COVID-19 Side Effects: No Hierarchy, No Bosses, Full Transparency
I’d long read articles and books concerning progressive organisations with a quiet envy. Envious and also slightly mystified as to how these businesses actually made it happen - when did the opportunity for such a significant change ever appear. All these transformative, adaptive, downright off-the-wall ways to revolutionise the way we do business - they all read well, really well - but I couldn’t get my head around how to take those first few radical steps.
Perhaps it was just me, but I suspect that many of you feel the same; I’m hoping that this article can bring the possibility a little closer for some. This blog contains many excellent articles that rightly focus on the methods you can use to deliver remarkable innovation and results.
Eight months into the process, I find myself agreeing with the vast majority, although a few approaches don't resonate quite so strongly - which is all good, because this isn't about rule-books - it's an individual journey that should be bespoke to each organization.
Rather than cover the same ground, I'm going to focus on the approach, and what I've learned about how to begin changing.
Breaking the cycle
If you're in a similar headspace to mine circa Jan 2019, you're deterred by the perceived complexity - just the downright hugeness - of the task ahead. It's a sensible concern, but for us the path forward proved a lot clearer than I expected.
Admittedly we were pushed into switching the phones off for (ahem) a while in 2020, but there is something to learn from the fact that we had to shift focus from profit to time in order to make the change, even if covid did force my hand.
Our backstory will be familiar for many other SMEs. Founded in 2006, we specialise in tailor-made travel in Asia: by the time we heard the first whispers of covid from our partners bordering China, we'd grown into an award-winning team of 30+ committed travel experts. But in truth we'd been plateauing and then stagnating for the past five years, still profitable (just) but we'd lost our purpose and direction.
Attempts at fresh strategy weren't getting through; the foundations desperately needed resetting. Good old hindsight: it seems blindingly obvious now that we could've switched perspective without a catastrophic intervention, but we were so focused on scratching our way to break-even that we couldn't see where to break the cycle. Personally, I felt quite suffocated and out of ideas.
The dream is real
And yet eight months later, the dream is real. We're already extremely comfortable and effective as a dispersed team. We've removed all hierarchy - in fact all departments and job titles - and are redesigning the business from the bottom up. We've created an intelligent system of overlapping projects run by opt-in teams who are upskilling whilst influencing every aspect of the business.
Individual autonomy is already in the bag; hours are flexible, meetings are opt-in, and we're collaborating far better than we ever did before. And we are — all of us — having fun. So, you may be wondering, what gems and shortcuts can I pass on from our journey so far?
1. You may have to step off the hamster wheel
Your first steps will need to be deliberate and significant. They can slow down shortly after. My next statement may prompt 80% of you to stop reading, but for the other brave souls: I'm increasingly convinced that you may have to find a way to stop for a while (assuming a global pandemic hasn't made you do so already).
Creating a new business with a progressive structure is challenging enough; overhauling an existing one whilst trading seems like trying to change the wheels whilst driving the car. To truly embrace this depth of change, you have to strip down the entire business, untangle its processes, and chisel out the dead wood.
Alarming prospect, yes? But if prepared with foresight, perhaps a period of carefully planned fallout will be more than compensated by the potential gains. And, if you do it right, you’ll have created an adaptive business that will keep on adapting and responding to changes around you, for many years to come.
2. Ask for help
We were extremely fortunate to find Jon Barnes through a mutual contact. He's been key to this process. He's full of (very) bright ideas and experienced at introducing change to business, but crucially he also became a sort of ambassador between me and the rest of the team.
I'm also full of ideas, but when the team were heads-down making sales and discovering product, they didn't always feel — let's say, energised — by the sight of lightbulbs switching on above my head.
"Radical change" might have sounded like just one more of Nick's bright ideas had it come from my mouth, but Jon diplomatically passed insight both ways, and held me to account for the changes I was instigating. I strongly encourage you to seek expertise and help when you're planning such critical changes.
3. Having stopped, tackle it slowly, in bite-sized chunks
Or, "slow down to speed up", as Jon would say. After those first rapid steps, we took time to collectively break down our existing structure of roles, titles and suchlike, and identified all the actual tasks that make up our business.
We noted where tasks combined into intuitive roles, and created an umbrella structure of projects. Many of these were new (for instance, completely redesigning the sales process, and aiming to become a B Corp organisation). Others — new bookings, or (in 2020 especially!) handling postponed holidays — already existed.
4. The CEO and Management must let go.
I repeat: the CEO and Management MUST let go!
This is the part I've found most exciting and liberating of all, and I'm speaking as — if not a control freak, certainly someone once very controlling when it came to my business. It is my baby. I thought I knew it best. But of course that meant that it could only expand as far as the horizons of my own imagination (not to mention energy and enthusiasm), and my team felt obliged to wait for my direction, instead of offering the answers I'd often wished someone would give me.
It's now very clear to me that one of the reasons that "my" business plateaued was the lack of autonomy, and the inefficiency created by my being central to all decisions. Hello again, Mr Hindsight.
The removal of hierarchy means ‘stepping down’ yourself. It may feel like a big step, and may take time. You will always be the founder. But you must lose any fear of failure, and show willingness to trust, to experiment, question known truths and buck trends.
Question long-held assumptions and interrogate processes — do they still make sense? Did they ever?
5. Then, autonomy
We encouraged everyone to break out of their habitual job titles to become part of projects they felt passion for, and to involve themselves in the tasks and roles they wanted to learn more about. This was opt-in and occurred alongside existing responsibilities. No more "silos", departments or no-go zones.
The clarity and openness this created throughout the organisation has been overwhelmingly positive. Expertise has spread widely, hierarchy has gone, and there are all kinds of upskilling opportunities. There's no seniority in any project — just a project leader, responsible for rhythm and documentation (both of which have proven absolutely essential).
6. Communication & transparency are key
Become as transparent as possible, as early as you can. Financially most of all. We were fortunate in having introduced this several years ago in a bid to cope with falling profit margins. Shifting the rhythm and flow of communication also created huge change quickly.
Lockdowns forced us to switch to remote working, prior to which our meeting effectiveness was very poor, relying far too heavily on an open office and a sociable team culture. Having switched to collaborative tools across the organization, channels are always open (disruptive notifications should of course be turned off), and we avoid silos - including internal email - and adhere to a best usage practice (emojis, yes; kitten memes, not so much).
Everyone involved in a project is left to organise their own collaborative sessions, keeping them focused, consistent and well documented. If you don't want to be there, you don't have to, but it's up to you to update yourself.
7. Gimmicks might entice, but build foundations first
You might be reading about some eye-opening tactics such as “unlimited holiday”, "choose your own salary" or "be paid to leave", but while these are powerful recruitment and retention tools on their own, in my opinion a successfully progressive business must start with the fundamentals, not the headline-grabbers.
Once you've unpicked the processes, redesigned the structure -- and, crucially, made sure that it's all working -- you can press "go" on free company helicopter usage at weekends.
8. The result? Things quickly start to feel less radical and more logical
Unlike most contributors to this site, I don't have impressive stats to give you as proof. Because of covid, we still have no business. It's important to note that our industry is under extreme pressure and frankly we are relieved to still be employed. But this isn't the whole story.
Despite covid, our individual happiness scores have gone up and continue to do so despite extreme stress, uncertainty, and significant personal financial loss. Progress is slow due to furlough, but nonetheless significant. We've redefined our values, collectively articulated our purpose. We're a fair way into a rebrand to further remove our geographic limitations (having "Asia" in the name was a great niche idea, 16 years ago).
When travel does resume (which it will!) we're ready with plenty of progressive ideas for that, too. And something I had imagined was impossible has happened: we've fixed "us". We're unblocked, we're breathing new life into our business, and — speaking as someone who's scaled a few mountains in his time — this air tastes sweet.
This is a guest post from Nick Pulley, Founder of Selective Asia, a bespoke tour operator for the curious minded traveller. In 2020 the company discovered a new energy, identity and purpose as an adaptive organization. For more information on Nick and the company, check out his rebel page.