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Don't Just Talk About Change - Do It Now

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At the end of last year, I posted a blog about the 'Open' culture we've cultivated at Grey, and how this culture change programme has supercharged our business in all the right ways. I promised to follow this introduction up with a list of ways any business could reap the rewards, just as we have, by implementing its principles. I suggested that despite the economic gloom, if we all invested in our company cultures, and the confidence and motivation of our workforce, that together we could help feel our way out of recession. And I ended it by saying, 'Don't just talk about change, do it now'.

Having taken my own advice, things have been rather busy - in a good way - hence the rather long gap between posts. The reason the past few months have been busy for me personally leads me neatly onto my next point: the importance of building a workforce motivated to change by breaking the traditional parent/child relationship that exists in most businesses. Empowerment of individuals at all levels is crucial to Open.

First, pick the right team.

You need a good team to make Open work, to grow and take advantage of the opportunities that will present themselves. Furthermore, this should be an ongoing process: even now, three years into the programme, I've spent a lot of time (hence the delay to this post!) hiring some exceptionally talented people to take the business forward. And that's the other thing - get 'Open' right, and you'll begin to attract the very best talent; the talent who really buy in to 'Open' and will help the business flourish.

Whatever stage your business is at, you need to put together a committed and focused group at the top of the organisation to oversee change, and to make it happen; a team who invests effort in collective success and effort in making the team itself work effectively.

Do as I do, not as I say.

Even if you have a good team in place to lead it, change must happen at an individual level to succeed - and that includes you. Accepting that change is necessary is fairly easy. Acknowledging that you personally need to do things differently is not.

Fundamentally, culture is about the behaviour of management and if you can't change, nothing will. What you do (as a manager, chairman, chief exec, etc. More broadly, as a mentor), not what you say, is what really counts. Only your actions and leading by example will bring about a change in the way your whole organisation behaves.

Engage, don't mandate.

That said, simply hoping everyone will follow your example won't work. You still have to mobilise and energise what is likely to be a highly sceptical workforce. This is the greatest barrier to change and can only be surmounted by inviting your staff to shape the future of the business with you, not by trying to manipulate them to satisfy the needs of management.

At Grey, we invited everyone to a series of day-long workshops to engage staff in developing our new vision and values. The management team didn't define 'Open', the company as a whole did. In an open culture, the role of management is to create an environment that encourages creativity and allows every individual to be the best they can be. Furthermore, management must also focus on removing obstacles and barriers that obstruct this ambition (of which inevitably there are many).

Break habits and make change visible.

No matter what type of business you're in, culture is like concrete. Over time it sets into a particular mould and is hard to change - make no bones about that. To help the process, you need a tangible symbol of change. Any effective change program needs to be experienced physically as well as attitudinally.

Too much so-called change stays on PowerPoint. To really shake things up, you've got to take a sledgehammer to that concrete. Literally.

Fundamental to the success of Open is the breaking of barriers, physical or otherwise. So the first big step is tearing down walls: no offices (for anybody) and nobody sitting in departments. Then, change your processes to involve all stakeholders throughout a project so everyone not only understands the problem, but takes pride and ownership in delivering the best answer.
Be aware that in time, every new approach will also become entrenched. You need to keep smashing and resetting to maintain a vibrant culture and energised business. Not that all change has to be this radical. Much can be achieved through seemingly symbolic acts. Seen by everyone and felt immediately, symbolic acts can be disproportionately influential.

Cast management as mentors.

'Open' should turn the traditional organisational hierarchy upside down, recasting management as mentors. Ultimately, its success lies in the emphasis on the power of the individual (or individual teams) to do the right thing, their way. It allows ambitious entrepreneurs to thrive and be the best they can be - which can only be of benefit to the company.

If you sit in an organisation where the seventh floor doesn't know who's on the first floor, let alone what they think, you can't change a company's culture. To combat this kind of malaise, you need to change people's emotional contract with the organisation - and we went as far as giving junior executives a place on the board through the creation of 'Open Chairs'.

You also need tangible demonstrations of trust and devolution of responsibility. For Grey, an advertising agency and a creative company, the most totemic act was the removal of 'sign-offs'. For us, sign-offs became shorthand for everything that we believed was wrong about traditional agency ways of working. Sign-offs are about control, but they also disempower and imply that only the one person's point of view matters - that of the creative director, in this instance. This leads to a slow, dependent culture, frustrated clients and, most importantly, less good work.

Open belongs to everyone. It involves everyone. Even clients. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, so people must be granted the freedom to adapt the approach as they see fit and launch their own initiatives to promote a culture of collaboration. Do this, and you'll find leaders emerge at all levels.

In my final post about Open, I will share how to ensure Open helps you achieve and exceed your goals by being transparent, welcoming failure and accepting that change, while never linear, is good for everyone.