Learning through radical change

sebastian buck
8 min readDec 30, 2019

One year ago we made the biggest evolution in enso’s existence; here’s what I learned.

Illustration by Laetro

In January 2019 we fundamentally changed enso. I wrote about the theory behind the change, which came down to a hypothesis that a different way of being would enable us to do more of what we love.

But we didn’t know if it would work.

Pioneering a new type of company is a risk. While there are budget line items for ad agencies, there aren’t budget line items for impact agencies. But this is a risk we think is right for us, right for what businesses need, and right for what the world needs. So, we’re leaning into it with excitement and optimism.

We’ve always been on a steep learning curve — that’s a virtue of optimism, a growth mindset and tackling diverse challenges in an agency — but in the last year the curve has been steeper than ever. Here are some reflections on that, from big picture to day to day.

Big picture… the state of humanity and capitalism

Just one year ago it seemed our perspective on capitalism was still niche: we stood for a more inclusive, mission-oriented capitalism against a dominant orthodoxy of value extraction in service of shareholder primacy. But the old orthodoxy’s crumbling logic finally collapsed last year, and what was a niche perspective became mainstream with the Financial Times, The Economist, The Business Roundtable, The World Economic Forum, and many, many others, imploring a new form of capitalism.

Noah Yuval Harari’s writing puts this shift in the perspective of the history and future of humanity—and in a bleak tale, the bright spot is that big, epic change often comes down to the emergence of a new shared narrative, or ‘collective imagination’. These big shared narratives are what distinguish humanity and enable massive collaboration, enabling us to trust worthless paper as valuable currency and respect imagined laws, companies and countries. Shareholder primacy was one big shared narrative; a new narrative is emerging around stakeholder capitalism that creates the conditions for a period of massive reinvention. Hallelujah.

This agenda for massive reinvention towards a better capitalism is what we’ve been pushing for, and it's energizing to see it come — all the more need for us to be ready to do our best work.

Medium picture… the state of enso and companies

The essence of our change was to be much more focused on work that has the potential for impact at scale by creating big shared missions in culture, which meant leaving behind some work that felt like more traditional marketing. This heightened focus led us to work on fewer things (from ~15 initiatives at a time to 4), a smaller team (from 45 people to 12), and radically simplified processes and systems. We did this based on a vision of operating more like a ‘guild’ than a ‘factory’ — doing away with the traditional pyramid structure and instead operating more fluidly and organically with more experienced, ambidextrous people.

We did this based significantly on intuition, but also based on where we saw our interests evolving (more traditional marketing projects getting less and less interesting to us), and where we saw the industry we were a part of evolving (massive value destruction in commodity creative agencies). When we started in 2012, almost by default we adopted an ad agency business model, which gave us a path to follow in terms of types of people to hire, teams to build, processes to adopt. From January last year, we weren’t following any path set by other firms (that we knew of), which felt daunting but also right.

As it happens, a few months after making this leap I read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux (thanks for recommending it Seema!), and realized that actually we weren’t alone — that others had been wrestling with the same challenges and finding very similar answers. Laloux makes the case for—and proves through lived experience of very successful companies—a more organic form of organization modeled after natural systems rather than factories (as pyramids and siloed org charts typically are). Three big shifts are necessary to pull this off: self management (distributed authority and collective intelligence vs. top-down), ‘whole people’ (people bringing their whole selves to work, not just skills defined by their job title), and evolutionary purpose (allowing the organization to evolve naturally, vs. trying to predict and control the future as most strategic plans do). He calls companies with these traits ‘teal organizations’.

While I would not proclaim we’ve achieved complete teal status, our experience in the past year has been a giant step towards it. We made many changes, including in our physical space (moving from a more traditional office to Second Home), to office hours (only asking people to be in the office on Mondays, leaving them to decide what’s best the other days), to team sizes (from 8–12 people to 3–6), to processes (eliminating a lot of the approval layers and SAAS systems that larger companies tend to require to exercise ‘control’). For me, the most significant shift is realizing that so much of what makes enso special is in the principles we’ve learned and adopted over the years. The more we live by these, the more powerful our work, the more true to our intentions we are, and the more distinct we are as an agency. We documented them for the first time this year after reading Ray Dalio’s Principles (he made the most successful hedge fund in history, not through a proprietary system or investment thesis, but through diligently accumulating, documenting and applying principles — I wrote about that in FastCo here). While IDEO sees its process (human centered design) as its magic, I believe enso’s magic is in our principles. (For now they’re documented internally, but we will likely publish them soon)

All of these changes enable self management (teams are accountable to each other, not 6 approval layers), wholeness (small teams enable people to bring all they have to creating the solution), and an ability to evolve the company more naturally (being more open to sensing and responding to what we’re learning and opportunities emerging). As a result, I believe we’re doing better work than ever, with much less friction and much more flow. We’re much less constrained by physical, digital or mental constraints, and so our work has greater range, passion and emotional intelligence.

This focus has also meant more ‘right’ things have come to us: we’re clearer what we want, and that attracts the people and opportunities that align. Our four big initiatives right now are exactly the kind of things we want to tackle: working with Google on closing the economic opportunity gap, with Indeed on the future of work, with AVID on strengthening public education, and with Nico on rebuilding neighborhood equity. These all have the potential for massive positive impact, and in each case, our work is focused on the big challenge rather than smaller, tactical challenges. (The thing really missing for me is a big climate initiative with a social justice bent, but it’ll come)

It’s still early, but this evolved model is working emphatically better for us, and I can’t help thinking something similar would work better for most companies. While it took reducing size for us to make this change, it’s not necessary — Laloux documents a range of ‘teal’ companies operating at big scale (30,000+ people); it requires unlearning some management orthodoxy and moving towards self management, wholeness and evolutionary strategy— in other words, not building a machine but a more organic system.

Todd Rose’ book, The End of Average, underscores the imperative of building systems that enable people to be the individuals they are—nobody can be exceptional in a system that requires mechanistic conformity; no company can be exceptional in a system that requires mechanistic conformity.

Micro picture… my experience

Before we made this shift, I was falling out of love with enso, and frankly, with work generally. The passion in me to create positive impact at scale was running hard into what felt like a brick wall: 10+ meetings per day of 10+ people each, producing less than we all wanted or deserved. I spent a huge portion of my physical and emotional energy dealing with this mismatch between intention and environment. I was ready to take a lot of time off (or ideally, become a NatGeo explorer :-).

What I came to realize is that what I love, what I get energy from, is doing the work of learning about new things, solving problems and opening opportunities for systemic change. In the old model, I was spending about 80% of my time running a machine, and about 20% of my time doing what I love. The ratio is now about 90/10 in favor of doing what I’m good at. It’s a revelation for me: doing maybe 3 meetings a day, choosing where I do them, being super productive in smaller teams, with more time to learn, reflect, think, create … I’m happier, have more energy, optimism and calm.

Which is what I hoped for, but is also baffling to me. My upbringing, education, personal and cultural guidance has almost all said the same thing: ‘grow the machine and the bigger it gets, the better it is, and the more impact you’ll create’. ‘Follow the management orthodoxy because generations of the best leaders have proven it to be right’. It’s turns out, for capitalism generally, for enso and for me, it was all dead wrong. I’m excited to have learned that, and to keep learning what’s right.

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones.
— Todd Rose, The End of Average

enso is a creative impact agency.
We help companies live up to why they exist. Learn more at enso.co.