Organizations of all sizes are managing differently as a condition of survival, says Jurriaan Kamer, a partner at The Ready, which specializes in organization design and transformation. “It’s not as simple as just moving everything to a video call.”
His new book, Formula X, cited as “a must-read book for today’s uncertain financial market,” is a business fable—management lessons through the lens of fiction, in the vein of Who Moved My Cheese? The book’s hero, Ronald Park, is the recently hired COO of a British kitchen company whose chief investor demands a productivity boost. After a disastrous experience with pricey management consultants, Park finds inspiration from the pinnacle of motorsports, Formula 1.
Formula X was written in a pre-COVID 19 world, but the questions, which Kamer considers with clients, are the same: “How do we keep awareness of what is going on? How do we plan and prioritize? How do we strategize and do scenario planning in the midst of this chaos?”
We spoke with Kamer about the role of storytelling in culture change.
HF: You don’t have the typical author profile. How did Formula X come to be?
JK: I work for The Ready, which is helping some of the biggest brands on the planet change the way they work, in order to become more adaptable to change, meaningful, and human. My co-author, Rini van Solingen, is a professor at the Delft University of Technology and a speaker and consultant.
Rini has written several business books. He was talking to his publisher about writing a novel about speed in organizations, when he discovered that I had a keynote about the cross-over of F1 and organization design. The decision to team up was then quickly made. Within a few months, the book was born.
HF: What can F1 racing teach us about organizational design?
While researching F1 teams, I saw patterns that I also saw in other high-performing business organizations. They all have a clear purpose, fast decision-making, a deliberate meeting structure focused on learning and improving, information transparency, self-managing teams, and many other things that are also applicable outside motorsports.
The first 80 percent of the book is a story; the second part is a theory chapter in which we explain the lessons using the FASTER model.
HF: Why did you decide to put so much emphasis on the story?
Success stories resonate with people. They are an important way positive change spreads through an organization. We create enthusiasm by saying, for example, “Look, this department has changed the way we make decisions, making them 50 to 200 percent faster,” and then we give them the spotlight. Then other people in the organization will say “Oh, I want that.”
These stories, which create curiosity, also create pull for us, as consultants. We can measure how change is happening by the number of pull requests we see. We want to create change that “goes viral,” instead of change that is pushed from the top, as it is more sustainable and engaging.
For example, if we are promoting “safe to try” decision-making, we want to hear it pop up in the wild—whether that’s a leader saying that phrase onstage or a team member including the idea in a PowerPoint. This is all storytelling. It’s people creating meaning.
HF: Why use a book as a tool, instead of so many other storytelling devices?
Books are an essential tool in the pursuit of change. They also allow us to scale our impact beyond what we can do as a small consultancy. People read Formula X or Brave New Work (a 2019 book by The Ready founder Aaron Digman, which author Seth Godin called “the management book of the year”), and they can get ideas of what they can do to improve their way of working, without needing to hire us.
Publishing helps build our brand’s reputation, which in turn will lead to more and better projects.
Books can also filter out potential clients that aren’t aligned with our philosophy: if you don’t like what is in the book, don’t hire us!
HF: Why write a fable, instead of from personal experience?
It was my co-author who suggested using the format of a fable. He had already written several of them (including The Power of Scrum and How to Lead Self-Managing Teams?). What he discovered was that fictional business books are often bought in larger quantities. When someone enjoys the book, they may buy a copy for their whole team. The narrative doesn’t feel like “homework,” compared to a regular business book. It is simply more accessible and easy to digest.
We have seen orders as large as 300 books because of this; it helped put Formula X in the #2 spot of bestselling business books in The Netherlands. This is nice because what we really care about most is reaching and inspiring a lot of people to go and improve their teams and reinvent their organization.
HF: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
We started with a brainstorm: What are the lessons we wanted to convey? What are the interesting things we can teach people about how to make an organization faster?
We needed a setting that people could relate to. We were first thinking of a car garage but needed something with a little more scale, with a product that requires several departments to work together. It had to have similar challenges of most of the organizations of our readers, like inertia, bureaucratic processes, top-down management, unrealistic shareholder expectations and unhappy customers.
We both had stories from our own past kitchen purchases—some terrible experiences, others excellent. This helped us think about the worst possible kitchen company and how it could be transformed into the best possible one.
We started to brainstorm different scenes that would help us tell the story, and, finally, we based the characters in the story on people that we have encountered during our careers. We actually used their original names in the manuscript at first, which helped us go back to those memories and ask, “What would he or she say in this situation?”