Learning to relearn

Learning to relearn: a guide to transforming culture.

When you tell your colleagues you’re going to transform their work culture, they tend to look at you like you’ve just told them your new year’s resolution is to quit smoking. And it’s January 2nd. And you’re holding a lit cigarette.

I get that. Breaking ingrained behaviours is tough, and transformation isn’t accomplished by sharing Google doc with ‘Culture Ideas’ written on top. It requires action and time – backed by persistence, open-mindedness and (un)learning.

It takes everyone, and it impacts everything – behaviour, procedure, method and development. Successful transformation is all-encompassing journey. One that creates workplaces people love being in, and working with.

It’s worth every bit of effort.

Believe me not because I say it, but because I’ve seen it before. Countless times. Designing, creating and implementing transformation is what we do at Start.

“We consider ourselves agents of change. Our clients are our clients because they’re hungry for transformation – whether that’s retail, digital, brand, experience, strategy or comms. Over the last 20+ years we’ve done it all, across the globe.”

Yet even with that, transforming our own culture – one made up entirely of professional transformers – has been one of the trickier, but most gratifying, journeys we’ve ever not finished.

It’s shown us who we are – and equally important – who we’re not. It’s kept us looking in the mirror to continually redefine what a meaningful work culture looks like to us, and how we demonstrate that to our clients.
It’s also taught us a lot about the dos, don’ts and maybes of transformation itself. Informally, let’s call them our guiding principles to transforming culture. They go like this.

Learn to tell respect from politeness (but appreciate both).

If the people in your organisation don’t respect each other, the issue isn’t ‘transformation’ it’s ‘foundation’. Without it there isn’t anything to build on.

So, first things first, define what respect means to you, and also what it looks like in action. Don’t fall back on the obvious broad strokes. Take the time to nail down a definition that means something deeper, and that people can be proud to live up to.

Once you have it, that’s the word-part done. The more indirect part is what follows, defining what it looks like in practice.

Here’s what it shouldn’t look like: politeness. Smiling, saying ‘thank you’, letting others speak and so on – all important. But they’re not respect. They’re norms of basic social literacy. More or less, a performance of respect.

Respect should look different from how you’re treated by Pret at lunch. Right?

Right. It should look something more like:

  • Actively listening to, and learning from, new talent without feeling intimidated.
  • Asking questions, and accepting answers different from what you want to hear.
  • Admitting someone else was right (well, if they were).
  • Trusting others to make the right decisions.
  • Debating as equals.

It’s about acknowledging that everyone has so much to contribute. So many experiences, insights and passions to share. When they feel excited and unhindered in making those contributions – that’s culture-wide respect in action.

And the ideas that come from it ratchet up to a whole new level.

Share knowledge like you share wifi.

Ask yourself this question: how many combined years of experience exist within the walls of your organisation right now?

Right, a lot. So it’s important to make sure everything in that mega-brain bank is being shared! It’s such a simple effort and it yields so much new thinking.

“Knowledge is infectious and empowering. Everyone should realise we all have one thing in common: we don’t know everything.”

If you make knowledge-sharing a structured event, it will fast become a naturally occuring one. Knowledge is infectious and empowering. Plus, smart people love to learn (and they love to teach), they just need a structure and, sometimes, the permission to do it.

Whilst it’s true that simply working together creates an exchange of knowledge, it’s of a different sort, usually with a point to solve something in the moment. It’s sort of knowledge shared in reverse – you see it first as a solution and are left to reverse engineer the principle behind it.

You learn to mimic it, not apply it as a concept. Which, of course, is far more valuable. So, set aside the time in a open environment, complete with questions and clarification, to share knowledge the right way.

At Start, we’ve done that by implementing a Lunch ‘n’ Learn series that invites a mix of internal and external speakers to further our education. We also put on a more informal Friday 5.0 series to encourage people to open up about the things that inspire them.

It shouldn’t just be the most senior people sharing either. Like everything in the transformation journey, it should be open and inclusive to all. If only so that everyone realises we all have one thing in common: we don’t know everything.

Help people become greatDon’t be afraid if they go.

One of the most common, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot arguments for not properly investing in your employees on the transformation journey is one we’ve heard so many times: ‘when people leave, they take our investment with them’.

That’s just not true! A workforce that isn’t given the space and the encouragement to learn, explore and grow, gets stagnant and bored. Straight science. They might meet deadlines, but they’ll less frequently exceed expectations.

We all know what happens to talented people when they’re not feeling inspired – they leave. From there it’s a short spiral to a revolving-door culture. A place where no one sticks around, and the only way to fix it becomes, ironically, investing in your employees.

So, it’s in the interest of all to make transformation efforts that reach out on personal levels. Investing in people isn’t loading up on superficial perks – maxing everybody out with Google levels of free foot massages and on-demand tuna sashimi. It’s something more meaningful.

“Investing in people isn’t loading up on superficial perks – maxing everybody out with Google levels of free foot massages and on-demand tuna sashimi. It’s something more meaningful.”

It involves giving people the time, the space and the permission to explore their ideas. As an employer that takes confidence – especially when you can’t see the immediate effects on the bottom line. But it’s also what builds confidence – amongst individuals, and also within teams.

As you may have, I have experienced my fair share of environments where employers expect their employees to ‘just get on with the job’. I don’t know about you, but we probably agree those aren’t likely to make the Top Five Jobs list.

So I actively support, encourage and contribute to the great work we’re doing to invest in our people through our Starters programme, which provides mentorship, support and paid-training courses for all interested.

In the short-, mid- and long-term, that commitment and investment into personal growth nurtures a diverse team of fired-up and multi-skilled individuals ready to dream up award-winning work.

And remember, if people do leave to further their career elsewhere (which they might, as I have, and you may have), this is a good thing. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful marketing tools there is. People saying great things about working at your company/agency makes you look good.

Listen and considerThen respond.

“If you wanna hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise, good people don’t stay.”

If that sounds unachievable to you, it didn’t to the person who said it: Steve Jobs.

“Without the ability to listen, you lose the ability to share ideas and confidently pick the best one.”

Whether your heart beats in Android or iOS, you probably agree he knew a thing or two about the power of transformation. One his greatest assets in accomplishing that was the power to listen.

Without the ability to listen, you lose the ability to share ideas and confidently pick the best one. When people only listen to themselves instead of each other, seniority rules the day – and the hierarchy gets another day of uncontested hierarchy. So…


Listen to your teams to build respect and get their best work

Your teams are at the forefront of your projects. They’re the ones in the weeds, doing the research and creating the work that keeps the business growing. They are constantly exploring new techniques and methods, talking to their friends and peers about successes, ideas, innovations and intentions.

When it comes to generating new ideas and incorporating them into your projects, count on your teams. They’re eager, and ready, to deliver.


Listen to your clients’ concerns, ideas and plans to create long-term solutions

If your ideas are only designed to address the ‘here and now’, what you’re really saying is that your company is, at best, a short-term partner.

As I mentioned before, at Start we consider ourselves agents of change.  We work at a strategic level to define our clients’ purpose and long-term brand vision.

First and foremost, we accomplish this by listening to our clients, to get a crystal clear understanding of what motivates them. Only once we understand them can we fully immerse ourselves in their business plans, services and products.

It’s no coincidence some clients have been with us for ten years or more. Rather, it’s a testament to our ability to listen to what they’re saying (and not saying) – and produce organic work that’s in line with their values.


Listen to your peers and find out what you’re doing right (and less right)

If something worked 20 years ago, nothing says it will work in 2018. So everyone, from board members and senior management teams on down, needs to be prepared to adapt to the times we’re living in.

Whilst you may want to keep competitors at arm’s length, these are your peers – and will always be a great source of advice and research. Spend time with your competitors, either in person, or just by following their work online. By learning from each other, we can make the great industry we work in even better.

Create an ‘I want to work there’ environment.

If the four points above are running smoothly, this one will work itself out. Though, if you want to litmus test your culture and see if it’s working, invite in some fresh faces. By that I mean really fresh. Still-in-uni fresh.

At Start, we all feel strongly about providing students with the best support and direction available. I admit it’s partially with an eye to attract the cream of the next generation’s crop – but it’s also motivated something by bigger than that: transforming the future of design as a whole.

By giving students all the real-world support they need, we can all help make sure their careers, and our profession, improve every year. And to repeat, knowledge goes both ways. So we don’t approach it in ‘master and apprentice’ fashion. There’s a lot they have to teach us!

(Here I’ll resist the obligatory joke about adults not understanding Snapchat.)

Don’t stop here.

To sum up, transformation is a journey, not a couple of boxes to check and forget about. It starts with the points I’ve explored – and goes on to infinity.

It’s an odyssey unique to each business, and each person within it. There’s no skeleton key or master plan – so draw up your map and get moving. Your transformation metrics could include: clients approaching you, talent lining up at the door and frequently hearing people say, “I love your work”. That part’s up to you.

The metrics may differ, but the goals are more or less universal – to create an energetic culture that feels big and inspiring, no matter what its size. Everyone wants to feel part of something larger than themselves, something they can contribute to meaningfully and have a voice in shaping. Something they’re proud to have been a part of.

Remember, that by giving people the chance to express themselves authentically and explore new ideas passionately, you’re giving them the responsibility to achieve success.

And in that, I doubt very much they’ll let you down.

To talk to Start Design about how we can help your business adapt at the pace of change register your details below.

Want to talk to someone now? email or call Will Hawkins directly on +44 (0)7834620555

Tim Hutchinson Digital Experience Director, Start