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dansk design center

Dilemmas Emerge in the Liberated Organization

17. Dec 2021

In several ways, we have met our expectations for a radically different organization of the Danish Design Center. However, new dilemmas and challenges have appeared. Challenges that may require traditional solutions

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 Christian Bason and Sune Knudsen 

In the previous article (org. published in Mandag Morgen, May 2021) we wrote about how we at Danish Design Center have started to rethink our organization, management, and governance, based on a clear and explicit view of humans.  

The changes we have implemented are designed to create an organization where each colleague has the best possible conditions to thrive and make a difference. Our goal is to design an organization that is a manifestation of our belief in people, namely that they:

  • Thrive and work best in an environment of trust and recognition
  • Are interested in creating positive change
  • Influence and co-determination allow them to flourish
  • Can and will take responsibility for their tasks
  • Thrive when challenged and given opportunities to develop

Previously, we described the potentials that are already becoming apparent as a result of the new organization:

  • Problems are solved collegially and closer to the task
  • The staffing of tasks is done more organically
  • Faster decision-making
  • We have become more productive

Nevertheless, challenges, questions, and dilemmas are also surfacing.

Here are some of the most important issues that we have encountered in ongoing dialogues with colleagues, at joint meetings, and via a digital survey within the organization.

How do we form thriving communities?

Through the redesign of our organization, we have freed our organization and our colleagues. Moreover, we have dissolved the permanent departments in favor of temporary project organization and a variety of professional environments, in which members participate as they see fit. But how can we ensure that there are real communities of interest and that cohesion is created?

It remains our belief that the strongest communities emerge from solving meaningful tasks together in projects, and from meeting about what one is passionate about professionally. However, we have realized that our role is to encourage communities and more easily facilitate them until they are strong enough to stand on their own.

How do we make important decisions?

The release of the organization also leads to a democratization of decision-making. As a rule of thumb, the closer one is to the task at hand, the better and faster a decision can be made.

It is a prerequisite that everyone understands the strategy and can translate it into choices and de-choices – and that everyone feels that they possess the necessary conditions for making relevant decisions. The translation is one of the most essential tasks of middle management, but how do you make the most important decisions when management is between all colleagues, and not above them?

Moving from a classically hierarchical organization to a self-governed, liberated organization is a complex process. We have chosen to approach this organizational change as a design process – open, iterative, experimental, and user-centered.

It can be frustrating when we cannot provide the exact answer that a colleague needs, or when we must take time to examine whether the decision we make is the right one. It can also lead to uncertainty when we don’t know what the solution looks like. The same applies to us as top management, since we do not observe changes from the outside but are part of them.

Here we return to our belief that the design process ultimately leads to the right solution.

How are you seen and recognized for your efforts?

One of the classic duties of a middle or personnel manager is to ensure employees are recognized for their efforts. But when neither the middle management role nor the classical middle management role exists, how do we ensure that all colleagues are recognized, both in terms of their salaries, their career opportunities, and their access to exciting tasks?

Humans are social beings who create meaning through the community. It is well worth cultivating a team’s enthusiasm when they succeed in completing a difficult task together and to be able to receive positive feedback from colleagues that you respect.

At the same time, there must also be room for motivation and recognition that comes from within – that is, each colleague’s ambitions to make a difference and satisfaction when they succeed. The challenge is to strike the right balance between community and individual expression in a liberated organization – and determine what types of recognition we should have more of and less of. 

In this context, remuneration may be the most sensitive topic. In this regard, we also ask ourselves what the next logical step is within the legal and financial framework we previously had as a fund with public financing. How far can we go in the direction of salary models that are different from the current ones, such as the direction of high transparency and self-determination of salaries, or the direction of recognizing an extraordinary team effort, and how can we put them into practice with colleagues?

How do we cope with well-being – not least in the wake of the pandemic?

With liberation comes increased responsibility – including for one’s own well-being. How can we make sure that no one gets overlooked or misplaced in a task as a result of not getting to their colleagues on time?

Instead of immediately launching a series of well-being initiatives, we have talked to colleagues about what they are experiencing.

The result of this is, among other things, that we tried to find out why some colleagues felt lonely during the Covid-19 pandemic rather than simply arrange more social activities on Teams. Social events might not have been the solution, but rather closer professional relationships in everyday work.

In the same way, when colleagues ask for more resources in a project, we do not simply answer yes or no. Instead, we determine if adding more resources will solve the problem or if it lies elsewhere.

Emerging organizations take things as they come

As we have outlined, we have a clear intention to reorganize ourselves as radically as we do at Danish Design Center. At the same time, as the organization undergoes such an enormous change, it is impossible to predict or plan in detail – it must emerge, step forward, and be shaped by the new conditions.

The management task is now to deal with dilemmas when they emerge instead of constantly trying to solve them in advance.

In this context, we are moving away from radical changes to more incremental ones. Based on several indications, the success of the exercise will remain dependent upon how the latter is handled. 

This article was first published in Mandag Morgen on June 23, 2021. Read the article in Danish here.

Sune Knudsen


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