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Max St John

Democracy at work and learning to love failure

Will and I are currently in Denver, Colorado, getting ready for WorldBlu Live – a conference dedicated to spreading the principles and practices of workplace democracy.

WorldBlu are the organisation that benchmarks and lists the world’s most democratic workplaces. Its mission is to see one billion people working in free and democratic workplaces.

We’re proud to have been on the list five years in a row – running our company in this way is what makes us who we are and is how we believe business can be better. It’s us literally putting our money where our mouth is.

While many people think of us as a small organisation that prides itself in doing things differently, democracy in the workplace is not ‘niche’ – the 51 companies on the WorldBlu list for 2013 range from international software and energy companies to medical components manufacturers and has a combined revenue of $17 billion.

Why become more democratic?

There are lots of very good reasons for adopting more democratic working practices, that are about both about personal and organisational wellbeing. In short – giving people more freedom and empowerment not only improves their sense of job satisfaction and personal wellbeing, but can lead to companies making smarter decisions, and being more profitable over the long-term.

To me, it just makes sense – treat people like grown ups, and they’ll act like grown-ups. Let them find and create a shared sense of purpose and ownership, and most people will go above and beyond to go and deliver on that purpose.

In terms of creating a social business culture and structure – open, innovative, flexible and more human centered businesses – democratic practices and principles are very effective tools in the toolbox and also lend themselves very well to digital and social media.

Celebrating failure

Aside from open book accounting, transparency on salaries, devolved decision making and other practices, one of the fun ways we try to develop a culture of trust and learning is the Church of Fail.

Put simply, we all get together and take it in turns to talk about a time where we recently messed up, or things didn’t quite go to plan, and say what we learned about it. Everyone else claps and whoops, and you’re not allowed to stand down from in front of the team until they’ve stopped.

It’s a lot of fun, but takes some nerve to begin with – generally speaking, our education and work systems don’t teach us to be honest with each other about their failings. We’re taught that we get in trouble for getting things wrong, and rewards only go to those who consistently succeed.

But messing up is part of learning, and if we’re not learning, then we’re not improving and developing, as individuals or communities/organisations. And without a sense of shared honesty, we can’t have proper accountability between us. Church of Fail not only gives people a platform to share their ‘fails’ but actively celebrates them.

On Thursday, Will and I are taking Church of Fail global. We’re going to introduce it and run a session for the attendees at WorldBlu Live, people from all over the world who will hopefully find something useful from it to take back.

I’ll also be taking notes from the other inspirational speakers, and will be visiting some local organisations doing things a bit differently, so watch this space and our Twitter account for more.

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