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Ways to Create an Open Culture

Ways to Create an Open Culture

Originally posted on the Fast Company Co. Create website by Chris Hirst, excerpts below.

Three years ago, Grey London really needed to change. The industry had changed, the media landscape had changed and Grey remained a relatively successful (in financial terms at least), safe, but dull London outpost of a global network. Not a great, or ultimately sustainable, place to be if you’re in a creative industry.

Grey had tried to change before. The business wasn’t in denial, but it just seemed like the “uncrackable” problem. This time, we did it differently. Our strategy for change was to change our culture. We called this Open. It is both an expression of a culture and how we believe today’s people-based businesses should work in order to survive, evolve and thrive. It is a philosophy of collective creativity and collective responsibility. It encourages increased collaboration between departments, the agency and its clients. Any business can be Open; what follows is a brief description of how we did it, the lessons learned and the results we’re achieving.

As a team, we have a shared dissatisfaction for how most agencies choose to work. Despite selling creativity, many behave in the exact opposite way and the most conservative department is often the creative department. We believe that most “people” businesses are actually “talent” businesses and conventional pyramidal structures squash and stifle this talent. This makes them slower, less innovative and ultimately frustrating places to work. In 2009, we set about turning this pyramid upside down, re-framing the role of management as coaches and cultural guardians.

To achieve actual change rather than paper change we needed three things: vision, courage and urgency, with the greatest focus on the latter–because talking about change rather than doing it is where most programs come unstuck. We set metrics, a timeline, identified our key stakeholders (primarily in our case staff and clients) and published targets for all to see. It was scary, because metrics and transparency set targets that demonstrate success, but can also highlight failure. Focusing on actions ahead of words and documents, we held focus groups internally, removed all offices, official processes–even sacrosanct “sign-offs”–and department boundaries, creating a place that allowed people to be the best they could be. We believed that if we did this, breaking the traditional parent/child relationship that exists in most businesses, we would achieve radical change.

And we have. Over the past three years we have transformed our creative output, winning awards around the world, and doubling in size (revenue). Crucially, our staff and client satisfaction scores have also skyrocketed. Yet the job is not complete. Open positively affects our business on a daily basis, and with the desire to change as strong as ever, continues to drive us forward. Here, based on our experience, are some ways to become Open.

Don’t Just Strategize for Change

All businesses need to change. This is as true of a small, fast-paced creative business as it is of a global corporate behemoth. The problem is, despite the considerable money thrown at them and the legions of paper theories written about them, most change programs fail. Strategy is, in fact, the easy bit. Paying for it hurts, but the pain passes. Doing it gets very hard indeed. You need to be prepared for the long road ahead. Only a dramatic shift in culture can yield the best results.

Do It Now

Let’s face it, the ideal moment to change your business–when you’ve got a clear diary, all your clients are happy and there are no major projects in the pipeline–will never present itself. So stop waiting for the right time, just get on with it.

Pick the Right Team

The operative word here is team. You need to put together a genuine and focused group at the top of the business to make change happen. A team who invests effort in collective success and effort in making the team itself work effectively.

Engage, Don’t Mandate

The biggest barrier to change is mobilizing and energizing your workforce, which is likely to be highly skeptical. Your people need to be invited to shape the future of the business, not manipulated to satisfy the needs of management.

Break Habits and Make Change Visible

Culture is like concrete, which over time sets into a certain mold. An effective change program therefore needs a degree of physicality. Too much so-called change stays on PowerPoint. To really shake things up, you’ve got to take a sledgehammer to that concrete, but be mindful that, in time, the new way of doing things will also become too entrenched. You need to keep smashing and resetting to keep your culture vibrant and your business energized.

Recognize that Change is Lumpy

Set ambitious metrics for success and be transparent about what they are. Encourage open and honest feedback and share all the results with everyone. Open is about decisions, action and continuous change. Coupled with ambitious targets and full disclosure on progress, comes the very real possibility of failure. If you’ve fully embraced Open, you will make the wrong decisions from time to time, but as long as you continue to act and make more good decisions than bad ones, your business will move forward fast. Remember, change isn’t linear–it’s lumpy.

Don’t Stop

Too often, change consists of one-off initiatives that are forgotten by employees and abandoned by management. You need to nurture continual change and ongoing collaboration through workshops, training, social events and company-wide challenges.

Click HERE to read the entire article from the Fast Company Co. Create website.

John Lux
As COO of IDEAS, John manages the day-to-day operations of the company. He is a category expert in studio production and is responsible for bringing advanced digital media technology to IDEAS.