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“Today, We Are More an Organism Than an Organization”

17. Dec 2021

The Danish Design Center is currently restructuring its management and organizational structures, where hierarchy, guidance, and middle managers have been replaced with self-management and a permanent project state. It is difficult and overwhelming, say three employees. But it is the right move

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 Anne Christine Lyder Andersen, Sara Solveig Ørnsholt, and Christina Melander

A human perspective as a management principle – it sounds promising.

It’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to work in a place where KPIs, middle managers, and traditional hierarchy are left behind, and where the organization is instead driven by the positive qualities employees possess.

This has been the reality here at the Danish Design Center for almost a year. We have embarked upon a revolutionary organizational experiment allowing all staff to assume management responsibilities on their own.

By making ourselves more accessible to colleagues, they are free to decide whether to follow and assist with professional sparring, personal development, or organizational navigation. The premise is that you need to establish companionship to solve a task. Everyone within the organization has the capacity to make significant decisions on behalf of the organization, as long as they consult, listen, and get input from others.

The Danish Design Center has the ambition to be Denmark’s leading design laboratory with a clear goal of contributing to sustainable growth. Therefore, it also seems quite natural for us to experiment with new management and organizational principles. And we cannot expect others to engage in frontier-seeking activities if we cannot fundamentally change our own organizational structure.

There are many meaningful aspects to the change. Several employees have gained a voice within the organization and we have more nuanced conversations. 

We are an organization that works in the best interest of the design field, our partners, and each other. Making decisions together, rather than from the top, results in greater ownership of the process. We are well on our way to accomplishing this, as we have all been involved in the process. 

Moreover, each employee is not locked into a hierarchy, where the only way up is up. You are free to move wherever you want within the organization. As long as it is meaningful to you and the organization as a whole, there is no limit to your commitment and development. However, such freedom also has its challenges.

An overwhelming conversion

It’s difficult to make changes, and uncertainty is a basic condition. However, when a company moves from a matrix organization – which is probably flat, but still hierarchical – to a self-governing organization where leadership (in theory) does not exist, uncertainty plays a particularly prominent role because there is no traditional hierarchy to allow each employee to clarify their tasks.

This transition to self-organizing structures poses some problems, but they are not new. Many of these challenges also existed in the old organizational form but were handled by structures, procedures, and processes that made things run smoothly.

By this definition, rather than transitioning from one organization to another, we are currently moving from being an organization to become an organism. Today, there are more interactions within the organization and we are becoming more interconnected than we were in the past when we were all in different departments.

Changing everything from strategic focus, organizational affiliation, leadership roles, salary structure, decision-making processes, and decision-making power causes many changes in a very short period of time. For us employees, it can be overwhelming when all the structures that previously held our working lives together suddenly vanish.

The natural reaction is to change things gradually. However, the steps we take along the way can easily be perceived as a new practice, which creates even more uncertainty, since the perceived new practice does not correspond to where we are headed.

We have not yet come up with the perfect formula. Most likely, it does not exist. However, we try to figure out how it works. We correct and try again – just like any other design process. 

Uncertainty about roles and responsibilities

In the past, the traditional middle manager was the anchor for a team and the one who could direct a team and the task at hand. This role no longer exists at the DDC. Today, everyone has influence and co-determination, and everyone is expected to take responsibility and make decisions for the collective. No one can command another to accomplish a particular task, and no one can decide how to accomplish a particular task without consulting those who will be affected or have competencies that should be involved.

It is essential for well-being, commitment, and a sense of ownership. However, it can also be a source of uncertainty.

The former middle manager may feel paralyzed and discouraged even though their new responsibility is the same or even greater than before, because top management expects them to be at the forefront of the journey. But all of your efforts will only be successful if you are able to create companionship among the tasks for which you are responsible. It’s no longer enough just to advise or manage.

Former private employees may find the new responsibilities overwhelming. Previously, roles and hierarchy provided clear paths and decision-making processes, but these have been obliterated, and the individual must now determine one’s own path in the interest of the community. In some situations, it can be difficult to know what to decide for yourself, what to hear from others, and what to do if it all goes wrong? Does it fall back on me, or does someone still have my back?

The way forward

In the current stage of our transformation, some feel that there has been a long period of time between top and bottom in the hierarchy we are otherwise trying to eradicate. Others feel that it has come closer. Some believe that top management is now the only one making decisions, while others believe there has been an increase in democracy. But is it possible to even speak of a “top management” in an organization where decision-making power is distributed throughout the organization? Maybe – but if so, how should it act?

A human perspective, as a key management principle, requires that we examine whether one’s involvement, decision-making, and general work practices are consistent with such a view. Nothing can be done in a certain way with the argument that ‘this is how we usually do’.

Although it is not easy, we are proud to be a part of an organization that dares to do something so revolutionary. We believe the ultimate goal is the right one if you wish to have an organization that performs, thrives, develops, and is worth collaborating with. Difficulties will always remain.

As we adjust to the new structures and the new relationships between each other, we believe that we have gathered a talented, empathetic and responsible group of individuals who all contribute to the achievement of the goals we have set for ourselves. To us, it makes perfect sense.

This article was first published in Mandag Morgen on August 25, 2021. Read the article in Danish here.

Sune Knudsen

COO

Mail skn@ddc.dk
Phone +45 2575 8930
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