I am currently in the process of finalizing my third book focusing on innovation practices of agile organizations. Agile to me means an organization that is able to react quickly and effectively to changing circumstances. By agile organizations I also mean self-managed organizations that use decentralized structures of distributed authority instead of a classical top-down hierarchy. For the book I have interviewed and visited 13 organizations that will be featured in my publication. A few of the case studies will also be published in the form of stand alone articles on different forums.
I have already published a few case-studies on the creaffective blog. So far I have introduced two case studies of the companies VSE and Lunar Logic. Recently I have posted an article about Spindle on Medium.
Today I will introduce Springest, a holacratic organization from the Netherlands.
Springest is a comparison platform for training programs and courses focusing on several markets and languages in the European Union. It helps people to “embrace a life of learning”.
It offers learning and development providers a platform to place their learning products and allows users to view, compare and find their ideal course, e-learning offer, coach or education.
It also launched Springest Go, a learning platform for companies to be used internally. Springest Go empowers employees with the tools to find and book the course they need. At the same time the product takes away the HR departments’ administrative burden while giving employees control over their learning and development.
Springest was founded in 2008 by Ruben Timmerman, whom I interviewed for this case study. The organization currently has 45 employees.
Since 2012 Springest has been using Holacracy as a way to grow without the potential barriers of bureaucracy.
Ruben fills a number of roles at Springest. Among others, he acts as evangelist, crowbar (spreading the word about the organization), coaches colleagues and evaluates the fit of potential new hires to Springest. He does not hold any role that affects contracts or peoples’ salaries.
Innovation at Springest
Ruben has a very clear opinion on innovation and how innovation should be done in an organization. He does not see much meaning in separating innovation and daily business: “I hate the word innovation: It is not magic. It is in all the other things. It is the only thing we do and it should be all you do. We have to add value to society.” Therefore, at Springest there is no mental separation between what people do everyday and innovation. Of course there is also operational stuff that needs to happen and that gets done.
He draws the comparison between Microsoft and Apple. Whereas Microsoft officially invests x billions into innovation Apple invests officially zero, because innovation is all Apple does.
On a business model level Springest is currently moving towards an e-commerce model coming from an advertising model. Ruben also feels that it is a prerequisite to be innovative as a company, to also be innovative at the organizational level. That was one reason why Springest adopted Holacracy.
Springest also does not see much value in officially managing innovation: According to Ruben most people have fear and long for certainty and security. A lot of companies create a fake sense of security and control. This then leads to an official process of managing innovation.
At Springest people are encouraged to let go of that fear: “We know that there is very little certainty. We know that things should not be managed but should be allowed by default. We want to make sure that things work in the right way.”
That does not mean that there is no need for processes and hierarchy. Holacracy provides both. “We trust each other, and if mistakes happen, we fix them. Holacracy is about adding something so that it does not become chaos.”
To come up with new and more radical ideas, Springest has a monthly hack day. There is one rule: You cannot work on something that is already planned.
Following this logic, the company does not have a separate innovation time or program.
How do new developments get triggered?
All innovation should be connected to roles the company has. There are for example some roles about explicitly improving things.
Springest tries to focus on user / customer pains as a starting point for change. This then can lead to new developments either in the business model level or on the product level. At the same time, everything is very data driven. The need to provide data and to evaluate things based on data is basically the way decisions are made whether or not to continue or abort an idea. As with many IT and web companies things at Springest have to be shown or indicated by data. For new ideas the company builds an MVP (minimum viable product) and then data is collected to evaluate the feasibility of an idea. Based on the data the role holder decides whether to improve and continue with the idea or to abort it. In the end, someone with the appropriate role will have to make a decision: “There will always be someone’s role to decide.”
“We are very much focused on next week, next month and the next years. Therefore nobody is only focused on the current thing. Therefore people don’t have to set aside specific innovation time to do this, as we do it all the time.” How do people know what is relevant in the coming weeks and months? To determine this, Springest relies on the OKR (objectives and key results) approach as many software companies and many Holacratic companies do: “The way we work can only be done, if you have a very clear picture of the future.” This clear picture is needed to make people “annoyed” with the present or realize the gap between the status quo and the desired future state. Therefore, according to Ruben, the purpose of the organization is key. If there is a strong and compelling purpose, people will be innovative because they want to embody the purpose.
Because of that strong purpose, Springest does not have and does not need a specific innovation strategy. The purpose and the OKRs lead the way. This then also includes aspects relevant to innovation.
In many traditional companies it is often unclear for people where the organization is headed. According to Ruben this is then one reason for the separation between innovation and the daily business. If it is unclear where you are headed to, it is difficult to create solutions for the future: “Also they are afraid, if they don’t control the present it will be go wrong. This fear is not justified. You need to let go.”
Innovation related roles
Being a holacratic organization, Springest has several explicit roles that are related to innovation. There are roles that deal with product development and there are several roles involved in business development.
If new ideas are pursued, the activity always is within the context of a specific role. In this regard Springest is quite different from VSE (another holacratic organization portrayed in this book) which allows and encourages ideas outside of roles. If there is something that needs to get done at Springest, then a new role should be created whose purpose it could be to get it done. For Ruben, everything should be done in the context of a role, there should not be implicit things live in the gray space between roles.
If an idea falls in the scope of an existing role, the person who has that role evaluates whether or not he wants to pick up the idea. If he decides against it, then the idea will not be driven forward. At Springest people trust each other’s judgment: “This type of behavior is good in Holacracy but bad in the traditional structure.”
Tools and approaches for idea generation
For bigger challenges Springest relies on tools for creativity and idea generation. Their needs to be role who wants to solve a challenge. This role may convene a brainstorming session. This person will then also be the one to follow up on all the results. The person who has the role follows up.
Springest for sure has a very specific view on the separation of innovation and daily business. At the same time this view demystifies innovation and turns it into a natural activity that people should pursue every day. I feel it is very important that there is a role like Ruben’s to evaluate the fit of a person to this kind of thinking. People can hide behind their roles and it needs a certain mindset to drive this concept of “innovation is all we do”.