Preface - Sally Bibb

When Mike Seery told me about his idea to set up Project Red Stripe I thought what a wonderful opportunity it presented for The Economist Group. Not only did it open up the possibility of the development of an innovative idea for the web but it also presented a rare opportunity for organisational learning. Indeed it has been, and Andrew Carey has done an excellent job of uncovering and unpicking the process that the team went through, so that others will be able to learn about how to create innovative teams and cultures.

However, learning and knowing how to extract learning from any given situation is not always that easy. The world of work encourages doing not reflecting and learning. And when you only have 6 months to complete a project, with the eyes of the world as well as your own management on you, it undoubtedly feels pressurised at times.

I first got to know Mike Seery about 6 years before Red Stripe. He impressed me with an openness and ability to reflect and learn that I rarely see. He also has a collaborative style of leadership and he is a good listener. All qualities that made him the ideal person to take on this formidable task. Sitting in his office when he had just had the go-ahead for the project I was reminded that he was a person who was strong enough to provide the leadership and focus whilst being secure enough to allow the team freedom to create. I think it was Gerard Fairtlough who said that a leader's job was to provide 'true North' and then let the team get on with it. Of course Mike had the challenge of not knowing where true North was other than being a 'wow' web idea.

It was fortunate that Mike has the qualities I describe above as he was undoubtedly to draw upon everything he knew to be able to succeed. The challenge was formidable and, I imagine, probably underestimated by all concerned. He not only had to meet the expectations of The Economist Group Management Committee but he had a good number of colleagues and strangers watching him too. Some were very supportive and rooting for him. But inevitably there were others who were watching with a critical eye and ready to jump on anything that they did not perceive favourably. On top of that, Mike had assembled a team of people who had high expectations of their own. Some of them had made not insignificant sacrifices to be part of the team. It was important to them. So, whichever way you look at it, the stakes were high. Mike was a man exposed and, a bit like a premier league footballer, if he played well he would be adored by many, but if he made mistakes he would be jeered at and ostracised by the watching masses.

One of the tricks of creating a high performance team and delivering an innovation project is to pay enough attention to the task, the process, the team and the learning. When we are up against a very tight deadline as they were, it is very easy to get sucked into the task at the expense of all else. It is counterproductive to do that. The Red Stripe team were aware of this and tried hard to make sure that all aspects were attended to. Gerard Fairtlough and Javier Bajer helped them to understand, and stay conscious to, the task, the process and the team. David Laird and I worked with them on the process and task too and, as this account shows, they were serious about finding ways of working that would enable them to succeed. They created a learning culture, and learned that it is a prerequisite for an innovation culture.

I spent several hours with Mike and the team during the lifecycle of this project. It struck me that there were a number of different challenges and questions facing him and the team, including:

  • How can a leader from a traditional organisational culture create an environment where his team (also from that culture) could become a high performing one within a very different paradigm (and within 6 months!)?
  • How can that leader straddle the two worlds effectively throughout the duration of the project and reintegrate into the 'mother' culture afterwards?
  • How can the team maintain their resilience when the very nature of their task means that they will have failures before they can have any successes?
  • How does a team of people who have never worked together achieve such a challenging task in such a short time?
  • To what extent and how does the leader and the team interact with the sponsoring organisation - what are the pros and cons of that?
  • How can senior managers from the sponsoring organisation encourage and support the project when it also demands of them a very different 'contract' and way of working?

And finally, probably the most important question:

  • How can the people concerned learn from this experience so that the organisation benefits and can apply the learning?
This final question is the one that can lead to the most value. All organisations these days have to be more innovative in response to the conditions at large: the fast-changing global marketplace, the political environment, emerging and unexpected competitors, more demanding consumers and more demanding employees. To my mind this short account about this small innovation experiment has a value way beyond its size. It is a valuable tool for anyone who is interested in delving into how on earth to create work cultures where people can experiment and innovate. This is the stuff that true learning is built from.

It is an accolade to Mike and the team that they took the risk to do this project. Aside from their own achievement and learning they have given others the opportunity to learn too. That is a vulnerable situation to put yourself in and can feel extremely exposing. I take my hat off to them all.

Sally Bibb

Sally is a founding director of the performance consultancy talentsmoothie ltd. and award-winning author of books like: A Question of Trust (with Jeremy Kourdi), The Stone Age Company and Management f-Laws (with Russell Ackoff and Herbert Addison). She is also passionate about Argentine tango. Find her here.

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