Five Years And Change
To mark our five-year anniversary, this post was written by our Founder, Bud Caddell.
This week, we’re celebrating our fifth birthday at NOBL. Five years ago, I sat at my kitchen table late one night with my co-founder, Lucy Chung, writing our own obituaries, asking ourselves what NOBL should be, and more importantly, what could be worthy to call a life’s work.
Founding NOBL was a personal mission and a professional dare. I had spent my career up until that moment talking nonstop about change, yet I had little evidence of having made any. I had a few notable wins, but more so, I had presentations. I was the originator of innumerable Keynote presentations describing fanciful corporate futures that never came to be. I had become exhausted of merely talking about change. Ideas felt overrated. Action felt like an endangered species. And it certainly felt like others felt this way, too. “Deck fatigue” was real, for my clients and for my peers. NOBL, we envisioned, would be a service to everyone truly ready to make change.
Driving our obsession to make change was and is a deep and profound respect for human agency. As creative beings, our ability to make choices and to take action is the foundation of human flourishing. Without human agency, we feel small, isolated, disengaged, and even cynical. Unfortunately, our dominant models for organizing are the factory and the infantry, where choice is something to be removed and action is something to be constrained. While we believe there is no single future of work (we believe that there are futures of work, plural) we do believe that an increased respect for human agency, for all humans, is absolutely essential in a world that now demands our utmost ingenuity and active participation.
I couldn’t describe it as succinctly in 2014, but it’s clear to me now that NOBL exists to answer this question: How do we help people to work together to make meaningful change in their organizations?
Five years, four global teams, and more than 80 institutional clients later, that central question still deeply engages me. I truly consider it my life’s work to serve other people at work in times of change. Most importantly though, that question has rallied a group of brilliant and compassionate people to NOBL in the form of our people, our partners, our clients, and if you’re reading this—you. Just knowing that we have an audience for our ideas compels and energizes us to keep going.
My hunch is that you’re following us because we strive to be useful, honest, and practical. In that spirit, I’d like to share some answers to the most frequent questions we get, as well as some of the things we’ve learned on our journey so far:
What sort of changes have you helped to make?
The tradeoff of helping world-famous organizations do new, ambitious things is that you don’t get to talk about it much, or in exact detail. Organizations we’ve supported have achieved profitability for the first time, avoided costly reorgs, cut costs, increased work-life balance, improved their ability to recruit stellar talent, launched new products more quickly, instituted more effective onboarding programs, and so much more. They’ve also increased candor, trust, agency, and employee engagement in the process of making those changes.
Often our first question for a potential client is, “What’s the change you know you need to make that you’re tired of talking about?” The folks who reach out to us often have a change in mind, but some combination of institutional inertia, a lack of collective will, misaligned leadership, overwork, and an inability to imagine the future while maintaining the present business halts forward momentum. Ultimately, we give our clients a process to make that change while also deeply engaging their people and their passions.
What does that actually look like?
The other tradeoff of helping world-famous organizations do new, ambitious things that you don’t get to talk about it much, is that it ALSO makes explaining what we do not so easy. Let me try to demystify it (though it really requires experiencing first-hand). Most of the time, most of us at NOBL are engaged in what we call Change Sprints. These are 90-day programs where we empower client teams to make change and train them to continue to make change long after we’re gone. We’re onsite 2-3 full days per week, running a process we have shortened to the acronym P.A.T.C.H.—as in we spark change in different areas of the organization and then knit those changes and change agents together in a patchwork as we go. Overall, our process is designed to produce change quickly so that people in the organization see (not just hear) that change is possible.
First, we PREP (weeks 1-2). This involves getting to know critical stakeholders and running project and team retrospectives (AKA post-mortems) to gain an understanding of what’s working and what’s not in the organization. We do this in a very accelerated fashion because, unlike our traditional competitors, we don’t believe in lengthy discovery phases. One, your people likely know better than we do what should change. Two, organizations are complex systems—meaning the best way to understand how they work is to provoke a change and see how the organization reacts.
Second, we ALIGN (week 3). We bring together the people who’ll be responsible for the first set of changes to generate what changes to try. This usually looks like an all-day offsite where leaders define new goals, we share back our findings, and teams brainstorm new opportunities and new ways of working. Our goal is to leave the room with everyone aligned on what must be accomplished, and the 3-5 change initiatives we will try together during this sprint.
Third, we TRIAL (weeks 4-8). This part of our process looks a lot like agile software development, though we rarely use that terminology on the ground. In essence, we help teams shrink down the changes they want to make into an MVP that they can quickly test and iterate on (we call these Change Pilots). Individual pilot teams work together weekly, and then all Pilot Teams gather every other week to share with each other (and leadership) what they’ve tried and what they’ve learned.
Fourth, we CODIFY (week 9). We bring everyone involved in the changes back together for a full day to capture what’s working and what’s not. Successful changes get folded into a new Playbook for the organization and unsuccessful pilots share what they learned in the process.
Fifth, we HABITUATE (weeks 10-12). As the new Playbook is developed, we help other teams adopt successful new ways of working so that these changes become the new norms of the organization.
When we’re not running Change Sprints, we’re also designing and facilitating executive offsites (to strengthen bonds and identify needed changes), teaching classes (in how to make change), and running leadership development programs (on being an emotionally reliable and resilient leader while making change).
What have been your biggest learnings along the way?
We are solving the foremost problem of our time. We didn’t think that when we started the business and it’s a big claim to make, but consider the weirdness of the world we live in now. Never before could businesses scale exponentially. Never before could culture and customer expectations change so rapidly. Organizations, we believe, must be at LEAST as dynamic as their environments so as the environment becomes more and more defined by constant change, the organization and how it works must respond in kind. Therefore, helping people change together is, we sincerely believe, the most pressing question of our age.
We are a relationship-based business. You could even say that we are a relationship business that happens to help people through change. It’s that important. It’s also easy to forget. Relationships take time to foster, aren’t inherently designed to be monetized, and can be destroyed (like goodwill) with one rash act. We have learned to spend more time investing in authentic relationships and supporting one another in relationship building. We could still do more here.
Because we’re in the relationship business, stable teams of full-time employees work best for our kind of service. We started with freelancers, and we still have some competitors who are freelance-first, but for us now, we cherish building a stable team and healthy culture that can develop long-term relationships with our clients and their teams.
Our process is probably our biggest learning. It’s the result of many, many engagements and ceaseless retrospectives (and it’s still changing). Change programs are notoriously difficult, largely because they are poorly thought through and most change management models are focused solely on how change is communicated (not how to shape individual behavior or how to spur continuous reflection and adaptation).
This work takes a toll on the people doing it, both on our side and the client’s. It requires intense emotional labor: we have to manage our feelings and emotions to help others embrace change. While seeing people imagine new ideas and new ways of working AND bring them to life is thrilling, it’s not (on its own) rejuvenating. We have been experimenting with internal constraints on the number of projects anyone can join as well as a four-day workweek to constrain our time “in the office.”
Wear compression socks on long flights. OK, this one is less about NOBL and more about me. After a month of long-haul flights in July, I came home to a swollen leg due to a nasty blood clot that could have done far worse than swell my leg. I am learning, somewhat late, that investing in your health is the best bet you can make, entrepreneur or not.
What have you tried that’s failed?
Bunch: Very early on, we built a prototype for a service that could stop you from attending big, inefficient meetings. The service alerted meeting owners if you were in too many meetings, or if the meeting they invited you to had too many people or was rated too poorly by attendees. Our hunch that meetings are broken was right, but we learned awful quick that people have deeply personal feelings about the meetings they create and own. People did not like getting automated nags. While this tool failed at reducing bad meetings, it taught us so much about how to go about fixing meetings when we are onsite.
Flox: We tried to develop our own “operating system” for work (a la Sociocracy). It did not catch on. We have two hypotheses: 1) The majority of companies and leaders just aren’t looking for an entirely new dogma at work, and 2) without a tool of some kind, it’s too unwieldy to manage a wholly new way of working. Again, this failed, but it taught us a lot about how to introduce new ways of working into organizations (hint: step-by-step vs all at once).
Paywall: When we launched the latest version of our resource site (the Academy), we tossed a paywall between you and our content. Most of you were not fans. While I’ve been stopped in coffee shops and airports by total strangers thanking us for our content, getting folks to pay for it is an additional challenge. Even more importantly, maintaining a paywall from a technical and customer experience standpoint was just more than we wanted to take on at this time. We quietly sunsetted the paywall, stopped monthly charges, and refunded our yearly subscribers.
What have been your personal highs and lows?
In all, the highs have been numerous, but because I’m a human (and susceptible to negativity bias), they’re easily forgotten or readily ignored. The lows persist in memory like cockroaches after an apocalypse.
But I can recall a recent high. This one sticks. A client took me aside after a session and with just a few sentences helped me ground me back into our mission:
“When I had my first child, my husband and I promised we wouldn’t wait long before we had our second. Of course, though, I came back to work and things were too crazy, too hectic, too uncertain to even consider prioritizing our family. My husband and I, we were off plan. And then your team came. This place is so drastically different. It’s night and day. Well, I’m pregnant. I can take the time now. I finally feel able. Thank you.”
My lows are always triggered in the same way: when we as NOBL aren’t living up to our values. My greatest fear isn’t failure, it’s creating a shitty place to work that harms people and robs them of their human agency. There was a time, in 2016, that a massive project fell through and we had to let someone go. There was another time, all too recently, when we put our clients’ needs too consistently ahead of our own, and neglected our culture, which resulted in outright burnout. The day we no longer team as we preach is the day my imposter syndrome becomes real.
What’s next for you and NOBL?
In partnership with Dr. Kim Perkins on our LA team, I’m knee-deep in writing a book about change and cynicism. Everything we think we know about cynics is wrong (spoiler: they’re actually heart-broken idealists responding to an unjust system and not unreachable grumps who just don’t feel a sense of belonging) and they are the key to unlocking widespread change. A converted cynic is a change’s best friend.
I’m also working on a new tool called WorkHub. It’s a free wiki for teams to share their ways of working and it’s also a community for the future of work.
NOBL is poised to continue to grow. In the last year, in addition to our teams in NY and CA, we have spread to the UK and Canada. Our UK team is helmed by Lauren Currie, OBE who is an outright icon and force for change in Europe. Our Canadian presence is led jointly by Sarah Dickinson and Erin Cooper, who have together coached nearly three thousand leaders through a personal development process. Lauren, Erin, and Sarah are our archetypes for global partners who can intellectually and emotionally lead complex organizations through the change journey. As we meet more people of their caliber, we’ll explore new geographies in pursuit of making change and unleashing human agency.
What can I do to support NOBL?
The obvious answer is to hire us. Hiring us keeps us, literally, in business. But if you’re not in a position to do so now, there’s something else you can do.
Follow our example and reflect on the legacy you’re leaving behind. Challenge your own sense of agency and ask yourself what’s in your way of doing the remarkable. You don’t need to share it with anyone unless you want to. No hashtags need be involved. Worst case: you’re on the right path and you’ll be energized. Best case: you’ll discover a new path and build something incredible (and we’ll eagerly await your five-year anniversary post).