What does it really mean to be a democratic business?

NixonMcInnes, where I work, is one of the top democratic companies in the world, recognised by WorldBlu.

My understanding of this has changed, and it’s only starting to become clear what this actually means in practice.

Although we’ve always known that being democratic is the right way of doing business, it hasn’t always been easy.

For us, in the past, it has meant that everyone has had a say on everything. This brings up some frustrating memories – evenings spent debating minor details of the annual budget with 20 people is not a good use of time.


Our WorldBlu award

So what does it mean?

WorldBlu has 10 principles it says every democratic organisation should live by:

  1. A clear purpose and vision

We’ve just become super clear on this at NM. Our purpose is to create meaning in business. In our case, since becoming clear on this, it’s meant that everyone in the organisation has had the clarity required to be free to do whatever they want, as long as it is serving this purpose.

Personally, my challenge has been around shifting my mindset and behaviours from putting profit first in everything I do, to prioritising making this purpose real above anything else.

In practice, this has been very difficult for me because it goes against everything I’ve traditionally been taught about business. This will only truly ever work if the leaders of the business believe and do it. And that’s what has helped me in my transition.

  1. Transparency

This is the bit I believe we’ve always done well, but perhaps we haven’t always been very good at understanding why we do it.

Open book accounting, knowing everyone’s salaries and having whole team strategy meetings, are just some ways we’ve been able to practice transparency.

In practice this means understanding why we do what we do and being fully open so that everyone is able to have a greater understanding of what the company requires and how each individual can help accordingly.

  1. Dialogue and listening

If you’re going to be open & transparent then you need to be able to give and take feedback. The idea is to create new meaning and connections so that everybody can work together to serve the purpose.

  1. Fairness and dignity

For me this goes hand in hand with point 3 – listening and dialogue has to occur through the entire organisation to be truly meaningful. Treating everybody as equals builds trust, confidence and happiness.

When I first joined NixonMcInnes as an intern I was genuinely shocked to see how interested everybody was in my opinion. But it makes total sense now – everyone has a perspective and everyone can add value.

  1. Accountability

This has been a point of tension at NM in the past.

The idea that everyone had to have a say in absolutely everything we did made it extremely difficult to be clear about who was accountable for what.

Now we’re in the process of solving this issue by being super clear about who owns an initiative. At NM we see different initiatives as ‘circles’. Each circle sits within our over-arching purpose and has an owner – the source of the idea initiative (for more info on ‘source’ read this). This means that this person owns that initiative, because they hold the vision, so it’s down to them to recruit people in to help and ultimately have complete creative authority over it.

This is still in progress at NM, but currently is working out pretty well for empowering those with ideas to serve the purpose and creating fulfilment – one of our values.

  1. Individual and collective

We are all at NM to serve its purpose so we all need to be fully bought into it. At an individual level though we all have our own purpose.

We’ve been working with Charlie Davis, Very Clear Ideas & NM Associate, to define our company purpose, which ultimately starts with the source (founder, Tom Nixon), but we’ve also been encouraged to find our own sense of purpose. It’s when these two things align that beautiful things will happen. And the overlap between these two things is the sweet spot.

  1. Choice

We are now actively encouraged to ‘follow the energy’ at work. Just the other day I sat down with my coach and MD, Max StJohn, and we came up with a list of all the things I enjoy doing at work. Then we made a list of all the things I don’t like doing. He pointed at the ‘stuff I don’t like doing’ column and said “stop doing this now”. It’s been completely removed from my job role!

When I tell other people this story, they immediately think of the negative impact it might have on the company – “what if no one wants to do the same thing that’s crucial to the company?” is the question I normally hear. But how could it be so crucial to the company if no one wants to do it? What’s the point in doing it if there’s no drive behind it? The job will be badly done and we won’t be living our values – to be fulfilled, and to have complete autonomy.

  1. Integrity

We’ve now really started to change things up with the way we hire. We only want to hire people who really believe in our purpose and our values because that’s what and how we want to deliver.

  1. Decentralisation

Again, I think this was something we hadn’t got quite right in the past. Now we have a clearer understanding of control – it sits within the source of the initiative. So, although we have decentralised control, control still exists.

This means, instead of having everything open to everyone all the time, we have four stages, or operating models – just like the different options on a Google doc (another Very Clear Idea from Charlie):

  1. Private – protecting it so that it can grow
  2. View – sharing but not asking for input
  3. Comment – inviting feedback and input
  4. Edit – designing it together

10. Reflect and evaluation

Leading and developing is crucial to success. We practice feedback to each other but also give space for the whole team to talk about what we feel is working, or flag if something needs to change.

I really buy into these 10 principles and, although I’m still figuring lots of this stuff out, it’s becoming much clearer.

Democracy isn’t just about involving everyone all the time, it’s about creating freedom by having clear lines of accountability and giving everyone an equal opportunity to input and make decisions that will affect them.



The paradox of structure in business

Several decades ago, there was a wide belief that school playgrounds should not have fences because they would inhibit children’s creative play and sense of freedom.

Someone conducted an experiment to prove this*. But surprisingly, the opposite was true.

In this experiment, there were two playgrounds – one of these had a fence around it and the other one did not.

When a group of children were let into the fenceless playground, the children used a limited space and stuck together right in the center of the playground. Yet, when they were let into the fenced playground, the children used the entire space.

In this example, the physical structure paradoxically created a sense of freedom.

Photo by zendt66

Photo by Zendt66

This is the same in business too.

I recently took part in a systems thinking workshop.

As part of this workshop, we were given a role. We were either ‘tops’, ‘middles’, ‘bottoms’ or ‘customers’ – representing different stakeholders of an organisation.

In teams (tops, middles, bottoms) we were given a brief, a day (represented by 12 minutes) and an area of the room.

What was really interesting was, as the ‘day’ played out, most of the ‘bottoms’ were becoming frustrated because of the lack of direction from the ‘middles’ and ‘tops’. They hadn’t been given enough boundaries and this translated into a lack of understanding and knowledge to get on with the task in hand.

What was interesting was that not all of the ‘bottoms’ felt like this and some of them had thrived from the freedom they felt to get on with things in their own way and style.

This is because people have different creative styles.

The key, for any leader, is to create ‘gates’ in structures, to allow people to choose the structure that is right for them.

This can mean making the physical and emotional structures more flexible. It’s no coincidence that most creative agencies have open offices, lots of big whiteboards and encourage flexible working hours.

But there’s also something a bit deeper at stake here. It’s about giving people a purpose to work towards and a set of values to work by, and letting them do the rest, in their way.

*Source: Coursera – Creativity, Innovation and Change

A metaphor for business

In the 18th century, philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bantham, designed a new type of building called the Panopticon.

The Panopticon was a concept which would allow someone to observe (opticon) all (pan) of an institution without others being able to see whether they were being watched or not.


Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”.

Bentham was attracted to this idea for one main reason: knowledge = power.

Many people are, or have been, afraid of giving up their knowledge, of sharing it widely . Instead, we’ve seen how knowledge has become restricted within certain groups of people in an attempt to maintain powerful positions in society. Women are a good example of such a group throughout history. Even today women currently hold just 4.2% of FTSE 500 CEO positions.

It’s organisations that deploy these ‘panoptic structures’ that are getting it wrong and are losing trust their key stakeholders. These organisations are failing because essentially they’re restricting knowledge and operating in silos.

But what if the Panoptican was used as a force for good, rather than evil?

What if Bentham’s vision was about sharing power?

What if everyone was encouraged to climb the central tower to grasp the whole picture?

Creating meaningful change

Last week I was part of a fantastic piece of work at NixonMcInnes.

The brief was to help a large PR company become more connected with their values and culture through a period of intensive growth.

I personally connected with this piece of work for several reasons:

1. It’s meaningful – Since being at NixonMcInnes, I have witnessed the importance of a culture which everyone buys into, values which everyone feels a personal connection to, and ultimately, an organisation which everyone feels a responsibility for.

I’ve experienced, first hand, how these fundamental pillars can make a difference to the happiness of staff (and, therefore, the progression and retention of staff), of the reputation of the company, and of its long term health.

2. It’s interesting – We involved the whole organisation to participate and drive this piece of work with passion and belief. Through workshops, we were able to watch how each of the individuals communicated with each other and how a few key people can have an influence upon the dynamic of the group.

The way the work is framed is fundamental to the success of this work and to the quality of the outputs. Bearing this in mind, we introduced a set of guidelines to ensure that everyone participates equally and are actively listening to each other, so that the value from each conversation did not get lost. A big question for the day also helped focus the workshops on a direct output. This question needed to be big enough to be inspire the group but also have a personal connection to the group. Our question was ‘What makes [organisation] so unique and special to us?’

3. It works – Our approach is based on science and art. More specifically, we use ‘Art of Hosting‘ principles, alongside the science behind drivers of change in 21st century business.

For example:

Collective intelligence. Studies from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) say that the collective intelligence of a group is higher than the individual IQ of each participant. It’s also influenced by how much that participation is equal across the group and the different ‘flavours’ they bring (ie. more women in a group usually has a direct correlation to the heightened intelligence of the group).

Motivation. Daniel Pink, author of ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, looks at the key drivers of motivation, and looks at the ‘candle problem’ – a study in which a group of people were asked to fix a candle to a wall without letting the wax drip on to the table below. Two groups were formed – the first were motivated with a small incentive if they completed the task before the second group. The second group were told that they were being timed in order to find the average time the task could be completed in. Interestingly, group two were faster. Pink says:

“There are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance… autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” — Daniel Pink

Participation. My colleague, Max StJohn, talks a lot about participatory leadership. He says that the traditional methods of motivation is essentially about top-down control, hence the division of labour and highly structured businesses. Max argues that this was very successful in the production of mass produce about 100 years ago, but businesses now have other issues to tackle which don’t fit the models Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor introduced to us. Max makes a case for more ‘participatory leadership’ in which collaboration is key in a world in which exercising trust, flexibility, happiness, autonomy and purpose are becoming crucial to businesses if they don’t want to fail.

“Humans had the brains to develop tools, culture, society etc 10,000s years before they did. What gave evolution the boost it needed was critical mass – ie enough people in the same place led to specialisation. We built ideas collaboratively – learning, developing, evolving. This is collective intelligence.” — Belinda Gannaway, NixonMcInnes

In conclusion

We’ve noticed that the following things work when solving business problems:

  • Involving in as many people, from across the business, as possible
  • Helping to replace the fear of the unknown with curiosity and giving people the space to fail
  • Using a “Yes and” mantra, rather than “No, but” to help build on ideas rather than quash them
  • Using a number of different tools suitable for extroverts, introverts, visual/ auditory and kinesthetic learners to get an equal mix of participation
  • Framing the day with guidelines to help people communicate in meaningful ways

I’m looking forward to doing more of this type of work, helping organisations change in more meaningful ways and learning how to do this with even more impact…

Purpose & Meaning at work

We talk a lot about purpose and meaning where I work at NixonMcInnes. In fact, it’s in our blood, our culture and at the root of everything we do.

happy buttons

  • We’re encouraged to do stuff we enjoy at work
  • We measure individual happiness on a daily basis using tennis balls
  • We make decisions democratically using open, honest communication
  • We celebrate our failures in our ‘Church of Fail
  • We have access to ‘the full picture’ through open book accounting

We understand that fulfilment and happiness at work is not directly linked to how much you earn*. It all eventually comes down to these two things – purpose and meaning.

Like Dostoevsky once wrote:

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”

But of course, not all businesses are like this. In fact, now at least half of employees in the West are unhappy at work and in the USA, job satisfaction is at its lowest level (45%) since record-keeping began.

Don’t get me wrong, we are getting better. But I’m still deeply disappointed when I hear of family members who have been in a professional job for years, climbed the ladder and are earning a few buck, but still don’t feel appreciated for their long-term loyalty. It bugs me that they aren’t praised or acknowledged and aren’t made to feel worthy or valued at work.

And it aggravates me when I hear friends talk about some great ideas they’ve had about their own companies, who have been made to feel inadequate by their leaders and are silenced by their inability to speak freely at work, to share their ideas and to help change the company for the better. 

I would probably be the same. I’d probably think it was completely normal to enter the company at the bottom and have to work my way to the top in order to interject any opinion. And for a while, even here, I felt inadequate, like my opinion wasn’t justified. That’s just how it is, right?

When I started out here, I wondered what right I had, as a newcomer and a junior, straight out from university, to have a say in the way the business ran. Surely everyone knew better than me – right? Yet, I started noticing that my views were taken seriously and it was for the benefit of the company that I was able to spot opportunities for improvement. After all, who’s more qualified to do this – the people at the top who are in the thick of the decision making and are being pulled and stretched in all different directions, or those who are actually on the ground doing the work and experiencing the way said company is run?

And it’s not just about this, but it definitely feels like a massive part to me. It’s about being made to feel valued and being treated as a human being.

This is the opportunity for business leaders today. As philosopher, Roman Krznaric, says:

“We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.”

Let’s grasp this opportunity.

Not just because it benefits us as individuals, but because it will unleash the potential of employees and have a tremendous impact on the way the business runs. 

The French writer François-René de Chateaubriand hit the nail on the head when he wrote this:

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

This blog post was actually inspired by my colleague, Max St John who wrote a blog post about finding purpose in his life and decided to write his own personal mission statement.

And I’d encourage everyone to join him in doing this. I’m currently working on mine and might blog it when it’s done.

* Disclaimer: I’m not saying we’re the best at this. We’re definitely not. And it’s not always easy. But we do understand how important it is and are constantly striving to get better.

The power of storytelling through organisational change

“People don’t make decisions based on rational analysis of data…
When under stress, rational argument, instructions and value are not effective…
It is stories which will engage them.”

Photo by: Andrew Mason

Photo by: Andrew Mason

Tony Quinlan, Principal Consultant and Chief Storyteller at Narrate consultancy says that people get to grip with organisational change much easier if that change is told with a story. This is because we are more skeptical of change when it is presented as a straight line – because people’s experience of change is not linear.

Instead, Quinlan highlights the significance of taking those involved on a journey, before reaching the ideal destination, using stories as an effective tool to do so.

Quinlan demonstrates this point using a model he calls the ‘vision arc’. (For me, this fits nicely with ‘Theory U’ – ie. the need to take serveral steps before achieving the end goal.)

Using one of our clients, who are a big publishing company, as an example really brings this concept to life.

People within this organisation know that change is necessary because people simply aren’t reading books in the same way that they used to. In fact, they’re using completely new methods to access information which is changing the roles of all the people in between – from authors writing the books to the consumer, or reader.

Using Quinlan’s vision arc, we can see the steps which the organisation needs to go through, in order to fully get to grips with this change:

1. The need or opportunity then is to get to the point where the organisation has the ability to adapt to these new changes and become more relevant to their customers as a result.

2. To really understand the change they’re going through and how to deal with it, they need to collect stories from all the stakeholders involved.

3. The next step is to analyse the stories presented by each of these stakeholders…

4. to identify the points of disruption – in this case, the affect of the disruption of technology on each of these stakeholders.

5. It is only then that they can find ways to deal with these changes and they will be more brought in as a result.

For me, I can see the benefit of having the organisation go through this process several times before finding a solution – and of course, to be truly agile. Similarly, Quinlan highlights the need for testing and overcoming obstacles and says that making mistakes is all part of the process towards achieving the buy-in required from within the organisation.

Source: https://www.melcrum.com/research/engage-employees-strategy-and-change/using-storytelling-change-behavior

The Chaordic Path and The Power of Asking Questions

My colleagues, Max St John, Anna Carlson and Steve Winton recently shared some practical tools and techniques they came armed with after an an Art of Hosting weekend. This blog post is a collection of thoughts about how one of these techniques in particular made me realise the power of asking questions.


(Image: http://www.itineriscoaching.com/2011/04/06/chaordic-path-2/) 

One of these was a model, or framework, called The Chaordic Path. This is essentially the relationship between chaos and order, and is something I can relate to very well in my every day life.

Most people will favour, recognise or relate to an environment which strongly holds one of these binaries at it’s core. Whether it’s in their personal or work life, some people will lean towards the chaotic side of the path, and others, the ordered side.

Personally, I sit more towards the chaotic side. As a consultant at NixonMcInnes, doing the type of work we do, in an environment which experiences so much change, you need to be fairly flexible in your ability to adapt and embrace chaos.

However, The Chaordic Path demonstrates the need for a balance of these two binaries in order to be more effective within these environments – whilst sitting bang in the middle of the pathway is idealistic.

To strike this balance, or to become remotely close, a minimum amount of chaos in a structured world is required, and visa-versa.

This could mean, in an ordered world for example, ‘doing something different‘. A recent Meaning Conference speaker, Karen Pine, talked about the significance of this – breaking out of normal routines in every day life. Wearing different clothes, taking a different route to work or just changing the position of your desk in the office are all potential opportunities to change your outlook on life and, as Karen argues, also changes your personal effectiveness and well being.

In a chaotic world, the minimum amount of order required to increase effectiveness, could be as simple as starting out with a question.

The idea of starting with a simple question for any ‘chaos’ experienced is fascinating for me.

This can be powerful for organising ‘chaos’ intrinsically, ie. your thoughts, or it could be a means of structuring something more physical, like a meeting for example.

In fact, I’ve started using this little trick for pretty much everything and I’ve found it extremely useful. I even started this blog post with the question, “How will I implement some of the recent models and frameworks learned, to improve my work?”.