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The wonders of working for a democratic agency.....

At the Wired Sussex Home Brewed event with Will McInnes as part of Brighton Digital Festival, founder and MD of NixonMcInnes and Wired Sussex Board Member Will spoke about his new book  Culture Shock, an inspirational guide for better ways to do business in the 21st century.

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So what are the challenges of working in a democratic organisation? How should we be approach doing business in the 21st century and how realistic is it to put such ideas into practice? NixonMcInnes 'newbie' Bruce Waskett shares his experience of working in one of the most democratic organisations in the world in line with the ideas and methods discussed in Culture Shock.....

It has been a rather inspiring couple of weeks in sunny Brighton, and particularly at NixonMcInnes, culminating here as I write a little about my experiences of working at a wonderfully democratic and friendly consultancy.

I am relatively new to the NM clan and certainly to many of the aspects of democratic working styles and what this means in reality.  So the inspiring weeks mentioned before have revolved around Will McInnes speaking at Wired Sussex’s Home Brewed event, being then followed by the amazing Meaning Conference. These and many other discussions therefore have prompted this post and its thoughts. (Plus Laura asked nicely!)

So the straight up question then is of course ‘what is it like to work for a democratic consultancy?’ It can also be lots of fun and a real challenge. There is still work to get done, clients to be kept happy, business to win and so forth. But some of the day to day and indeed big decisions that shape the workings and growth of an agency can be attempted and accomplished in a different way to what may be considered ‘normal’.

Shared and individual responsibility:

Individual responsibility is the easiest to cover in that its essence revolves around each of us being responsible not only for our own workload but also the way that we conduct ourselves. No managers here dictating the why’s wherefores and why nots.

Of course bigger projects and different types of projects mean that we will have several people working for the client as a team. The ethos is still about getting the work successfully accomplished the way that the team wishes to and managing your own daily and weekly work, but with the expectation you must indeed do as you have committed to. This gives a great freedom but also presents issues for instance if you are not someone who is comfortable with project management for example.

Shared responsibility really comes into play across the board and certainly touches on the above, with a definite supportive and trusting environment throughout the organisation. So if your PM skills need some help, I’ll be there. Or someone else will happily muck in.

Practically, shared responsibility presents itself across the business. We are all responsible for bringing in business, new and existing. The sales team does not act in isolation, fretting in a corner, as everyone gets involved to find new opportunities and grow existing ones. We create teams that will look after certain things in the business, such as how are pricing works to how rewards will be delivered to the team in the form of bonuses and salary changes. These teams, volunteers and / or voted on, come up with a process that the whole agency then has a say in developing, leading to a final vote to put it in place. This leads to a real feeling of sharing the chores as it were and to knowing that you have a really big say in how we get things done and how they affect your life.

The financial face of a democracy in action:

Before I chat on about the fun stuff, it’s well worth talking about the Open Accounting policy and how this affects us. As a lot of people know, we all have access to each other’s salary details and as above, we decide together on how rewards will be distributed. We also know, pretty much first thing on a Monday, how the financial figures are looking for the rest of the month and the coming months. As in, are we likely to hit our budgeted target and if not, what can we do about it. In a positive ‘all pulling together’ kind of a fashion.

The challenge here though is that does give you that bit of possible finance stress over how we are doing that you would not necessarily find in another agency. Democracy here works to pull us together but adds an extra burden when things are not going as swimmingly as hoped.

It was very strange to get my first pay slip simply plonked without envelope on my desk. No secrecy here. But it’s also a family that trusts and values one another so the fact that I can just go onto our Google docs and see everyone’s salary is fine with all.

But there is of course a challenge here too. Have a think on how that might work for you when you ask a panel of your peers to be considered for ‘x’ amount of a rise knowing what they are on themselves. And those friends of yours then have to do the same to you. Oh, and you all knowing full well the amount of the pay rise money pot that can be dished out between us all.  I have not experienced this yet myself but it is very possibly the most difficult thing about working at a democracy I’d imagine.

We are not kids.

Everyone is treated as an adult.  A simple statement but not always true at other places of work. On top of the whole responsibility thing, we trust each other. There are many ways this works during the day and here are just a few:

  • We all look after our own holidays. No line manager and forms to fill out, apart from your own holiday form online where you track how many days you've used. Yes you. Nobody else.
  • Working from home is very handy and all it takes is a little post on our internal Jammer-like feed in the morning and you can. Again, as long as not disrupting anyone else and with the expectation you get done what you have to do.
  • We are flexible on working hours. I've never worked at an agency where we are all pretty much out of the office by 5.30. That’s not to say that there isn't a lot of hard work going on as there is. It’s just done in a measured fashion and of course some people will be putting in some time in the eve after an early afternoon of picking up the kids. Trust again in getting the work done as needs be, not to a rigid daily timetable.
  • You will be told immediately though in a reasonable tone and manner if someone thinks you could have done something better.  Everything upfront and meant to find a helpful resolution.

And some fun stuff!

  • We measure Happiness as it is important for us all to be as happy at work as we can be, and strive to improve things if we are not. To this end we use the Happiness tennis balls (or ‘feelings balls’ as my friend sweetly terms them) to say if happy or not at the end of the day. Totals are totted up at the end of the week and we have years of happy and sad smiley face metrics!
  • We start the week having a ‘stand-up’ where each person shares their weekend, what work they will do this week (note the absence of one person dictating here) and the ‘open accounting’ happens.
  • We put on a First Friday event at the start of the month with guests speakers for friends, family and associates to enjoy. It’s open to each of us to run this as we wish, leading to the wonderful event not so long ago with Graffiti Knitter Deadly Knitshade! Now that was fun making felt butterflies with googly eyes.
  • We also have ‘The Church of Fail’ where the NM’ers take it in turns to profess to the congregation something that that have surprisingly enough failed at. The point here is to share, take advice and move on from such moments, and it invariably turns into an utterly hilarious afternoon of laughing & bonding.
  • We have a ‘Wall of Win’ covered with things that each of us thinks that the others have done well, or even to blow our own trumpets. It is a culture where doing something great, little or big, is recognised and praised and this really does help a happy atmosphere.

I hope that this has given you a little flavour of working at a democratic company, from a newbie’s perspective. And certainly more so of what it is like to be part of NixonMcInnes. It is fun and it is a challenge, but full of trust and support and this is very much born out of the democratic and new ways of working and the people that this attracts and keeps happy. And feeling very much a part of the Brighton community too.

Bruce Waskett, Nixon McInnes

Follow Bruce on Twitter @bbonus 

You can listen to the conversation with Will at our Home Brewed event here and hear the audience Q & A at the event here.

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