by Alessandra Scala
At the time in which we started working on this translation I was also working on a commentary for the U.Lab community - Otto Scharmer from MIT’s mooc, and I casually came across Francesco Mondora, Co-ceo of mondora.com together with his brother Michele and their wives. We immediately found we shared the same views and, on my part, there was great interest for their company. As Francesco told me about his business and how they live and work, I realised that it was actually a rare and solid example of a living organization, strongly tending towards the “Teal” described by Laloux. Me and Antonio Di Stefano from PeopleRise met Francesco in person and were positively impressed by his maturity and his innovative spirit, and how these traits could be seen in practice within his company. I later met him again and attended his speeches at a few events, a presentation of Italian B Corporations and an international conference for consultants. In both occasions my initial impression of him was confirmed. The chance to insert a section about a real-case Italian company that is already Teal, or almost entirely so, was something we could not miss. So, despite the short time available between translating and reviewing the book, I decided to follow my initial intuition and meet mondora.com in person at their office in Morbegno, Valtellina. My intention was to interview Francesco by following the same pattern of questions used by Laloux in his research, of which this book is the dense and articulated result, full of innovative ideas. I thought I would be interviewing Francesco by himself, as usually happens in a company, seeing as he is the co-CEO. I was surprised by the different approach I encountered: as well as involving his brother and co-CEO, Michele, Francesco asked the other people in the office that day if they had time and wanted to participate in the interview. In the end the day-long interview was done with the Mondora brothers and five other people in the morning, and three more in the afternoon. The organization of the interview proved two things: on the one hand the openness and sharing that is so well established within the company; on the other hand the self-responsibility of all workers as each of them chose whether to participate or not, according to their day’s workload, and how long to participate for, in a very natural and spontaneous way. During the interview we looked at what makes mondora different in terms of actions and intentions: structures, processes and practices, organizational principles, economical aspects, people management and the everyday life of the company.
Main organizational processes
The company is centered around people and purposes, without dedicated functions. The structure is flat and decision making is done through participative processes, also when talking about goals and strategies: it’s a company of adults. The company has a flat structure, which is managerless and based on self-organized teams for each project. In order to reach decisions regarding objectives and activities, there are a set of collaborative digital tools. These tools include a forum (Discourse) used for topics which require more depth of detail, or chats on Slack channels, also used to define operational solutions. A person proposes something (anyone can do it) and everyone discusses it. Participation on the various topics, which is usually good, happens independently, when people want to, or have time to, say something. When a topic receives little attention, it is a sign that the topic in question is not relevant to the company. Everyone can take part: when joining the company people receive an account with which they can access all the collaborative tools. For legal reasons, it is not yet possible to add external consultants into this process. The forum was used even when the company was deciding to become a Benefit Corporation and change the company Statute, an activity which is normally, and legally, reserved to founders. In this case all colleagues were involved in elaborating the company mission, to the astonishment of the lawyer who had to adapt the Statute according to people’s inputs and thought mondora was a hippie community from the seventies!
Mondora.com was founded in 2002 and has its headquarters in Milan and operations centre in Morbegno, Valtellina. At the end of 2015 there are forty employees working at the company, with the intention to increase numbers by a further 50% by 2016. Mondora offers innovative software solutions: development, software planning, mentoring and tech coaching. The team works with agile methodologies and Scrum, as well as eXtreme programming, and they are experts on Cloud Computing. The mission of mondora is to sustain the development of the technological personality of its customers through sharing new ideas and solutions that prove to be more valuable and with measurable results. Mondora has a revenue (in 2015) of 1.7 million euro. In 2016 a large group became the major shareholder of the company, with the agreement that mondora’s identity would not be affected.
Here is an example of the use of the forum to define a policy:
In order to encourage movement and a healthy lifestyle we decided that who cycles or walks to work will receive 20 cents reimbursement for each kilometer (“Cycle2work” policy). What happened was that a colleague, Davide, started a poll on the forum and explained the idea of a reimbursement. He asked everyone to vote, to see if the idea was of interest. The topic was discussed and there were various opinions. The idea was well received but, in order to become a fair policy, it had to reflect the needs of everyone. During such discussions it is possible to see the emergence of limits and aspects of ideas that are not known or thought of at the time of the proposal. For example, a colleague said he didn’t have a bike, but he would have liked to walk to the office instead. Seeing as the goal of the project is to encourage health and wellbeing, and walking promotes these aspects just like cycling, the policy that emerged considers both activities. Another issue that arose from this discussion was that it could be discriminating because it only applied to those who lived close enough to the office. In this case it was decided that the kilometers could be cycled or walked even just once a week, not necessarily in daily commutes.
Benefit Corporations and B Corps
In January 2016 Italy was the first country in Europe to legally recognise a new type of company. As well as S.p.a and S.r.l., Benefit Corporations (Società Benefit in Italian) are also a legal entity. Benefit Corporations are those companies that generate a profit, but use this to create a positive impact on the community and on the environment. They are a mixture of profit companies, where maximising profits for shareholders is the only goal, and non-profit companies, where the goal is that of creating a positive impact, without making a profit from it. In order to become a Benefit Corporation a company must include in its Statute a statement regarding the mission and goals that concern all stakeholders, and not just shareholders. So alongside business objectives, the Statute of such a company will mention social and environmental objectives. As they are written in a legal document, these objectives become binding by law. The term B Corp refers instead to an American model on which Benefit Corporations are based and from which the Italian model was inspired. B Corps are companies that have undertaken a rigorous assessment of their environmental, social and economical impact. This assessment is carried out by a US non-profit organization called B Lab and requires a passing score of 80/200 in order to certify. In Italy there are currently some companies that are certified B Corps but not yet legal Benefit Corporations. Mondora.com is one of the few Italian companies that is both a certified B Corp and a “Società Benefit”, according to the Italian laws.
“An example of this is the case of Andrea, a team member, who wanted to get a new and better pc for a customer. Matteo, in the same team, decided to brinEven when talking about innovation, decisions are always taken together. The agile methodologies which are typical of innovation and of the IT industry, in which mondora operates, value the concepts of team and of self-organization. This then creates a strong sense of responsibility towards the economic management of the company. Team members make independent decisions regarding investments and they decide when to avoid useless expenses. Each team is self-organized, with no budget, but with the full availability of the company. The accounts are visible to all and everyone considers the company as his or her own, therefore paying special attention to avoiding wasteful expenses. g his personal pc, that he no longer needed, to the company and give it to the customer, so that the saved money could be invested in something else” says Francesco Mondora, and adds: “this is a company of mature adults, regardless their age, so the budget can be shared. Even hiring or choosing the people to add to a team is a process that occurs independently, there is no HR, it would be harmful, in our opinion”. Sales and post-sales There are no commercial sales targets, no sellers and no commercial departments. Sales are born from personal relationships and the needs of a customer, and anyone in the company can be the salesperson.
We started working with TeamSystem, a company that was first our customer and now our partner, because our colleague Gianluca, a software architect, had a contact in the company and was able to suggest and facilitate our services to them. When a person works in the company that he always wanted to work in, he takes with him a set of skills that go beyond his daily tasks. There are people who are suited to negotiating with customers, others who are more suited to different tasks. Each brings what he can to the company. For example, when coaching a new person, everyone helps, not just the seniors. Coaching becomes reciprocal and everyone learns something. We are a community, says Francesco.
“Not that we have written rules on how to obtain this mutual coaching and learning. Many companies are very structured and have it all in writing, but then they miss out on the intent and will of the people to help each other” says Michele Mondora on this topic. And Roberto, one of the colleagues, adds “where I worked before, in a well known consulting firm, there was a written rule regarding project rotation, but no one really did it. Here it’s not written down, but it happens”. There is no sales department and no post-sales department. The projects are usually long, lasting over a year, and the team follows all the phases of evolution and development, always mindful of the customer’s needs.
Pricing practices are also very innovative and purpose oriented. They are aligned with the best competitors that work in a user centered way, not focusing on technology but on the customer. In addition, as mondora is a Benefit Corporation, there is also the goal of “creating benefit” to the final users and their ecosystem. In fact, the company offers different pricing according to the “benefit” that can be created. As Francesco tells us:
We offer a 30% discount - which on software development solutions is a significant percentage - that can be obtained in three cases: if the customer creates benefit with its operations and can prove this in writing, if the customer is a Benefit Corporation (in this case the benefit is already documented in the company statute) or if the customer agrees that the software we develop will be open source and so accessible to everyone, creating benefit to the developer community. A company from Bergamo agreed to go open source and is now gaining a very good reputation for this choice. I firmly believe that business must be used as a force for good. The reputation “side effect” is transmitted to all our colleagues that develop a solution: being open source, the work is seen by everyone and helps create a personal cv that gains traction in the market. These people get attention from various companies who look at their Linkedin and Github profiles to see how they write code. They become attractive to the market but choose to stay with us and this for me and Michele is the moment of truth. It means that the environment is still good.
Purchasing and supplier management
There is no purchasing manager and purchases are defined independently by each team, without limits and with the availability of the whole company budget - to be managed responsibly “as if it was your own”. Even when selecting suppliers the criteria are tied to the supplier’s own purpose. Suppliers, as part of the value chain, must create positive impact, they must in some way be benefit creators. Even the energy provider, energy being one of the few things bought externally along with office furniture and hardware, is a B Corp. As soon as mondora found out about the existence of an energy provider that was a certified B Corp, they switched supplier. As for external consultants and suppliers of specific skills, mondora follows what is stated in the company statute that specifically mentions helping the local community, and tries to select people and individual companies from the area of Valtellina. Mondora pays the same amount that they would pay to individuals in the Milan market, which is a much higher price than what is normally paid in Valtellina. In this way they aim to extend the collaborative spirit of the company to the whole community. This approach towards the development and sustenance of the land and community reminds us of what Adriano Olivetti did in his time. Olivetti’s company in Ivrea, although set in a traditional economic context and accepting the rules, had the mission of elevating the culture and society of the area.
We try to keep money within the local community. If we look at the traditional opportunistic financial and business logics we are getting it wrong: if we hired Indian or Albanian developers we would have much higher revenues because the staff price would be much lower. The difference would be significant, as an Italian developer costs about 300 euros a day, and a foreign developer from one of these countries would cost only 50 euros a day, which is the mean rate on the market at the moment. However, if we look at our EBITDA we are not getting it wrong, we are earning well and we have high quality work, say Michele and Francesco. Operations Work is done in teams. Each team works together to create solutions and solve problems. Within a team people often work in pairs, in order to share knowledge and activate a collaborative mindset. Everyone in mondora uses Scrum, Kanban and Agile methodologies.
From the company Statute of Mondora.com (Art. 2) As a Benefit Corporation the company intends to pursue the principles of equality, fraternity and legality, in order to favour an ecosystem between nature, humans (especially in the personal sphere), shareholders, stakeholders and, more generally, the local community and all the parts that are influenced by the company’s activities in any way. Special attention is given to the production of benefit for the local agricultural community of Valtellina, to favour the evolution of the primary sector as an advantage for society. In virtue of the principles of benefit, the company’s objectives include the following activities: support the organizations that operate in the field of technology, science, industry, economics and finance and aid them in the adoption and proficuous use of innovative technologies and methodologies in the field of software and, more generally, of Information Technology and organization.
An interesting aspect is cost control: there is no review, costs are accepted as they are. An important practice that is regularly carried out is that of the retrospective meeting, in which teams can learn from the mistakes made in the past two weeks. Before the meeting, everyone is asked to prepare a review of what they have done. “The retrospective meeting is a cardinal point for us, to learn from our mistakes” says Francesco. To make sure that these meetings are honest and effective, office culture promotes “errors”, so that every mistake is considered a learning aid and is not a cause of punishment. “In our company no one is blamed for a mistake” says Francesco, whilst he smiles at his colleagues. “Only us two! We blame each other in equal parts” says his brother Michele, laughing.
We don’t celebrate success, but failure. For example, a colleague once added a wrong email address in the internal mailing list sending private strategic company information to an external person with the same name as another colleague. We only found out because this external person replied to an email saying “good work, but I’m not interested”. We laughed about it, we made fun of our colleague for a while and next day he brought food and we had a party: a happy hour to celebrate the failure! Environmental impact In order to keep track of environmental impact, the mondora team has added a dashboard to their website which indicates and monitors the impact and benefits of various company activities: number of open source projects, number of software releases each week, percentage of saved CO2, number of daily code commits. The measurement of “saved” CO2 refers to the “cycle2work” programme and to the number of days worked remotely. Both policies reduce the use of a car to get to work. “Some colleagues work from home in Bergamo, Pavia, Novara, Milano, Switzerland, Japan… two colleagues work from another office that is halfway between their home and our office, so they have to drive less” says Michele. The monitored impact includes both environmental and health factors, encouraging both less commuting and more cycling at the same time.
Our energy provider is a B Corp, and we changed to this company when we learned of its existence. All office food is rigorously organic. We rent five hectares of land and we have hired a farmer, with the same salary as a software developer, in order to supply our colleagues with biodynamic food (fruit, vegetables and cereals) and wine as a welfare benefit. With the project Share our Break we send our customers these products too, including our own corn crackers and honey. These products are sent as Christmas presents, but also in other occasions when we feel like sharing a break with someone, explains Francesco. Information Technology As mondora is an innovative company in the IT industry, the organizational process related to IT reflects the agile methodologies embraced by the company at all levels. When choosing platforms and architectures the main focus is on the needs of the end users. Discourse, the forum mentioned earlier, was taken into use because there was the need to share information and make decisions together, rather than simply give orders to staff.
Tools are important, but culture is even more important. However, culture alone, without tools, doesn’t work, so you need both things. A very useful tool that we started using because we felt the need for it is Officevibe. This tool enables us to collect the “vibes” and “pulses” of the office. As it is a third party tool, feedback is absolutely anonymous for everyone. I am able to view people’s anonymous feedback and reply through Officevibe. The original feedback is anonymous, but my reply is in my name. At the moment only admins can reply to feedback, as the software is made for more traditional companies in which managers want to have control of the situation. However, we have created a Slack channel to which feedback is posted automatically, so that everyone can view it. We contacted Officevibe about this, but for now it’s not possible to adapt the tool to our flat structure. The result is nonetheless fantastic: I receive real-time feedback, and most of the time it’s very positive. The interesting thing is that negative feedback is always constructive too, there are no complaints, but suggestions on how we can improve. Some colleagues leave feedback that really shows we are doing the right thing, for example to the question “What’s the best part of working in mondora?” the favourite answer is “the possibility to self-organize” says Francesco.
“Participation is also really high: 97% of the company is active on Officevibe. If you consider that I never take part….” adds Michele, who then goes on to say: “it’s this sense of freedom, of following one’s passions, that creates our wellbeing”. Officevibe regularly gives ratings too, which are helpful in determining the level of happiness in the company. “We have a happiness indicator of 7.3 out of 10, and it’s growing, a while ago it was 7.2” explains Francesco. The colleagues, which I now encourage to share their real opinions with us, confirm that the atmosphere is great and that there is real wellbeing in the company. Organizational learning and change A living organization is by definition an organization that learns. The policies to activate organizational learning and enable change are an integral part of the agile methodologies used in mondora: the retrospective meetings, the celebration of failures, the inverted hierarchy - the CEO at the service of the employees - the transparency of information towards everyone, the self-organization of teams. “A colleague had to go to a mountain refuge for a sports trial test in which he drank beetroot juice, in order to see how this juice could help oxygenate blood at high altitudes. The team approved this expedition even if they had work to finish. The refuge however didn’t have a good enough wifi connection, the colleague was not able to finish the work and the customer got angry and told me all about it, as happens in traditional companies. I supported the team’s decision” says Francesco, giving this as an example of being at the service of the team and not at the head of the team.
Governance and economic decisions
There is a single budget for the company. The management of this budget is participative: it is sufficient to be an employee, or a colleague as mondora employees are called, to have access to the revenue statement, which is regularly published on Discourse. “When a colleague is interested and finds something unclear, we may spend hours discussing it” says Michele. The approach towards risk management, evolved from agile methodologies, tends to reduce the time of delivery and the length of contracts. “We have two week contracts with our customers, each contract ends after two weeks. In this way there is always a minimum risk factor to manage and we never have high risks. On a customer we could lose at most 15 000 euro, not 150 000. Compared to a standard agile delivery, we have shortened delivery times to two week periods so that we could reduce the risk of failure on a project” says Francesco. As there are no management levels,there are also no expense levels with the investment budget that are differentiated by role: everyone can potentially spend everything.
Even in the case of buying company cars we always ask for as many opinions as possible. Some colleagues participate more than others, but the result is an informal, non-structured advice process and we use this for all kinds of investments. For example, we recently changed our office internet connection, moving to a much more expensive option, and the whole process was carried out by a colleague, Alessandro, who asked for people’s views and took full responsibility for the decision. In general we don’t make many investments, we already have the best machines we can get, as a starting point. The main investments we make concern new hires, always taken on by colleagues, explains Michele together with some team members.
Regarding financing: “for fourteen years we brothers always financed ourselves, as shareholders. We never divided profits but always reinvested the sums in the company. The financial indicators are very positive. One we use is EBITDA, but we also consider non-financial indicators, such as the participation of 97% of our colleagues in Officevibe, or the fact that we receive work requests from customers without looking for them. I think it is a positive indicator when we get work without looking for it…” say Francesco and Michele. Finally, when considering Board of Administration meetings, seeing as the company was entirely owned by the Mondora brothers until recently, the practice is rather atypical: some formal meetings are necessary for legal purposes, but the shareholders are in constant contact and always confronting each other, even in informal settings.
Organizational processes and systems connected to people management
Organizational structure and team management The company has a flat structure: it can be considered as an ecosystem, a network of teams, with people who move between teams independently, by asking for a change or by using the Slack channel #openallocation where they can sign up to open activities on other teams. There are no centralized functions: centrality is achieved through systems and IT channels that notify updates so that everyone can have access to information in real time. Communication is done through Skype, Slack, Google Hangouts, Whatsapp and the seasoned email. The Slack channel #assenze (absences) is used to communicate who will be away from the office, seeing as it is possible to work remotely, and helps coordinate who will be physically present when. In another channel, #opacity0 (in the sense of maximum transparency), most colleagues - it is not mandatory - answer a set of questions sent automatically by a “bot” each day. They let everyone know what they worked on yesterday, what they will work on today and what obstacles they are encountering. This information is shared with everyone. Francesco monitors the obstacles and helps people find solutions to them. There are other tools in place oriented towards project management. One of the simplest is the Kanban tool on Jira. In addition there are specific Slack channels for each customer, in which the priority of resources on a project is discussed. These channels are also used by the customers, so they can share our way of working. There is also a Slack channel called #general in which priorities are discussed between teams, on a company level. Finally, there is an intensive use of bots connected to Slack and Telegram so that people have their own personal automated secretary. New people: hiring and onboarding Hiring is carried out by each team without the need of approval. If legally required, one of the CEOs will sign a document, but there is no need to check team decisions and there is complete trust on this matter. The hiring criteria are simple and essential: when hiring experienced people the rule is “you must hire someone who is more skilled than you, at least in one thing”. This is because the new person will be helping you and will have to be able to do your job. Junior people are also hired now and then and in this case the team must select those who are most passionate about learning new skills. When hiring a new person the team must make sure that they have sufficient time and resources to help the new hire get settled in the job. In order to facilitate the onboarding process of new hires, mondora.com has an open source handbook (https://github.com/mondora/handbook) that people sign when they are being hired. The handbook covers the mission and purpose, the various work policies regarding how to work, hours, remote working, office behaviour, holidays and so on. The company values, the flat structure, the culture, being a Benefit Corporation and Certified B Corp are also all covered in the handbook, along with the Code of Ethics. By reading the handbook one can clearly identify the mondora approach to work, which is based on self responsibility and self organization. No one will be told “today you will do this”, most work is carried out by personal initiative and this is clearly outlined in the handbook: “ask your colleagues which projects they are working on, choose the one you like best and get involved”. Training, coaching and tutoring There is no formal training programme. Colleagues work in pairs and learn from each other, and pairs are rotated often, sometimes even daily. However, there is a policy in place that guarantees extra paid hours for attending courses, conferences and events that are of interest to the company. These paid hours are in addition to the 72 hours of work permit defined in the work contract. As mentioned previously, coaching is reciprocal and not only senior to junior. Within the company we have also identified some people who most feel mondora as their own and who act as mentors for others. In this way we can spread a culture of participative, horizontal leadership. “If you always consider yourself to be at someone’s service, you can really be the leader that we believe in. It’s a sort of servant leadership: consider yourself at the service - and not at the head - of your staff”, explains Francesco. Trust, feedback, evaluations and performance management Trust is built through openness and transparency, and by eliminating the fear of making mistakes, without the need of prizes and punishments. Feedback and evaluations are never personal, but team-based: “we are not interested in personal evaluation, individual feedback is often informal and only given when someone asks for it in an informal meeting”. Teams make independent decisions and reciprocal feedback is given during the retrospective meetings. Feedback focuses on learning from one’s mistakes and the meetings are centered around future improvements and development, they are not times to look at past events and therefore avoid useless blaming and penalizing. Job rotation, holidays and flexibility As there are no specific roles in the company, what we call job rotation is actually team rotation, something which individuals and teams choose independently. New activities are shared on the Slack channel #openallocation and people can view these and choose to take part if they wish to change activity or try something new. As for the flexibility of fitting work life with studies or other personal activities, everything is managed within the team. There are many examples of this, like the case of a colleague who studies music and decides with the team when she will take time off during the two week sprint, agreed for delivery to the customer, to pursue this activity. For each sprint, the team chooses the people who will work towards a delivery, also based on individual availability. Holidays that go beyond what is stated in the work contract are also negotiated within the team. Mondora.com has an unlimited holiday policy, but days off must be approved by the team, seeing as everyone will be contributing to paying the wages of the colleague who is taking extra time off beyond work contract days. This policy is currently being integrated in the new work contract draft. The most interesting and innovative case regarding flexibility is that of a colleague who used to work for a company in which he was frequently bullied and who consequently was unable to find work for a time.
During the six months of probation he was motivated because he wanted to pass the period. However, as he never had anyone telling him he was useless, or setting impossible targets for him that he would never be able to reach - which happened all the time in his old company - after some time he had a nervous breakdown. This colleague has now been working in the fields, together with our farmer colleague Luca, for some months. Working in the fields has really helped him and he is feeling much better. Today he came into the office to see how we were doing, say Francesco, Michele, Amedeo and Roberto. Titles, tasks and targets There are no roles and titles and we don’t want any - there are emerging team roles, such as the project coordinator and the Scrum Master, but they are just extra roles taken on by people who develop software every day as their main activity. The Scrum Master in particular is an important figure who acts as a timekeeper within the team, helping everyone to meet deadlines, negotiating with customers if more time is needed for a particular task or if problems arise, and keeping everyone informed on the progress during the two week sprint. Anyone can act as Scrum Master for a team, but this is always in addition to being a developer on another team.
Company targets do not normally involve productivity. At the moment targets include a set of OKRs (objectives and key results), but these are not sales or business objectives. They are social or environmental objectives which the team tries to reach together. An example is “at least 200 km per month of bike commuting each” for which there is a refund of 20 cents per kilometer in order to incentivize health and movement for colleagues of mondora. Other objectives relate to customer happiness and include monitoring on-time payments: with two week contracts, if a customer blocks or delays a payment it means he is not satisfied with our work. Remuneration, incentives, benefits and non economic awards Remuneration comes in the form of salaries, there are no added incentives or bonuses. Everyone works on salary, and this is defined by the team, as a correct compensation. “There is a minimum value which must be observed, which is the average salary level in the Milan market, and which is a good wage for Valtellina” says Michele. The company is considering the possibility of giving a team bonus, based on short-term sums, which has to be self-managed by the team. If the team is not able to agree on the distribution of the bonus, the money is returned to the company. As benefit, thanks to the work of the farmer colleague, people regularly receive honey, wine and corn crackers. The types of recognition go from a “thank you for the work you are doing”, used frequently, to a free dinner or a weekend in a spa. These activities are not structured, they are unpredictable so as to not create automation. They are also very private and happen at unexpected times in case of particular identification with the company, giving privilege to human relations. The intention is that of working more and more on the welfare of colleagues and not on bonuses, and all this will be part of the new work contract that is being written. The contract will take into account all the peculiarities of being a Benefit Corporation with a flat structure, organized around self-managed teams. Leaving the company: dismissals and resignations Sometimes the body rejects the organ, or the organ needs to change body. We try to dampen and delay this rejection in order to understand if the situation can be healed or if there is the need for a break. If the situation cannot be improved we face it, but we have only carried out a dismissal twice in fourteen years. If a person decides to leave us, which can happen, we try to understand why and negotiate the leave period. People who leave the company usually do so because they need a change in their life, or feel the need to live a new experience abroad. Some leave because of break-ups or partner moves. In some cases the working relationship doesn’t end, but simply changes form. In other cases people want to try something new and we support them in the leaving process. Just as we take on a colleague, we have to let him go. Once a colleague had to move to Tokyo and we made it possible for him to keep working with us as an external consultant. People are always welcome back. One colleague, for example, returned to us after spending a year with another company… explain Francesco and Michele.
The office walls have been painted by colleagues using a special technique learned from Solas, who acted as a coach. This was not a compulsory activity, people were free to take part or not. The offices are open plan, there are no cubicles or individual spaces. There is a free seating policy, so people choose where to sit each day. The desks are painted two colours, to encourage pair working and there are high tables for stand-up meetings scattered here and there. There are lots of whiteboards for brainstorming and reasoning activities, a fit ball here and there, a climbing wall at the entrance and a couch on which to relax. Regarding music, there is an almost endless shared playlist that people can listen to with headphones whilst working, without disturbing others. A kitchen enables people to cook and share meals, the fridge is filled by whoever wants to share food. Water, tea, coffee, fruit and beer, all organic, are never missing. There are always some self-produced corn crackers for people to snack on too. There is a strong tie with nature and Luca, the farmer-colleague, is in constant contact with everyone inside mondora through a Slack channel called #agri. Here Luca can ask for assistance in the fields and people can choose to help him out. “He recently informed us that there were potatoes to plant and six people went to help him. They got so tired that they didn’t come to the office for three days after that…” says Francesco, smiling. There is also a great attention towards the environment: rubbish is sorted, the temperature is regulated by an intelligent thermostat to avoid energy waste, the offices a cleaned with non-toxic products and the office is “paper-free” so there are no printers. Every Thursday during winter, when the weather is nice enough, some people work from a mountain refuge with wifi, so they also get to ski together. “We leave early in the morning, at 7am, we walk up with touring skis and reach 2000m over sea level by 9am. We work until 11.30, then ski for an hour and have lunch. We then ski a bit more and work the rest of the afternoon. Having skiing breaks during the workday is positive for people’s wellbeing” says Michele. The activity started as an experiment last year, after a shared idea. It worked really well and will be repeated every year, Work hours and remote working There are no set work hours. People are asked to work 40 hours a week, but the daily hours are not checked by anyone, as it is also possible to work from home regularly. Occasionally there is a discussion about reducing working hours to 30 per week, but we have not yet reached a decision. On the Slack channel #assenze (absences) people write to inform colleagues if they will be out of office, and everyone can work from home. As the handbook given to new employees explains, people with little work experience and new hires should work from the office in order to learn more easily from others, as well as sharing ideas and getting to know the team better. However, working from home is possible for everyone. The Macbook, mouse, headphones and other basic equipment are the company’s own, but for bureaucratic reasons people working from home must use their own internet connection.
The sense of community, both internal and external, is favoured thanks to the methods and systems used. The link with the land is very strong and is also described in the company statute, as we have seen. An interesting practice for team creation is the use of a simple test, as well as an intense dialogue, to understand the various temperaments of people. The results are used to compose teams not only based on technical skills, but also on personalities, in order to have a good mix that will improve the efficiency of collaboration and results. Recurrent meetings, decision processes and conflict resolution The key meeting is the team retrospective that is held every two weeks and is connected to the delivery contract with the customer, that defines the software releases for each two week period. As stated previously, this meeting focuses on learning from one’s mistakes. Another important meeting which takes place every six months is the company retrospective: everyone meets in a location outside of the office, mixing work with social activities. Company decisions, as we have seen, are based on an informal advice process in which everyone’s opinions are shared in a forum. For actual decisions, people express their vote in pre-organized meetings: the topic has already been discussed in the forum and the meeting is just a place to express one’s preference. If a person doesn’t express an opinion it is considered a consent, but people mostly get to the meeting with a clear opinion and vote in mind. A decisional meeting of this kind normally lasts twenty to thirty minutes, and is called whenever necessary. The frequency of these meetings usually depends on the topic, for some decisions there can be a meeting every day. Another kind of meeting is the Daily Scrum, which involves each team and helps maintain the rhythm for the two week work sprint. During the retrospective meetings it is not unusual for some interpersonal conflicts to emerge, often between two people. The work group helps resolve these conflicts with the help of a facilitator who is external to the team. When such conflicts arise people try to stay calm, slow down and make time to solve them, so that everyone can understand the various opinions and then work together to find a shared solution.
Regarding expected leadership behaviours, everything that implies maturity, everything that proves one is an adult making conscious decisions, is considered positive.
Delegating choices, passively suffering without acting, not taking responsibility and imposing one’s own will on others are considered teenage behaviours and are not accepted. Francesco, one of our colleagues, was used to working in a very structured way and often had trouble with the rest of the team. Now he has contributed in creating the company as it is and he’s a fantastic person to work with. For us it’s very important to explain why we do things in order to create an ecosystem of sharing. An example of this is our project Share Our Break (http://shareourbreak.com): we decided to send all our customers some corn crackers made by local farmers instead of sending them Christmas presents, so that we could help the farmers. It was important for us to motivate the project to our colleagues, who contributed in creating a better definition by sharing their ideas and agreeing to its purpose, says Francesco. Internal and external communication Internally, there is free access to all information, all documents are on Google Docs and shared with everyone online. Some are not editable as they have legal value, but all are visible by the whole team. Information is exchanged through various platforms, especially Slack channels. Towards the outside world everyone can speak for the company:
We do a lot of personal marketing. Rather than having centralised marketing focusing on the mondora brand, we try to do branding on people. We encourage colleagues to have a Github account and write articles. Our colleague Kirsten edits and proofreads the articles, and publishes them on “bcalmbcorp.com”, our monthly newsletter that we send to all customers and friends. We don’t talk about the ordinary, or everyday life. We prefer to talk about things that are not directly our business, such as agriculture. The tone is that of storytelling, in truth we are all nerds, says Francesco. After analising in detail the current situation of mondora and all the specificities that characterise the company, we began to reflect on how we got to such an organization, a culture and a way of working of this kind, and we wondered how we could maintain this in the future. How did we get to this? Right from the start, in the pioneering phase in which everyone did everything, and in the following years, it was difficult to recognize mondora’s organizational model and it was no easy task for Francesco and Michele to define an organization chart. Now people talk more easily about flat structures and horizontal leadership, there is much literature on the topic. Ten, fourteen years ago no one was talking about these things and it was difficult to have the big picture of what the company wanted to be. The breakthrough came recently: “only once we obtained our B Corporation certification in 2014-2015, were we able to certify our diversity compared to traditional companies. It’s as if we were authorised to be a bit crazy, non-conventional” reflects Francesco. “This helped us better define our purpose that is to create benefit inside and outside of the company, on our land. I believe we cannot be altruistic if we are not first profoundly egoistic”. The journey was definitely part of an evolution of maturity, which is difficult for those colleagues who have only ever worked in mondora to grasp, as they have no means of comparison. The colleagues who joined mondora after previous work experiences in traditional companies are those who understand the evolution best: those who come from large consultancy firms for example, are able to note the differences in pressure (less pressure and more passion) and in the amount of socialisation. Being able to work for a software company in a rural area is also considered a benefit by these people, who claim their experience in mondora has greatly improved their quality of life. It was therefore extremely interesting to listen to the story of how this evolutionary process was activated and what critical conditions enabled a new kind of company organization to emerge.
I would call it “the big failure”. At one point of our company life, we decided to change social paradigm. It was 2007, things were not always easy and we had decided to become more product oriented. There were about 30 of us in 2005-2006, we worked mainly as consultants for customers, we were reactive rather than proactive, but we earned well. We didn’t have a hierarchy, we tried to make people feel good, but we didn’t have the same level of maturity that we have now. Things were not going too well and within one week six people resigned. There was general unhappiness and people no longer enjoyed working together. These events leave a mark. We were not mature enough to handle the situation, but we learned the lesson and started paying more attention to the profound essence of being human and of physically enjoying working together. After this difficult time, we began to give more value to people, although we then made further mistakes, this time on a managerial level. We hired our own bosses! - we chose an external CEO and commercial director, two very traditional business figures, that told us what to do. Although we had personally been working with agile methodologies for years, we lacked the courage to bring these methods into the company. The people we hired managed the company in such a way that it went from a positive revenue to a negative one, and then they left. The only positive aspect of this experience is that we used the money to pay the wages of people in Valtellina. By 2011 we were only a few left, but we were very well connected people who were extremely committed to the company.
When listening to this story it is easy to understand that these problems created a new conscience of leadership in the founders: it was a time of deep transformation. “In the moment of despair we looked at the people who worked with us and thought: ‘only together can we work.’ We recognised that we were a group, there were no personal interests. Right from the first month after we took control of the situation, we were making 50.000 euro. From there onwards we began to grow, we found our strength in the group.”
In 2016 other lines of thought brought mondora to accept the acquisition of the majority of shares by TeamSystem, a large company specialising in management software on the European market. TeamSystem was impressed by the excellent knowledge and skills of mondora, as well as by the agile methodologies and the innovative approaches used. The different approach of the company, the presence of people who were responsible and could make their own decisions, and the sense of community both within mondora and towards the land around were seen as very positive factors by TeamSystem. The decision to accept the acquisition was not only made by the founders, but was discussed amongst everyone in the company. The discussion was centered on whether we should remain as we were, or accept the acquisition proposal and become part of a large group of companies. Many people in mondora expressed their opinions. On the business side people judged how useful it would be to have access to a larger and more closed market section, which would not be easily available without joining TeamSystem. On the social side the discussion was centered around the possibility of legally becoming a Benefit Corporation and being able to tie the probable increase in revenue with the benefit objectives of the company. The acquisition confirmed people’s reasoning and shows how it is possible for a major shareholder to leave freedom of action to those who wish to enlarge their business to increase the positive impact they can create. People’s happiness has not changed and mondora’s way of being could go viral throughout the whole TeamSystem group. How can this way of working be maintained through time? We know how to be resilient and anti-fragile because we make anti-fragile software and as software is usually the mapping of an organization, there are specific studies on this statement. We can’t build resilient software if we are not resilient. For example, a BitTorrent protocol is highly resilient because instead of having a file on a pc it has 600 parts distributed on 6000 machines. There is no longer a single place where knowledge is stored, but there are flows that bring knowledge together. This is the same approach we have in our organization: the company must be able to live and go on by putting together different knowledge flows, not by concentrating knowledge in a few individuals. All of last week we were home sick, but the company didn’t suffer from it, reflect Francesco and Michele with their colleagues.
What could really push the organization to fall back onto more traditional operation models, ruining the culture and the company, is the hypothetical addition of a traditional manager, who would add hierarchies and levels among the people. A scenario in which everyone leaves, or everyone goes against management, would also ruin our current organization. However, our culture is very homogeneous and accepted so it’s difficult to see how this could happen. When talking to people in the company the main feelings are positivity, peace and happiness, as well as acceptance of being different, passion and freedom. It’s difficult to go back now, even if there are a few people who do not agree with this participative culture, mainly those with a strong ego and a choleric temperament. These individuals want to advance their career or are motivated by power. It’s not always easy to maintain focus on why we do certain things, but it is a critical and fundamental aspect of our organization. The benefits of this system are just too many. “Customers often ask us for discounts, but then they want us because we are different. They tell me ‘you surprise us because instead of talking about what you do, you talk about why you do it’”.
In the final part of this long interview we talked about the opposite tensions that need to be managed to keep this culture alive, and the specific leadership traits that the Mondora brothers come across in this self-organized management done by their teams. Opposite tensions usually don’t exist because there is often a dominant aspect that prevails: between top-down and bottom-up leadership, for example, there is no conflict as top-down leaderships rarely manifests itself, as we wish it to be. Between planning and control compared to perception and adaptation there is no friction because the usual approach is to not plan anything. “Try and then adapt, sensing and experimenting is our different way of working” explain Francesco and a few colleagues. And again, there is not much tension between the need for skills and knowledge in relation to the empowerment of decision makers who interact with the customer, as everyone covers both these roles. “Here it is more important to take responsibility towards a customer; knowledge and skills are shared anyway. We are rather against experts and specializations” says Francesco. The only tension that is actually felt is that between individual freedom of choice and collective, collaborative sageness. This is because both are appreciated. The tension is better managed when the group has a higher level of maturity: it’s a question of balance between You and You as a Team, that must constantly be sought and developed. As for the leadership characteristics of the two founders, the positive aspect of being two leaders is immediately evident: there is constant confrontation and there is no loneliness at the top, the weight of responsibility is shared. “With everyone, we follow the practice of “no my 2 cents”, with the american meaning of “my 2 cents” - giving my contribution even if I am not involved in the process or can’t take part in it. We are against “my 2 cents” and we refrain from giving our own opinion at all costs. If the contribution we can give is very small, our different opinion can destabilize and break enthusiasm so, if we can’t contribute significantly to a solution, we embrace it even if we don’t agree with it 100%”. Connected to this, and very interesting, is Francesco’s reflection on how to maintain the correct level of presence and work on one’s ego:
Try to let the reins go and understand that they are not a tool for governing people - this requires lots of internal work. The goal becomes that of getting the whole company to think, rather than acting alone to get things done. It is important to make energies flow, understand that these energies are there and guide them to where everyone wants them. The ego is cancelled, it is hidden away, and you find the eco. The correct frame of mind is to believe you are at the service of your colleagues, and it is an internal journey.
Unfortunately, it is clear that this organizational model depends on the presence of Francesco and Michele as leaders, and the idea is to develop this culture in a way that it regenerates itself. For this reason, the brothers are investing in the people that most consider the company as their own, so that they may develop the collaborative culture of self-organization, working on the egos that are always present in the company. Outside of the company, many of the colleagues and friends that they have share their approach:
Luckily we are not alone in our beliefs, but others lack the strength to make changes. For example, we are engaging our colleagues in the creation of a new work contract, which we are writing together. It will be a long process, but it will be accepted by everyone because everyone is contributing to it. Other companies, although they want to become B Corps, want to keep the official industrial branch contract, to simplify acceptance, and then act differently from what the contract says. Everyone must do what they feel is right, the mondora way may not work in all settings. It has to be Your model, it doesn’t work if the spiritual part is missing. A company, just like a living being, has a spirit, soul and body. You can have a beautiful body as a company, but if it is not connected to the spirit and the soul of the organization, if the people have not changed inside, it doesn’t work.
The words of Francesco and Michele clearly indicate the deep conceptual references that form the base of their approach to company organization: the complete world vision of Rudolf Steiner and the company level developments of Bernard Lievegoed and Otto Scharmer, but it is also possible to see applications of the theories of Adriaan Bekman on horizontal leadership and, most of all, from the whole interview it is clear that we are inside a Teal Organization. All the characteristics of Teal are present. The absence of hierarchies in favour of self-organization; the centrality of self-managed teams; the organization seen as a community and living organism; the holistic vision. The non existent staff functions, and non existent job titles. The “participative” leadership, with decisions being made by everyone and power being shared. The metaphor that describes this is the living being. The main innovations are: self-organization and the concept of fullness and organizational purpose. Maximising profit is not the purpose, the company has the task of uniting individual development with company goals, cultivating all the aspects of humanity: emotional, cultural and spiritual. The company of the Mondora brothers seems to embody the new Teal-Evolutionary paradigm of organizational models, of which Frederic Laloux talks and which represents a new evolutionary step in human conscience, a seed of the future in the contemporary Italian context.