The demand for openness in climate change science

The BBC reports that Canadian government climate scientists are being ‘muzzled’ – banned from speaking freely about their findings.

From my own experience in the PR industry, the guidelines from the government department’s media protocol are actually extremely normal for a large organisation:

Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines.”

The emphasis above is my own. It’s the accepted traditional PR wisdom that a group of people, department or organisation should have ‘one voice’ with a single, simple message for the outside world. The logic makes sense: it sends a single, clear unconfusing message. One that supports the ‘positioning’ of the organisation.

But this is a classic example of the kind of tension we are seeing more and more of as we move to a more ‘open’ world. The scientists care more about the truth than they do about ‘approved lines.’ And whilst it’s easier for the public to comprehend a single unified ‘position’ the truth is often more complicated, and inconveniently, it may not support the position that the leaders of the organisation would like to put out there.

Some organiations will fight this kind of openness for a long time, but it is an unstoppable force. It is too easy for people inside organisations to speak the truth, whether the media protocol sanctions it or not, and as society becomes more open, people will demand that the organisations they work for allow individual voices to be heard as well as a ‘unified message.’ Or they will leave and go somewhere else.’s story of democracy

I just dug out these notes that I posted on an old blog a while back from a talk given by two of the founders of about how they became a democratic company. Some good nuggets in here for other businesses, especially in the tech sector so though it was worth re-posting. started in 2002 by 5 founders.

The bad times: As they grew, they created heavyweight processes and decision-making. Productivity and quality fell through the floor. Morale was also low. People worked on side products because they were disengaged. War between managers and employees. Hit a low point around end of 2007.

Management team spent two weeks talking about solutions but felt they needed more time.

Got rid of a load of people who weren’t compatible with changing the status quo. Decided to have a 6 week ‘hackathon’ to shake things up. Rules were:

1. Pick a project that will benefit the community and company.
2. Convince 3 other people to work with you to make a team of 4: front end, back end, cust support, product.
3. Your job is to impress your peers

Management announced the game then left the room to allow people to self-organise. And they did.

One team created a multilingual version of the site.

Teams set the office up to suit themselves and their projects.

Created a feeling of energy. People didn’t believe management were serious as it was such a big change from the norm.

The job of management is to nurture and not squash the natural entrepreneurial spirit of the people.

Some people either needed more structure or more authority and didn’t like the new culture.

As the hackathon period finished, they consulted the team to create a big list of problems and issues that might happen with their new way of working. Instead of trying to mitigate all of  the risks they just prepared themselves to fix problems as they arose, and as it turned out, most things worked out OK.

Created an in-house usability studio so engineers can continually see what customers think of the product. The lesson here is close proximity to the customer is key to solving their problems.

Announced to the team that they would maintain self-organisation. Teams continually come together and break up. At first there were too many teams – people were on several teams at once and there was too much chaos.

The key to success in self-organisation is laying down some guiding principles or game rules (rather than business processes in the traditional sense)

Teams set own success metrics, goals etc. Goal of management is to hold people to their own goals.

Only way they restrict people is limiting people to a set number of projects so they’re not spread too thinly.

Very important to remember that everyone’s an adult. It’s not like management are the adults and the rest are the kids. Management do have a lot of skills and experience that can help people to do their job well, but have to recognise that they won’t always be right.

Don’t have many managers, just people to lead particular efforts. Lots of mentoring and coaching. Leads often work on the most interesting projects, but organically.

Very difficult to avoid user interface inconsistency. You can look at having  a cross-team specialist to roll out best practices between teams.

Yay, first mention of Ricardo Semler! 🙂
Recommending Maverick and 7 Day Weekend

Meetup have open books – full transparency of financials with the team.

No product roadmap because the team self-organise.

Question: What are the decision-making processes in the company?

A: Consensus most of the time, but decentralised and up to the teams. Teams can pick methodologies like SCRUM for development

Lots of management by walking around – checking in with teams and asking how things are going. Asking a lot of questions and challenging.

Question from me about how you hire people who will fit:

Written test that should take 2 hours given 40 minutes.
Interviewed by 4-6 people. Problem solving at a whiteboard. Interview to decide team fit. “If it’s a maybe then it’s a no”

How does the employee review process work? Have tried 360 reviews, peer reviews, but don’t really have a formal review process. They don’t feel a great need to put this in place.

How does the structure affect support functions in the business e.g. finance and admin? Less so.

Social entrepreneurship at the Tip of Borneo

Howard Stanton has a seriously colourful past which includes jungle and sea rescue; being the only white guy in a national kabaddi team; a hedonistic party boat and a suspicious fire at his mum and dad’s house. All I can say is that you have to meet Howard for a beer to find out more!

I met Howard through a friend-of-a-friend. I was looking for cool people and stuff to get involved with in Borneo and I ended up right up at the far north-west tip of Borneo in June 2011 and I offered Howard a hand with whatever he had going on.

Howard is a natural social entrepreneur although I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t know, or care, about the title. He works by instinct, and seems to get it exactly right.

He’s working on a number of ventures up at The Tip. He wants to build a secure future for himself for sure, but he has become completely embedded in the local community there which also benefits from his presence.

Howard has set up a restaurant close to the beach and paid for women from the local village to be trained in hospitality management to work in and run the place. They’re all super nice and are paid a very good local wage. The interesting thing is that Howard expects this area to become more developed for tourism in the future and knows there’s a good chance his staff will leave to take better paid jobs in bigger new establishments. He sees this as a win and not a loss – his business will grow if the area develops and it’s a win for the community if good new jobs go to local people and not to outsiders.

He’s also set up an eco-campsite and employed local people to build it for him, using traditional techniques to construct a dorm building in the style of a traditional long house. I am proud to have helped clear a load of stuff off the site, build some steps and a pathway there 🙂

The thing I found most incredible was the way Howard had become a local person. He could speak the local dialect of Bahasi Malay perfectly. I watched him instructing the workers on the site and had their full attention and respect. But the respect was two-way. By understanding the community and culture, he allowed them to work in their way (which was not always the most efficient by western standards!)

Thinking ahead to when the campsite was finished, Howard realised that there would be less work for the local people and so was working on ideas like creating handicrafts from the plentiful driftwood on the beach to give the people their own business.

From what I saw, this approach just came naturally to Howard and he just wouldn’t have done it any other way.

New beginnings

It’s been a mind-blowing ten months since I said goodbye to my lovely colleagues at NixonMcInnes and set off to find some new adventures. One of my big goals was to spend more time in the great outdoors, and I’ve been lucky enough to go diving with sharks and giant turtles; swim in the pools of waterfalls in remote rainforest and trek through rural villages in the Andes, losing games of football at altitude to the local kids. I’ve also had an infected blister cut out of my foot in a Bolivian hospital and lost my passport in downtown Bogota.

While I’ve been travelling in Asia and South America I’ve also been exploring another passion: how business can be used as a force for good in the world. I’ve seen first-hand how inspiring people from all kinds of backgrounds are using business to protect the environment and improve the lives of people. These people are the future and their stories need to be told.

This blog is about these new themes in business, what I’ve seen and learnt from the people and projects I’ve come across on my travels, and will be used to share and discuss ideas for my new projects once I settle down in the real world again later this year. There will probably be some travel and other bits on here too.