Progressive organisations: how to foster innovation through employee autonomy

Written by Jaka Kladnik, Nina Pozderec – experts for progressive transformations

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Technology is developing quicklier than we can adopt it, the stakes are high and circumstances change in a day. Being a manager in this ambiguous world is challenging. A lot is expected from managers – you have to be a leader not a boss, an expert, mediator, decider, visionaire, strategists and of course you have to have everything under control. It’s about finding balance between numerous roles and challenges every single day. Employee engagement is lowering, and the pressure to please and retain employees is higher than ever since the competition is global. Being a manager at this time can be very stressful and exhausting. But what if things could be different? 

Progressive organisations work in a different way, they see themselves as a living organism that is naturally evolving, adapting and constantly learning. Responsibility for the company’s performance is not centralised, but is distributed among the employees. The power lies within the teams and not the individuals. Organisation is structured as a network of interconnected self-managed teams in a way that every employee is responsible for their own performance, they are autonomous in the way they deliver and the majority of everyday decision making is done by them. Managers of course still exist inside the progressive organisations, but their role is different. They don’t micromanage or control employees – there are alternative mechanisms for that – but are problem solvers, strategic coordinators, leaders and listeners.

Progressive organisations use these principles in order to develop and obtain high levels of performance, employee engagement, customer satisfaction and ultimately financial success (which is not the goal, but rather a side product).

It all sounds like a utopia, so here are a two examples of a very successful progressive companies:

  1. Buurtzorg

Buurtzorg is one of the pioneers in progressive organisations.The company provides community healthcare services. Jos the Block and others founded the company in 2006 because of a growing frustration about the way community healthcare was delivered. It was fractured, patients were taken care of by several different nurses and nurses felt controlled and robbed of their true purpose. In order to bring the human approach back to community healthcare, the company’s purpose is to help clients as a whole person and let the nurses decide how they can be the most helpful to the patient. Buurtzorg is currently employing around 15.000 employees. Their structure consists of:

a) Around 900 self-managed teams of nurses

b) HQ staff of around 50 employees

c) 20 coaches

d) 2 directors

e) 0 managers

The company doesn’t have an HR department, self-managed teams are responsible for recruiting and hiring new candidates. Their average employee satisfaction rate is 9/10 and the rate of sick days is 50% compared to other companies in the same industry. Patients in care of Buurtzorg are 33% less likely to be admitted to the hospital and if they are, they stay for a shorter time in comparison to patients that are taken care of by other providers. They also don’t have a marketing department, but are known worldwide. The company is also very financially successful, it received many awards for the fastest growing company in the Netherlands between the years 2008 and 2013.

  1. Viisi

Viisi is a Dutch Mortgage advice chain, founded in 2010 during the global financial crisis. Around 50 employees work in a self-organised way in a highly regulated industry. They believe in transparency of every information that does not harm the company or their people. Viisi has a philosophy of ‘People First, Customers Second, Shareholders last’ and a golden rule that says “Treat others like you would like to be treated”. Viisi’s principle means that they operate with a clear hierarchy of the firm’s stakeholders:

1. Employees are first — Viisionairs. If employees are fully motivated, engaged and work in a way that they support the higher purpose of the company, the rest will follow automatically.

2. Clients come second — fulfilled and engaged employees will do the best they can to make customers happy.

3. Third are the shareholders— in order to build long-term impact financial health is crucial.

The company recently won an award for best European Workplace for small companies and has also been frequently awarded Best workplace of the Netherlands in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Their average score of customer satisfaction is 9.8 out of 10 (Trustpilot and Google source) and their yearly volume is around 1 billion euros. 

The pandemic was an eye opener for a lot of employees – how they contributed to the world, are they living their purpose, what they truly value. We talk about the “great resignation” and the revolution that is happening in the world of work. Progressive organisations are the future – they are committed to enabling employees to achieve their potential through self-managed teams that are close to customers and to make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean everyone is happy and gets along all the time. There is still conflict, perhaps even more than in the ordinary organisations, because everyone can speak up, tell what they think and contribute to the company’s goals. And that is what fosters creativity, innovation and adaptability – employees, who can be autonomous, responsible, transparent, foster open communication  and make mistakes. It is the organization’s obligation to create such organisational culture and manager’s job to obtain it in the best way possible. 

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