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The mistakes we’ve made

Reflecting on 2019, COO Sarah Pettinger shares the highs and lows of the year – including the mistakes and what we learned from them.

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Sarah Pettinger

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One of our founders wrote an article on LinkedIn early last year about what it might be like to stop pretending. We live at a time where there are more ways than ever before that we can share our lives. Whether that’s our professional successes on LinkedIn or our happy family on Instagram. We pick our platform and we curate the highlights, we don’t show what is (let’s face it!) the ‘eat, sleep, work, repeat’ that is a lot of our life – we edit our lives to paint ourselves as the most interesting and successful versions of ourselves.

What, she asked, would it be like if we stopped trying to paint the picture whereby we always got it right? What if we shared the mistakes we made, the bad calls, the failures, the hires that weren’t right for our company, the projects that didn’t go as brilliantly as they could? What if we even celebrated them?

So we’re going to give it a go and this blog is a reflection of last year – the whole year with its highs and lows, its mistakes and, importantly, what we learned from them. It is a celebration of the imperfect.

This is an article of two halves. Reflecting first on where we were at the start of the year and some of the things we’d do differently if we had our time over, and then on the things that we did get right in 2019 and that are changing our direction at Omobono. Similarly, it was a year of two halves and interestingly, in writing this piece, to look back on the first six months and see how far we have come.

So what did we learn in 2019?

Difficult decisions will always be hard, but making them is important

Without a doubt we’ve made some difficult decisions this year and restructuring the company was one of the hardest. It saw the shape of some of our teams and our geographic footprint change and our focus shift in order to meet the needs of our clients and the growth opportunity we wanted to pursue. It meant we said goodbye to some longstanding and valued members of our team. If there was something I learnt from this time it was that we should have made the decision sooner. We care about the people who work here, we know them as people, they have been loyal and they work hard for this company – that makes it hard to make those difficult decisions which might fundamentally change people’s lives. Whilst I know we will never become the kind of company that makes those decisions lightly, we need to continue to learn to make clear and decisive decisions at the right time.

We needed a clearer vision and to define a purpose

We have realised that our loose vision of being a company that delivers fantastic work for clients and looks after its people isn’t enough for people as we grew. We have made some inroads on that problem and through Omobono 2.0 (our whole approach to reshaping Omobono to be the company we really want it to be) we have started to define success for Omobono beyond articulating a desire for good financial performance and we’re finally shaping our vision for the company we want this to be. Our ambition for 2020 is to find the shared purpose that can connect our people and this company together.

The value of being clear about our services

Talk about cobblers children. We’d never let our clients get away with the lack of clarity about what they offer that we’ve had ourselves. We deliver brilliant work for world-class clients but we’ve not been really clear about what we actually want to do. What is it that we excel at? What gets us really excited? Where do we see opportunity? The lack of clarity has made it harder to hire, harder to go to market and harder to convince potential clients where we fit. We ended 2019 with a much clearer sense of our services and going into 2020 these will begin to shape how we organise our teams, develop our people and guide our hiring.

Our values need to work harder

We defined our values a couple of years ago, we followed all of the rules about not having too many and making them memorable, we stuck them up on our walls and printed them on notebooks, we occasionally called out brilliant behavior with a hashtag. I think most people would have been able to name all three. But realistically, understanding of what they really mean, and how they should guide our behavior and decision making, is limited and open to individual interpretation. Yet our values have the potential to shape how we all show up at work and we need to be clearer about what they actually mean. When we’ve done that we might actually stand a chance of helping people develop the skills and behaviours they need to show up here and live them.

The power of communicating, communicating, communicating

I’m proud that our teams work flexibly, that we have three offices across two continents and that we trust people to get the job done rather than watch where and when they are doing it. As brilliant as that is, it presents a huge problem that we’ve yet to really crack – how do we really make sure everyone knows what’s going on. We can’t easily call the team together for a quick update, it’s hard to do things face to face and we over rely on email. In 2020 we just need to find better ways of communicating with the whole company.

Our teams work in silos

There are countless ways to structure a business and organise teams. We chose ours for one set of reasons, all valid, but what has resulted are silos and if we really want to be able to access all of our talent for all of our clients then we need to rethink. We want to be able to get people onto the projects where they will have the most impact, to build teams across geographies and to ultimately deliver the very best work. We need to rethink the platforms we use to collaborate, the operating rhythms we follow to let teams work across geographies and our operating structures.

Systems need to work for the people using them

I hadn’t fully appreciated just how much people were working around the systems that exist to get work from brief to the finish line. What I’ve realised is that where a system doesn’t serve those using it they either feel empowered to change it, or they find workarounds. Sounds fine except that the workarounds inevitably add complexity that doesn’t need to be there. Where elaborate workarounds emerge it’s a signal that the system itself needs to change. Through our work towards Omobono 2.0 we’re beginning to shift the power into the hands of the people operating within the systems to allow them to change them

It’s really hard for an agency to say ‘it’s ok to fail’

We know we all fail, we can’t always be successful and we want our people to feel safe enough to fail, stand back up again, learn what went wrong and move on. It’s the right ambition, but there is some serious tension between that ambition and the absolute need for an agency to be successful for its clients. This year we’ve started to run our business through a set of guiding principles including ‘progress over perfection’ and the concept of making something ‘safe to try’ (see below for more detail on this). I think the secret will lie in changing our relationships with clients and working with them through these principles too.

We have a lot of platforms and we don’t use them well

The platforms we’ve used have evolved over time we’ve adopted new ones, often without enough planning and consideration, and it can feel like a minefield when you join Omobono. Do you email, post it on Yammer, message someone on Teams, create a card in Trello, pick up the phone? We’ve just not made enough conscious decisions about those we use, why and for what. We need clearer operating rhythms for the company that define the ways of working, how we use different platforms and our own conventions. Ultimately I believe it matters less what you use and more how you use it but we haven’t defined the how enough and it means our teams run into problems trying to work seamlessly.

I said this was a year of two halves, so what started to change?

In 2019 we started to take Omobono in an exciting new direction. Omobono 2.0 is our programme of change that will, we believe, reshape Omobono for the rest of its existence. It’s an acknowledgement of what it takes to operate as a successful business in our current climate of industry change, and political, economic and environmental uncertainty. There is only one thing that’s certain, and that’s uncertainty. We reflected a lot last year on our deeply rooted desires to plan things into submission – the idea that if we can just get the plan right then all will be well. But you can’t plan your way to success and we’ve started to deconstruct that idea at Omobono.

We’ve also realised how many of the approaches we take to running a business are just artificial constructs, often created hundreds of years ago for a specific purpose and then suddenly convention with very little thought. One of the heros of the year at Omobono has been our CFO. He has listened patiently and participated wholeheartedly as we’ve challenged just about every financial convention that exists. He has been so open to considering different ways of running a company that in 2020 we’re taking steps towards the Beyond Budgeting approach of financial management – moving away from the annual budgeting process and towards a continuous rolling forecast. Away from trying to plan our way to certainty or the idea that we may have a clue what will be happening in the business in 12 months’ time, and towards trying to actively manage the business through certainty.

Finding focus and clarity in our vision

We’ve defined success at Omobono beyond our commercial performance. Commercial performance remains important but our success statement now acknowledges that commercial success only comes from our people being engaged, able to bring their whole selves to work, producing great work and building fantastic relationships with our clients. Against each of the things we’ve defined in that success statement we’re identifying a measure, one to start with, so that we can start to understand which of these things needs our focus at any one time. This clarity gives us a foundation from which we can find our shared purpose as a company.

Teams becoming stronger

On a personal level it’s been a good year to be part of our Exec Team. We have learnt new ways to come together with a level of vulnerability that exists in very few organisations. We’re meeting more regularly and progressing with more work. Our communication is better and we raise issues more openly. We’ve also brought together a team from across the business to steer the first stages of Omobono 2.0 and to also learn the new skills we need to change the business. This team is connecting people across geographies and teams and helping to challenge silos that existed.

Shifting power balance

New teams and new ways of working are helping us to actively shift the power balance at Omobono. We want people to look to each other when a decision needs to be made rather than looking upwards. We’re changing the way we think about the things which impact us all and in 2020 a team of people from across the agency will run a project looking at everything it means to be at Omobono – pay, benefits, how we help people achieve their ambitions and how we approach training and development. Our new Diversity and Inclusion team has come together from across our offices to meet regularly and shape how we tackle this important agenda. It means we’re hearing many voices and anyone can bring ideas to the table.

We’re learning to make decisions

We’ve practiced applying the Integrated Decision Making approach to our decisions this year. It’s challenged us to be clearer in our proposals, hear different perspectives and shape our decisions around the idea of ‘safe to try’ – finding a way forward that we can try without causing irrevocable financial or cultural harm. This approach has helped us break a big decision down and progress it step by step. We have a lot of learning to do but we’re learning not to kick the can down the road.

Owning our shit

We’ve learnt about the invisible army and the power and importance of looking at conflict or issues from the ‘me first, then them’ perspective – taking responsibility for ourselves and our own tensions rather than blaming others and projecting onto them. We’ve taken an important step away from allowing the shroud of anonymity when people give feedback, recognising that instead we need to build a culture where people know they can be honest and open without repercussions. We’re trying to close the feedback triangle and encourage people, with support, to take tensions or feedback directly to the people involved. It has led to some difficult but transformative conversations between members of our teams.

Daring Leadership

We’re learning to lead. Few of us are taught how to do it, instead we follow instinct or examples of other leaders we’ve had (good and bad). We’ve started to reshape our approach to leadership around Brené Brown’s Daring Leadership relearning what it means to be a leader and to engage with vulnerability, we have reflected on and shared our individual values and we’ve learnt the skills to rumble as a way to have more open conversation. Most importantly we’re learning to fail and rise. Omobono 2.0 is about being much more authentic to who we really are, stopping pretending and building trust within the company.

 

Because I know we’ll try and fail, I know that in a year I’ll be able to write a whole new list of things we’ve learnt at the end of 2020. I’d encourage you to share yours, with us, within your business and within the industry. The lows can feel lower when you’re surrounded by people and companies shouting only about their highs. Perhaps, if we can find a new level of honesty in business, we’ll be able to move away from feelings of being successful, or failing, because we’ll realise it’s not about whether you’re on the up or not but about whether you’re learning and trying to be better.

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