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.
So what does it mean?
WorldBlu has 10 principles it says every democratic organisation should live by:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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):
- Private – protecting it so that it can grow
- View – sharing but not asking for input
- Comment – inviting feedback and input
- 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.