Three free Brightoneers events and other updates from me

I’ve been very quiet on this blog lately, but there’s been loads going on so here’s an update from me.

The Brightoneers

The community of people working together to build a pioneering new economy in Brighton launched with a bang in January. 100 people came to the first event and we have the next three events lined up. All of them are free to attend and open to all. Just register using the links below.

12 Feb: Alternative currencies and smartcard pilot. Led by Good Money, we’ll be working together on moving towards a pilot of a smartcard system in Brighton that helps the local economy.

19 Feb: How can we use crowd funding to build a better economy? We have speakers covering the use of crowd funding for equity, rewards and lending, then time to break into groups to start making stuff happen.

5 March: The first Brightoneers film night: Shift Change – an awesome film about the power and potential of employee ownership – check out the trailer. I’m planning on making this a monthly event screening documentaries that will inspire us into action.

WorldBlu

I’ve been working as an ambassador for WorldBlu, speaking about democratic business at a number of events (like this) and talking to some awesome companies about them joining the movement. The WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Workplaces 2013 will be announced in April. I’m very excited to see Brighton growing as a hub of certified democratic workplaces following on from my previous company, NixonMcInnes being one of the first WorldBlu-certified companies in Europe. There’s also WorldBlu Live coming up in May in Denver. Get along to this if you can. My involvement in WorldBlu is now winding down and I’ll be focussing more on work locally here in Brighton. There may just about be time to get your organisation assessed by WorldBlu for this year’s WorldBlu List. If you’re interested, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with the right people.

Business development help for consulting companies

Having spent 10 years building a consulting company myself, I’m keen to share my experience in marketing and selling consulting work with other consulting companies in Brighton. If you’re a freelance consultant or running a small consulting company and would like to bring in more business, I might be able to help. I’m also launching a little project around this over the next few days. If you’d like to be kept in the loop then please get in touch.

And the rest of life

I’m mid-way through an 8-week course on Mindfulness and meditation with Mindfulness Sussex. I’m loving the combination of ancient wisdom dating back 2500 years backed by modern scientific studies that have shown many benefits to mind and body.

It’s the Brighton Half Marathon this Sunday. I’ve been gradually getting back to pre-travelling levels of fitness. I still have a long way to go and a horrible bout of ‘man flu‘ set me back these past couple of weeks, but the Half is a bit of a milestone anyway.

OK that’s about it. If we’re overdue to catch up for a chat then give me a shout.

The power question that will help you to overcome a challenge

This week I’m at BluCamp in beautiful Missouri, USA – a retreat for leaders wishing to build freedom-centred, democratic workplaces. I’m here partly to help out but mostly to learn, and already it’s been mind-blowing.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt today is that the first step towards building a freedom-centred workplace is to adopt a freedom-centred mindset. Sounds obvious, but it’s very easy to dive into adopting crazy new working practices or trying to change the culture before working on yourself first.

At WorldBlu, when we talk about ‘freedom’, we mean freedom from fear, since it’s fear that narrows our thinking, causes us to try to control rather than develop opportunity and at a most basic level, it’s a whole lot more fun feeling a sense of freedom than fear. Unfortunately most workplaces are dominated by fear and control which makes us unhappy and leads to poor performance. It’s not about being fearless. It’s natural to feel fear. The important thing is to recognise and free yourself from fear by taking action.

So how do you begin to go about adopting a mindset of freedom? Here’s a very simple exercise that we did today which really opened my mind.

1. Write down up to three challenges that you are facing in either your personal or work life which give rise to any kind of fear. This could be a direct, adrenaline-fuelled fear; more subtle, long-term or unconscious fear; or even well-intentioned fear. Write down how the fear manifests itself as well as the specifics of the challenge.

2. Now ask yourself the question: ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?‘ and write down the solution for each challenge.

3. Reflect on how you feel about the challenges. Do you feel different?

It’s as simple, yet powerful as that. When I answered this question for three meaty challenges I’m facing, I was amazed how easily the answers flowed onto the paper. And not only that, it genuinely did change my mind-set from one of fear to one of opportunity, confidence and even excitement. This is the power of freedom.

Please give it a try it now and let me know in the comments if it worked for you.

A week to learn how to supercharge your business

Are you looking for ways to unlock new levels of engagement, performance and profit in your business? Who isn’t?

Next month I’ll be spending a week at BluCamp – a retreat for leaders of democratic companies and those who want to learn how they can become democratic in order to supercharge their business. I’m expecting to learn a ton and get inspired and energised as I plan my next business venture.

It would be great if you could join us too – it could be the the most valuable week you’ve ever invested in developing yourself in order to build a better business.

How to protect a great democratic company from destruction

WorldBlu’s list of the 10 principles that come together to make a democratic workplace is one of the pages I link to the most from this blog. It served as a guide in making my previous company more democratic and it’s a very easy way to explain what organisational democracy actually means. However, I believe that there is something incredibly important missing. Not an 11th principle, but a wrapper for the full set of existing principles.

This wrapper is constitution. It means that the other 10 principles are protected and enduring. Like a democratic nation state, a truly democratic organisation will be one forever.

This isn’t just an academic point. We already know that buy-in from senior leadership is key to building a democratic company. So what happens if a democratic company is sold to new owners and the founders who built the democracy eventually leave? Take Zappos for example which was started by (a business hero of mine and awesome dude) Tony Hsieh. Clearly Tony has been a driving force for their culture of happy employees who create happy customers, and how they use democracy to help them achieve that. It’s worked spectacularly well, so much so that Amazon.com bought them for close to $1BN.

Of course, when the company was sold all parties said the right things: Amazon wouldn’t want to change Zappos because their way of doing things works. Tony said he had no immediate plans to leave, that they are as committed as ever to doing things the Zappos way, and even hopes that the culture rubs off on Amazon a little. So far so good. But things can and do change.

I want to be clear that I have heard nothing to date about Zappos heading off-track. It’s the future I worry about. Tony Hsieh will not be there forever. Management at Amazon will change over time. New competitors may disrupt their business and put enormous pressure on them in the same way that Amazon and Zappos disrupted the retail industry. Who knows what the future looks like? As a democratic (and brilliant) company, Zappos is far better placed than most to be resilient through tough times. But the company is only ultimately accountable to one master: Amazon’s shareholders. They, not the employees hold the ultimate power.

Shareholders of public companies like Amazon – mostly hedge funds and pension funds – buy-in to a company culture only when it supports their goal of financial value creation. The big tension is that a democratic workplace is a long-term game. But the stock market in comparison is too often driven by next quarter’s results, and it’s easy for investors to jump ship at a moment’s notice if the share price is going in the wrong direction. They don’t have to be invested for the long-term. In tough times, or simply with enough short-termist shareholder pressure, changes can be made to drive profit now at the expense of democracy and financial performance in the future.

We’ve seen what can happen when a great company ‘sells out’ in both senses of the expression. When hyper-ethical clothing brand Howies was bought by Timberland, the founders were told at the time: ‘Keep doing things your way. Become even more Howies.’ Exactly what Amazon told Zappos. Howies now had the cash of a larger parent to drive the business forward and a green light to stay true to themselves. All good. Until it went wrong. Founder David Hieatt later wrote:

A year or so after selling to the ‘current owners’ I was in a meeting in Boulder, Colorado. I was told that I had to move ‘this bit’ of the business to this country and ‘this bit’ of the business to this country, or they would ‘spin us off’. I had to ask what ‘spin you off’ meant. (It means to sell you.) Those kind of meetings are called ‘Dream Breakers’ for good reason. I emotionally left the company at that meeting.

Eventually he left the company for real. Apparently selling out really did mean selling out. Timberland was later bought out by investment group VF so Howies changed hands again. Since they’d already ‘sold out’ there was nothing they could do about this. And now the latest news is that the Howies management put in place by Timberland have bought out the firm to take it back into private hands. What a huge waste of time, effort and emotion. And the employees – you know, those people who actually do all of the work and generate 100% of the value – were merely powerless pawns in the whole story.

The enormously successful, democratic company SAIC with revenues in the billions of dollars was owned by its employees and enormously profitable. In employee ownership, its share price had doubled every five years. But its achilles heel was a lack of a constitution that protected its ownership. Under a new CEO, the employees were persuaded to take the company public. Once it did so, growth tailed off, and employees came to deeply regret the decision. Current and future generations of employees lost ownership of their company forever.

Just because Howies and SAIC ‘went bad’ that doesn’t mean the same will happen to Zappos. But the point is that Zappos is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon, so the employees have no rights to prevent dramatic changes to their workplace or the destruction of the democracy that they enjoy there. While things are going well I’m sure they’ll be left alone, but if in the future Amazon feel like the interests of the shareholders (which may be short-term) point to a change of direction, then make no mistake – it will happen. Remember, shareholders are the only people who have the power to remove and appoint the board of directors.

I feel like I’ve picked on Zappos in this post. Sorry Tony! It’s not really about them – they are just one example of a fantastic democratic company that has the potential to go bad. I hope it never happens. The point is that truly democratic companies need to have their principles enshrined in a constitution that cannot be easily overturned by new masters, especially those seeking to generate short-term results over long-term value creation and the wellbeing of the employees.

There are a number of ways that a constitution can be made real. For example, you can do something similar to B Corporations who have clauses in their Articles of Association stating that the primary purpose of the company is to deliver social or environmental benefit and not just make money. The online social network Couchsurfing became a B Corp before taking venture capital to protect its higher purpose.

However the most powerful way of protecting a business against short-term-driven new masters with the potential to wreck a democracy is to remove the possibility of having new masters entirely. This is done by making the business employee-owned. It doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh have to give away their baby. The company can raise finance to buy out the founders and the shares are held in a trust for the employees using a mechanism similar to a leveraged buy-out. Or the founders can simply be paid off over time out of future profits. When it becomes employee-owned, a constitution is drawn up that protects the shares, and therefore the ultimate power of the employees, forever.

The UK retailer John Lewis is one of the most successful democratic, employee-owned companies in the world. When John Spedan Lewis sold the company to its employees he had the foresight to create a solid constitution. Not only does this protect ownership of the business for future generations of employees, it also sets out how the directors are accountable to the employees as well as other principles such as an internal ‘free press’ (the company newsletter is obliged to print all letters from employees with a response from a director.) The company cannot be taken public, protecting its successful model, and the rights of employees now and for all future generations.

Employee ownership is the only sure-fire way that selling out doesn’t lead to a sell-out of the rest of an organisation’s principles further down the line, and that founders can leave a legacy to be proud of. I hope that more founders will choose this route.

I have a new job: Helping a billion people to work in freedom

I’m excited to let you know that I have been asked by Worldblu, the organisation that certifies the Most Democratic Companies in the World list, to help with their mission of seeing one billion people in the world working in free and democratic organisations.

As a BluAmbassador I will be visiting companies and speaking at events, explaining how democracy makes organisations more profitable, resilient, happier and able to do more good in the world. I will be speaking from my first-hand perspective of creating a democratic company myself, as well as sharing Worldblu’s extensive expertise on the subject.

Traci Fenton, the founder of Worldblu is one of the most inspiring people in the business world today. Her energy and passion for democracy is unbelievably infectious and I just knew even a year or more ago that we’d end up working together. I’m so excited to be getting started.

If you are interested in booking me to speak at your company or event from late September 2012 onwards then please see my speaking page or just get in touch.

10 crazy town ideas for extreme organisational democracy

Crazy Frog

Here are 10 ideas that take the principles of organisational democracy to the extreme. In the context of mainstream business today they seem far-fetched but there are organisations in the world who are pushing the boundaries of democracy every year. If you think that these ideas are just too radical for your business, imagine how you will attract and retain the very best employees if you have a competitor who is bold enough to do these things. Will you be able to stand out and remain relevant when someone in your market is doing this? Welcome to the world of extreme organisational democracy.

1 Purpose and Vision

The radically democratic company has a vision and mission that transcends itself and its people. It describes a world that is richer not just for its shareholders but for all of humanity, and the planet. How about a soft drinks company that sets out to alleviate the problem of thirst and water shortage in all of its forms for every human and animal on the planet. Now that would be a real purpose.

2 Transparency

Radical transparency can build an incredible level of trust both within an organisation and with the outside world. It shows you have nothing to hide and beyond that you invite criticism and input into your business. How about publishing every single line item of expenditure in the business? How about turning the 20th century wisdom of ‘secrecy and closedness unless there’s a very good reason to do otherwise’ on its head and publish every item of income, profit, loss, remuneration and even decisions by default – available to all employees, and anyone else in the world including competitors to see. Opening a pandora’s box? Certainly. But who wouldn’t trust an organisation brave and open enough to do this? And what new insights would the company gain from having their inner workings opened up for others to analyse?

3 Dialogue & Listening

What would happen if you invested in training every single person – from the cleaners to the CEO in an organisation – to a professional level as relationship counsellors? OK it might fill you with fear to think of a business full of shrinks and endless meetings on comfy chairs with tea and biscuits. But what would the outcome be when you have truly professional standards of listening and understanding other human beings and a deep ability to forge and maintain great relationships. What would it be like to work somewhere like this? What would relationships with customers and other stakeholders become?

4 Fairness & Dignity

Decisions that impact fairness happen every day in businesses, from allocating work to setting pay. Typically its people with power (managers, directors) who make these decisions and others have to live with being treated fairly or not. How about having a rule that states that any decision made in the company which could impact feelings of fairness or dignity to a group or individual must be scrutinised by a peer-selected group of their colleagues. Yes, it will slow down some decisions, but the gains in loyalty and the removal of the politics of favouritism or discrimination will more than make up for it.

5 Accountability

Democracies are not soft. As Worldblu puts it, ‘they are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.’ In most businesses, employees are accountable to their managers. In an extreme democracy, people are accountable to everyone they work with or even influence indirectly, AND the outside world. 360 degree reviews don’t go far enough, especially for senior managers. People need to be able to hold anyone to account where necessary, regardless of who they are. Local communities and even activists can be brought closer to the organisation to create deeper accountability with the outside world. But accountability isn’t about blame. In extreme democracies, accountability creates a tight support network.

6 Individual & Collective

Google and other companies famously have ‘20% time’ where they are able to work on projects of their own choosing for one day per week. How about upping this to, say, ‘100% time’? In other words, employees choose ALL of their tasks and projects. To get this right, the collective mission of the company will have to be not just well-defined and understood, but genuinely bought into so that all work supports the mission. You also need to have good accountability in place from peers.

7 Choice

Throw away the rulebook for dress code, working hours, work location, pay reviews and holiday entitlement. Take a punt on assuming that employees can be trusted to make decisions that are fair to them, the business and their colleagues and customers. Crazy right? Not really when you think that this is how millions of freelancers and self-employed people work. Many of the most talented people in the world opt out of the corporate world because they have more choice by going it alone. It works because they are ultimately accountable and have direct alignment with the purpose of their 1-person business. But if we can create this alignment and accountability in a larger business, then why not give them this freedom and choice? The business that is brave enough to do this may never lose a talented employee to a competitor again.

8 Integrity

Google started a change in the corporate world with their mantra ‘Do no evil.’ But that’s just the foundation. ‘Extreme integrity’ is about doing GOOD in all your actions, not just avoiding evil. Imagine a company that has a set of ‘values’ that are more than just filler on the boardroom wall. Values that were created by, and truly believed in by every person throughout the organisation. What if in your culture, every decision and idea is checked against these values as a matter of everyday routine such that it becomes instinctive and automatic. Could you build extreme integrity such that a company can be trusted as much as a close family member or friend? Businesses are made up of human beings with the capacity for enormous integrity so I believe they can.

9 Decentralisation

Do away with the ‘centre’ or ‘top’ of an organisation altogether. A network structure is the ultimate in decentralisation. It is possible to create an organisation that has no ‘top leaders,’ board of directors or even any sort of legal entity. In the extreme democratic future there will be large organisations with the power and impact of large publicly listed companies today that are a mesh of individuals and relationships. The network can swarm together around projects and customer needs, then disassemble and re-form as needed. No formal ‘lines of responsibility’ or control, just agreed roles, responsibilities and accountability that are completely dynamic. Networks are incredibly resilient. That’s why it’s hard to fight al-Qaeda and BitTorrent because there is no ‘head’ to cut off.

10 Reflection + Evaluation

Why not reverse the current trend of business needing to become faster, faster, faster and instead spend more time reflecting and evaluating than actually ‘doing?’ Sounds hopelessly inefficient? Well how about all of the rushed, high-pressured years of ‘doing’ that led to the effective collapse of the global banking system? What would the world look like now if more time had been spent reflecting and evaluating? Perhaps sanity would have prevailed. At Mindvalley, a company in Malaysia, they already hold group meditation sessions to envision the future and reflect on what they are doing. Sounds almost cult-like, and it’s uncomfortable to expose our souls at work, right? But imagine the wisdom and breakthroughs that could surface if we slowed down more, and became more mindful. Perhaps not so crazy after all.

DALAI LAMA

Becoming a democratic organisation: where to start

Start

When Will and I decided to make NixonMcInnes a democratic company we were lucky in that we hadn’t hired any employees yet. This meant we could be democratic right from the start and didn’t have to go through a large change process.

It’s more difficult for established businesses, particularly large ones, who have a well-established legacy culture, systems and processes and people within the company who may not be compatible with a democracy.

Traci Fenton, the founder of Worldblu has defined 10 dimensions of organisational democracy. These 10 dimensions are inter-related and work together to form a democracy, and to become certified by Worldblu, an organisation much benchmark well across all of the dimensions.

The difficulty is that to change an organisation across all 10 dimensions is probably far too big a change to happen in one go, especially in a large business. So where do you start?

Fortunately there are two excellent case studies for this, both for businesses with turnover in the $100M’s range, but what they did is replicable in much smaller businesses too.

Semco, the Brazilian conglomerate, is perhaps the most famous case study of organisational democracy, described by its CEO Ricardo Semler in his books Maverick and The 7 Day Weekend. More recently, Vineet Nayar wrote about transforming the Indian IT outsourcing company HCL Technologies to a democracy in Employees First, Customers Second. I highly recommend all three of these books.

There is a common theme in both of these transformations which was in order to prepare the company for the large changes that lay ahead, the very first step was to build a culture of trust in the organisation. Only with sufficent trust would the organisation be ready for further change.

At Semco, they removed the clocking-in/out machines and abolished the practice of searching employees for stolen goods. And at both companies they set to work creating a deep level of transparency, opening up company finances, performance information and having public forums for discussion about company issues which are dealt with openly. At NixonMcInnes, we borrowed another idea from Semco which built trust by having two open seats at board meetings so employees could come and participate.

All of this helps to build two-way trust, demonstrating to employees at all levels that they are valued and trusted to have access to the inner workings of the company that would previously be reserved for senior management, and showing that the leaders could be trusted by making their work and information visible for everyone to scrutinise and participate in. This new-found trust changed the businesses from being ‘them and us’ to ‘we.’ Both companies then went on to develop across all of the 10 dimensions of democracy, reaping enormous rewards both in market share and profit and in the happiness of everyone working there.

So if you want to change an existing organisation to a democracy then make sure that building trust is your first step.