Removing Bureaucracy And Hard-Wiring Trust And Autonomy

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- 6 min read

8 months ago, our Head of Media handed in his resignation. Cue the madness of writing job ads, trawling through applications, trying to recruit for attitude and find the right cultural fit. But then I stopped to think. Hang on a minute...

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This presented the perfect opportunity for us to put full faith and trust in our already experienced paid media practitioners. They’ve got loads of great experience and they’re all grown ups. Do they need to be actively managed? Could they become the next Buurtzorg and take ownership of their team of practitioners and become a self-managed, adaptive team?


I’ve always looked for inspiration from progressive business thinkers like Dan Pink (Drive), Henry Stewart (Happy Manifesto) and the Corporate Rebels. They're all incredibly inspiring thought-leaders and well worth checking out for a dose of business medicine.

I’m a big believer in giving people the freedom they need to be the masters of their own destiny at work. I’m also slightly anti-management - in the old understanding of management anyway. Line management is a term that derives from the industrial revolution when we all worked in factories and somebody needed to manage the production line - it's really not very 2020!

Anyway, trust and autonomy have always worked well for me. When I’m told what people think I should be doing and what direction I should go in, it winds me up. I know what I’m good at, where I can add value and how I work best - I want everyone that works with me to feel the same.

An autonomous team

Enter my man, Jon Barnes - all round good guy and forward thinker (if you need some clarity of thought in this area, I recommend this dude).

Together we worked on a 6 month plan to turn that team into a self-managed group with more responsibility and with trust and autonomy at the heart of it.

I could go into lots of detail about what we did, but that’s probably another blog post.

To cut a long story short, the guys introduced completely new ways of working. They devolved responsibility for management tasks among them (taking their personal strengths into account) and they successfully navigated all of this at their busiest time of the year.


Not only have they excelled but they’ve all grown as individuals as a result. They recently received the recognition they deserved by picking up Best Digital Advertising Team at the Drum Digital Advertising Awards!

So for me, that was the first step in hard wiring trust and autonomy into the DNA of the business.

Removing bureaucracy and replacing with trust

Another bugbear of mine is hierarchy and bureaucracy. This little test has already reduced that in a small way in one of our teams. What else could we do?

I’m glad you asked…

Act in the best interests of the company

This week we have launched our guiding agency mantra (nicked from Netflix) which is to Act in the Best Interests of the company. If we use that as our qualification criteria for everything we do then we’ll all be in a good place.

There are two changes we have introduced this week with the following goals:

  • Least bureaucracy possible
  • Maximum trust
  • Maximum clarity (and transparency)
  • Consent from teams

Trust based expenses

So, with that in mind, we changed our expenses policy to become a self-regulating, transparent expenses policy:

  • Anything up to £30 needs no sign off. You take a photo and submit it and you’ll be reimbursed quickly;
  • Anything between £30 and £200 - needs no official sign off but you need to get advice from 2 of your peers that you are acting in the best interests of the company;
  • Anything over £200 currently needs consent from the MD/FD - otherwise our margin could go up in smoke pretty quickly! But it’s just that - consent - no rigorous, paperwork-heavy sign off process.

Now, in the interests of transparency, we publish the expenses on our network for anyone to take a look at. It’s a grown-up, self-regulating system, fit for 2020.

Unlimited and minimum holiday

We then decided to make a fairly radical change to our holiday policy: We’ve moved to unlimited holiday from July 1st. We have complete trust in our people - they know when they need to work hard and they know when they need to take a break. If someone has used up their holiday allocation but is exhausted from working really hard, they need a break. So take one...

Now, many businesses have gone down this route in the past and often found that their people actually end up taking less holiday! That is not the desired outcome! So, we’ve put in place a minimum of 28 days per year to ensure everyone is well rested and getting a good work/life balance.

Rather than a convoluted sign off process and booking system, we now ask that before booking any holiday, our people need to check with everyone whose workload it may impact - always acting in the best interests of the company and their colleagues. If it’s cool with them, it’s cool with us. Then, they just add it to a centralised calendar for all to see.

Work wherever you do your best work

As an agency, we have adapted brilliantly to remote working - thanks both to the technology that supports it but also down to the adaptability of the team. It’s working well - there’s more trust, less presenteeism in the office and actually, we’ve all grown up because of this forced hiatus we’re in.

In a nod towards a post pandemic World, we also announced that from now on, all our people can “work wherever they do their best work” - coffee shops, client offices, home, our office, their garden, wherever - it doesn’t matter. We trust our team to do their best work and act in the best interest of the company.

Early indications

The Drum advertising recognition for our media team is hopefully just the start of the positive impact this direction will have on our team and the business. The overwhelming feedback from our team since we launched the other initiatives has been incredibly positive.

Sure, not all of this will go according to plan and that’s cool, but our direction is clear and we'll keep on testing our way towards further autonomy.

p.s. Thanks to my good friend and sparring partner, Jon Barnes who always brings an extra layer of pragmatic and progressive thinking to everything we do. James is Managing Director of Propellernet, a digital marketing agency in Brighton, UK.

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Replies (4)



Hi - I love this article and the work of those like Netflix, forging a path of daring leadership and creating constructive cultures where people are dead keen to work.
I wonder how we take some of this rebel thinking and apply it in a regulated industry, like early learning. Where ratios of staff and supervision are critical. Where rostering is a day's effort per week for our Centre Leaders.
How do we empower within a constrained and distributed network?

Would love any ideas???


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Jeff Anderson

Jeff Anderson

Great example of using the advice process for getting expense approvals! It's a practice that needs to see the light of day in way more organization.


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I wonder how we take some of this rebel thinking and apply it in a regulated industry, like early learning. Where ratios of staff and supervision are critical. Where rostering is a day's effort per week for our Centre Leaders.
How do we empower within a constrained and distributed network?


Hi Marnie. My experience with the equally regulated industry of health and social care in the UK is that you would be surprised how much is possible. Together with client organisations we went back to the root of the regulations and found that there were many myths about what was required. As a matter of fact, much was up to the provider as long as it met the regulator's goals. Also, we spoke to the regulator directly ensuring a dialogue about what we were trying to achieve.
We put to the team what would help them, and asked them how they thought they could comply with the rules and minimum criteria for the service, while achieving their (team and personal) priorities. Turned out there wasn't a huge gap left once that was put into place. There is much more to say about this but hopefully this helps for now.

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Thanks for some great insights. Could you shed some light on the reasoning behind the numbers in the expenses policy? Why three categories and why should the MD/FD be involved at all?

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