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Culture and values: More important than skills and experience

by Martin Dower

We’ve been pretty fortunate over the years to have a core of great people and clients who are bought into the Connected vision (that’s not to say we’ve not made some terrible mistakes in the past) and we attribute that more on culture/values than on the traditional CV-based world of experience and skills.

Shared beliefs, practices and values

It’s really that simple; be open with what the company is trying to achieve and get everyone on-board with the idea, the approach and framework. We all, I suppose, want to create or work in a company that everyone thinks is a great place to be and this extends beyond the boundaries of staff to include clients and suppliers. The art, then, is to understand what both staff and clients want from a company – and this has changed rather dramatically over the last few years.

Not so long ago, staff wanted nice company cars, fat pensions, nice offices, regular work hours and a lovely boss. But not now, folks now want to work whenever and wherever they choose and guided by a framework that revolves around good working relationships, appreciation and collaboration.

Whats the problem?

It seems that we are now at the end of the productionised workplace and into a whole new world of agility, belief and mutual working. Many organisations and people haven’t made the transition, they’re set in a 1990’s mode of working where offices exist to constrain the staff to outmoded working hours, using old “time and motion” metrics and linear task management. This model, created over 100 years ago, served the industrial revolution very well as we relied on men and woman to carry-out repetitive tasks as efficiently as possible – the greatest efficiency at the time was a big shed (or factory, or office) with everyone within touching distance of their tasks, lunchbreaks, bosses and procedures.

In our, continuing, journey to this new state of work we’ve worked on the following core elements. We’re not 100% there, but thats the nature of business these days; we’re striving towards improving all aspects of our organisation. By the end of 2012, we had spent nearly 3 years moving our entire business to the cloud with the aim of enabling independent working, if required. When, at the end 2012 we quit our glass palace and became truly location independent we were treading a relatively new path. Ok, some companies had made a success of it but most of those had evolved into that situation from birth and, in many ways, we were taking a step back into a “start-up” style culture. Brave? Maybe, but we had 100% buy-in and had carried out lots of little experiments to test the waters.

Losing central command-and-control processes and fixed (shackled?) working environments is not something you simply decree, it takes thought, planning, engagement and consensus. Here are some of things we adopted to make the transition smooth.

  • Trust, trust and trust. You must trust your staff, your colleagues and your bosses. If you’re running a business this is deeply-ingrained in the culture so if this is not how you work now this needs fixing first.
  • Proof. Show them examples of companies that have made a success of this, such as 37Signals or Hubspot
  • Collaborate. Don’t dicate the framework, collaborate on it with the folks who embrace the approach and agree on lots of compromises.
  • Honesty. Some people can’t work this away. Accept this and help them move on to an organisation more suited to them. The same applies to clients so we need to part ways.
  • Change. Folks might feel guilty if they are not doing actual work during the 9-5 slot, encourage them to split-shift their day, say 7-10 and 2-4pm.
  • Watch. Productivity should jump quite markedly, if your not seeing it then look again how you are tasking projects and work.
  • Stay in touch. Individuals thrive on interaction with others. Working in locations where there are no staff around should be seen as an opportunity to interact with strangers (new friends) and create a digital home for them to chatter.
  • Evolve. Seek continual feedback and implement improvements and changes when people tire or find issues.

Everyone seems to be happier and more engaged in the business than ever before. Our work output is now measured in terms of delivery and has taken a huge jump whilst the traditional task-list, time-scoped world now seems, looking back, to be such a crummy way of working. We’re liberated. We deliver more. We enjoy work more.

Hey, what about skills and experience?

In the digital services world folks call themselves experienced with just 3 years under their belt. That’s not real experience, unfortunately. In a market so young it’s fair to say that most folks and clients can’t really call themselves experienced. They can, if they have a thirst for knowledge and time to explore new things, become digital powerhouses. I also find that if folks are truly experienced then they will have built their own company, using their own values and culture, so they won’t be working for you or your clients.

But we need skills, right? Not strictly true. In the digital services world you can buy, rent or lease pretty much any service or skill you need on a usage basis. For example, the days of needing a fulltime systems manager disappeared when Amazon sorted our AWS. Need a web-site framework building? No need to build from scratch – pull a framework off the shelf and you’re up and running in days, not months. The days of hand-cutting complex digital services are dead, well and truly.

However, there is the legacy world. Clients and suppliers loaded with technical debt and out-of-date digital strategies do need help and if they’re not ready to make the jump to modern digital services they will need old-fashioned skills, experience, office desks, towers of servers and time-recording. This is not our space and you can see that by the clients and staff we work with; we understand where the future is going and are ruthlessly off-loading the old world.

We are not alone

At the outset of this exercise, in 2010, we felt we were ploughing our own furrow and took a fair amount of criticism of how we were looking to build the company going forward. The idea of stressing far less about financial metrics, time-recording, billing, conventional HR and company structure management just didn’t seem to gel with some folks. They are not here anymore; both staffers and clients alike either left of their own accord or we called “time”.

Now, it seems everyone is jumping on the bandwagon but I feel some maybe missing the point. Work is not where you go to, it’s what you do.

The key point is to hand-over the running of the business to everyone, both staffers and clients. They know best and know what we do best and that’s what we have focussed on. Simply handing out iPads to staff and giving them flexi-time is not the same as re-shaping the company to suit what we, and our clients, really need.

But it doesn’t stop here

We’re proud to be early adopters, we’re proud that we can see a little further into the future than most and we’re keeping our foot hard on the gas and driving change through quickly (agile) when and where we need it. 2013 has been a pivotal year for us and we’re much stronger now than we have ever been and that strength is paying dividends; both in terms of wellbeing/happiness and the financial result of doing good work for culturally-aligned clients.

Want to know about our agile culture, want to learn how we transitioned? Contact me and I’ll happily chat over coffee, or beer.