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NAPA - an agile, self-managed organization

No bosses, teams and individuals determining their work and making decisions with impact. How can we make agility, self-management and meaningful work a reality?


Waiting for decisions and approvals. No interactions and feedback from end users. Sales and software development not communicating enough, while Management becomes removed from the realities of day-to-day work.  If you were to make a list of working practices that can make life miserable for software developers, these would likely be at the top.

In an effort to remove as many of these situations as possible, NAPA has decided to go against the grain and change its company culture. This is in line with several companies who have explored ways of changing their organisational styles to be more agile and to give workers autonomy to make decisions. In NAPA, rigid hierarchies have been replaced by a focus on self-management, encouraging workers to build their own teams and seek out advice and guidance where necessary, but removing unnecessary checkpoints and roadblocks. We have adopted a new way of operating with no bosses, allowing workers to define their own roles, and aims to streamline decision making by giving this responsibility to employees at all levels, rather than concentrating it in management.

For us, this was necessary for a variety of reasons. Part of this came from the way we were building software. Following the principles of Design Thinking, which puts the user at the centre of an iterative design process, we realized that it would be beneficial for everyone involved in making the software to get closer to their users. This means that users can talk more directly to the people that are creating and improving their software. This is a major priority for us – to create an operating model that puts the user at the centre, rather than keeping them at arm’s length from developers.

Another benefit of this is that it helps us get more done, faster, and means that our people spend more time doing what they enjoy, and are good at. It removes unnecessary checkpoints but still means that all relevant people can feed in on a decision. Ultimately at NAPA, our goal is to improve the safety and eco-efficiency of the global maritime industry. We firmly believe that this way of working will help us reach this goal fast.

At its heart, our new way of working is based on trust. We trust that our people are smart enough that if they make a decision, having consulted everyone relevant, it will be good for our company. And if it’s not the right decision on that occasion, that’s fine too. We trust each other that we’ll make it right and learn from the decision, and grow as a company as a result.

Obviously, some ground rules and processes are needed to make this work. The principles behind this are:

Self-management. Everyone is responsible for his or her own work and decisions. No one is a superior authority to give orders to other roles. No one has power over another person. This also means that there are no rigid distinctions between sales, development and customer service. Developers are no longer hidden away from their users, and have more opportunities to interact with them. No one is ever obliged to join a team meeting – it’s up to the individual to decide.

- Guidance and advice. When making a decision, each person needs to consult two groups of people; those who have expertise on an issue, and those who will be affected by it. Having taken this advice, however, our employees make the decision themselves – even if there are opposing voices. We don’t need complete consensus to move forward, and we respect that. The guiding principle on how to choose the correct path of action is that it must create value for customers, colleagues, and with a quantifiable result, both now, and in the future.

-  Autonomous business units. Business units are autonomous, and responsible for their own success. We now have three entities; Design, Safety and Shipping Solutions, with a separate team for Business Support. Within each team, sales, services, and development functions must be populated, and there must be someone with overall responsibility. However, people can mix and match roles according to their strengths, weaknesses, and what is needed to get the job done.

For junior employees, this may seem daunting. However, because they are affected by decisions, they will be consulted. Just as anyone can ask for advice from someone with expertise, those with the expertise must consult – so, training and learning must happen as employees grow and move up through the business. In many instances, learning is accelerated as workers make more decisions by themselves, and learn from them.

Working in this way does incur a cost. It requires those at the top to give up control – which is why not every company that has tried this has succeeded. It also gives more people a chance to make decisions – and accepts that sometimes, these won’t be the best ones. However, in a culture of learning and sharing, this isn’t make or break – we believe that trusting people to make more decisions themselves, and pick themselves up faster when they fail, makes a stronger business.

Although self-management requires constant work to maintain, we’re living proof that this kind of model can work. Earlier this year, we created NAPA Fleet Intelligence, the industry’s first monitoring solution that doesn’t require any kind of onboard hardware and can provide voyage-by-voyage data backdated from 2015 onwards. This came out of an internal hackathon and within a year self-nominated team made it a reality. This is the speed we need to work, we needed to work smarter, and remove unnecessary checkpoints to make this happen.

‘Digital transformation’ is perhaps one of the most overused phrases right now. For many, it means buying some iPads, changing a few job titles, and then going on the way things have always been. At NAPA, we’ve genuinely transformed how we work and do business to help us create better products and better customer experience faster, and grow not only as a business, but as people, too.

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NAPA - an agile, self-managed organization+