Culture determines how well we work together, and the success of our projects, teams and organizations. But how do you create a winning culture and environment where people can do their best work together?
Colin D. Ellis has been leading teams and projects for 30 years. His latest books, Culture Fix and The Project Book, offer real-world guides on how to build a team culture of collaboration, agility and creativity. As Colin says, culture isn’t a quick fix or senior leaders “owning” vision or values. It’s about bringing everyone together to define a shared ethos and set of behaviors. Tune in for Colin’s take on culture change, culture killers and what you can do to improve your own organization.
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Carl: Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing podcast.
Our guest today baffles me. First of all, he is one of the best dressed human beings I've ever seen. I, as an American, am going to go out on a limb and use the word coiffed. I think he is well coiffed. I'm not sure if I'm using that correctly but I hope I am. And at the same time, he's fun to be around. Most people who dress as well as he does just feel they're going to be a pain in the ass but this guy is seriously fun. He's an amazing speaker. We had him at DPM summit last year. He is known as a culture change specialist. He gets in there and helps people understand how to make their cultures better so they can get more work done because people feel better.
And he is now the author of The Project Book, a new book that just came out recently, as well as being part of the founder or ... Being part of the founder, there you go. As well as being the founder and organizer of the Getting Shit Done Club.
Today ... Well, our time is up. That sucked. That was a hell of an intro. Today, our guest is Colin D. Ellis. Colin my friend, how are you?
Colin: Carl, I'm great. Thank you so much for that great intro. And coiffed, the last person that I heard that was coiffed was Conan O'Brien, I'm good with that description. I'll take that any day.
Carl: Yeah. And I will say, your hair doesn't have that crazy wave that his does but again, super well put together sir.
Colin: [crosstalk 00:01:30].
Carl: Thanks for putting the pressure on the rest of us.
Colin: My pleasure.
Carl: Tell everybody a little bit about what you've been doing, what your life's like right now and what you're focused on?
Colin: Well, life's pretty crazy right now, Carl. We've had a chat before. I decided to completely change my life, aged 45. It was one of those things, I went to a conference, didn't particularly resonate with me, thought that I could get up there and motivate and inspire people from the stage based on my life story and my 30-year career. I thought, "Oh yeah, I'll just give that a go."
And then for the first year it was rubbish because no one wanted to hear from a tall, English, coiffed speaker talking about dropping truth bombs about projects and culture. And then that changed about 2016.
My life these days is a whirlwind of writing and speaking and really working with organizations around the world. We want to change the way they get things done. But it's ... I did a podcast with someone last week and they were like, "Oh, people must be banging down your door."
I was like, "Well you don't understand this. The things that I do, project management and culture, it's not something that people pay for."
They just assume that everyone can do those things. I may continually fail with them. But it's lots of great conversations. And of course I do love the speaking and I love the writing too.
Carl: And your speaking style is great because you set people up and then you turn on them real quick but in a way that everybody laughs and it truly drives home the point. That was one of the things I picked up when we were in Memphis together. And at the same time I would see you doing a daily video, which was annoying because you were on point with it.
Now you have all this craziness in your life, you're consulting all over the place. I've seen some of the gigs you got lately, you're consulting for some big brands now and at the same time you're working on this book, the Project Book. how long did it take you to write this book and how do you fit that in? And I guess more importantly, why?
Colin: Well I was in project management for 20 years, calling [out 00:03:55] projects is still the way that we grow our businesses. There's really no getting away from it. And even with all of the methods that we've been implementing over the years, your pin box, your [prints twos 00:00:04:04] and ... Your scrum is just the latest mechanical thing that we use to deliver projects.
And really what I saw that no one was talking honestly about what project management actually was and what project management actually is, is a matrix structure where you bring disparate people from different parts of an organization and you have to mold them into this high performing team almost from nothing and there's no method that could tell you how to do that. Often the inspiration for most of my work is when I was in the same position, where was the book? Where was the resource? Where was the person that I could go to that I could find out the reality? And it just didn't exist.
My inspiration for the Project Book was to bring all of that information together to talk about what are the facets of a manager that they can help you be a good leader? How do you create great teams? And then how do you use some of the mechanics? How do you use some of the methods stuff in order to be great at what you do? In writing it, a lot of it I already knew. But as an extrovert, if you write from the heart, it's great for other extroverts because they're like, "Oh, I can really feel the passion."
It's got to be backed by data, case studies, all of that stuff. That was a little bit of me that I really work hard on to change and got good at reading other people's books and got good at analyzing research. All told I was collecting ideas probably for about six to nine months. And then it probably took about three dedicated months of writing. But I just let it flow because it was my experience. I think that made it a lot easier Carl.
Carl: This was very much a collection of your experiences put in a format so that people could learn from it, is that fair?
Colin: Yeah, that's fair. Because there are very few how to guides and I've written another book and it's out on October the first because obviously I'm not busy enough, which is the first how to guide on corporate culture because one of those doesn't exist. And there's many people out there saying, "Don't write how to guides."
Great advice for ... "Don't write a how to guide because it'll kill whatever practice that you're started."
And I was like, "No, screw that. I'm going to write the how to guide because I would've wanted to buy it."
And I wrote the book that I would read short chapters, lots of action, calls to action at the end and plenty of humor as well. People actually enjoy reading it. It's not dull and boring.
Carl: Now you've got a second book coming out. Just stop it would you? The rest of us are trying to feel we're doing a good job. And yet while you were at lunch, Colin just cured all of the diseases of the world.
Colin: That's next, yeah.
Carl: That's what's coming up and I'm sure ... And people will say, "Don't do that." And, "You're going to put all the doctors out of business."
Talk about the response you've gotten from the book. Now, the book has been out ... When did it come out?
Colin: First of July.
Carl: First of July. It's just been out coming up on two months. And what have you heard back so far?
Colin: Oh, it constantly surprises me that people share pictures of the book from around the world, Carl. I get people sharing it from [Belarus 00:07:24] and Belgium and Canada and Mexico saying, "Got the book. Oh my gosh, it's awesome."
Obviously the author thing to do is put that stuff all over LinkedIn as a [inaudible 00:07:38]. I was resisted. I have resisted so far. But I think the feedback that's most pleasing is the fact that people are like, "I can use this straight away."
And I think that's what I really wanted to do. I wanted to create some form of manual that people could go to at any time and go, "Right, well I've got up a difficult conversation. What do I do, right. Well I've got to negotiate with stakeholders. What do I do?"
And that's what I wanted to create. Something you can pick up at any time, flip to the chapter, get a quick reminder of it, that here's the way to do it and then go off and do it.
Carl: A reference guide as well as a book you could read cover to cover?
Colin: Yeah, that's right. And I wanted ... Again, as someone who wanted to buy one of these books, what I wanted to be able to do was sit down on a Sunday having ... Put aside the day and go, "Right, I'm going to read that book. I'm going to make some notes and I'm going to read that book."
And whilst at 75, 000 words, it's split up. The first bit is for project managers and the second bit's for project sponsors. Because too often what you have to do is buy a book for both. And if you're a project manager you have to understand the project sponsors role and vice versa. I figured that I'd just put them together rather than selling them as two books.
Carl: And what was your process? You said three dedicated months. But did you put all of your other activities on hold? That seems unlikely. Did you hyper caffeinate? What did you do during those three months? Did you see your family? How does that work? Because three months seems an amazingly short timeframe..
Carl: Then you had the six months, nine months, you're gathering everything. Maybe you're writing it in your brain and you just have to get it out there but three months, how do you make that happen?
Colin: I think I've got a pretty good process Carl. I've got a process for capturing ideas. I'll come up with an idea and I've got a sheet of paper that I'll capture all of the ideas, content that I've read or quotes and I've got a really good process. I use Microsoft OneNote every time I read a blog, every time I watch a Ted talk, every time I read a book I capture my own notes and thoughts and ideas.
And it's all on that one sheet. And then typically ... What I've done for the last couple of books anyway is used the period over January, February, which might seem strange for Northern hemisphere people but in the Southern hemisphere, everything stops in January for summer. Literally everyone takes the whole summer, right.
I don't know how the economy doesn't collapse. And I take great pride in ruining family holidays by getting up at 5:30 AM in the morning to write. I'll write in the morning and spend time with the family and then write in the evening.
And for the [culture fits 00:10:15], which is my next book, we were actually on holiday in Palm Springs when I finished it. We were there, we were in Palm Springs, which sounds very grand. We were there because for the second week I was working with Red Bull in Santa Monica, I had to get it finished. The family had a holiday but I used it as a book retreat before I went off and did some work with Red Bull in LA.
Carl: And Palm Springs is such an inspirational place.
Colin: It was awesome. Such a great place to write. It was fabulous.
Carl: Yeah. We're going back in January for an event and I'm just excited. I haven't been there in about two years. And I just remember as a runner going off, you've got the mountains, you've got all this stuff, the Joshua trees, they're all these amazing things. But also it's such a quirky town, bizarre place. It's where LA goes to vacation, I think. I'm not positive but I want to take a quick shift here and let's talk a little bit more towards the second book.
As a culture change specialist, right, that sounds a little hoity, right.
Colin: Does [crosstalk 00:11:20].
Carl: Culture change specialist. But with you I believe it. It's like people who call themselves a coach but have never done something. That's totally not the situation here. What do you see when you go into an organization that has asked you to come in and I'm going to say fix their culture, more than likely it's guide their culture. But what do you see again and again as the holdups, as the problems that an organization might be having culturally?
Colin: Well, there's a couple of things Carl. The first one is that ... And we're talking about culture a lot more now, which is great because we never used to talk about it in the past. Most organization it used to be a dictatorship. And the culture really depended on how good the dictator was. Some organizations have terrible cultures because it was just, "This is the way that we'll do things."
But we're talking about it a lot-
Colin: And that's good. The biggest problem is that people don't know where to start. What they do is they get stuck into culture change's hard box and of course anything meaningful is difficult to do. But that's not to say you can't do it. Often they're struggling, "Well where do we start?"
Well, where we start is firstly by talking about what it is. I'll go in and talk about what it is and I've got a model that I use that breaks that culture. And they go, "Okay, we get it. That's the input. And then the output is this. That's what the ..."
As soon as they understand that, they feel that they've got an opportunity to do something. But then when I say, "Okay, well what we need to do is take as many people out of the organization for two days."
That are like, "Well, why do we do that?"
It's like, "Well, we've got to define the culture and everyone's got to do it or a cross section of everyone's got to do it."
And the hardest part for senior leaders to understand is that they don't own the culture. I was like, "No, it belongs to everybody. You don't own it, you can't dictate it. Bringing consultants in to determine your vision and values isn't going to work. Your staff have got to do it because then they own it."
And they're like, "Okay."
And I said if you want a vibrant culture, then you've got to get the staff to agree some stuff between themselves and then they have to hold themselves to account to it. But as leaders, you've got to role model what good looks like every single day because even though you don't own culture, you've got the power to kill it through your actions or behaviors and what's holding most cultures back is behavior. But they don't want to do that. What they want to do is implement quick fix methods. They want to restructure, they want to set everybody on course. They want to talk about culture being the most important thing but they don't actually want to change behaviors Carl.
Carl: Right. And if the leadership doesn't set the example, doesn't believe in what's being said, more than likely there've been many false starts that the rest of the company just going to go, "I'll just wait it out."
Colin: That's right.
Carl: "It's just a thing. And in two months it'll be another thing. Somebody's going to read a book at the executive team and blah, blah, blah."
But what was interesting to me when I had my company about 40 people, I would constantly try to spur things that felt cultural. I would try to do things that would either be internal or client facing or whatever. And many of them would fail but occasionally one would take traction. And I finally had to learn not to take it personally because it wasn't mine. And I didn't get that. You said it because you've seen it again and again. But for most people running organizations, they feel it's their organization.
I get in this amazing conversation about what is a lifestyle business? Because I had people on my team who were not like me, who were younger, who were older, who were divorced, who had a single parent, whatever. What's their lifestyle? How can you have a lifestyle company? You can have a lifestyle individual, a lifestyle leader but you can't implement that across. I'm curious, with your organizations, I know you're going into a lot of larger organizations but do you see much difference between the smaller ones that maybe ... We would call it company of personality, where the owner is that driving force, what you were saying. And when you get to these large organizations, is there a big difference in the way that you have to affect the culture?
Colin: The difference for me occurs really Carl where you ... Because great organization cultures are made up of subcultures. And in order to have a great organization culture, you have to upgrade subcultures. But we talk about these negatively. We use the word silos all the time or we've got lots of silos. And my first question is, are they good silos? And like, "What do you mean?"
I was like, "Well did they work well? Did they get the job done? Is there lots of foreigners? There's social interaction. Are people held to account? Do you have good performance management?"
"Ah, no, no, no. We just don't share information between each other."
I was like, "Okay, well ..."
What you've got to do is you've got to establish each subculture. I'm working with an engineering organization, 3000 employees. Each subculture is doing it and it only takes two days to define the culture. Each subculture is still in that six different subcultures, right. And they all come up with something slightly different but the same because they've all been through the same process. Because they've all been through the same process, you've got this commonality of communication, you've got this commonality of collaboration. People understand the important of behavior. And also they've got a process to come up with new ideas. You've got this commonality. All of a sudden people are ... We call it singing from the same hymn sheet or talking on the same page, which we've never created before because what what you've got is people who do one thing in one area, people who do something else in another area, people do something else in another area. And this was based on my own experience because I used to go in as a senior executive and go, "Right, we're going to create the best team culture."
Because I wanted all of the best people. And that's what we would do, to the detriment of the other parts of the company, where it's when you're just working with a small organization ... I've done some work with some startups. They've got some funding and then they forget that before you actually go in and create great product, what you've got to do is build a great team culture because then when you've got that, then you actually get great product. And it's a lot more straightforward to deal with a small team but no less important. There is a slightly different approach but the emphasis is still on a core group of people agreeing what they need from each other to be able to do the best that they can, such that the organization can achieve its goals.
Carl: Well this makes so much sense, especially ... It makes a lot of sense you going from the project book to the culture book. I remember when I was working at a company and there was somebody who was seen as being toxic to the culture but what that meant was they didn't hang out with everybody. They were quiet. They didn't look at anybody nasty, they just didn't look at anybody. And the company didn't like that. And the person got let go.
Carl: And what we found out after they left was they were overloaded with work, we found out all the stuff they had been doing and now we had to do it. And suddenly people were like, "Well good God, he didn't have time to smile."
Colin: That's right.
Carl: Cut him a break and if people only look at something from one way, from a process way or from a culture where you have to look at it as a blend, is that right?
Colin: Yeah. Yeah you do Carl. but we don't take enough time to get to know each other or get to know each other's personalities. And what we do is we have a one style fits all, which never works. Excuse me.
And what you get then is people who are naturally quieter. From a personal perspective, [Carl Young's 00:00:19:03] work on personality. You've got people who are a little bit more boisterous than others, let's say more extroverted than others. We make this classic quick fix mistake of going open plan because we think that will improve collaboration. And it doesn't, it kills collaboration.
Colin: Because what happens is, all the introverts will put headphones on to block out all the extroverts. And then all the extroverts are mystified as to why all the introverts won't take the time to mix socially to get to know each other. You've got to have this real period of understanding, which for the stuff that I do, takes half a day where we get to understand everybody and everyone's working preferences, such that if Carl's really quiet in the corner, I can go up to Carl and go, "Hey, you okay man? Are you good? Listen, I can tell that you're really quiet. I just want to make sure that you're not overloaded with work and there's nothing I can do to help you."
I am very fortunate to get some insights into [LaSeon 00:19:58] for the new book last year. Big software organization, [JIRA 00:20:01].
Colin: And when I went into the offices, obviously lots of introverts, software development company, they're all talking, they're all mixing. Sure. Every now and again people have got headphones on but they've got all these different work spaces where people can choose where they do their best work and they're smashing it out of the park Carl because they take the time to get to know each other first, such that they can keep an eye on each other and push each other because we all do our best work on the edge of uncomfortable. We need people around us who are going to help motivate and inspire us to do our best work.
Carl: And referencing it last year as a great one, we had Alistair Simpson on the show a few weeks ago and he's a friend. He heads up design over there in [Glass Yen 00:00:20:45]. And when he was just talking ... And I think they just reached a billion dollars in revenue or something. It's just crazy.
But he was talking about how important it is and he's been on a lot of ... We have design leadership calls. And how important it is to make sure that you're talking to each other. Right. And it's just funny. It seems so basic but his whole model ... When people ask what is it to be a design leader? He goes, "I ask the right questions and I listen. And then if I realize I asked the wrong question, I asked the other one."
Carl: Right. And that is such an important thing. And I think leadership ... And you can go all [Simon Sineck 00:21:21] or whatever but they really do have to learn that they are the low person on the totem pole. And that everybody else is the one doing the work. And I think that shift is coming but it's really, really tough.
Colin: Yes, it is.
Carl: I want to make a move here. You pretty much are a company-
Colin: Yeah that's me. I'm a business manager, a content editor and that's it. Yeah. But I don't need to live it, yeah.
Carl: Yeah. How is your culture?
Colin: It's good. [crosstalk 00:21:55]. Culture's good but then [crosstalk 00:21:59]. If anything the CEO probably overdoes it with the work. I might have a word with him about that but otherwise it's good.
Carl: Right. I had a series of products I never released but had designed, called Self-employed. And it was things like, "I think my boss hates me. I'm afraid of my boss. Going to find out his stuff with his wife."
These types of things. And it just said Self-employed on the back. I thought it was great but [crosstalk 00:22:29] some of those. You'll love those. But the reason I'm asking is that if you're a culture of one, I was wondering if that was part of why you started The Getting Shit Done Club because this can give you a community now for Colin: . Now obviously it also helps you a lot of ways business wise and this and that. But is that a place where you can hang out?
Colin: One of the downsides of being a business for one, when you're a high extrovert Carl, is that you miss the interaction with people. And I can't tell you how much I love public speaking. I only started doing it three years ago properly, having done two speeches at conferences in my life up to that point. And if I could be speaking in front of 10, 000 people right now, nothing would make me happier.
When you're a business of one, you miss that. That was the first reason. The second reason was, every conference that I used to attend, remembering that much of my work is based on me and my former roles, it's conferences never gave me stuff. They never gave me things that I could do. And what I would ... I would maybe be inspired by a keynote speaker and then flip it because all budget was blown on that. And then I couldn't do any ... There was no one else after that to inspire me. I wanted to put together [inaudible 00:23:53]. Oh, by the way, DPM and Memphis was not like that. I was inspired by every speaker.
Carl: It's fine.
Colin: [crosstalk 00:24:03] feedback.
Carl: Hold on. I'm going to mute so you don't hear my tears. I'm just crying. It's fine. We spent all our money on the keynote-
Colin: Wait a minute.
Carl: You were the keynote.
Colin: Wait a minute.
Carl: Wait a second.
Colin: The other couple of things. Firstly, they were always over two days. And as a senior, as an exec, I could never take two days out of the office and they were always two grand. And I wanted to create something short, sharp 75 dollars. I asked the speakers to speak for free, I've got a good network of speakers. Anything we made over and above the cost that we incur for staging it, we'd give to charity. And it was an opportunity to bring people together to talk about culture, about some stuff that they can fix right now and some stuff they can do right now and that was the aim of the Getting Shit Done Club, was to do that. We did five events, all of which were hugely successful, given that we started from nothing. And the aim is to do more again next year when we can fit them in.
Carl: When you can. Well I appreciate you fitting us in Colin, it's been great to have you come by the studio today. Great to catch up on what you're working on and find out that you've got another book coming out. I was just happy about the one book. But thank you so much and honestly it really is refreshing when I see you come up in my feed. I know it's going to be a positive message where something I can learn from-
Colin: Thank you so much, Carl.
Carl: Thank you for being that way.
Colin: It's a pleasure to talk to you my friend. Thank you.
Carl: You got it. Everybody listening, thank you so much. We're back next week and we'll talk to you then. Have a good one.