10 Ways To Create An Open Culture

Grey London CEO Chris Hirst outlines how the agency built a culture based on an "Open" philosophy and what you can learn from its efforts.

Three years ago, Grey London really needed to change. The industry had changed, the media landscape had changed and Grey remained a relatively successful (in financial terms at least), safe, but dull London outpost of a global network. Not a great, or ultimately sustainable, place to be if you’re in a creative industry.

Grey had tried to change before. The business wasn’t in denial, but it just seemed like the "uncrackable" problem. This time, we did it differently. Our strategy for change was to change our culture. We called this Open. It is both an expression of a culture and how we believe today’s people-based businesses should work in order to survive, evolve and thrive. It is a philosophy of collective creativity and collective responsibility. It encourages increased collaboration between departments, the agency and its clients. Any business can be Open; what follows is a brief description of how we did it, the lessons learned and the results we’re achieving.

As a team, we have a shared dissatisfaction for how most agencies choose to work. Despite selling creativity, many behave in the exact opposite way and the most conservative department is often the creative department. We believe that most "people" businesses are actually "talent" businesses and conventional pyramidal structures squash and stifle this talent. This makes them slower, less innovative and ultimately frustrating places to work. In 2009, we set about turning this pyramid upside down, re-framing the role of management as coaches and cultural guardians.

To achieve actual change rather than paper change we needed three things: vision, courage and urgency, with the greatest focus on the latter—because talking about change rather than doing it is where most programs come unstuck. We set metrics, a timeline, identified our key stakeholders (primarily in our case staff and clients) and published targets for all to see. It was scary, because metrics and transparency set targets that demonstrate success, but can also highlight failure.
Focusing on actions ahead of words and documents, we held focus groups internally, removed all offices, official processes—even sacrosanct "sign-offs"—and department boundaries, creating a place that allowed people to be the best they could be. We believed that if we did this, breaking the traditional parent/child relationship that exists in most businesses, we would achieve radical change.

And we have. Over the past three years we have transformed our creative output, winning awards around the world, and doubling in size (revenue). Crucially, our staff and client satisfaction scores have also skyrocketed.
Yet the job is not complete. Open positively affects our business on a daily basis, and with the desire to change as strong as ever, continues to drive us forward.

Here, based on our experience, are 10 ways to become Open.

Don’t just strategize for change

All businesses need to change. This is as true of a small, fast-paced creative business as it is of a global corporate behemoth. The problem is, despite the considerable money thrown at them and the legions of paper theories written about them, most change programs fail.

Strategy is, in fact, the easy bit. Paying for it hurts, but the pain passes. Doing it gets very hard indeed. You need to be prepared for the long road ahead. Only a dramatic shift in culture can yield the best results.

Do it now

Let’s face it, the ideal moment to change your business—when you’ve got a clear diary, all your clients are happy and there are no major projects in the pipeline—will never present itself. So stop waiting for the right time, just get on with it.

Image: Flickr user Francisco Delatorre

Pick the right team

The operative word here is team. You need to put together a genuine and focused group at the top of the business to make change happen. A team who invests effort in collective success and effort in making the team itself work effectively.

Do as I do, not as I say

Fundamentally, culture is the behavior of management. Too often, people accept change needs to happen, but believe it’s someone else that needs to behave differently to make it a reality. What you do as a manager, not what you say, is what really counts. Only your actions and leading by example will bring about a change in the way your whole organization behaves.

Engage, don’t mandate

The biggest barrier to change is mobilizing and energizing your workforce, which is likely to be highly skeptical. Your people need to be invited to shape the future of the business, not manipulated to satisfy the needs of management.

At Grey London we invited everyone to a series of day-long workshops to engage staff in developing our new vision and values. The management team didn’t define Open, the talent did. In an Open culture, the role of management is to create a culture that allows every individual to be the best they can be and then focus on removing obstacles and barriers that obstruct this ambition (of which inevitably there are many).

Image: Flickr user Grant Hutchinson

Break habits and make change visible

Culture is like concrete, which over time sets into a certain mold. An effective change program therefore needs a degree of physicality. Too much so-called change stays on PowerPoint. To really shake things up, you’ve got to take a sledgehammer to that concrete, but be mindful that, in time, the new way of doing things will also become too entrenched. You need to keep smashing and resetting to keep your culture vibrant and your business energized.

Fundamental to the success of Open is the breaking of barriers, physical or otherwise. So the first big step is tearing down walls: no offices (for anybody) and nobody sitting in departments. Then change your processes to involve all stakeholders throughout a project so everyone not only understands the problem, but takes pride and ownership in delivering the best answer.

Not all change has to be this radical, however. You can achieve a large amount by seemingly symbolic acts. Seen by everyone and felt immediately, symbolic acts can have disproportionate influence.

Management as mentors

Open turns the traditional organizational hierarchy upside down, recasting management as mentors. Ultimately, its success lies in the emphasis on the power of the individual and their teams to do the right thing, their way. It allows ambitious entrepreneurs to thrive and be the best they can be.

If you sit in an organization where the seventh floor doesn’t know what the first floor thinks, you can’t change a company’s culture. To combat this kind of malaise, you need to change people’s emotional contract with the organization—we went as far as giving junior executives a place on the board through the creation of "Open Chairs."

You also need tangible demonstrations of trust and devolution of responsibility. For Grey London, the most totemic act was the removal of "sign-offs." For us, sign-offs became a short hand for everything that we believed was wrong about traditional agency ways of working. Sign-offs are about control, but unfortunately, also disempower and imply that only the creative director’s point of view matters. This leads to a slow, dependent culture, frustrated clients and, most importantly of all, less good work.

Open belongs to everyone. It involves everyone. Even clients. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, so allow people to adapt the approach as they see fit and launch their own initiatives to promote a culture of collaboration. You’ll find leaders emerge at all levels.

Image: Flickr user Brian Duffy

Recognize that change is lumpy

Set ambitious metrics for success and be transparent about what they are. Encourage open and honest feedback and share all the results with everyone. Open is about decisions, action and continuous change. Coupled with ambitious targets and full disclosure on progress, comes the very real possibility of failure. If you’ve fully embraced Open, you will make the wrong decisions from time to time, but as long as you continue to act and make more good decisions than bad ones, your business will move forward fast. Remember, change isn’t linear—it’s lumpy.

At Grey London, implementing a "70% right" approach has served us very well. As General Schwarzkopf once said, “If you’ve waited until you’re more than 70% certain, then you’ve waited too long.”

Don’t stop

Too often, change consists of one-off initiatives that are forgotten by employees and abandoned by management. You need to nurture continual change and ongoing collaboration through workshops, training, social events and company-wide challenges.

We lie awake at night worrying "what next?" rather than, "did that work?"

The stakeholder journey

Identify your stakeholders and make sure they see the result of your change program—not just being different, but being better. Not better in the abstract or in a corporate sense, but better for them as individuals.

This applies to all stakeholders and you need to be able to articulate exactly how. From the personal association with a winning team, the potential career development if you’re the client who commissions a breakthrough piece of creative, the rewards that come with working for a successful company, and yes, even just coming to a nice place to work.

Chris Hirst is CEO of Grey London.

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15 Comments

  • Karen Mallia

    How has that cultural shift affected the creative department? Has collaboration killed ego and machismo? Any visible difference in the number of female creative directors? More diversity? Curious about the impact on The 3 Percent.

  • Chris Hirst

    It has massively changed the creative department. And has improved the quality of our creative product. To see the creative dept as a separate entity, able to thrive apart from the rest of the agency is so out-dated as to be laughable. A healthy creative culture has to be everybody's culture. And everybody has a role to play in the organism for it to thrive. And yes, we do have way more women in the creative dept than most agencies!

  • Cindy

    LOVE this brilliantly transparent article! This is a gift! Thank you. I've been desperate to find a working model in the corporate world that gives evidence to what I am convinced is the ONLY sustainable strategy for continuous growth and productivity in your talent and from your talent.
    It's a model that is quite organic - life begets life vs. control begets.....well, control. The higher one goes up the "pyramid" the more isolated one becomes, the followers lose sight of the leader and the space becomes more narrow. That structure was never about growth and expansion - it was always about control. Can't find that structure in nature. When I think of pyramid I think of Pharoah - enough said.

  • hillaryfeder

    Great content. I especially like the idea that changing culture is lumpy. Something that I did not see spelled out that I think is critical to success is recognizing that communication is the foundation of a cultural shift. 

    Communication that is clear (expresses expectations and shifts), frequent (regular and anticipated) and consistent (no "flavor of the day").

  • Chris Hirst

    Completely agree - yes, that may well be a point i missed, and something we focussed very heavily on. The focus groups we held were a key part of that. We certainly learned that you have to keep reminding people - and of course, not forgetting new joiners who need to be inducted into the culture.
    It's easy to get bored and move on to the next thing - so consistency and stamina are essential ingredients.

  • Boris Pluskowski

    Nice one Chris - would add one more: Follow through on your promise: If the population you're trying to change don't see follow through, don't see value being created through the actions you're asking them to do - they'll disengage and never change. The key to building an open culture is making Open-ness a valuable activity and not just a mantra. 

    Best

    Boris 

  • Chris Hirst

    100%.

    That's exactly the point i tried to land in the piece.

    it is very easy to come up with ideas, but actually doing stuff - and sticking at it over a long period of time requires a high level of discipline, stamina and determination.

    The grand-daddy of strategy, Drucker, once said, 'All strategy devolves to work'. I like to think that's what he meant!

  • Kent Julian

    Great post, Chris! Really love your thoughts on creating a culture based of an
    "open" philosophy. Essentially, the three main things you shared -- vision,
     courage, and urgency -- are what any organization needs to achieve significant change and be propelled down the road to success. Thanks!

  • Chris Hirst

    Thanks. Of the three i think urgency is the most under-appreciated. Management love talking about vision, but in reality creating a sense of urgency is just as important and often more difficult

  • Wmark_stanley

    Thanks for this Chris - I like what you've had to say ... but ... (there's always a but, isn't there?).  With the CEO embracing and commiting to change, the "tough" at least is possible.  Where I live - in middle management, there many of us who desire change in our conservative, entrenched, heirarchical organization.  Our senior leaders talk about change - but that's as far as it's ever gone. 

    What can you advise for those of us in the middle layer who want to push for change?

    Thx

    Mark

  • Terrefirma

    I like how you misspelled hierarchy using 'heir' instead to imply that the culture is inherited- very coolly wrong.

  • Chris Hirst

    I think that's a tough one.
    Having said that, i'm a firm believer that for most people their defining experience of where they work is shaped by those they report directly into. That's why different people can have very different experiences in different parts of the same company.
    That being the case, i think you could start by focussing on shaping the experience of those who work for you. In essence that's what we all have to do! The principles of Open still apply - and you'll see the benefit, personally and professionally.

  • David C Cohen

    I loved the post Chris.  I run a completely virtual creative company with a distributed team.  We pride ourselves on culture, honesty and transparency.  So much so that at the end of 2011 we released our financials to all the staff and opened the floor for questioning.  This dispelled so many myths for people.  We had formatters getting paid 6% of a total project budget where they felt they were completing the lions share of the work.  Not understanding our model and what things cost was causing unrest and unease.  
    So we are huge fans of the open culture and I applaud you for sharing all your secrets.  :)

  • Chris Hirst

    Hi David - Thanks!
    Transparency is a favourite topic of mine. I am convinced that there is very little that cannot be openly shared and discussed within all companies - and much that can't is to do with simply privacy issues. We try and share as much as we can - and it works!