Co-creating a future vision for Wholegrain

Written by Tom Greenwood - January 28, 2022

In my role as Managing Director, I usually give a presentation to our team at the end of the year to reflect on the past year and set out my vision for the year ahead. This year, I decided not to.

For the past couple of years, we’ve been on a journey of cultural evolution, breaking down some of the unhealthy beliefs and behaviours of modern work and creating a culture that is more egalitarian and collaborative. As such, it no longer felt appropriate for me to dictate where we are going next year. Yes, I have a responsibility to lead our team forward, but it feels more important than ever that the direction we are heading is something that we decide together. 

We therefore decided to organise a team workshop to get everyone together to imagine what a great future together would look like and to craft a cultural manifesto to guide us moving forward into 2022.

Not as easy as it sounds

The truth is that we have always wanted to let everyone participate in the co-creation of the company and the vision for its future, but have always struggled to make it happen because we have an internal conflict. 

Yes, we want to create a collaborative culture and for Wholegrain to feel like our company as a collective team, but Vineeta and I also have fears about not being in control. We are both misfits in the world of work and we created our own company in part, to follow our own dreams and create a place where we would feel happy and safe working. 

What if other people started to shape it into something that we didn’t like, where we didn’t feel safe or didn’t feel inspired? Also, what if people ask for things that are hard or impossible to achieve and then expect Vineeta and I to deliver them? Vineeta said “What if we encourage people to dream and then we are unable to deliver on those dreams. I don’t want to disappoint everyone”.

There are some points in life where you just have to take a leap of faith. As we approach 15 years of our company, we have achieved an incredible level of team cohesion and trust that we have never had before. It feels like the time is right for this next step. 

The cultural manifesto workshop

The workshop that we organised was centered around the creation of a cultural manifesto for Wholegrain. The manifesto would encapsulate all of the things that we collectively feel are most important about a good life at Wholegrain, and in the words of our team coach Chris Hardy, it would act as a “North Star” to help guide us towards an even better future. The manifesto would be written after the workshop and would aim to provide a clear vision of what life at Wholegrain should feel like, without getting too caught up in prescribing how we achieve it.

Sticky note saying "We support each other and care about each others feelings and needs"

Chris and Chiara did a fantastic job of organising the workshop and Chris facilitated it brilliantly, setting the scene and creating a safe environment for us all to relax and be open with each other. This was crucial, not just for Vineeta and I, but equally other team members who might have fears around saying exactly what they want from their job in front of their colleagues and the company directors, especially if their thoughts were out of the ordinary.

The session consisted of three parts:

  1. Reflecting on our past milestones, challenges and successes
  2. Visioning the ideal Wholegrain in 2031
  3. Defining what matters to us 

I plan to write about the past milestones when we celebrate our 15th birthday in a couple of months time, so in this post I’ll focus on the forward looking aspects of our workshop.

Dan, Chanelle, Tom and Gary looking at sticky notes on the wall about the future of work
Dan, Chanelle, Tom and Gary contemplating what work looks like in the future

Wholegrain in 2031

We then moved to the first group exercise and spread out in the room, laid down on the floor and, if we wanted, closed our eyes to imagine what Wholegrain might look like in 2031. This was an idea borrowed from Ricardo Semler, the legendary Brazilian CEO whose experiments in creating a more progressive workplace in the 90’s still look pioneering today. 

After visualising the future individually, we shared our visions in small groups and then to the whole team. While many things had not changed 10 years in the future, a number of people had visions of how digital technology had evolved (with AI, robotics and the metaverse) and felt repelled from it, instead dreaming about a world that is more real and in tune with our physical and emotional needs as humans. 

Sticky note saying "We are on a journey together"

Key ideas included:

  • Even more flexible working hours and more people working part time, perhaps 3-4 days per week. More specifically, people were blending their life at Wholegrain with other aspects of their lives more fluidly than seems possible in the current world of work
  • Working in ways where we can move naturally without always being tied to a desk, and even doing more work outside 
  • The structure of our work had morphed to fit more around the natural energy and rhythms of us as humans, rather than trying to adjust ourselves to the regular structures of working life
  • Having more in person shared experiences together, such as on-site pro-bono hackathons to help charities and going on trips together. In fact, slightly randomly, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for traveling to Berlin together as a team
  • We would be even more selective about the projects that we work on, focusing exclusively on projects that feel worthwhile to us as humans and that make a positive impact 
  • The management of the company was even more collaborative

It was great to see that the visions for the future were aligned with our current direction of travel as a team and provided insights as to where we can go further.

Setting the North Star in the sky

It was clear that we were all traveling in similar directions, and one of our hopes from the workshop was to be able to create a cultural manifesto that would act as a North Star, guiding us forward over the next year or so. This would be used to help us make key decisions, ensuring that we align decisions with the general direction that we want to be heading.

Sticky note saying "Work looks like a passion project"

To achieve this, we did a final exercise, putting our thoughts on sticky notes in response to four big questions:

  1. What are the opinions, values and beliefs that we hold at Wholegrain?
  2. How would you like to be rewarded for your work?
  3. What does work look like?
  4. What is important to you about the way that we work together at Wholegrain?

We then each walked the room and placed sticky stars on the ideas that resonated most strongly with each of us. This highlighted some powerful insights into what matters to us as a team, with many stars clustering on particular sticky notes. 

In the days following the workshop, a few of us drafted a cultural manifesto to encapsulate these key points. This was then shared with the whole team for feedback and iteration. This is the final version.

Our cultural manifesto

At Wholegrain, we are on a journey together to create a better web and a better world.

Our work is our passion project. We collaborate as equals, with each other and with our clients, to solve real problems in the world and inspire positive change in our industry and beyond. We push ourselves and support each other to learn and do better, while also appreciating that we must balance our perfectionism with getting things done.

We understand that work and business is a means to an end, both to have a positive impact in the world and to enjoy our own lives. That’s why we care about what we do and care about each other. 

We treat each other as friends as well as colleagues. We help each other through hard times, celebrate the good times and show each other that we are grateful. We explore creative ways to balance our work with our other passions in life and dare to challenge the status quo of what work should look like.

If we are successful, we will increasingly become the best versions of ourselves, share fulfilling lives with each other and make a positive impact on the world around us.

In addition, we created a shortened “quick reference” version to keep in our pockets:

Passionately solving real problems by creating a better web, a better world and a better version of ourselves.

It’s important to note that these pieces of text are not carved in stone. We plan to do another workshop like this at least once per year and to update our cultural manifesto whenever it seems appropriate and necessary. No doubt it will evolve with us.

To the future!

And so now we move forward into 2022 with a clear sense of what we all want. We have a starting point to begin our next chapter together and a North Star to guide us in taking actions that support the lives we all want to live, and the positive impacts that we want to have in the world. 

Watch this space for more updates over the coming months to find out how we get on.