I met Will McInnes online, and not too long afterward he invited me to speak at the Meaning 2012 conference in Brighton, south of London, where his consultancy, NixonMcInnes, is based. The conference was truly inspiring, and it gave me a chance to get to know Will, and now, to get some of our conversation on paper.
About Will McInnes
Will is the managing director of NixonMcInnes, a consultancy that has been identified by WorldBlu as one of the world’s Most Democratic Workplaces, and Will consults with major brands across Europe including Barclays, Cisco, First Group, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Telefonica O2, and WWF. Will’s book, Culture Shock, was published last year, and touches on making business more democratic.
Stowe Boyd: NixonMcInnes is known as one of the world’s most radically democratic companies. What does radically democratic mean? Does that include the ideas of radical transparency and openness within the company? I would like you to expand on that idea because I bet that only a few people know about your firm or what the democratic workplace is.
Wil McInnes: We were inspired by a book called Maverick written by Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian entrepreneur. What’s so inspiring about his story is he inherited his father’s company, and he tried to run it the traditional top-down format. That failed, and he had a nervous breakdown. He wasn’t happy and the company wasn’t thriving. So he decided to do things radically different: to run the company democratically. It’s a really inspiring book, I recommend anyone to read it. His experience is what inspired Tom Nixon — my co-founder — and I to start NixonMcInnes.
Since then I’ve learned a lot about democracy at work. And, in parallel with the social web, we believe that business is going to become more participative and more democratic. If you take the net of all the big themes in business — whether its millennials entering the workforce, or the real time feedback we get from social software and collaboration tools, or competition and the war for talent — all of these things are melding together.
We believe that the most effective business organisms of the 21st century will have at their core different approaches to decision making: decision making that is more like what happens in wikipedia than it how archaic institutions work, where the message has to go all the way to the top and come back down all the way down to the bottom before a decision can be made.
SB: So you organized NixonMcInnes around those ideas from the outset?
WM: That’s right.
SB: How does that feel on a day-to-day basis? If I’m working in your business what does that mean for me as the new hire? What’s work life like?“I think life in an democratic organization is probably a little bit more serious: the effect of taking responsibility for more.”
WM: That’s a good question. I think life in an democratic organization is probably a little bit more serious: the effect of taking responsibility for more. You can’t sit in the corner and bitch about someone else’s problem, and the fact that so-and-so isn’t doing their job. One of the flip sides of working more democratically we all have to take responsibility for what’s going on. Everyone knows what the finances are, everyone else knows what everyone earns. And that’s kind of interesting for people from an older style of organization.
SB: It might feel at first like walking around with your pants off. Oh, wait, you’re not supposed to know that, this is secret stuff.
How does that change peoples perception of each other, when he knows what you’re making and you know what he’s making?
WM: It creates a meritocracy. Questions are asked. And accountability is increased for people who are paid more. Take me for example, as the managing director of our consultancy, I am one of the highest paid and I have to live up to that. I have to deliver value. In a consultancy, people are the product. I have to demonstrate my value, otherwise the guys here in the team will leave. It’s a really powerful lever.
The other thing it really changes is that you can’t cheat your loyal employee. In other companies, there are people — the spine of the organization — that are taken for granted. To bring in the new talent you can pay the big dollars for them, and less to existing people. With ‘open book’ accounting you can’t do that. It creates a different, I suppose more ethical, approach to hiring and firing.
SB: This opens up the next thing I want to chat with you about: your leadership role. What’s the role of leadership in a world that’s becoming more social, and more democratic?
WM: I think leadership is about creating context. It’s about the sum of the parts and about helping groups achieve more than they can as individuals. I think the idea of leadership is going through some really large changes. Leaders have to deal with more forces around transparency, and transparency will bring a requirements to be more authentic. And to be more congruent humans we can relate to.
SB: Less of an authority figure that disposes and more of someone who proposes, and interacts, and gets in the discussion.“I guess a democratic leader is more like a curator or gardener. It’s more like being a conduit. And it’s a shift from masculine to feminine in terms of traditional notions of styles. It’s about dialogue, collaboration, listening, and empathy.”
WM: I guess a democratic leader is more like a curator or gardener. It’s more like being a conduit. And it’s a shift from masculine to feminine in terms of traditional notions of styles. It’s about dialogue, collaboration, listening, and empathy.
And the tools of leadership are changing. When I was researching Culture Shock I came across some really interesting observations. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, said that years ago he would say ‘alright, we’re gonna turn left’ and 60,000 people would turn left. Whereas now, he has to use real time collaborative tools to pass on snippets of informations to help people make contextual decisions wherever they are. It’s much more of an networked environment and i think thats an extremely interesting change.
SB: I think that’s a global issue. It’s not just consultancies or tech companies. I think its something that’s happening everywhere, because the forces that are causing companies to become more social, more open, more democratic, they are forces that impact all businesses. I think it has become more of an environmental force: it’s like air pressure.
I wanted to ask one last question. the idea — the thesis — behind this series is that we are in a time where we have to think more scientifically about what’s going on in business. Specifically, about how people work together and how they influence each other. And the sum of what you can get from people is greater than just adding it all up. In recent years, our understanding of cognitive psychology, the mathematics of social networks, and findings from other disciplines are allowing us to conceive of what’s going on in the business from a more scientific less and ideological basis. How do you think that new science of human beings — the physics of people, if you will — how is that going to change the conduct of business?
WM: I absolutely believe it’s going to change the conduct of business. It already is.
The areas I’m particularly interested in are the science of motivation, the science of happiness, and how happiness interacts with motivation, purpose and work. If you take the science of happiness and motivation, and then overlay that on an understanding of social networks, I think the results are extremely disruptive. And I think the wiring of the traditional organization is not ready for that frame of mind. Look at Yahoo’s announcement last week: the abolition of remote working. This is not a scientific decision, this is some kind of bullshit decision which has roots in the past.
For me the real issue is not so much the science, it’s the take up of the science, or the lag of things. That’s been occupying me recently, I’ve been thinking about lag as it pertains to how long between someone coming up with a great idea and then that idea becoming widely spread in society.
SB: Or an idea in a business: How long before you are generating revenue from it or benefitting your customers by being able to implement it?
WM: In our consultancy, we work with really large organizations and you see that the lag in big organizations is much greater than smaller, nimbler start ups. The question I have is this: if we are going to change business for the better, to suit the 21st century, how do we overcome the normal lag that happens? How do we get this new social science in business operating and performing at scale.
For me the outliers are Valve software, and the Pirate Party. These are organizations that are starting to make a sense of a bolder future and are truly radical in how they are designed and operated.
My biggest takeaway from Will’s experience in a wide-open democratic workplace is the increase in individual responsibility and the changing role of leadership. And Will’s optimism about the coupling of new science in human motivation, happiness, and social networks gives me additional hope and inspiration.
And his observations show something critical: we have plenty of conclusive research in those areas, and every week we see more. But those insights have not been translated into the thinking of business leaders, in general. A great deal is known now about cognition, or the science of motivation, or the real nature of how influence works, but those ideas have not found their way into business, and businesses are still operating around outmoded ideological premises.
I think in that sense Will’s notion of lag is a proxy for that: the lag slowing this body of knowledge from trickling through into business. And when it does we will have a radically transformed context for business, and businesses will operate and appear very differently. So more that technology, it’s new ideas that will transform business. More than tools, it’s courage that we need, to actively challenge the status quo, and to open our minds to new possibilities.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.