot of people will probably recognize from their own work environment. And we got completely fed up with it.
So we decided to quit these jobs, to instead start looking for companies that are doing things differently. To research how work can actually be made more fun for more people around the world because, unfortunately, it wasn't just a problem that we experienced personally, but it's a problem that a lot of people around the world are experiencing, that they're simply not enjoying the work that they're doing.
With Corporate Rebels we set out to make a change in that and to look for companies, but also to learn from academics and entrepreneurs and companies that have reinvented their ways of working, and show that it's not just more fun to work in these different types of structures, but also that it's much more rewarding for the company itself.
Yeah, I can understand that I support PMIs Knowledge Initiative and we’ve done some research on the degree to which organizations leverage people's knowledge and we came across a study that indicated that most people felt that organizations only used about 30-40% of the knowledge that they could contribute to the organization. So to your point, people feel that they have a lot more that they can deliver, but organizations aren't really tapping that.
So let's talk a little bit about your bucket list of companies that are changing that status quo. Tell us a little bit about how did you identify these organizations and what were some of the criteria for inclusion in this list.
To give a little bit of background, as I mentioned we studied in completely different fields, so we had no clue how to work, or how to organize work, in a better way. So we had to start from scratch. We made a list of pioneers around the world that we wanted to learn from, to understand how work could be done in a different and better way.
At first this was just the first names that came to mind, so we knew that Google was trying some innovative things. We knew that Spotify apparently had an alternative way of working, that was interesting to research in more detail. We had heard of much more radical examples, like we read a book called “Maverick!” - still one of the best books I've read on the topic by Ricardo Semler - how he transformed his Brazilian manufacturing company into an extremely liberated workplace.
So, it really started from just having a conversation thinking about the ones that we wanted to research in more detail. And we added them to this list, we call it a bucket list because it's kind of a list of pioneers we wanted to research before we would die to understand how can we actually make work better. So, that's how it started and over time it grew. The more we learned about companies that were challenging the status quo, the more we added them to that list.
There's not really fixed criteria. The main criteria actually is, do we get excited about what they are doing. Do we feel we want to go there to actually visit these workplaces to research them in more detail? And so over time, the list has grown to about 250 pioneers, of which we visited about 150 at the moment. So, it's a continuous process and we continue to add or remove people and organizations from the list based on what we learn over time.
It's really a personal learning journey based on, do these companies do something specific that we would love to learn from in order to share with the rest of the world to show them work can be organized quite differently than what we're used to.
PMI is a global organization and we've really tried to bring in that global perspective, that innovation and creativity are occurring in different places around the world. I know you mentioned that you identify a company in Brazil. Can you identify some of the other countries where you identified companies?
Yeah, so all over the world actually. We've been to pioneering organizations in China, in Australia, all over Europe, North and South America. So it's spread nicely around the globe, and our emphasis may be a little bit more in Western Europe because that's where we live, so it's easier to go to those organizations. But over the past five years we've traveled to all continents to research these companies.
Very cool. So what surprised you most when you started talking to organizations about their practices?
I knew that work wasn't really working, not for us and not from other people around the world. In talking to family and friends, a lot of us know that not a lot of people are actually engaged or truly engaged at work. So we knew that the problem was there but we didn't know that the solution was also out there that clearly.
So the fact that these organizations are really challenging the status quo, and not just trying it but also showing that it's really successful to work in a different way, that it's much more fits for today's environment. That was really astonishing to me…
And it's not like every organization comes up with this completely new idea on how to do that, but it's a lot of common sense in how these organizations work by, for example, getting rid of lots of hierarchy that get in the way of people doing their job. By, for example, creating much more freedom and giving employees much more trust. Or splitting up those big traditional organizational structures into more entrepreneurial teams.
To me it was very surprising that it sounds very logical to do it like that. And that over and over in all those different places around the world you see similar approaches to making work more fun and making work better.
So to that point, are you seeing that more technology organizations are creating these kinds of innovative organizations, or are you seeing traditional organizations also shift the way in which they're organizing work and work structures within their groups.
Interestingly, if we talk about pioneering organizations, we tend to look a lot at Silicon Valley. So we tend to look at Tesla and Apple and Google and Netflix and these organizations, and yes, they're doing interesting things, but I think more in terms of their business models and the scale and how easily they seem to be able to achieve that.
But the more interesting ways of working are actually not in those hip Silicon Valley startups, but they're much more in very traditional environments where you wouldn't expect such thing to happen or to even be possible. So we have great examples of organizations that are in healthcare, or diehard manufacturing companies, or government organizations that have reduced their hierarchies to an extreme extent, that have created extremely flat organizations where people have lots of freedom and lots of decision-making power themselves.
I think we tend to look a lot at those usual suspects, but I think it's much more important to look at the more traditional environments because in the end, still most of the companies around the world are in a more traditional environment than these technology companies.
So you’re corporate rebels and mythbusters because you're busting the myth that only new organizations or startups or tech companies can adopt different ways of working. I think that's a real insight that a lot of our listeners are going to latch on to.
And let me ask, there's also this concept of, particularly in developing nations, of being able to leapfrog - to learn from the experience of those that have kind of been there, done that to create organizational structures that don't have those legacy systems. For the organizations that you've looked at in developing parts of the world, are you seeing that leapfrogging effect?
In the Western world, we have these large conglomerates, these really big companies that are organized extremely traditionally, and they feel that there's not really a different way to operate their organizations, which is far from the truth.
I think the beauty of it is, if you don't have… if your society is not yet developed to that extent, and if you have a lot of grassroots organizations, I think that that is a good starting point and a better starting point than having these huge traditional structures in place already.
Because, and I think this is important to understand, what might be a new way of working for many companies is not a new thing that we as human beings have to learn. So, the fact that people take responsibility, that people can self organize and self manage, the fact that people can make their own decisions and take on a lot of responsibility... That's nothing new.
In our personal lives, we do this all the time - when educating children, when buying a house. Nobody decides that we should do that, nobody tells us how to do that, but we still do it and we organize based on motivation and passion and feeling of responsibility.
But in traditional organizations, that idea that we can do that is kind of taken apart or hidden between or behind all of those fixed structures. Also for more developing countries or regions in the world, what you do in a sense by creating these new types of structures, is tapping into the human side of people, giving them freedom, motivating them and allowing them to use that motivation in order to take on responsibilities and make decisions very autonomously.
So, I think it's important to understand that it's not something radically new that we have to learn. It's just something we have to unlearn a lot in the way we organize in traditional companies.
Yeah, and that's an interesting philosophy because as I was looking at the eight trends that you identified that reflect forward-thinking firms, and hearing you talk about the diversity - so you've talked about different industries, you've talked about different levels of organizational maturity in terms of age of the organization, different geographies… How did you come up with these eight trends with such a diverse representation of different types of organizations?
Because the way that they approach it is very similar in many of these companies. As you mentioned, there's a huge variety in the types of companies that we've been researching, so you have small companies with maybe five or 10 or 20 people working them. But we've also researched very large organizations, up to 80,000 employees, that work in very self-managed ways.
And I think the interesting thing there is that the approaches are very similar. So it's not…. the practices are not the same in every single company, but the principles behind it, the eight trends that we talk about, are very similar in these organizations.
Maybe it's good to name just a few, but one of them for example is moving away from the traditional hierarchical structures and forming instead into a network of self-managing teams, where you reduce all the layers of hierarchy that you would normally have in a traditional company. Or for example a focus on purpose and values and not so much on profit and shareholder value. Or another one is moving away from a place where it's all about secrecy and keeping information exclusively available in certain parts of the organization, and instead creating radical transparency by opening up all kinds of information to people inside the organization.
Yeah, that's interesting because PMI has been evolving its standards, for example, to more of a principle-based focus, so that you create guardrails that kind of keep people moving in the right direction, but you also give them some flexibility to be able to adapt to their particular circumstances, to their industry, to their customers, etc.
So that concept of principles, I really like that. And there's one principle that you identify that I have to call out because the concept of ‘from profit to purpose and values’ is really what project-based organizations are all about, because they provide this sense of shared mission, even as people are working on separate project teams to deliver results for customers.
So tell us a little bit about the evidence that you found pointing towards a trend in that direction - organizations moving from profit to purpose and values.
Yeah, I think this is an important one and we're seeing that now all around the world, and I think maybe even the pandemic has put our traditional practices under a magnifying glass. So we are now seeing that the way many companies are focused on the short term, I think we're seeing that that doesn't really work for many companies and for sure it doesn't work for society at large.
That's why many of the organizations that are pioneering, they are looking at organizations in a different way and they don't believe that organizations exist to make money. They believe that organizations exist for something bigger and more important than that.
So they believe organizations should have meaning, should have a purpose, and making money, sure, is extremely important for any organization, because it helps you to make new investments, to therefore grow your impact and also simply just to stay alive. But it's not the main focus of these organizations, it's not why they are there.
And so, interestingly, if you look at that, if organizations focus more strongly on their purpose and not so much on the short-term profits, they actually perform better, not just in the short term but also in the long term. So they have much higher life expectancy as an organization, they have much more productivity and profits. This has been proven time and time again.
I think it's more important that companies actually start adopting these ideas and these mindsets in order to change the way companies work, and in order to change society for the better.
Yeah, I think the pandemic really showed how that can play out in organizations. We've been watching the trends and whatnot and there have been some organizations that have completely pivoted their business model, recognizing that if they did things differently, if they organized a bit differently, if they engage their teams, they could pivot in a way that would deliver value to the community which was struggling with certain elements, whether it was, I can't get access to food or I can't get access to personal protective equipment. If we can pivot, then we can meet a broader need during this really turbulent time.
That's the interesting thing, right? The pandemic is very interesting if you look at new ways of working, because before the pandemic, most companies said, well, it's unable for our people to work from home. Our complete company will come to a stop and productivity will drop so much that we will probably go backwards. This was like the first response you got when you talked about remote work or working from a home office.
The pandemic has perfectly shown that for most companies it still works really well, maybe even better if people work from home. So let's see what happens when they start working in these more hybrid models where people come to the office when they want and need, and otherwise work from home and be more focused and be more productive there.
So over just a period of maybe 12 to 18 months, a lot of companies have learned that one element of new ways of working, remote work, might actually be beneficial to them. So therefore we also see quite a lot of interest now from companies to also move beyond just the remote work and look also at how can we distribute decision making, how we can we maybe work in less hierarchical structures, how can we give people even more freedom in how they make their decisions.
Given that organizations are now looking at whatever the new normal is, or the path forward is, how is that changing your conversation with some of the organizations that you're exploring?
The interesting thing about these pioneering organizations is that they're always on the lookout for improving their way of working. So it's not really like they've created this new structure, this new way of working that then perfectly is fit for the future, whatever happens in that future. It’s not a fixed state that they end up in, so they're constantly challenging themselves, finding ways to work even better in a more engaging way than they were before. So it's a continuous exploration, actually, of trying to do things in a better way.
Right, and along those lines, PMI is exploring things that are impacting the future of work. For example, in the project management space, people are developing artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to take over some aspects of project management functions, and we're looking at other trends like that.
What are some of the trends that you are looking at, that may be further out on the horizon?
Yeah, let me maybe give one example to make it really tangible. One of the most pioneering organizations we visited and we've been researching over the past five years is a Chinese manufacturing company called Haier. They're the largest white goods manufacturer in the world and we're truly astonished by how they've transformed their organization from a very traditional hierarchical model into an extremely entrepreneurial network of teams.
The story starts about 15 years ago when the CEO Zhang Ruimin feels that the way of working that the company back then has, is getting in the way of doing good business. So are too slow, decisions aren't made properly. There's a lot of bureaucracy that get people caught in their ways of working, and nothing really happens, there's not a lot of innovation, etc, etc. So, probably some frustrations that a lot of people recognize.
And they felt, okay, we need to do something different, so if we want to be successful in the future as a company, we need to get rid of those traditional structures and we need to get rid of that bureaucracy. So they split up that big organization that employs 80,000 people, and they split up that one big organization into more than 4,000 what they call micro enterprises.
So these become really small companies, mostly 10 to 15 people run one of those smaller companies, and they act as a network of startups. So they have internal contracting mechanisms, and therefore there's not a lot of hierarchy needed because technology allows these teams to create alignment, to collaborate, to make easy contracts with one another.
So instead of having this whole traditional structure with a lot of middle management layers that are doing the alignment of work and coordination of work, now you have technology taking care of that part.
Yeah and I think you also raise a point that we've been emphasizing with our members within PMI, and that's the concept of dynamic learning capabilities, particularly if you're working in an environment that either leverages technology or will be impacted by technology. So instead of thinking that, okay, I know blockchain because I know what it is now, understanding that that technology is going to evolve and your learning capabilities need to continue to evolve as that technology does. So it's not a one and done, as they say.
No, no, and the interesting thing is, what I think makes these companies so successful in doing that is to allow people to pursue their passions. And so we did a big research study on these eight trends, so how present are these eight trends in today's average organizations.
So we've seen that one of the trends that we talk about, is move from job descriptions and job titles, into a new situation where you focus much more on talents and mastery. So what do people like to do and how can we give them the opportunity to continuously develop that.
The interesting thing about it is that just 33% of the people in that research felt that they could use their main talent in their day to day work. So 67% of the people feel they cannot use their main talents in their day to day work, which is painful for those people and their motivation, but also painful for organizations because apparently we're not tapping into the potential and the talent of people working in our companies.
So, these progressive organizations focus on what is it that you like to do as an individual, what do you get excited about and how can we give you the opportunity and the freedom to develop those skills along the way. And when you give people the opportunity to follow their passion, you don't need to tell them, well now you have to learn this or follow this career path.
You can just leave it up to people because they can follow their passions and it will take them in various places that you cannot predict upfront, but it will probably lead to good things. And they're not just learning one single technology and then kind of holding onto that for the sake of their career, but they continuously try to develop because they simply love the subjects or love the technology that they like to dive into.
So, this continuous exploration I think can only be possible if you actually give people the freedom to find and develop their talents.
So let me ask you, because you mentioned at the start of the podcast that the list is constantly changing. That means that some companies fall off. What causes that shift from companies being innovative and kind of leading the way forward, and they either stall or fall off the rails. What happens?
It's important to separate two things. So on the one hand the bucket list is a list of companies that we want to research. If we don't think they're doing interesting things anymore then we just take them off the list because we want to research other companies in that time.
But there are still companies that are falling back into more traditional ways of working, like companies that have been completely self managing, for example, when ownership changes, they go back into more traditional structures because the new owner might not understand this new way of working and might also not see the benefits, and then goes back into more traditional work environment. So change of ownership could be one.
A crisis could be another one, because in times of crisis, people and some organizations feel they need to regain control, or kind of have the reflex to go back into more traditional approaches that are maybe more proven they feel.
As we get ready to close, I want to shift a little bit to, we have stakeholders out there who are interested in driving change. They may feel that they're trapped in bureaucratic cultures right now. What can these individuals do to leverage your insights in their organizations?
Yeah, so, first of all, let me clarify that you don't have to be the CEO to make a change like this happen. Sure it's easier, you have more power, you can change bigger things from the very start. But we've seen many companies transform from the bottom up or from somewhere in between, where a manager or a department leader decides to do things differently, or project leaders feel that the way of working in their project is going to be completely different and more progressive than in other parts of the organization.
And there's a lot of tools and practices and ways of working and things out there already that people can explore. When you go to our blog, corporaterebels.com, if you don't have anything to do for the next two years, there's a lot of free content to learn about these pioneers and their practices and their transformation strategies.
We've also recently launched an online academy where we put people that want to learn about new ways of working in direct contact with pioneers that have been doing it for years or sometimes even decades, to learn from them directly through lots of online courses.
So I think there's more and more tools available out there these days, and then it comes down to learning about these practices, these new ways of working, and then experimenting a hell of a lot with it to try to make it fit to your work environment.
So PMI also has a large population of younger professionals who are maybe still in school or just starting out in their careers, and who are going to work in some of these more traditional organizations. What advice would you offer them?
For young people, it's important that they have a lot of opportunities to make changes. Because of their fresh perspective, they're most of the time also not kind of frustrated, first of all, which I think is a great start when you want to transform organizations, to not feel that that much frustration. But also to not too easily conform to certain standards.
So to come in with a fresh perspective, to use your common sense to try to change things for the better. For example, if you're continuously in meetings all day, for some people that might already be their normal situation because they've experienced it for 10, 20 or 30 years. If you're a newcomer, you're probably wondering why the hell are we doing this, and then looking for new solutions and new approaches to change that for the better. I think young people have a very powerful position in changing that.
Also simply because they are the talents of the future and if companies want to attract them, if they are very clear about what it is that they want from an organization and from an employer, they can make big changes in that as well.
So, I would once again have the same advice. Educate yourself around new ways of working to understand what can actually be done different to work better and create more engaging, more fun work environments. And then start experimenting, maybe even on a very small scale, but then over time you will see that you will gain or get success very quickly, and then try to scale up the change that you're trying to make.
So I'd like to close this on a personal note. I've watched several of the video presentations that you and Joost have done, and you talk about the fact that when you left your jobs, people were like, “Are you crazy? What are you doing?” Was it worth it, and if so, why?
Yeah, it was the best. It sounds a bit lame but it was the best decision ever. Simply because we decided to not conform to that frustrating status quo, and we couldn't picture ourselves working there for 40 more years.
And the interesting thing about it nowadays we experienced freedom, autonomy, entrepreneurship in our own company, so all of these things that we were missing before, we can that we now have the opportunity to do that. Also with a topic that we thoroughly enjoy and are really passionate about.
Back then it definitely sounded like a stupid idea. We quit our jobs, we had no money except for a bit of savings that would maybe last six to 12 months. We had no idea of what kind of business model we would have. We just wanted to research these companies and share with the world what we learn, and just hope that something cool will come out of it.
I think that definitely worked. So, now, it sounds like the best decision ever. Back then that definitely wasn't the case, but over time it has evolved into something really cool where we can follow our passion and our talent and do exactly those things that we see in those pioneering organizations as well.
Pim de Morree, thank you very much for sharing your expertise and insight with our Center Stage audience today, and for our Center Stage audience, I want to thank you for continuing to engage with us in this exploration of the future of work. I'm Steve Townsend, PMI Networks Engagement Facilitator, and it's been my pleasure to sit in for Joe Cahill today. Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Hi, this is Joe Cahill, again, to wrap up the podcast. So Pim’s interview highlighted some key points that I want to re-emphasize because they're really important.
Number one here: Anyone can enable change, from people just entering the workforce to innovators at the staff level.
Two: Innovation and change in structures and ways of working are happening everywhere around the globe and in all types of organizations, including longtime traditional organizations, as well as startups.
Number three: The future of work, whether it's changing organizational structures, the cultures or the ways of working themselves, they require all of us to embrace continuous learning. That also means we have to unlearn, or let go of things that made us successful in the past because those factors may actually hold us back from ensuring our future relevance.
I hope that you enjoyed this Center Stage podcast, and that you will continue exploring the future of work with us.