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christian bason og sune knudsen

Leadership: What Does Top Management do in a Self-Leading Organization

25. Apr 2023

In a brand new book, our COO Sune Knudsen and CEO Christian Bason share their personal stories of transforming DDC into a self-leading organization. The hope is to inspire and help other leaders and their colleagues get started with their transformation. Get a taste of the book here

Quick insight

This is the introduction chapter from the new book ‘The Organization was set free, and the Leadership Had to be Rediscovered’ (Organisationen blev sat fri, og lederskabet skulle genfindes, red.) by Sune Knudsen and Christian Bason. The book was published in Danish on April 13, 2023, by Content Publishing. You can order the book here.

By Sune Knudsen and Christian Bason, DDC – Danish Design Center

Introduction: Finding a New Managerial Foundation

This book is a personal account of what it means to lose one’s managerial footing on purpose and find it again in a completely different place. It is based on what happened when we freed our organization so that everyone could choose their manager and area of work and make most decisions themselves. We hope it provides insight into how to get yourself involved as a leader and human being in such a process.

We show how our view of people became the approach that challenged our view of the organization and enabled a radically different form of management. And we explain how our experience with design leadership helped us navigate and realize the change in practice.

The idea of liberating our management and organizational model in DDC – Danish Design Center (DDC) arose in the spring of 2020. As directors of the organization with around 40 employees in Copenhagen and Kolding, we wanted to test an entirely new form of management. Danish Design Center works to strengthen the use of designers’ methods and thinking in companies and society. It was, among other things, the thinking of designers that we wanted to incorporate. We wanted to dive into the designer’s toolbox and cultivate the ability to test, observe, learn, adapt, and try repeatedly – just like a designer in a creative process.

We have not written the book on behalf of the entire organization. It is our personal experiences and reflections on perhaps the most essential change work a leader can undertake: to create an organization that is good for people and thus for customers, business partners, society, and the planet. For us, an organization that is good for people is a place where you are safe, where you thrive, where you are challenged, and where you have a significant experience of making a difference as part of a working community. However, the book could not have been created if we did not have some absolutely fantastic colleagues with whom we have built an extensive and lasting organizational change. In the process, our colleagues have taught us a lot about management. We are grateful they wanted to participate in DDC’s transformation with us.

Why did we make such a landmark decision to focus on the human perspective in the structure of management and organization? We did this for several reasons:

  • We fundamentally believe that this is the right way to lead and organize.
  • We believe only this type of organization can unleash the human creativity and creative power the world desperately needs.
  • We believe that a humanely sustainable organization is the only type of organization that future generations want to work in.
  • We only want to work in this type of organization ourselves.

Do you have similar thoughts? It is not for us to present an exact recipe for liberating an organization. With this book, we want to show what can happen when you set people in an organization free to shape new value-creating communities – and how you can do it.

By telling our story of change, we hope the book will inspire other managers with the same considerations and help more people start experimenting with a different, freer, and more meaningful way of organizing.

The steps of transformation

The book is built around what we did, when we did it, and how we did it. We also describe what working with a new human perspective in an organization has done for us as leaders. In Chapter 1, we set the scene and illustrate the starting point for the organizational change: What frustrated us, what did we hope to achieve, and how did we take action? Here we also share our methodological and professional starting point in the design field as a managerial framework.

In chapters 2-5, we describe DDC’s change process chronologically. Through several concrete situations where the organization has changed, we show what has been at stake for our colleagues and us. We describe our considerations and actions and look at what the effect of these actions has been.

In chapter 6, we look at which organization has emerged. We discuss the basic management questions that have come up again and again in the process of allowing an organization to grow organically: What is the management role really? How much should you lead? What must be controlled, and what must be allowed to grow? How much should you let happen on their own terms? Questions that, even to this day, we are curious about.

And finally, in chapter 7, we look across this entire process and reflect on which measures have been decisive in guiding us all through radical changes. Among other things, we know today that real organizational change requires a shift in problem understanding and that the most crucial thing in building a new and more value-creating organization is to be curious about the change that is needed – and that you insist on the change.

We end the book with an appendix, an FAQ, listing the questions we are typically met with when we talk about the transformation we have been through and the answers we give.

Work with experiments

Consistent with the entire change process, we have consciously – but often also unconsciously – worked with what you could call experiments. And in this connection, it is worth remembering that designing an organization is not just a project. Nor is it a number of phases. Instead, it is a continuous interaction between curiously ascertaining a challenge or opportunity; creating time and space to unfold possible ideas, paths, and directions to move forward; and openly testing which way seems most right and works best. In reality, this means that organizational design becomes an ongoing organization and reorganization of working methods, relationships, roles, and approaches.

We hope you will be inspired to also create a more humane, relaxed, healthy, and efficient organization and learn from the experiences we made along the way.

Sune Knudsen and Christian Bason

Virum Sorgenfri, February 2023

Download the introduction in Danish here.

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