Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Getting it Right - ?What If! Innovation

A couple of weeks ago I went to see
?What If! The Innovation Company. I’ve been a fan of their work ever since I was lucky enough to benefit from their creativity training back in 2001 – training which inspired me to launch a new career. So when Alexander Kjerulf, author of, ‘Happy Hour is 9 to 5’ suggested them as a candidate for the Getting it Right series, I didn’t need too much persuading.

?What If! are values led. These days, every other company out there claims to be “values led”, but in this case it’s actually true. Today, just as when they started in 1992, the ?What If! business is driven by, ‘Bravery, Freshness, Action, Love and Passion’. These values are inherent in all that they do and at the heart of their undeniably successful engagement of employee, client and innocent bystander.

Let’s start at the beginning – the reception area. It IS a reception area in so much as there are welcoming people who’ll point you in the direction of the right meeting, but there’s a bit more to this space than that. It’s an eating area, a kitchen, a place for meetings, a place for parties, an internet cafĂ© and a space for congregation and recognition.

The walls and ceiling are completely and colourfully covered with nominations for the monthly values awards, ensuring that clients and employees alike are constantly reminded of what’s really important to this company. The nominations themselves are refreshingly down to earth. One for ‘Action’ was for someone who’d used CPR to save a delegate’s life when they had a heart attack in one of her coaching sessions. Another for ‘Bravery’, was awarded to someone who did their first ever pitch and blew the client away, even with their knees knocking.

Each value has a Patron Saint, who role models the behaviour throughout the business for 6 months until it’s someone else’s turn. I know what you’re thinking. ‘A patron saint of Bravery? Sounds a bit fluffy to me’. And to some extent you’d be right, the style and ironic humour of a ‘patron saint’ is spot on for ?What If!, but would be wide of the mark in many companies. Here though it’s taken seriously; if you want to be the Patron Saint of Bravery (for example) you’ll need to put together a campaign and make an election speech at either the Christmas or Summer party before the company makes their vote. Frankly, it sounds like a lot of work. I asked my host Maz, (Marian Connolly - UK Head of People) why people do it, what’s in it for them?

“They just want to get involved. Everyone here does. We only hire the kinds of people who are really passionate and pro-active and who believe in our values”.


So say you do want to, ‘get involved’ how do you get to be a part of the ?What If! team? Anyone can apply, however not unusually for a company with such a specific culture, many new hires are made by referral. This method of recruitment is so successful that there’s a standard introduction bonus of £2000 and a family tree which shows who introduced who on the wall in the kitchen area.

Even if you’ve been referred though, there are still a number of hoops to jump through. In Maz’s words,

“I think it’s probably easier to get into a MI5, than it is to get a job here”.

She’s probably right. First there’s a values based application, then a formal interview process in which a person's individual values are drawn out and aligned with the company’s. Then there’s a team interview, where the candidate has lunch with the team they’d be working with. And then a social interview, in the pub, where the candidate is taken out by a peers from across the business to ask questions and to see if they fit in.

Presuming all goes well the successful candidate then goes through a short but intensive induction process called The Academy which includes the popular creativity and innovation training that ?What If! are known for. In fact the induction process starts even before the new employee’s first day, when they are sent their ‘Love Box’. In the Love Box is everything you might want to know before your first day, and a little more besides. It includes the staff handbook Little Book of Nurturing which explains the ?What If! policy on caring holistically for their staff – but more on that later.

There’s also a lovely practice of asking the new person to come up with the ten things about themselves that their new colleagues might like to know. You can create the ten things in any format you like (unsurprisingly there tend to be more pictures than lists) and say whatever you want. You send your ten things back before your start date and they are pinned up somewhere for everyone to read. Hey presto on your first day, everyone has 10 easy conversation starters to choose from.


I’ve talked frequently in the past about how a company must make sure its recruitment process is scrupulously on brand; not only to allow engagement from the very beginning but importantly to make sure you get the right person for the job in the first place. However I can honestly say that it had never occurred to me that the way redundancies are handled should also be on message. However when ?What If! were forced to make a few of their cherished staff redundant in August this year, they put huge amounts of time and effort towards making sure that this too was done in a ?WhatIf! way.

A rigorous strategy and planning process was put in place to determine who, why and how – and what support they could give to these employees through the redundancy process and even after they had left the company. Having discovered what the people who were going to be leaving wanted to do next, ?What If! drew on their contacts and resources to try and help make it happen. Rather than just give plain old references, Maz sent out a personalised reference to prospective future employers detailing just why they were so sad to lose the person in question. She sent an email to everyone left behind asking what they would miss about their former colleague, collated their responses and added these into the reference. While I was there in fact, one of the ladies who had moved on popped in for a chat. Maz smiled and waved,

“It took a lot of hard work to plan a way of making redundancies that could be as painless as possible for those involved. But it was totally, totally worth it. These people are our friends, and they remain so – which I hope means we got it right”.


Maz told me that if there’s one thing that distinguishes ?What If! from all the other companies that she’s worked for, it’s their culture of continuous feedback. In fact she admits that it came as a bit of a shock to her when after a couple of weeks of being there, someone sat down with her and gave her some friendly thoughts on how she was getting on. She soon got used to it though, and clearly cherishes an environment where anyone can give feedback to anyone, whatever level of seniority, and it will be taken in the spirit in which it was given.

To make sure that ‘continuous feedback’ is something they do, not just say ?What If! don’t have yearly appraisals. Instead they have 3 monthly development conversations, casually referred to as BOB chats (Bringing Out Brilliance). To fit in with the fast moving culture, individual plans are constantly updated as existing objectives are met. Importantly line managers get specialised training on how to handle these conversations in order for both parties to get everything they need from them.

To help me appreciate how important ?What If! think this feedback culture is. Maz shares with me a vivid mantra which co-founder Matt Kingdon ‘says all the time’…

“Communicate until you puke”.

Charming. I’m sorry to tell you that this effective little phrase stays with you. It’s not a very pleasant image, but it’s pretty good advice – if in doubt, communicate some more.


As they’re not a huge corporation, ?What If! have no obligation to produce an annual report – but they do a version of one anyway. Produced some time around March each year it is simply called “Our Impact – The Full Story” and covers everything from carbon footprint to client case studies. It also includes some top line results from the employee survey that is done each year; in which ?What If! survey not only their employees, but remarkably their friends and family as well. They ask the questions some employers don’t want to hear the answers to, about whether work is interfering with quality time, if their spouse/ roommate/ daughter tends to come home stressed or happy (or both).

Rather than just paying lip service to caring ‘about the whole person’ ?What If! provides numerous employee benefits that go above and beyond the schemes in place in most companies. To take a few from their “Freshness and Fairness” leaflet; free independent financial advice, sabbaticals, a visiting GP, £100 towards supporting stopping smoking, etc… What’s really eye catching though is the Friends and Family Helpline. It’s a support service which can be used to get professional, confidential advice on financial issues, emotional problems or legal advice. And this service can also be used by anyone who lives with the employee – parent, child, spouse or flatmate.

Also deserving of a mention is the Dream Catcher Award. If an employee has a dream (like writing a book, or creating a piece of art, or inventing something) and some time off and a bit of extra cash would help them to achieve it, ?What If! are interested in helping them to do it. Twice a year they award someone £1k and a week off work to go and get started on fulfilling their dream.

The ethos behind this is that if you want someone to perform to the best of their ability, you can’t just look after the part of them that comes to work, you have to care for the whole person.

“At the end of the day our clients pay for fresh, exciting minds. We do everything we can to make sure our employees are able to bring those exciting minds to work, if we didn’t it would affect our bottom line”.


Frankly I could go on and on about the numerous, unusual ways ?What If! find to engage with their staff. They’ve probably come up with 5 new initiatives since I was last there. The point I think is that they never do nothing and whilst their methods are fun and quirky, they are based on sound, serious reasoning. Innovation is their whole raison d’etre and everything is geared towards supporting it. Here's how the ?What If! philosophy translates to their own working culture:
  • Employees are always thinking about what they could do better or differently to create freshness at work.

  • They give each other continuous feedback and are comfortable with praise, debate or constructive criticism, which means they live in a blame free environment in which it’s easier to be brave.

  • The company provides employee benefits which take care of the whole person’s health and happiness, and are rewarded with people who love their jobs and are passionate about the company they work for.

  • Employees are empowered to do what’s important to them, and reward those who take action, creating a culture of “I can and I will”. And they do!