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A Human Perspective is a Surprisingly Useful Management Principle

17. Dec 2021

New and more liberated organizational models have been on the agenda for some time, but few organizations have taken the step of rethinking their entire management structure. Danish Design Center has made the attempt – with surprising results, according to CEO Christian Bason and COO Sune Knudsen

Long reads

Reinventing DDC: We Believe in People

In the summer of 2020, we launched our biggest organizational experiment to date; rethinking the DDC itself with a human perspective as the key management principle. Our experiment shows many promising results, but also raises several new questions. For instance, how do we make important decisions? How should top management adapt? And how do we foster communities?

In a series of articles originally published in Mandag Morgen in the summer of 2021, we evaluated and revised our process of restructuring our organization.

  1. Read the first article here
  2. Read the second article here
  3. Read the third article here

By Sune Knudsen and Christian Bason

Last year, the Danish Design Center’s management decided to change its organizational structure as part of a major strategic shift.

As an independent foundation with a public purpose – to create innovation and sustainable growth through the creativity and capabilities of designers – we are constantly looking for better ways to work. If we manage to build an even more value-creating organization, we will also be able to make a greater impact globally.  

We delved into recent management theories and devoured books like Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations” and Brian Robertson’s “Holacracy”.

We consulted with several ambitious management consultants, and we listened to other organizations in Denmark and abroad to gain insight. 

And then we took the leap.

During a staff seminar, we introduced the idea of rethinking our organization completely and with the help of half a hundred colleagues, we developed a set of principles for how to proceed.

A human perspective as a management tool

We have participated in many management and organizational development courses, and inevitably you are left with a set of values and new organizational structures.

However, during our first conversation with our colleagues, another perspective emerged: our view of humanity. That is, how do we answer the question: What do we believe about humans?

As a result, the following principles emerged, namely that we believe humans:

  • Thrive and work best in an environment of trust and recognition
  • Wish to create positive change
  • Flourish in an environment of influence and co-determination
  • Can and will take responsibility for their tasks
  • Thrive when they are challenged and given opportunities to develop

This view of human beings quickly became our organizational principle – the only basis for management and governance that we needed.

We return to these sentences again and again because they provide us with the answers to almost every problem we might face. We see far-reaching implications for the way we work, both when implementing strategy and in our daily work activities.

”The project manager's role has evolved from being a subordinate function in the department to probably one of the most important functions in the organization”

Christian Bason and Sune Knudsen

CEO and COO, DDC

Value creation at the heart of a democratic organization

Leading an organization according to a particular view of humans has had far-reaching consequences for us. First and foremost, it has democratized our organization. Our human perspective has inevitably led us to the following decisions:

  • Everyone can choose their own personal leader
  • In the long run, everyone can serve as a leader for others
  • Instead of permanent departments or teams, we have task-specific project teams
  • Everyone is free to choose the professional areas in which they wish to participate and develop.

The fact that we have defined projects as the main way we work and create value for our partners has really meant a lot. Therefore, we have dissolved permanent organizational units and replaced them with project teams.

Thus, the project manager’s role has evolved from being a subordinate function in the department to probably one of the most important functions in the organization.

Choosing your own leader has led to a change in the organization, enabling the creation of new connections. It also means that the role we previously held as top management has changed to a support function.

We ask ourselves what it takes to ensure the success of our colleagues. What systems should be available to assist them in their daily lives and which ones should be avoided? How can we enable our colleagues to collaborate across various issues and create new connections?

Moreover, how do we communicate our vision and direction in a way that creates motivation, enthusiasm, and a sense of purpose for all?

Effects of the experiment

Just six months after we started the experiment, it becomes evident that not only have our roles changed significantly, but the behavior of the organization has changed as well.

Not all problems have been resolved, but we have found new ways to solve them. For example:

Problems are solved collaboratively and very close to the task at hand. In the past, colleagues would go to their manager, and the manager would often go further up the organization to get an answer to a problem. Today, we practice what we call “the revolving door”, where colleagues are asked to really attempt to solve the challenge bilaterally and directly with their colleague, not through a management hierarchy. Only when an issue cannot be solved “locally” or through sparring and mentoring from others, can it be taken further up.

The process of staffing projects has become fluid and organic. Previously, choosing which resources – that is, people – should be assigned to accomplish a particular task was often a painful administrative struggle. Moving people around and changing project staffing took up a lot of time. Today, the discussion about who works on which tasks is much more of a conversation between colleagues.

Our decision-making process has become faster and more agile. Many decisions used to be discussed in management meetings and forums; today, they are made close to the task.

Lastly, our productivity appears to have increased. The pandemic may also be contributing to this as there has been more work from home and thus less transport, as well as fewer trips and reduced project costs. However, we are experiencing an even higher level of responsibility, cooperation, and focus, since our colleagues are responsible for ensuring the success of the projects in the framework we have created. That is fantastic to see.

The importance of a guardian

So, what is the key to leading an organization from a human point of view? 

On the one hand, it is crucial that everyone knows, shares, and reflects continuously on the common principles. It has been our experience that a “guardian” can play a very important role.

This means that there is a human being – in our case, our COO Sune – who cares about the principles and acts as our collective conscience when they are forgotten. It was discussed, for example, whether all colleagues, even very young new employees, should have the opportunity to serve as managers in the long run.

Christian, the CEO, was sceptical. However, if we believe in our human perspective, colleagues will probably have to decide for themselves if they want to be led by a recent graduate. Eventually, the organization will regulate itself. 

Listen to the organization’s voice

Ultimately, this organization is meant to lay the right foundation for the success of our strategy. However, the organization has also meant a major change in the way we implement our strategy.

In the past, we would often develop a plan for implementation and outline what activities we should take, but now we spend a lot more time listening to colleagues and determining where we need to make a change.

It has even turned out that the internal team we set up to implement our strategy has become redundant and has shut itself down.

In our view, the journey with this experiment has just begun. We want to rethink how we measure results by putting behavior and well-being at the forefront. Rethinking our physical space is key to reflecting who we are, temporarily supporting project teams, and embracing a future where work is a hybrid of digital and physical presence – both outdoors and at home.

The world is changing. To be a positive contributor to the process, you must also change yourself.

This article was first published in Mandag Morgen on May 19, 2021. Read the article in Danish here.

Sune Knudsen

COO

Mail skn@ddc.dk
Phone +45 2575 8930
Social LinkedIn

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