Advice from Richard Branson: give your employees freedom

By Jack Preston of Virgin

Richard Branson

You won’t come across many people who have never had a boss. The thought of not having someone to answer to at work is a peculiar one for most people, however for Richard Branson it’s a natural state of affairs.”Having always worked for myself, I’ve never had to play by anyone else’s rules, and I wouldn’t want to. This attitude has shaped my approach to management since Virgin’s early days, when I decided to grant our employees many of the same freedoms that I enjoy,” wrote the Virgin Group Founder in a recent entrepreneur.com blog.

Without a rule book to adhere to or a rigid company policy to bear in mind, Branson and his Virgin staff have managed to shake up countless industries over the years. A company defined by a ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ attitude towards tough decisions, Virgin has seen its refreshing outlook pay dividends and win the faith of consumers.

“Today the Virgin Group is made up of dozens of companies headed by CEOs and managers who have the freedom to run their businesses as they see fit. This philosophy goes against the usual rules of business and may seem unmanageable, but it has turned out to be one of the keys to our success,” explained Branson. Who went on to highlight how this played out for one of the Virgin Group’s newest companies in 2012.

“Our newest business, the global touring company Virgin Live, had a great launch for this reason. Although the Virgin brand is well respected within the music industry given our roots we had no history of promoting global tours. However, our small, enthusiastic team at Virgin Live beat competition from giants within the industry and won the right to promote The Rolling Stones’ 50 & Counting series of shows. This was a very proud moment for us: If you are going to enter this business, there really isn’t a bigger or better way to show your intentions.

“Before their show at London’s O2 Arena, I caught up with Mick Jagger to have a word and take a few photos with him and my family. After we were chatting he jokingly asked me if I was going to disappear, because ‘That’s what all the other promoters do.’ I had no intention of doing so. ‘I’ll be seeing you down the front,’ I told him.

“My family and I watched the show standing in front of our seats near the stage. It was a fantastic night – they put on a marvelous show. Why anyone would have passed up the opportunity to see it is beyond me. I thought later that Mick’s question showed why we had won the contract: Our employees love what they do and throw themselves into the work, so they achieve much more than anyone would expect.”

Men want freedom, women want security. Give it to them, and life is easy.

Jeremiah Josey

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Social Engineering: Self-Organising, Collaborating Groups, or Sociocracy for short

How do you improve human group dynamics, and allow people be more productive, business to be more profitable, groups to be more self reliant, whilst at the same time have it be more satisfying, more rewarding and straight out more enjoyable for the individuals involved?

The solution: Develop a self organising, collaborative workplace (also known as  “Sociocracy“).

Many big companies have worked out how to do it: parts of GE, most of BMW, all of Semco (a Brazilian manufacturing company). Many more practicing it can be found here at Worldblu.  While Worldblu calls it “democratic workplace”, it’s really more likely to be collaborative one, since when you have a flexible organisation, it is more likely that 100% consent is necessary to achieve anything, and not merely majority rules – what a democracy is. The key word here is consent.

How to achieve great success, with great results, rewards and satisfaction in a manner which is harmonious to the group, to other participants, and to the world in general? It is not through competition. It is through collaboration.

Much of the presently accepted models in many organisations are competition based, and competition is a poor use of human potential.  Autocratic leadership methods necessary lead to almost total staff disconnection. Poor performance, and whip-like management mentality becomes the norm. Such a culture is easy to start, and success may be evident and easy to measure, but it soon grows into a dismal forgotten failure as any long term success measures are applied – staff turnover rates soar, production efficiency, product quality, and eventual profits plummet. It’s simply a dismal failure at humanity, at being human even. Even for those directly measured to have “succeeded” they experience high stress, poor health and eventual a short, and ultimately an unsatisfying life.

One of the most successful examples of collaboration has been documented by Ricardo Semler with his company Semco.  His two books “Maverick” and “7 Day Weekend” explain everything in succinct terms.  How a small family run company grew to an international corporation with its principal, Ricardo ceasing his involvement a long time ago.

“Semco has no official structure. It has no organizational chart. There’s no business plan or company strategy, no two-year or five-year plan, no goal or mission statement, no long-term budget. The company often does not have a fixed CEO. There are no vice presidents or chief officers for information technology or operations. There are no standards or practices. There’s no human resources department. There are no career plans, no job descriptions or employee contracts. No one approves reports or expense accounts. Supervision or monitoring of workers is rare indeed… Most important, success is not measured only in profit and growth.” – Ricardo Semler

Here’s another great summary of Semler’s work here at Christian Sarkars blog

Personally I have applied Semler’s processes (actually they evolved naturally from Semco employees) to great success in my own endeavors.  For example I’ve taken totally disconnected and non-performing employees, and turned them into stars, “fought” over within the office for new assignments. One of the very useful Semler tools I used was upward feedback.

However amongst all of this, I’ve been searching for a methodical system to describe Semlers approach, and for a long time I called it “democratic” as he and many others have done. But I’ve never liked that, that word “democracy”. It is essentially a competitive system. Here’s why:

Demo-ns!

Dubbed “the worst form of government” by Winston Churchill, democratic environments automatically and immediately lead to the oppression of the minority. And oppression of any kind is never a good thing.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Sir Winston Churchill, Hansard, November 11, 1947

Democracy, by it’s very design, is an oppression regime: the oppression of a few by the many. “This is fair. It’s only natural”, I hear you say, but do you really think so? Is any oppression fair? Of anyone?  It is quite plain to see that any minority oppression in a social group no matter how large or small, has an ultimately negative consequence. Suppressed negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions harboured by the minority can only grow and manifest in other forms. The costs – both social and financial, short term and long term – to control, pacify, down-right-openly-oppress increases for the majority. Then something curious happens: the majority find themselves the minority, the minority becomes the majority and the cycle is repeated. Back and forth, back and forth. Those once-were-majority of course hang onto their once-granted-power with great enthusiasm and vigor, as long as they are able. The majority learnt what to do while in power. They learnt the rules of the game. The still-ongoing Occupy Wall Street  or “99% protests” (yes, still ongoing since 17 September 2011) are a good example of a majority now being controlled by a minority that has a much better understanding of the rules. Still resilience and perseverance can be a good thing.

“Consent” a better thing.

An another example is a recent US election with Obama and McCain running against each other: it was 53%/46%. Is that a “democracy” when almost half of the people have to yield their desires for the other half? This is more like a society close to reorganisation as the majority may soon become the minority.  Such a shifting of power will occur either violently (like has been seen in many Arabic countries recently) or passively, as with not-even-newsworthy Iceland recently.  In Iceland the people rejected the debt burden of the banks their brethren in government attempted to impose upon them. They arrested a number of bankers and changed their laws so it cannot happen again!

Good posts about Iceland:

Iceland Bankers Arrested

More on Iceland

And more on Iceland…

Nice YouTube accounts on Iceland:

  1. Iceland Account 1
  2. Iceland Account 2

So, what is it? What is the magic that means a group of people will be inspired to performance, all by themselves, with little external influence, other than maybe “Go!”

This video clearly shows it is not the money.  In fact the study shows that for complex, creative projects, monetary incentives actually STOPS performance! It’s not carrot and stick that works best where creative thinking is required.

Much has been done on the subject and reading Semler’s “Maverick” and “7 Day Weekend” you’ll understand that it is an evolutionary process, and it occurs by consent of the individuals of the group.

This is the important word: consent.

Work that recent came to me by the Dutch thinker Gerard Endenburg offers very substantial physical elements to this evolutionary process. A good short summary of this thinking is in “Sociocracy: The Creative Forces of Self-Organization”, by Gerard Endenburg and John A Buck. You can find this on the web in pdf.

These two resources: Semler’s dual mini-tomes and Edenburg’s principles combined results in a very harmonious outcome: the flexibility of the benefits, and the basic parameters on how to get there.

Endenburg defines four basic concepts for a self-organising group:

Four Principles of Sociocracy

1. Consent: The principle of consent governs decision-making. Consent means no argued and paramount objection. In other words, a policy decision can only be made if nobody has a reasoned and paramount objection to it. Day-to-day decisions don’t require consent, but there must be consent about the use of other forms of decision-making, for example, for day-to-day operations.

2. Election of Persons: Election of persons for functions and/or tasks takes place in accordance with the principle of consent and after open argumentation.

3. Circle: The organisation maintains a structure for decision making, consisting of semi-autonomous circles (i.e. groups of individuals). Each circle has it’s own aim and organises the three functions of leading, doing, and measuring/feedback. A circle makes its own policy decisions by consent, maintains it’s own memory system, and develops itself through integral research, teaching and learning. A circle makes consent decisions only in special circle meetings (also called round table meetings).

4. Double-linking: A circle is connection to the next higher circle in the organisation with a double link. This means that at least two persons, one being the functional leader of the circle and at least one delegate from the circle, are full members of the next higher circle.

With these four principles in place, more specific actions can occur. Here’s an example of a Sociocratic Circle Meeting:

Sociocratic Circle Meeting

1. Opening round: a time to tune into the members. Like an orchestra just before a concert.
2. Administrative concerns: such as announcements, time available for the meeting, consent to minutes of last meeting, date of next meeting, acceptance of the agenda.
3. Content: Agenda item, second agenda item, etc
4. Closing Round: a time to measure the meeting process. E.g. use of time, did the facilitator maintain equivalence, how could the decision-making have been more efficient, did everyone arrive prepared. Also this is a time to mention agenda items that should be on the agenda for the next meeting.

During the Circle Meeting there will be times to appoint a leader or a task or role or job to an individual. Here’s how it’s done:

Template for Sociocratic Elections

1. Task: establish the job description and the period of time the person will perform the job.
2. Ballots: Fill our ballots and hand to the election leader
3. “Public Gossip”: each person says why they made their nomination
4. Changes: Election leader asks each person if they want to change their votes based on the arguments they heard.
5. Discussion: Election leader usually proposes a name after step 4. However they may ask for discussion if the arguments are very unclear – i.e. informal consent has not been reached.
6. Consent round: Election leader asks each person if he of she consents to the proposed person, asking the person proposed last. If there is an objection, the election leader takes everyone back to step five before trying another consent round.

For making decisions by consent, a sociocratic organisation will operate in the following manner:

Template for making policy decisions by consent

1. Consent to the issue(s) to be decided. “What’s the concern, problem or challenge?”
2. Generate a proposal. “What’s our opinion?” Often a person or persons may be asked to prepare a proposal and bring it to the next meeting.
3. Consent to the proposal. “What is our decision?”
a. Present proposal – questions and discussion is for clarification only
b. Quick reactions round – quick feedback about the proposal (intended to illicit the “feeling response”, and not the “thinking response”)
c. Amendments – proposer amends proposal, if needed, based on the questions, discussions and quick reactions
d. Consent round – collect and record any objections on a flip chart. No discussion at this time
e. Discussion – improve proposal to deal with the objections if any
f. Consent round – Each person indicates their consent to the proposal, with the proposer speaking last. If there are remaining objections, they are recorded (no discussion), everyone goes back to e. Discussion, before trying another consent round.

Implementing a self-organising group requires consent from the people who exert power over the group. Simply stated this means that senior management and/or organisation owners must support Sociocracy. Full stop. No “ifs” or “buts” or even “veto rights”. Otherwise internal fractures will be created when the a circle’s “assumed power” confronts the more senior “declared power”. If that happens, growth is stymied and a slide back to pseudo-autocratic or totalitarianism will follow.

The great thing about this Sociocratic process as described by Endenburg, is that it’s an excellent way to get self-organisation into an existing organisation without changing or upsetting the existing power structure. The magic then begins to happen and once the system is running well, initiatives and improvements emerge organically and naturally. There is no revolution, only evolution.

All companies and groups that utilise such or similar systems experience better performance, better products, innovation, higher moral, lower turnover, lower loss, lower costs.

Semler advocates this because, after all, he invented the 7 day weekend!

It is simply the human way to operate.

What could be better?

Jeremiah Josey

EU and IMF will spend $40 billion to bail out Greece. What is your opinion on this issue?

From Linkedin Discussion: All The Global Leaders in the European Developed Markets

My comment:

They are just extending the credit on their “credit card”, and using future tax income (from salaries) to pay for it. This drives the wrong habits – fixing inhuman balance sheets and ignoring the human element. It drives the ‘need’ to work, and not the ‘want’ to work. Quality of life will fall, ‘happiness’ measures will decline. This is evident across the world already.

The fundamentals of the system has to change and a bail out does not address them.

The measures I propose are drastic but effective: 1) eliminate personal income tax and use taxes on companies to provide for the infrastructure that we require; 2) Train our children to work collaboratively rather than competitively – demolish the military styled education system, which is more than 100 years old;, 3) drive democratic work environments.

I discuss these topics here on my blog:

https://jeremiahjosey.wordpress.com/2009/10/24/the-new-frontier-workplace-democracy/

https://jeremiahjosey.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/jobs-kevin-rudd-taxes/

https://jeremiahjosey.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/the-new-world-order/

Jeremiah Josey

Tips from a Leader – Samir Brikho

Samir puts out a weekly email to staff working at Amec – around 20,000 people work for this company.

He has 6 good pointers for success:

We all learn quickly that we each have different talents and strengths and need to work hard to overcome our weaknesses. Leadership does not always come as a natural ability to all of us and we must seek out mentors to help us create opportunities to fine tune our skills. Throughout my career I have learnt those elements that make a good leader and create success. Like a chemical reaction – if you know what elements you should mix and when different combinations are needed – success is inevitable. Through my experience, I strongly believe that the foundations of leadership are as follows:

Have a vision of success – without this you will lose your way and your direction. Without aspiring to success, there is no point in having a vision – we all want to be successful at what we aim for.

Know your purpose – define why it is that you are putting the effort in. In my role I continually ask – how are we creating jobs? Creating value to our customers? Improving returns to stakeholders? And most importantly are we doing this in a sustainable and meaningful way?

Build the best teams – your team is a reflection of your leadership. It cannot be taken for granted – you need to develop them, trust them and empower them. The more we practise these leadership qualities; which sound easy but take a lot of commitment and determination; the more we will develop the most effective teams in the world.

Develop a clear strategy – you need a roadmap that paves the way for you to achieve your vision. It is crucial that this is clear, action driven and honest. You need to embed milestones and measurement throughout and align your team to the strategy.

Stay focused – do not get distracted with non -priority issues. Plan your short-term, mid-term and long- term objectives. Be honest with yourself and stay committed to what you need to achieve today; tomorrow; in the week; in the quarter; and the year to achieve your vision and strategy.

Have fun – you need to feel excited and inspired every day. This involves recognising when you and your teams are fatigued, when it is time to rest and rotate your people.

This is a “top down” approach, not truly encompassing of a participation management style, however I like the concepts because they can be implemented quite easily across an participative organisation.

Like I telling people working with me (and often looking to me for an answer!), 10 brains working on a problem is much better than 1!

Jeremiah Josey

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