culture shock

the future-now of work: a review of “Culture Shock: A Handbook for 21st Century Business”

This book is Will McInnes’ (@willmcinnes) invitation to make a difference in your organization and change the world. He extends a hand and asks you to join him in considering what business could be, should be, and – in several cases – already is. This is the future-now of business and work.

I am fascinated with the humanness of business. I like business and I believe that business is people and people are business. Humans – and humans alone – create business results. It seems so obvious, but gets overlooked, ignored, and dismissed in the forever pursuit of the short-term shortcut. We remove humanness thinking it will create greater results. Instead it creates disconnects between people and their contributions; it chokes off engagement. What if work had purpose and meaning? What if it were different? That’s this book.


Imagine if your business was driven by a “purpose of significance”. What would work look like if your business wanted to do great things beyond cut its own throat to make a quick dollar for shareholders? It works for Patagonia, Noma, Grameen, and of course Apple and Google. Purpose sounds all gooey new agey soft but it is simply the “why” your business exists.

What if your organization was more democratic and got more input from more of the right people? What if we could (finally!) ditch or at least minimize the hierarchy and move decisions from a narrow few to a broader many? Interestingly, this is a no brainer method for running a country, yet freakishly terrifying to many as a way to run a business. So much of this “new” way of doing business that Will describes underscores the idea that we have to give up control to get influence because, ultimately, influence has far greater reach and power than control. If we move past the idea that we have to control and create every good idea, we are able to tap into a much broader and deeper pool of ideas, insight, and perspective.

Progressive Business

If it’s true that “the customer experience will never exceed the employee experience” (and I believe it is) then the most competitively rational actions a business could take would be to radically bolster the employee experience. Yet, what tends to happen? Businesses strive to gain an advantage by cutting, narrowing, dehumanizing. It’s as though they are saying, “We’ll gain new business and create customer loyalty by doing everything in our power to ensure that they are served by the most unsupported, undertrained, worried, demotivated, disconnected, disengaged, and uncaring workforce we can possibly create.” Lunacy.

What if – play along with me here – we did the opposite and created a workforce that was supported, well trained, secure, fired up, passionate, and cared about creating great results for their customers, co-workers, and company? Nah, that’s too crazy. Or is it?

Having Fun With Humanness

Zappos is a tremendously celebrated and studied company. They are at the heart of a huge number of articles and case studies of how they do business differently and get different (better!) results. Yet for all their fame, glory, notoriety, and profits, how many businesses have really tried to emulate them? It’s like we all cheer them and then say, “But, it’ll never work at my company.”

But what if it could? The point isn’t to be just like Zappos, Apple, etc., etc.; the point is to find ways to celebrate and inspire humanness, personality, meaning, fun, authenticity, and transparency. How much time and energy get wasted keeping up corporate appearances?

Will shares some stories and principles from Zappos, W. L. Gore, and his own company, NixonMcInnes. Some of my favorites are:

  • Zappos’ Culture Book, which is “a ‘collage of unedited submissions from employees’, that gives every employee the opportunity to say what they feel and think about the company.” That level of transparency takes massive courage, but what a great tool for building and celebrating people and culture.
  • Zappos’ Reply-All Hat. This is basically a dunce hat for those who accidently hit “reply all” when responding to an email. We’ve all done it. It’s embarrassing. Why not have some fun with it?
  • W. L. Gore’s small facilities. They discovered early on that when a facility gets above 200 – 250 people, the communication, relationships, innovation, engagement, etc. suffers. To counter this, they keep their plant size small and will build a new facility whenever their current facilities are getting too many people. What? Does this mean that relationships and people are important to business success? Is that business blasphemy or just a pretty basic understanding of the intersection of people and work?
  • NixonMcInnes’ Church of Fail. This is a ritual designed to acknowledge mistakes, bring them out in the open, and learn from them. It also helps people get comfortable with the idea of failure (a tip: there is no innovation without failure) and serves as a reminder that everyone in the company has setbacks. Rather than covering them up, drag them out and let everyone benefit from them.
  • NixonMcInnes’ Happy Buckets! I love this idea for its simplicity. They measure employee happiness every day using three buckets and tennis balls (even your budget can afford this). At the start of the day there is a full bucket of balls and empty Happy and Unhappy buckets. On the way out of the office at the end of the day, employees grab a ball and put in in the bucket that best sums up their day. The results are tracked and used as reference point for discussions. Again, a simple act that creates greater transparency and provides information for leading and managing.

So What’s it Going to Take?

Better leadership, yo. That’s what it’s going to take. Your people won’t be able to change business if you aren’t making it ok by setting the example and leading the charge.

How authentic and transparent are you willing to be as a leader? How open are you to the feedback that will help you develop yourself and others?

Are you willing to do a 360-degree survey to get feedback from those around you?(Will shows you how he does it for almost no cost. Use the money you save to buy some buckets and tennis balls).

Are you willing to share your setbacks and failures? Will you be first in line at the Church of Fail?

Are you willing to be emotionally congruent and share how you are feeling? (Gasp! A leader with emotions!)

Are you willing to use new/social technology to improve your results by gaining information and acting and deciding closer to real time, without the lags and delays that happen when leadership is isolated from the front line?

Organizational Openness

This is a big subject in the future-now of work and it is simply continuing the trend of authenticity and transparency; of giving up control to gain greater influence (and results). Some quick examples:

Culture: do people have access to almost all information (e.g., financial data), is there honest and direct communication and collaboration, are silos and info hoarding unheard of?

Work Environment: are workspaces set up to allow easy collaboration, are people allowed to choose the technology best for their job (or are they stuck with one option that works marginally well for everyone), is IT a gate keeper or a work enabler?

Innovation: do all great ideas come from just a few people or are ideas crowdsourced from employees, customers, and maybe even competitors?

Marketing & Communication: Can your organization come to grips with the idea that marketing is now two-way and they can no longer control – only influence – the message? Would your company be willing to post an unedited Twitter/Facebook feed of ALL comments made about the company on the front page of the website?

Change Velocity

How fast is change happening? [answer: very, very, exponentially very fast].

How fast can your company change? A better question: how fast can you change? Does it matter if there is an ever-widening gap between you, the company, and your customers/the world. [answer: uh, yeah, it does. A lot.]

At a time when continued success is dependent on your ability to effectively change, I’m reminded of the old quip: some people make things happen, some people watch things happen, and some people ask, “What happened?”

Will describes eight areas that affect your company’s change velocity and what you can do to pick up the pace in each area. This section will only be important to you if you ever do any planning, hiring/firing, rewards, need to deal with structures/processes/systems, or want to create attitudes that support change…

Anything Else?

Just sections on digital strategies and fair finances. I won’t go into detail here because I’m sure your org already practices open book accounting, fair (and open) rewards,  collective budgeting, employee ownership, etc. etc. Yawn, right? All old hat stuff that everyone does…

Oh wait, you mean salaries aren’t known in your company? Financials aren’t published (and your employees couldn’t read them even if they were)? Hmmm…


My conclusion: I loved it and you should read it. But then, I’m biased. I was already sold on some of the concepts Will presents. He does a great job fleshing them out and expanding them and introducing me to companies where the ideas are actually in use. It’s a well written book with plenty of case studies and examples from current organizations, including his own.

This book inspires me, makes me a little relieved to find others thinking this way, and also torques me off to no end that this is the future-now of business and the world hasn’t arrived yet. The promise is there; the reality is slower in coming. But that’s actually good news – the businesses that make the shift to being human, authentic, and transparent will (in my less than humble opinion) gain significant advantages. BUT, in some ways these advantages can’t/won’t be measured directly with our current measures (where does “humanness” show up on the balance sheet?) This isn’t bad, but it is important to be aware of: if we’re shifting how we think about work and business we also need to shift how we are measuring and evaluating it.

All of this involves a big leap of faith. Consider the knights in shining armor: they were very well protected from swords and arrows. The weight of the armor slowed them down, but they were heavily defended from enemies. Then gunpowder came along and suddenly all that armor was a hindrance. The competitive advantage that had existed on the battlefield for years and years and years was suddenly a sitting-duck-route-to-failure. The rules for success changed completely and it was actually safer to be significantly less protected but much, much more nimble by wearing no armor. It’s obvious in retrospect, but I suspect that was still a tough decision to take the leap, give up the known safety, and shed the protection, despite the “knowledge” that it might be better to not have it.

How many businesses are at that decision chasm today? Being big, armored, controlled, and locked down – protected by layers of armor – was crucial to success not that long ago. The world has now changed and that protection now looks dangerous, counterproductive, and useless against the future-now of business.