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From the Drawing Board to the Board Room

A design firm gives everyday employees the chance to make some of its most important decisions.

When Lisa Lindstrom and her co-founders were first starting design firm Doberman in 1998, the world was a very different place: Adobe Flash was hot, Google was not, and the iPhone was still nearly a decade away from existence.

But while technology has transformed design over the last few years, the fundamentals of Lindstrom’s business philosophy have remained the same. At the top is the notion that employees should have a say on how the company is managed, not only for their own sense of wellbeing and engagement, but for the firm’s overall success.

That’s why Doberman allows all 100 of its employees in Stockholm and New York City the chance to be part of the company’s management committee. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a designer, a developer or an office assistant — for 12 to 16 weeks, you’re asked to make important business decisions alongside the CFO, managing director and other top execs.

We caught up with Lindstrom, 44, to talk about this unique strategy and why she as CEO feels the rewards far outweigh the risks.

You allow all of your employees to rotate into the management committee. How does this work, in practical terms?

We have two rolling seats in our office in Stockholm and one in our office in New York. We have people sit in those roles for 12 to 16 weeks in addition to their regular job. Each committee does it differently — in Stockholm the committee meets every third week and also communicates in Slack. In NY, which is a smaller office, they meet every week. We’re a fast-moving company, so within that time a person will have gone through lots of interesting decisions. (Employees aren’t required to participate, though most do.)

You’ve been doing this since the earliest days of your company. Where’d you get the idea?

We were seven founders when we started the company, and we were focused on how to avoid the hierarchy and really co-create the company. It was one of the other founders who said, “I think it would be so good if we include people on the management team.”

What is the thinking behind it?

When we started off 20 years ago, we hadn’t gone to management school; we had gone to design school. And we felt that the business world was kind of awkward, fitting people into roles but not really recognizing the capacity that talent has. So we said to ourselves what if real quality comes out of investing in your people? We set up this triangle idea — we wanted to balance quality with profitability and wellbeing. The core thing is that wellbeing comes out of feeling included, feeling that you have a say, knowing that people listen to you and that you can be a person within a company, not just a role. How to execute on this has been a constant exploration. There are no books on this type of management. It’s just trying things out and seeing what works.

Why does it work?

Some people mistake this as some sort of consensus culture where everyone decides everything. That’s not what we mean. It’s also not about deciding what coffee to have or what colors we should use on the floor. The core thing is to include in your employees in the really tricky, important and difficult decisions. To get people there, I always ask myself: In what way can I be explaining the complexity of an issue to make sure that everyone understands that issue, and will be able to contribute to that issue?”

For example, 15 years ago I wanted everyone including designers to contribute to the budget strategy…when I asked them to join the discussions, you can guess what they said. (Laughs.) What I did was I translated our budget into Legos. I showed them, in different colors, the costs we have today and how it all fits together with our income. And I said to them, if you want to change something, show me in Legos how the whole equation goes together so it’s not just me getting this wishlist that I can never deliver on. What they were able to come up with was so clever. They had great insights and contributions just from seeing what was at stake.

From a business leader’s perspective, it seems you’re giving up a lot of control by letting employees have a say on major decisions. How do you manage against that risk?

I actually think it’s a larger risk that you delegate all decisions to the CEO. I don’t think that any CEO in the world is smarter than their employees. For this to work, you have to make people understand the full complexity of an issue. If you only give halfway — if you only tell people on the surface that they can contribute — it’s a bigger risk because they’re acting without full information.

I don’t think control is a good steering mechanism at all; I actually think trust is a better steering mechanism. Because what I get in return is people’s engagement, I get their passion, I get lots of ideas, I get their sense of responsibility. So I would call this management by trust. When you see management by control, you get fear, you get anxiety, you get people who just deliver exactly what they were asked to do but not more because they were only asked for that… that is more a risky scenario than the one I’m exploring.

Has it ever backfired?

I have to tell you — I’ve been doing this 20 years and no one has ever misused the trust they have in the management team. Sometimes we have pretty important decisions and tricky things — no one has let us down. Each time it brings new perspectives.

What’s one example of something your employees came up with?

Opening an office in New York! A few times a year we close down the office and we all go away for a couple of days. We call these “exploration days” and we use it to talk about really important things. On one of these days, we had discussion with 60 of our employees about what we should be doing as a company; they said we should open up an office in New York. If it was my call as CEO, I would have said no. I thought it was a bad idea, a very difficult market. Instead I said “OK, how should we do this?” We delegated to the people who were ready to move – asked them to give us a business plan – and they came back and said here’s how should we do this. Today, we have a fully functioning, super quality, super profitable studio in New York. Just imagine if we had trusted my gut feeling?

What advice do you have another company wanting to employ a similar strategy?

My advice would be to start first by creating a more transparent culture. The only way for a CEO or a managing director to ask for an organization to be more open is to start being more open themselves. You cannot ask employees, “Can you be more open, please? Can you be more trusting, please?” The way to start digging into this culture is for the top person to show some vulnerability, ask for help. When you do so, you’ll get paid back with trust. You can’t be the executive who knows everything — you need to pay attention, show some realness.

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