Every day, our experts guide their clients through the difficult journey of digital transformation. Our teams promote agile ways of working to ensure the best results in the shortest amount of time.
But when we look at our own company, we see that many of our processes are far from optimal. So we embarked on our own journey of transformation – and we’re learning to practice what we’ve been preaching.
Like many companies, Mirabeau started small, but then experienced explosive growth. Along the way, many of our internal processes took on a very ‘classical’, top-down management style. But that doesn’t fit very well with the kind of company Mirabeau wants to be, and the type of people who work here.
Taking the pulse
So we took a critical look at ourselves. “Every year, we conduct an Employee Engagement Survey to see how Mirabeau is performing in the eyes of our own people,” explains Christine Hille, HR Manager. “And one consistent response we got is that employees were unhappy about the performance cycle – the way in which they were evaluated. The process was in the hands of managers. We regularly got the feedback that this was pretty old-fashioned.”
That feedback triggered a rather radical experiment. A big fan of Ricardo Semler and others who try to break down ‘traditional’ ways of working, Wybe Weysters, team lead for the Concept & Design unit, offered his team of 18 Front-end Developers to test out a new type of performance evaluation. Instead of managers controlling the process, employees will learn to self-evaluate – and evaluate each other.
“Basically, it all boils down to reducing the culture of control and optimizing for trust,” Wybe explains. “I trust my people to evaluate themselves – and each other – in a fair and honest way.”
The first steps
A transition like this one certainly doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t come without resistance. Wybe took the first steps more than two years ago. He talked to his team of Developers, and got their buy-in to begin the experiment. “There was quite a bit of skepticism at first,” he remembers. “After all, these are developers. They write code all day long. Now, I was asking them to get involved in a management process that involved evaluating performances. Not exactly in their wheelhouse.”
In the end, it was the opportunity to have more influence on their evaluation that excited the team and won them over. “One thing the team knew for sure was that they were unhappy with the top-down process,” Wybe says. “So they were happy to help us explore another option.”
Setting the scene
Ironically, reducing the manager’s role in the evaluation process takes a tremendous amount of management. Not only to get (and keep) the team motivated, but also to make sure that they have all the tools they need for success. The team undergoes trainings on giving constructive feedback and practices the art of speaking up. “This is a crucial part of the process,” Christine says. “Not everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinions, and the team needs to learn and practice the best methods to make sure they give honest feedback.”
A system takes hold
Two years on, the team of 18 Developers is part of a self-organizing system of performance evaluation. They begin each year setting their own goals for development, which they share with their ‘InterVision group’: small groups of colleagues charged with evaluating each other. The InterVision groups meet regularly to discuss their progress, workloads, clients and ambitions. “This is crucial, especially if the team members don’t often work together on projects,” Wybe says.
During the evaluation period, each employee does a self-evaluation based on four pillars: behavior, craftsmanship, client contribution and results. Each employee presents his or her self-evaluation to the InterVision group. The team then provides its feedback, and comes to a decision. “As much as possible, I stay out of the process. My primary task is to help steer things if they go off track, and to sign off on the InterVision groups’ decisions,” Wybe says. “Their decisions have consequences: each colleague’s salary increase is directly tied to his or her evaluation outcome.”
Signs of success
To implement the new evaluation system into the company as a whole, Wybe and Christine are taking a step-by-step approach. “The thing about this kind of transition is that there’s no manual to follow, and no rules for how it should be done,” Christine laughs. “So we’re using our own best judgment to determine the right time to get other teams started on the transformation. Six months after the Front-end Developers started working on their new performance cycle, we invited the Interaction Design team to start. Six months after that, the Visual Designers came on board. Slowly, we’re implementing the new system in each division at Mirabeau, and expect nearly everyone to be on board in 2018.”
The first signs of success are already visible. Remember those Engagement Surveys that told Mirabeau the old system was broken? Those same surveys are now telling them the new system is working. “The longer a team is involved in the new, self-organizing evaluation system, the higher their engagement scores get,” Christine reports.
Wybe emphasizes that the process is ongoing, and is constantly being adjusted. “We’re definitely in the middle of the process,” he says. “Sometimes, we’re celebrating a success, and other times, we’re struggling with our failures and learning how to do better. But that’s the nature of this kind of change, and we’re open to it.”
Top transformation tips
Thinking about transitioning to self-organizing teams in your own organization? Wybe and Christine have a few tips to get you started.
1. Determine your ‘why’. You’ll likely have to explain and repeat your message for the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the transition many times, to many people. Make sure your story is solid, and your rationale is strong.
2. Check your culture. This transition can neither be only top-down nor only bottom-up. The ‘top’ needs to make room, to allow the ‘bottom’ to blossom. Balancing the responsibilities is key, and everyone must understand that the process will likely be messy.
3. Start small. Focus on one small change in your organization. Don’t take on too much at once.
4. Manage change. ‘Self-organizing’ does not mean that managers take their hands off the wheel. Make sure your management team is on board. They’ll be the teams’ primary source for support, guidance, coaching and mentoring.
5. Expect resistance. Change is rarely easy, and major organizational shifts are likely to cause resistance. But if your message is strong and your ambitions are clear, you’ll be able to get enough support to move forward.
6. Plan to fail. As with any great idea, your first few attempts won’t likely succeed. Keep trying. The answer is out there.
7. Promote responsibility. The mantra of self-organizing teams is responsibility. Each team member must speak up, and dare to be critical of others. Create a culture in which this behavior is not only supported, but encouraged. People should feel responsible for the well-being of their team, and feel comfortable contributing to it.
8. Plan for the long haul. The journey to self-organizing teams isn’t a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. There is no finish line. It’s a change in culture that is constantly evolving and adapting.