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I remember that jaw dropping moment in August last year sitting in the coffee corner with two of the most passionate people talking about New Work, Sebastian and Lilli from the SAP Corporate Finance IT Services (SAP CFITS) team, which is part of the SAP IT Services unit. They were so enthusiastically buying into the need for change and wanted to actively explore it. Sure I could not resist their magnetism and started my New Work fellowship in their SAP CFITS team mid of September 2019. 

The interesting thing in that team is, that the initiative to move towards New Work did not come from the team members themselves, but from their management team. The head of the department, his assistant and his two managers, were all inspired by Frederic Laloux's Book "Reinventing Organisations" and interested in the possibilities New Work offers to them and their teams. They read books, shared thoughts, already actively tried out new ways of working and collaborating in their own management team, but wanted now to extend this experience to their teams. As they are truly committed to that journey, they established a consecutive line of New Work fellows over 1 ½ years to have a continuous support and tension on the topic.


Being the first fellow in that row, I spent the first weeks of my fellowship with a lot of research, learning, trying out new things (like Theory U, Working Out Loud, Coaching Circles,…), getting to know the team and connecting the dots. During that time I found daily more and more like minded colleagues across all departments.  This actually turned out to be a big community already existing at SAP which goes far beyond what I knew as the HR lead "New Work Movement". It is comprising people from all areas that are focusing on humanising work and (re-)creating a working environment people enjoy working in and achieve their best results. There are communities around new work, future learning lab, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, development culture, failure culture, humility, ... And there are a lot of additional satellites circling that orbit and even more following interested what is going on. These intrinsically motivated colleagues proactively share experience and knowledge across departments and hierarchies.  And they also organise in addition great possibilities to learn from guest speakers - in the last months we had the chance to exchange with Jos de Blok from Buutzorg, Jeff Beehler from Microsoft talking about OKRs, Corporate Rebels, Working Out Loud master John Stepper, neurobiologist Dr. Hufnagel,….. just to mention a few.


SAP CFITS is one of the 12 lighthouse projects at SAP for "Unlearning Hierarchies". "Unlearning Hierarchies is an initiative by the New Work Movement from HR that passionately accompanies progressive departments on their journey towards self-organisation and is actually also one of the most vivid lighthouse projects themselves (if you are interested watch Lennart Keil talking about their learnings at the Work Awesome Conference 2019).  And literally it is a journey or I would rather call it an expedition, as there is a lot to dig out, explore and learn along the way. In October 2019 we had a basecamp with the other lighthouse departments, who are all up to new ways of working. Interestingly enough, for a major part of them  management was already buying into New Work and self-organised teams as well. They felt the need for change as they see it as the chance to turn the ship around and prepare for the future. Answering new questions with old answers or reacting to the fast paced world with old processes does no longer work for them. Some even feel, that if we do not transform now, we will risk the future.

During the basecamp we discussed where we are on the journey, what are we already good at, what are the blind spots, what are the struggles we share and how to approach and overcome them. We all seemed to be better in the "what we do" part (around processes, structures, products, knowledge and skills), but less experienced in the "what we experience" part (Value, Thinking, Feeling, Attitude).

I found that the common ground of all the teams seemed to be "agile", which is the first thing the teams focused on (either introduce it in non-dev areas or refresh it).  For me successfully implementing scrum or Kanban is not the same as „Unlearning hierarchies“. These are just means in a huge set of options, that need to be individually chosen and fit the specific self-organised team best and not being artificially enforced.  But that is a topic I might write about more in another article.  


It is also interesting that being convinced that "Unlearning Hierarchies" is the way to go, is just the first step - it does not automatically make the change. The struggle all teams have is how to bring it into the teams.

A lot of articles are written on how to establish a self-organised teams in organisations. But it is a huge difference if you do this from scratch (greenfield approach) as you find it in start-ups, or if you do this from within the organisation (brownfield approach). And the size and existing structures of the company is an important factor as well.

Should you run this as a side project to explore it in more detail and find out if this is possible for the overall company? I heard in talks with colleagues from other companies who did that, that they had a hard time integrating these side projects then back into the day-to-day life, as it is hard to go back from self-organisation to hierarchies. There are others who first tried a side projects, and then made this the standard and changed the whole set-up in a bold move. But that sure comes with a lot of implications as well. 

Also doing such a change within given structures of KPIs and portfolio planning processes in general might feel and be contradicting. Managers being on that journey seem to be torn between these two worlds. Breaking out is not so easy, as they are not living on their own planet but have connections and interdependencies with others who might work still the old fashioned mode.


A key word in all these journeys therefore seemed to be patience - "It just takes time" was the most often heard sentence on that day. All of the lighthouse teams at that basecamp where on their journey at least in theory for quite a while. Those who tried to trigger the transformation in their teams in a rush and "convince" others struggled with losing the people on the way. So they did some pausing and restarted with a different pace. What is the right pace seems to be a big factor for success - how fast do you go to take those who are reluctant with you, but still go fast enough not to lose the passionate ones.  From my experience and listening to the teams I can tell, that there is no need to have only self-organisation fans in a team. It is good to have a bunch of interested ones fur sure - the others should just not actively sabotage the approach. In contrary, asking critical questions or challenging ideas or decisions along the way is highly beneficial as it is a great means for all to learn and challenge the status quo.  I also worked in teams myself, where we had one or two colleagues who did not want be bothered with all this self-organisation. They preferred getting told what to do next, but that is fine as well. A healthy team usually levels that.  Think of any group, be it friends, family, sport teams, clubs ... all people are different. And not everyone has to be on the forefront, you just need to make sure you do not lose the others on the way.

Transformation definitely cannot be enforced, but it sure can be fostered. You need to give it room to grow and allow and expect failures to learn from.


Some who were already further on that path shared the experience that self-organisation first seemed to led to endless discussions around almost everything. Though it seems to be true that there is more discussion necessary at the beginning, it also provides more room for meaningful and important exchange. In the long run the colleagues agreed the results overweigh the invested time, especially the learnings you get along the way. It leads to questioning also the why and the how of doing things, which may even result in better and more efficient processes, as it allows to challenge long lived and outdated approaches.  Also people tend to be more open as their contributions feel appreciated and heard, they feel more comfortable to share their personal views and what really matters to them.


I also learned that it does not make sense to have the whole transformation process perfectly predefined and ready before daring to start. I learned that everything is more or less team dependent and  that the mantra for a decision should be "Save enough to try" - and then go for it. Having a healthy failure and learning culture is the basis of this.


So as there is no blue print for that transformation, all the teams seek their individual ways that match their individual teams challenges. A great sentence I heard at that basecamp was "I want the team to do it for the right reason, not because I told them so".

What seems to work best is to find many opportunities, topics, situations where it is save enough to try. So you can have the team members safely explore,  learn and build trust. In our SAP CFITS team we have for example established several Communities of Practice (e.g. a Scrum Squad CoP, New Work CoP, Quality CoP, Operations CoP…), which are voluntary formed cross teams, where the members work on common topics they really care about and run these more or less self-organised. The team members a free to and encouraged to join, to support the organisation's continuous development. These are also a perfect places to explore new self-organised ways of working.


Though as I mentioned above not everyone in a team needs to buy in into self-organisation. This is not the same for management. It is actually really critical for the success of such a transformation towards self-organisation that there is management buy-in. And management really needs to mean it and live it.  So mind your steps as a manager - discrepancies between what is said and what is lived is something employees will always sense. A match of the two is actually the basis for trust. For example if you hand over the selection of the new colleague to the team - then don't interfere. If you do not trust and overrule at the end - don't artificially "empower" them upfront, as they will not want to take on that challenge and responsibility again. 

But also don't worry too much if you fall into old traps. We are all humans.The important thing is that you have the awareness that you fell into old habits and openly talk about it in the team. It is also helpful if you encourage each other to remind you in case you forgot. An expedition is usually much more successful and fun if you do it jointly and trustful.


It takes brave authentic managers who dare to give up power and control and start trusting again instead. Trust is the fuel that makes high performance teams work at their best.

Start the transformation with small steps, and have the people experience the difference themselves. Don't plan everything upfront - start when you feel it is "save enough to try". Give room for and embrace failure and learn from it. And expect to not only learn about how we work best but also a lot about yourself along the way. 

Talk about your successes and your learnings - the good and the ugly. People around you will start getting curious what you do, how you do it, what you learn and see that it is possible to try and dare something new towards a working culture that feels more human, that brings back purpose and connection and leads to sustainable success. Let's jointly create an environment people enjoy working in.
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