Could Work Become a Freedom-Centred World?

In: BlogDate: May 20, 2015By: Henry Stewart

“Unleash the power of the people in your workplace. Isn’t that what democracy is about?”

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Freedom and democracy aren’t always linked with the way organisations run, but that was the topic of the Freedom At Work summit, organised by Worldblu this week in Miami. That was question was not asked by some California startup but by David Marquet, describing his time as Captain of a nuclear submarine in the US Navy. More on him shortly.

Research by Worldblu found that freedom-centred companies grew their revenue, over a three-year period, by more than six times as much as the standard stock market. Between 2010 and 2013 they grew their revenues by an average of 103% compared to just 15.4% for the S&P 500. That is quite a claim.

Choose your manager? Or have no managers!

I was at the summit to argue that you should let people choose their managers. You can read my speech here. Normally that's a pretty radical idea but at the summit I met companies who had gone further.

Zappos, the $2 billion online shoe retailer dedicated to Delivering Happiness (now owned by Amazon), abolished managers this month and have adopted “holocracy”. Everybody who was a manager, simply no longer is. If I’ve understood it right, the company now runs on circles of responsibility based around specific topics. These are based not on hierarchy but on simply who makes sense to be involved. It seems to be an approach that leads to both more freedom and more accountability.

At Nearsoft, a Mexican outsourcing company, they have never had managers. “We don’t have bosses but we do have leaders”, explained Anabal Montiel, “They emerge organically and last as long as needed. People do take ownership of certain processes.”

So who holds people to account? “The team. If somebody isn’t performing, the team intervenes. There’s a lot of peer pressure to do a good job. You are accountable to a lot of people. Having freedom doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. It means there is not one person following you and making sure you do what you have to do. Instead, we have an awful lot of feedback processes.”

This was not your normal work conference. It was one where people were excited about the work they do and the companies they work for.

Away with fear-based workplaces

Rich Sheridan, CEO (or “Chief Storyteller”) of the software company Menlo Innovations, reminded us of what work can be like out there in the more fear-based world. “One of our ex-developers, who had gone to work for another company, rang to say she wanted to come back. We said sure, start next Monday if you like. She gave in her notice. A security guard came to her desk and escorted her to the exit, like a criminal. How can companies treat people like that?”

Menlo has a different approach. They are fine about employees moving to other companies and welcome them back if they want to return. At Menlo all the developers work in pairs, literally sharing one computer – and changing who they work with every five days. They again don’t have managers but instead the pairs themselves produce all estimates on the time it will take to complete the next software task. These are never changed by somebody more senior.

(Check out Rich’s book “Joy Inc“. It is both challenging and inspirational. This is a company seeking to create that Joy at work and that says “our mission at Menlo is to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology!”)

The move away from fear-based workplaces is a common theme. Matt Perez, co-founder of Nearsoft: “If you put me in a position of fear, I’m going to make my worst decisions, and I’m not going to do what you want. That’s why we set up Nearsoft to be freedom-based.”

Trust your people

Several people talked about how becoming a freedom-centred company had made a big difference. Garry Ridge, as CEO of WD-40, has taken it from $250 million to over £1 billion in sales. He displayed the company’s “maniac pledge”:

At Van Meter, an electrical retailer from Cedar Rapids, they have just renamed holiday time from PTO (Personal Time Off) to TOTAL (Time Off to Appreciate Life), set a minimum of two weeks and allowed people to take as much time off as they want. “As long as they are doing a great job, it's not a matter of tracking it”, explained Alicia Murphy.

Another concept from Van Meter is that of “leaving a legacy for the future”, and “leave things better than you found it”. This can range from filling the coffee machine if you find it empty to bringing truly great service to your customers. What is best about working there? Lorelli Christner: “Being able to be my authentic self. They allow you to be who you are and not fit into some corporate mould.”

From Brighton, Matthew Matheson introduced the “Church of Fail”, based on the idea that “we have to break the conditioning of ‘we can’t get things wrong’”. In the “Church” they ask 3 questions: What did you fail at? How did you cope with it? What would you do differently? And then you get applauded – and, crucially, you stay on stage to the end of the applause.

Push the decision down to the person who knows

But surely such freedom-centred ideas couldn’t work in the military? Yes, they could, according to David Marquet, who was put in charge of the Sante Fe nuclear submarine, the worst-performing submarine in the US Navy. He found that the way to improve things was to stop telling people what to do. “When the leader says I don’t know, it makes it safe for anybody to say I don’t know. Bad leaders give bad orders, good leaders give good orders. Great leaders give no orders”

The key is to “push the authority for making the decision down to the person who has the information”. The submarine became the best performing submarine and, of 10 officers, 10 went on to captain other ships.

A key element of these companies seems to be more accountability to a team or to peers than to somebody higher up the hierarchy. Carrie Brandes, VP of people at Ubiquity (a California pensions advisory company) explained how they set bonuses. Everybody in the company is given 100 pts and can award however see fit to whoever they feel has made an impact on the business or the company. They then get a bonus based on these peer ratings. Interesting idea

This stuff works

I have to say, at the beginning of the conference, even with my belief in trust and autonomy, I doubted that freedom-based companies could really deliver six times the revenue growth. After hearing so many stories of the effect that these ideas have, it makes absolute sense that this would be the effect.

Simon Anderson, Co-founder of Inktank, says it was the Freedom at Work concept that enabled them to go from startup to a $175 million sale in 18 months.

Worldblu’s vision is to have 1 billion people working in freedom. That would be pretty damn wonderful.

Check out the Worldblu website for details of next year’s conference. And get in touch if you want to know about the UK Freedom at Work Bootcamp, which we aim to host at Happy in London in October 2015. Contact me at or @happyhenry for details.

The Power Question

And finally, ask yourself the Power Question:

What would you do if you were not afraid?

Think about a personal issue or one at work. What is it that is holding you back? What could you be capable of?

In a world where freedom and democracy are part of work, and not just outside society, all sorts of possibilities emerge. If you are still working in a company based on fear, it could be time to move.

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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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