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Culture

The Wholegrain case study: creating cultural architecture at Wholegrain.

This article explores the journey that Tom Greenwood and Christopher Hardy have been on in creating positive culture change within Wholegrain Digital from June 2020 to the present day. 

We look at: 

  • the initial challenges and pain points behind the role being created 
  • the approach taken and the cultural architecture built
  • the benefits of the work and the impacts experienced

Cultural changes (and the effectiveness of the programmes that initiate / instigate them) can be hard to track and can often seem intangible or ‘fluffy’. The intention in this article is to share both the intangible and magical changes that took place while also sharing the practical ways that impact was created.

The initial challenges and pain points behind the role being created 

The initial challenge Tom was facing when he met Christopher was noticing that the HR role inside Wholegrain was attempting to play two quite different roles. There’s the role of organising pay, holidays, onboarding and offboarding and all the internal legal workings of a business. And then there’s also the role of supporting staff to grow, offering feedback conversations and giving 1-1 attention where needed. 

Tom spotted that these roles are different and was experiencing difficulty in visualising what a split here could look like. In the midst of this exploration he was also noticing various challenges within the cultural system of Wholegrain at that time:

Tom shares below from his perspective the situation within Wholegrain in June 2020.

When Tom Greenwood first met Christopher Hardy, he had been running his company Wholegrain Digital for 13 years. Despite considerable success, a broadly good team culture and a great reputation, the business faced challenges that Tom and Vineeta (his wife and co-director) had felt unable to solve. Tom observed that the team was highly capable and often enjoyed solving complex technical challenges, but yet often faced challenges that were somehow different and far more difficult and stressful to solve.

As Managing Director of the business, it occurred to Tom that these more tricky problems were not difficult because of technical complexity, but because of human complexity. They were organisational challenges arising from human challenges like the difficulty in understanding one’s self and the complex network of relationships a business creates. This difficulty sits alongside the challenge in understanding each other and the complex connections between the team as well as beyond the team with partners and clients. 

Common issues included;

  • unspoken resentment between team members and a sense that people didn’t always feel safe
  • difficulty learning from projects that lost money for the company without good internal review processes in place
  • a frustratingly high staff turnover that seemed to contradict the relaxed, caring culture that Tom and Vineeta had worked hard to create.
  • A missing feedback culture in which challenging conversations could be had in a supportive way and feedback welcomed to help people grow
  • A lack of possibilities for internal progression and career advancement within Wholegrain

In addition, there was an invisible wall between employees and company directors, which despite efforts to eliminate it, meant that there were important things that were often never said out loud, creating anxiety for the directors and others in the team. To compound this, there was an unspoken sense that employees expected more support from the directors than they could offer, while the directors were overloaded and needed others to take more shared responsibility.

Tom’s hypothesis was that the whole team would benefit from coaching to understand their own thoughts and behaviours, and to understand each other within the system that they were all collectively a part of. He believed that this coaching could help them grow as humans and as professionals, enabling them to thrive both as people and as an organisation. This coaching would not have the usual separation between leadership and employees, but would treat everyone as equals on a journey of collective growth.

It’s important to bring attention to the quality of Tom’s observations on the system and his (ultimately correct) diagnosis that collective team coaching would help. The architecture that was created directly responded to these desires of his:

  • Helping the team understand their own thoughts and behaviours
  • Helping everybody learn about, and respond better to, the system they operated within
  • Helping employees grow in both professional and personal ways
  • Helping move beyond the apparent separation of leadership and employees

It turned out that Chris, with a decade of experience as a leadership coach, had been reaching similar conclusions in other contexts. He believed that organisations could reach their full potential only when all individuals within the organisation were supported in becoming the best version of themselves. He believed that this would lead to the perfect synergy of personal fulfilment and organisational success. There was a meeting of minds and Tom and Chris agreed that Chris would join Wholegrain Digital as an internal team coach to lead this experiment within the business.

The approach taken and the cultural architecture built

Phase 1 – Listen and Observe

This phase happened before the role was created and during the first few months. Data was gathered by the cultural architect and attempts made to understand the system and the individuals within it.

  • Listening to the system through 1-1s and facilitating group conversations
  • Surveying everybody to understand where the system most needed intervention
  • Observing group dynamics in team calls and meetings
  • Witnessing communication and group dynamics through Slack and Basecamp

Phase 2 – Design and Plan

Using the three part approach of: Vertical Development, Embodied Presence and Systemic Awareness, Christopher would then design a bespoke set of interventions based on the above observations.

  • 1-1 coaching for everybody in the team based on vertical development meant individual time to explore where people’s growing edges were and to help them in seeing their part in the current system
  • Basecamp threads of discussion on various training topics and regularly updated ‘todo’s’ as outcomes from our 1-1 sessions meant ongoing action and impact to the system from an early stage
  • Training topics selected (e.g. Deep Work / Feedback / Challenging Conversations) as appropriate starting points for the whole team to come together around a topic for that given month
  • Ensuring buy-in from the team at all points meant comms sharing an overarching narrative of building a developmental culture; asking for people’s buy-in and ensuring each step of the intervention is understood

Phase 3 – Build and Deliver

An iterative approach was taken as both Tom and Christopher valued diving in and experimenting (within safe-to-fail boundaries). Fortnightly synching conversations enabled constant augmentation and iteration of delivery. There were initially three main areas of delivery:

Coaching

  • Vertical developmentally informed coaching helps the individual orientate themselves in their own developmental journey and understand how to positively contribute to systemic change.
  • 1-1 coaching for 90mins per month for each employee for the first six months gave both Christopher and the team time and space to develop trust and mutual understanding
  • Outcomes and ‘growth edges’ from coaching are shared openly within Basecamp so that actions can be supported by the rest of the system / team.
  • Leadership (in particular Tom and Vineeta) ‘going first’ demonstrating openness and deep engagement in culture change and enabling others to step into more honesty and openness.

Training

  • The Team was polled on training topics to foster engagement and enable the system to decide on what topics feel most appropriate
  • Delivery of training is in alignment with the larger narrative of culture change as follows. One new topic delivered each month with a 1hr intro session in week 1 and review session in week 4.
  • Training impact is surveyed each month to assess engagement, utility and gather feedback on delivery and ‘implementability’ of the topics covered.
  • Training topics are incorporated into organisational culture through Basecamp and Slack during the month with regular videos, PPTs and further resources shared to the team.

Facilitation

  • Facilitation of challenging conversations through the context of cultural changes enabled better communication and less conflict when challenges arose. (These conversations were on an ad-hoc basis and usually lasted around 1 hour with 3-5 people involved and happened once a month)
  • Creation and holding of internal working groups focusing on particularly challenging topics. For example a group was created to review and recreate the way project retrospectives were done (This group met for 2 hours once a month for three months). Another group was created to deal with the systemic issues arising out of project retrospectives (This group meets for 2 hours every two months and involves four people).
  • Since March 2021 a key part of Christopher’s role has been taking groups of 4 employees from across the organisation through a process called ‘Immunity to Change’ designed to liberate individuals (and the system) from hindrances to collective change. (These groups of four have been happening fortnightly and are 1 hour long.)

Phase 4 – Listen and Observe (followed by stage 2,3,4…1,2,3,4…1,2,3,4)

  • Fortnightly scheduled syncs between Tom and Christopher create a continuous dialogue observing project progress while assessing the impacts of implementation. This created a healthy and constant state of analysis and questioning.
  • Data collection through survey and ongoing conversations with team members has meant we’ve kept an observational eye on progress alongside working within the scaffolding in place.

The benefits of the work and the impacts that we experienced

We’ve split this section into two; team engagement and organisational benefits.

Team engagement

When Chris’ role as team coach was introduced to the team at Wholegrain Digital, the idea of coaching and “adult developmental theory” was very much an alien concept to most people. The team was unsure what it was going to mean for them in practice. However, as the work together began, the response was very much positive. Almost everybody in the team was happy to engage with the process and take a leap of faith to see where it went. 

Nearly a year on, the attitudes within the team towards this collective growth process are very positive, with some commenting that it is one of the best things to have happened in their work. There are a few people who don’t feel the personal need for it, but are quite happy to go along with it for the benefit of the organisation. And perhaps, out of a curiosity to see whether it does benefit them in some unexpected way.

It is worth acknowledging that there is a small resistant minority for whom this work seems like an unnecessary distraction in their otherwise busy working days. But they do, nevertheless, mostly take part and make a valuable contribution to the group’s progress, even if they don’t realise it. At the beginning of the process, the idea that not everyone might “get it” or that some people may be resistant to the process was a source of anxiety for Tom as a leader but now he sees it as a natural part of the diversity within the team and a reflection of each person’s personal journey. He can now see that so long as the team as a whole is developing in a positive way, then the process is working and everyone is benefiting.

Organisational Benefits

When embarking on this experiment together, Tom and Chris did not know if it would work, but were surprised how quickly changes became apparent. Team members quickly began talking more openly about the challenges they were facing, and started trying to solve them. Collectively the awkwardness of unspeakable problems began to ease, because elephants in the room were named in group conversations and all team members knew that they had explicit permission from the company directors to do so. Individuals started to acknowledge their own limiting beliefs and take small steps towards overcoming them, enabling them to function better in their day-to-day roles. Perhaps best of all, a significant proportion of the team members and the directors felt a strong sense of personal progress, overcoming mental barriers to become more confident and capable in their roles, as well as developing a wider belief that positive change and personal growth were possible.

The timing of this experiment happened to coincide with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of unprecedented confusion, complexity and challenge for all organisations and individuals. The pandemic compounded the usual complexity of human to human working relationships by eliminating nearly all face-to-face contact for a full year. Despite this, the team handled the challenges collaboratively and solved complex organisational issues, becoming more resilient in the process. The company achieved its best ever financial results and issued a staff bonus, while also achieving its lowest staff turnover in many years. 

There are still complex challenges to be solved in the operation of the business. It is after all, a business that at its core blends complex technical challenges with complex human relationships, but these challenges are now on the table for everyone to work on solving together.

It’s true to say that the organisational transformation, though perhaps invisible from the outside, can be felt very deeply on the inside and has far exceeded Tom’s best expectations. 

The process in less than a year has unlocked significant potential in a number of team members including Tom as Managing Director, and consequently unlocked potential in the organisation itself. The team is now on a journey of exploring how to embrace their own leadership potential without being held back by the invisible structures of hierarchy, to enable more efficient and effective decision-making as well as further improve staff engagement.

The natural next step for Wholegrain Digital (something that’s been on the cards for quite some time) is to become even more of a self-managed organisation. The coaching and training work we’ve been doing has positioned us well, as individuals and as a system, to dive into this new territory with confidence and courage. We look forward to sharing more of this journey with you soon.

Conclusion

Creating lasting cultural changes takes time, a willingness to experiment, and a group capacity for reflection on the changes that are taking place. The cultural architecture within Wholegrain has been created to specifically support this process, and as Tom says: ‘Changes have far exceeded his expectations.’

While reading this article, what are you noticing about the culture of your own place of work? What would you say are the main issues that you face? And do you feel that some cultural architecture may help you to also move things in a useful direction?

Treeka Consulting has been born out of this success at Wholegrain. Christopher and Tom are co-founders alongside Thomas Arta. They are hosting a launch event on the 28th June to which you are very much invited, especially if this article has resonated with you.