How we tipped the rules of HR completely upside down (and you can too)
What if you picked your boss out of a hat?
And what if they weren’t really your boss at all?
It might sound a little far-fetched – Harry Potter meets HR department – but it’s a way of doing things that our company invented seven years ago and which has transformed the culture and structure of our business in ways we hoped for but did not imagine would be so powerful.
At the end of each year, our entire staff – more than 60 people in our Australian studios – gets together for an important ritual. A hat is passed around and each staff member pulls a name from it.
They aren’t being marked down as Hufflepuff or Slytherin. They – as their colleagues all watch on – are selecting their unboss.
Yes, that’s right. Unboss.
The unboss concept originated in 2011 when our company was relatively young. I am the founding partner of ThinkPlace, a consultancy that uses design thinking and human-centered design to create solutions for the kind of complex challenges that governments, companies and other leading organisations routinely face in these complex times.
Today, ThinkPlace is a fast-growing industry leader with three studios in Australia and a global network that also includes studios in New Zealand, Singapore, Kenya and the United States.
But back then we were small. We had grown from one person to around 15, and, for the first time, we were starting to grapple with how we should set ourselves up as a workforce.
What structure did we want? What culture? What roles?
What we didn’t want
After a long period as a senior executive in government departments I wanted to avoid rigid structure. The downsides of rigid structures are silos, sub cultures, information blockages and inabilities to mobilise resources to priorities.
It's become a bit of a cliché now, but we wanted to be nimble.
And so my colleague Nina Terrey suggested the idea of an unboss. ‘’It’s not really a boss,’’ she said. “But it’s not nothing.’’
“Did you think that the purpose of business was to make money?” their book asks. “No—businesses must first and foremost be useful. They must become movements that change the world.”
It goes on: “You are no longer employed by an employer, you are a partner in a team … Your company does not sell products to customers, it creates value with customers.”
These ideas are strikingly similar to some of the guiding principles behind ThinkPlace (although we also like to make money because that allows us to do more good).
Call it serendipity, or maybe coincidence. But we didn’t learn of the book’s existence until seven years later. By then unboss was an embedded part of the way we run ThinkPlace.