Our year without a CEO: How one company changed the rules

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Blair Collins-Thomas explains how the company he works for adopted a ‘flat organisation’ and became stronger, together

It was almost 18 months ago that our company – 90Digital.com understood that, for us to continue existing, some large-scale changes needed to be made. Namely, ditching the CEO and becoming a self-managed and self-led team determining our own future goals, aims and services. When faced with the idea of letting go of the safety that a CEO provides – someone who isn’t afraid of making tough decisions and has the final say on potentially divisive issues – people in business might have second thoughts. But, when both the Founder and CEO of 90Digital left, we were faced with the options of promoting from within, recruiting a new CEO, or changing the structure of the business to one of a flat organisation.

We took the opportunity to experiment with the self-management ideas we had been interested in for a while, as well as shaping the new structure of the company and the processes within. All workflows had to be looked at again to ensure compatibility with this new method of working, from reaching out to potential new clients and sharing project responsibilities, to maintaining a strong financial and legal grasp over the company’s position. All this would be tricky for any standard company, but it was a little more difficult for us, as we are a remote company.

Without a set hierarchy or the ability to all congregate in one physical place to see documents and meetings, what became immediately clear was the level of transparency needed across the entire business to ensure it reached its full potential. Something that can be hard for those new into the company to understand and grasp is that they will have access to all the information regarding financials, salary (always a tough one) and internal regulations. They need to be transparent in their work, communication, decision making and their relationships with others to keep a smooth and efficient working environment. Our strongest asset is an ability to ask questions of each other, to test why something is done a certain way and to be able to edit anything we feel can be done in a better way.

Vision 

This is one of the most exciting aspects of “taking control” of a company, so to say. There are no restrictions on what you can and can’t be, the direction you want to go in and the way you get there. It is a potentially overwhelming prospect but one that motivates our decisions and the work we do on a day-to-day basis. We realised that when we took the initial step to become self-managed, we were so caught up in ensuring the company remained a viable and profitably entity,  we kept putting aside the ability to change and adapt as we feel necessary.

We are almost at the end of a completely new vision and mission that has taken almost three months, the input and opinion of every individual, the advice of professionals close to the business, and an appreciation for the work we have done in the past to complete.

The main thing we have taken away from this is that, although we have been self-managed on the inside for 12 months, it isn’t something we have openly discussed or advertised or celebrated with our clients. But, as one of our most unique selling points, that enables us to work as we do and we feel it is about time to share this.

Salary 

Approaching salaries was one of the first steps to ensuring clarity, transparency and group input into the internal area of the business. It was crucial that they were fair and based on relevant criteria. With feedback from the team, we settled on three main criteria: Experience, Workload, and time at 90Digital. Although everyone’s role is prone to change depending on the amount of client and internal work necessary, it has been a great starting point and something that new employees appreciate but, as for most processes in our company, they are always able to be refined.

Decisions, Decisions… 

Tough ones, easy one, simple ones, complicated ones. No matter the shape, size or importance of them there has to be a clear understanding of how we come to the answer. We collectively agreed upon what is known as the advice process. In short, if a decision is based within your role or task you are free to make the decision as long as you ask advice from someone with relevant expertise or those who will be affected by the decision.

As with any business, there are times when difficult decisions need to be made, especially when it comes to choices that may affect salary, working hours, projects, clients, company profit and loses. It is at these moments we need to pull together as a team and be bold in facing these problems head on. There is no time for “it’s not my problem” or “it doesn’t affect me”, in each individual task we may have one lead but the final answer is always found from within the consensus.

Conclusions 

The freedom in the way the company is structured and the freedom to work from wherever we need or want to, has had a hugely positive effect on morale and motivation which inevitably is passed on into the work we do for our clients. This requires a huge amount of concentration and determination to be able to work autonomously. It means we don’t need to be driven by “huge profit figures” or have strict and impersonalised working methods but can personalise our services to form the right relationships with our colleagues and our clients.

Go to our to find out more about our flat organisation structure and how we continue to strive not to be an external company keeping you at arm’s-length but an integrated part of a client’s business. Our processes to get there are always being refined but everyone understands the business, how it works and the end goal. This is certainly a case of being stronger together.

90Digital.com