Bree Groff is CEO of NOBL Collective, a global change agency that helps quickly-growing startups or huge legacy organizations seeking to grow or scale to negotiate change. NOBL does not provide the strategy, or the brand work. Instead, it looks at decision-making, communication, meeting patterns and day to day interactions—the company’s culture—and collaborates closely with the company to steer the “human side of things,” embed the capacity for change and the feeling that change is productive and energizing, and help its clients get good at change—which is a critical competitive advantage—all without losing their “core.”
In this interview, Bree talks the “critical mass” for companies . . . when the number of employees requires new ways of doing things. She references Dunbar’s number, which is a rough measure of the upper limit of loose relationships a person can maintain . . . and still remember people’s names. Organizations reaching certain sizes often need to develop new ways of working in order to “move to the next level.”
How do you change large corporate cultures? Bree has found that, if you can effect behavioral and mindset changes at the individual level—even with very large organizations—and by repeating this enough times, change the organization to what it wants to become—more agile, more digital, more collaborative, more authentic, more engaged . . . and ultimately, more profitable.
Meeting-heavy company cultures tend to have a lot of ad hoc status meetings. Bree feels meetings should be intentional, with a “strong cadence around what you’re talking about with what frequency.”
NOBL published Team Tempo, http://www.blurb.com/bookshare/app/index.html?bookId=7693002#, a guide to effective meetings. Bree recommends companies consider quarterly team retrospective meetings to evaluate the company’s internal environment and strategic sensing meetings, where teams discuss customer, industry, and technology changes that may impact the company.
How a decision is made can have a major impact on decision quality . . . and acceptance. After numerous client queries of, “How do I make a decision?”, NOBL developed a “Decider app,” available as a Slackbot at thedecider.app/slack or as a web version at https://thedecider.app/. This tool asks a series of short questions and then recommends and defines the decision-making process that best fits the circumstances, highlighting the process’s advantages and disadvantages. The decision-making methods include: autocratic, avoidant, consensus, consent, consultative, delegation, democratic, or stochastic.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Bree Groff, CEO of NOBL Collective with offices in New York, LA, Vancouver, and London. Welcome, Bree.
BREE: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
ROB: Fantastic to have you on the podcast. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about NOBL Collective and what makes NOBL great?
BREE: Sure. We are a global change agency, which means that we help usually quickly-growing startups or really large legacy organizations move through some kind of change, whether you are a scaling rocket trip of a startup and looking to grow and scale without losing what’s special about you, or our really large Fortune 500 clients are looking to be more – you can pick your word here – more digital, more agile, more responsive, more innovative.
We’re helping them change their culture and ways of working to be what they want. At our very simplest, we are just jet fuel for that change. We don’t come in to do the strategy, we don’t do the brand work, but what we do is the human side of change – what behaviors and mindsets you’re looking to change within your organization. Then we embed within those companies, over a series of a few months or up to a year, to help them get there.
ROB: That truly sounds important and challenging. When a startup is growing quickly – how many people are there when they realize they need you? Is it 30, 50, 100? Is it a funding event that triggers this awareness?
BREE: There’s a few magic numbers in the field of org design which you may have come across. There’s Dunbar’s number at 150, which says that you can maintain about 150 relationships, loose social ties, and beyond that you start to not know people’s names. Where you used to say, “Joe or Jane in engineering,” now you say, “the engineering department.” You start to hit this level where people become departments, where sharing learnings is no longer quite as easy. Once you hit that level, we see a lot of interest.
I would say before that, maybe around the 60 or 70 person mark, startups will start to feel those adolescent growing pains of, “We are no longer 10 people in a room looking at each other and agreeing what we’re going to do for the week, and yet we’re not a large organization either, and we don’t want bureaucracy and red tape. How do we become a little bit more grown-up without losing what was special about us and the reason why we got here?”
ROB: Interesting. Yeah, that seems like about the time when many startups start to have a more rounded-out management team, a little bit more layers.
I’m thinking through this – some people would tell you that when you get to 60, 70, 150 people let’s say, a lot of your company’s culture is locked in. But what I hear you saying is people realize that there are things that they want to change. Clearly at a minimum, it’s a significant challenge to do so. How do you navigate that process?
BREE: Culture change is essentially what we do for a living. The best way I can describe it is we’ll frequently say organizational change is individual change at scale. If we can help individuals change their behaviors and mindsets, then you just do that 60, 70, a thousand, at some companies tens of thousands of people over, and then you change the company.
Of course you want to have your long-term vision and strategy, but where we do a lot of our work is on the ground, in the day-to-day of how you’re making decisions, how you’re communicating, what are your meeting rhythms, what you talk about in those meetings and who talks – all of these daily minutiae is what really adds up to culture.
Even beyond having fantastic-sounding values and all of the perks of startup life, really it’s the day-to-day interactions that define what it’s like to work there.
ROB: How does a larger company realize they need you, and how do they find you when they realize that change is maybe something that they need some help with?
BREE: We are I suppose lucky that we have a really good network. We get a bunch of inbound leads, even from really large organizations, and usually that’s from past clients who moved someplace else. We do a ton of writing and publishing thought leadership, so people find us like that.
From the company’s perspective, it’s usually at some kind of inflection point. It’s hard, I think, to wake up and say, “Today’s the day we become more agile, the day we become more digital!” Usually there’s some kind of trigger, like we just did a reorg and everyone’s unhappy, or we have a new leader and we need to be able to support them, or we’re experiencing some kind of significant shift in the customers we serve or our strategy. Some sort of trigger. Or a merger/acquisition is another example. “This very discrete thing is changing, so we need dedicated help through that.”
What usually happens is we’ll come in and we can help companies and leaders survive that change, but that’s not really the endgame. Our endgame, usually what we learn with clients, is that the real challenge is to get good at change. That’s your competitive advantage. If you’re merely surviving, that’s rough for a company. Change is essentially what people are doing day in and day out for their entire careers in this day and age.
So our real aim is to embed the capacity for change in organizations. We can help you through a merger, we can help you come out unscathed and not have a bunch of people leave – and that’s not easy, but it is the easier part. The hard part and the more rewarding part is embedding within an organization the feeling that change is productive, and though stressful, it’s also energizing. It’s just a much different mindset than we usually see when we first go in.
ROB: For sure. How did this company start? How did it go from zero to a real thing?
BREE: We started 4 years ago now with the observation – we’ve all come from different backgrounds, many of us in service design, innovation consulting. We were people who were trying to make change in organizations and had the observation that it’s rare that the ideas aren’t good or that something about the specific strategy or the operations plan is what’s holding people back.
We realized that our work wasn’t seeing the light of day because of how people were interacting. Because there were things like silos in the organization and leadership teams that weren’t aligned and budgets that were holed up behind different parts of red tape, and because people weren’t communicating and they were measured by different metrics. I could go on for hours about all of the different causes of what causes friction to change.
We now focus on all of those things. If we can help a company get good at change, then the good ideas are almost the easy part.
ROB: I love – some of what you talked about was the cadences and the rhythms of the organization that I think people might not have really thought about. Are there any particular underpinning methodologies that you believe in strongly, or any particular cadence of meetings that anybody should be thinking about to make their organization healthier, more resilient to change, and ready for it?
BREE: Yes, absolutely. We have published what we call Team Tempo. It’s a guide to the essential meeting that we think you should have in any organization.
What we see frequently, especially with meeting-heavy cultures, is that there’s a lot of status meetings, of course, or meetings come up ad hoc. Meetings are the unit of worth of how people talk to each other and get things done. But to have a really strong cadence around what you’re talking about with what frequency can really help.
For example, we always advocate for some kind of agile, Scrum-ish, like Monday/Friday rhythm. The meetings that we see clients frequently forget are two meetings. One we call a team retrospective and one we call strategic sensing.
Every 6 weeks or every quarter or so, we advise our clients to sit down and do a team retrospective wherein they’re thinking about not just what’s happening with customers or, “How are our numbers looking?”, but thinking internally of “How are we communicating? Are our roles defined and clear? Are we creating a psychologically safe space?” So many companies can go years without having any of those dedicated conversations about, “How are we working internally?”
The second, strategic sensing, is a way to stay responsive to what’s changing outside of the company. It’s bringing together either a leadership team or any team within a company to answer the questions of what’s changing about our customers, our industry, about technology – anything external to us. “Why are those things changing? What happens to us if those things continue?”
It’s really taking time to ask very specific questions that, amidst the chaos of daily life, a lot of companies won’t get to outside of maybe either yearly or offsite.
ROB: I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to think about building those rhythms of listening, but it seems like a muscle that’s really good to work out and learn. You learn with these, and once you get intentional about meetings – I know very few people who regret the intentional meetings that they have.
They regret the unintentional meetings that they have, to the point where I think there was one company – and you may know better than I do – that got into the habit of canceling the entire calendar for all of their conference rooms every quarter to make sure they didn’t have any extra weekly meetings that just should stop.
BREE: Yeah. I think it’s a really interesting strategy. It’s like spring cleaning, but for your calendar.
I’ve always found it fascinating – if aliens were to come to Earth and observe our business culture, they would think that this thing called “Google Calendar” or “Outlook” is the boss of everyone. You go where it tells you to go, you respond to the invites “yes.” It’s like our boss. Our calendars and our meetings should work for us and not the other way around.
ROB: For sure. Tell me a little bit about your own journey. Did you expect that you would be leading entrepreneurially in your career? How did you come into NOBL and come in charge and all of that?
BREE: “No” is the short answer. I did not expect this. I originally started my career in education. I was a high school math and physics teacher way back in the day. I got this idea that education should be much different than it is, that we could modernize our education system. I was like 22, 23 at the time and thought “No problem. I have all these great ideas. It’s just a matter of me telling people about them and making them a reality.”
I quickly learned that organizational change and industry change is much harder than that. Along my career, I had the opportunity to found and lead an innovation department within a school system. I did my Master’s in Organizational Learning and Change, figuring other people know more about this than I do, so I’d better study it fast if I want to make any kind of impact in the world.
Then I moved to innovation consulting, thinking I’d try out some different industries and try to make change that way. What I kept learning is that it’s just all about the human reaction to change, and despite my best efforts to change things by brute force, it just wasn’t going to work.
I’m not the founder of NOBL, actually. I joined NOBL 3 years ago. Our founder is Bud Caddell, who founded the company 4 years ago. I started originally – actually, just after I had had my daughter. I thought I’d just contract for a little while. I just couldn’t stay away. Quickly after starting on some project work, I became Managing Director of New York, and then CEO about 2 years ago now.
That has been the wild ride. I tell this story now looking back and I try and weave some sort of narrative, but honestly along the way, it felt more like “Oh, here’s an opportunity. I guess I’ll say ‘yes’ to that,” and somehow I have found myself here.
ROB: I’ve been reflecting on this a lot as well, though, lately. Just that power of saying “yes” and figuring it out. I think it’s neat how as an organization, you yourselves have embodied change by starting, but then letting someone else be in charge. There must’ve been some insight into your own skillset and into the business that made that the right thing to do, which is really interesting to come in from the outside.
BREE: Yeah, we try and practice what we preach. We say “team as we preach.” We’ve taken lots of turns as a company internally. We used to speak about ourselves specifically in terms of organizational design; now we speak in terms of change because I think it resonates with our clients a bit more, but essentially what we’re doing is the same. We’ve tried different things with our positioning, and obviously we’ve tried different things with our leadership, and here I am.
We’ve launched our first digital product this year, so we’re playing around in that space as well. It’s constantly a work in progress, and even internally sometimes we feel too agile. Just like any other company, we’re trying to hit the balance right of being really responsive but also not reinventing the wheel every day, and taking a little bit of our own medicine along the way.
ROB: Tell us a little bit about that digital product. What gave you both the inspiration and the organizational margin to execute on that, and what are you looking to do with that product?
BREE: It’s called the Decider, and it is a Slackbot for deciding how to make decisions. This came up at an offsite that we had a year ago. We asked ourselves, what do all of our clients ask of us that we don’t really have some good IP around yet?
What we realized was that was largely decision-making. How do I make these decisions? Regardless of even what the decisions are, but if I’m a leader, do I just say what I think and we move along? Or some cultures, especially in different countries, will have much more of a consensus culture. Do I get people in a room and we all hash it out for hours until we’re on the same page?
So, we put together a bunch of our own IP. We have an organizational psychologist on our team who’s fantastic and did a bunch of the research behind decision-making, and we put together this Slackbot where in Slack, it’ll trigger if you use the word “decision” or “decide.”
It’ll ask you a few questions about the decision. Is it urgent? Does it affect many or few people? Can you delay the decision? It does a little diagnostic, and then it’ll suggest to you a method of decision-making – a consent model of decision-making, or consensus, or a single decision-maker. It sort of stemmed out of what we felt our clients needed.
Right now, we really just launched it – gosh, maybe a few months ago or so, so we’ve been testing it out with our clients and iterating on what will make it most useful. Really, it’s our foray into, can we offer tools that scale beyond the consulting model of selling brains? Can we be present beyond just ourselves? It’s been a really interesting experiment so far, and hopefully more to come.
ROB: That’s very interesting, and we can find that – did you give us an address that we can put into the show notes?
BREE: Yes, I sure will. You can find it in the Slack door, but otherwise you can type into your browser thedecider.app/slack, and that should take you there.
ROB: Very, very cool. What are some things you have learned from your experience leading NOBL that you would do differently if you were starting from zero?
BREE: We have had ups and downs, just like any agency. In the times when we have been tighter on cash, we’ve all chipped in to do the very operational work that we might otherwise outsource. There was one point years ago when I was reconciling our bank accounts and doing all these things just to get us through a period when we were low on cash.
Now things are going great and we’re able to outsource all of the normal things that one would, and we have a fantastic team of attorneys and bookkeepers and accountants and all that.
But earlier on, I think I just would’ve outsourced that earlier. Especially as a consultancy and as an agency, what we sell is our expertise and our brains, and if that’s all being tied up in things that other people can do better than us, then that’s really what we should’ve done.
I wish I had spent more time earlier on focusing on the thought leadership and the IP, because that’s really the value that we put out in the world. So I’d say to past Bree, if there’s something that I’m doing that is not the value I intend to create for clients, then how can we outsource this? How can I automate it? I think I just spent too long focusing on – there’s just so much of getting a business up and running and being operational. Now we’re there a bit more, but I wish I’d gotten there faster.
ROB: Are there any habits that you have brought into your own personal cadence that help you reflect on things that you should be maybe outsourcing, things that you should maybe be delegating? How have you thought through that?
BREE: I keep on my calendar the reminder that I had years ago to reconcile our bank accounts – which now when I say it, it just sounds so silly. I don’t know why I was doing that.
I’ve never deleted that calendar reminder because it reminds me of how far we’ve come, and it reminds me of the starkness of today, if I’m preparing a talk for a 500-person audience, that’s work worth doing.
Worrying about the details of our bank account was not.
Once a week I see that reminder, and it shocks me into, “Bree, are you doing the work that you are most valuable for?” And then if not, I give myself a little talking-to.
ROB: I love the regularity of that. What are some things that you see that may be future threats, future needs to change for either a large enterprise or for earlier stage, thriving startups?
BREE: For earlier stage startups, it’s definitely that if you don’t get the culture right early – there’s so much risk in startups anyway, like product market fit and legal things if you’re trying to disrupt some kind of industry, and so little attention on the whole is paid to whether people are working within a culture that allows them to do their best work and that people are being elevated in their careers and not ground into the ground.
That culture work doesn’t come later. It has to be attended to. I can empathize completely with how it feels, like “People are okay and we’re hanging in there.” Startups always have a high turnover rate. This is normal. Generally, startups employ really young people and millennials these days, and that’s just how it works.
But the competitive advantage there is if you can engage an entire organization to stay at least for a little while and commit to your cause, it’s not only cheaper, but you pay an emotional change debt of all the scars of leaders leaving and friends leaving and all that institutional knowledge.
So definitely the threat of if you don’t attend to it, those things will attend to you. They will become problems.
And then in terms of large organizations, somewhat similarly, we work with a lot of organizations who have previously worked with really large consultancies or management consultancies or even innovation consultancies – people who are paid to deliver the report or the PowerPoint or the strategy. A lot of times they’ll come to us after realizing that that 100-page PowerPoint deck didn’t actually produce any meaningful change within the day-to-day or within people’s mindsets and behaviors.
I would say the threat to large organizations is really the money and the inertia around “we can behave in this way, we can afford to hire the big fancy consultants and feel really productive,” but whether large organizations like it or not, there’s a lot of disruptors out there that are coming really quickly.
If you can’t measurably change your organization so that you are more responsive, so that you are creating more digital products, so that you are adapting your strategy to what customers need in the here and now, then someone else will certainly do that for you.
ROB: I think a lot of startups feel like they are fighting to survive and might feel like they don’t have time for culture. Is there a time that’s too early to think about it? Also, talk a little bit about the attempts where people try and define culture as like snacks and beer.
BREE: It’s never too early. The habits that you create earlier on – and especially the habits that your founder or leaders get used to, those are the ones that they model as you grow. Never too early.
And yeah, culture – I like beer and ping-pong as much as the next person, but of course for a lot of companies that’s table stakes now. I think if a lot of leaders reflected on it, they know that no one’s leaving because the snacks weren’t good.
Any sort of exit interview, you’re going to get things like “my role felt unclear,” “it didn’t feel like there was a path for growth,” “I would’ve had to wait till my manager left in order to get promoted,” “I can’t see the impact of my work anymore,” or ,“it felt like we weren’t aligned across teams.” All these things that we hear on a daily basis, those are all central to – it’s all how a company is set up.
Sometimes I hate using the word “culture” because it sounds so – I don’t know, sort of a fluffy connotation. But really, what’s the experience of working at your organization? Are people giving the opportunity to do their best work for you? Because that’s what’s best for the company, and it’s what’s best for the individual. If you can elevate people’s careers while they do the best work of their careers for you, that’s the magic bit.
ROB: That’s fantastic. Bree, when people want to find you and find NOBL, how should they find you?
BREE: Our website, first of all, nobl.io. Nobel as in Alfred and the Peace Prize. Me personally, the best place is on LinkedIn. I’m a terrible tweeter and not good on Instagram, so LinkedIn is the best place. I’d be very happy to connect.
ROB: That sounds fantastic. Bree, thank you for sharing a lot of thoughts that we can all think about with change and how to prepare for it and how to think about it. Maybe it’s not as scary as we might all think.
A special thanks also to Justin Lawson from JJELLYFISH for this introduction. We love great guest introductions, and quite often our great guests recommend the best guests. So thank you, and thank you, Bree, for your time.
BREE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
ROB: All right, thank you so much. Bye.
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