Announcing our Playbook: why we’re defaulting to transparency

The client services industry is an interesting one in that I think many companies like to keep their cards very close to their chest

I’ve seen a definite shift away from this from some service businesses who are fully exposed to startup culture, as we are, but it’s certainly not the norm, yet. And I can empathise. Back when Hanno was smaller, I remember feeling almost as though putting the details of the way we worked out in the open would tie us to them indefinitely. As though once shared in public, we’d never be able to change direction.

But since those days, there has been an alluring slide in the way we organise ourselves at Hanno, to sharing much more information. And I can’t think of a single negative that has come from this, to date. The positives, however, have been incredibly valuable. Plenty of great clients, far higher profitability, higher team pay, a vastly simplified pitching process, higher client satisfaction, and a far happier and more productive team. From my perspective, I find myself with a massively reduced workload plus more time to spend on making our business better and our team even happier, rather than dealing with needless inefficiency and stress.

A perfect example of a change we’ve made, which has contributed to all of those positives has been the way we deal with incoming leads.

Back in the old days…

I remember how we used to do it–a new client would typically email us, having either found us online or been referred by someone they knew. We’d reply to that message and go back and forth via email ping-pong for a while, eventually lining up a phone call if we both got along and there were no major incompatibilities.

It would take a little while to line up the phone call and find a good time to schedule it, and then the call itself would be pretty widespread. They’d inevitably ask about how we work and describe what they needed to accomplish. We’d do our best to explain things, but would inevetably not be able to cover all necessary bases in just a short phone call.

After the call, they’d ask some follow-up questions, perhaps about the way we bill or the technologies we use. I’d then go through the process of explaining that in another email. I would try to be clear and concise, and explain everything they needed to know in order to be comfortable moving forward with us.

But inevitably, the same questions came up again and again

So I began to reuse that same text, making tweaks and refining it, then gradually dropping my answers to these FAQs inside a document so that I could pick them out later on.

As we grew, I needed to share these answers with the team and I was fiercely determined to reduce the effect of me being a ‘blocker’ by being the only one who knew the answer to these questions. So we turned this document into a Google doc, which anyone on the team could view and edit.

Our website was deliberately clear and stripped back, but inevitably, while it was giving people a good indication of who we were and making them want to work with us, it wasn’t able to cover everything we needed to say.

Some clients still needed a little more information, so as part of the project proposals we put together, I started to write a little more about the way we work as a team, the tools we use and how everything fits together into a section called How Hanno Works. It went down well and helped us secure a few great projects. The information somehow seemed very private. It revealed our innermost secrets and workings, and really helped clients to see how we did things. It was hardly surprising that it helped us win so many great projects.

Each time, I found myself making little adjustments and improvements to this document. Soon, we had a bunch of lengthy proposals, all saying very similar things. And each time we wanted to put together a new proposal, we’d have to make a copy and work through all the content again.

But it felt inefficient and not inline with the way we wanted to work

As 2013 drew to a close, we kicked off a round of serious team brainstorming to come up with what we called our Hannifesto–a set of 5 values that we felt summed up what Hanno was about, and the way we wanted to behave as a company. One of the most important of these, we decided, was that we would always commit to Work In The Open. Here’s what we defined that as:

  • Build relationships upon trust and understanding. Deep collaboration leads to great products.
  • Be transparent. Fearlessly bring clients into every aspect of our process. Don’t hide from difficult situations or challenges.
  • Be direct and upfront, but humble. Never shy away from saying what’s best for your product and its users.

And with that set in digital stone, we started to ask ourselves why we were guarding this information about our working process so closely. If we were having to communicate what we did to every client, surely we could save ourselves a little time by somehow putting this on the website?

And surely, by sharing even our mistakes and learnings, we could contribute to our industry’s shared knowledge and help others to find ways to improve their working processes.

And so, we took our cue from another team who have been very transparent about the way they work–nGen Works–and created a wiki of sorts. We called it Inside Hanno and started filling it up with the information we’d been packing into those proposals and documents in the past. It was pretty stripped back, but it did the job:

Inside Hanno
Inside Hanno

And voila! The Playbook was born

Having lived with Inside Hanno for a while, we felt its limitations and also saw where it can be hugely beneficial. On the technology side of things, we wanted something a bit more stripped back and easier to edit.

Inspired in part by Thoughtbot, a company which started off as a Rails development shop and is known for their openness and transparency in publishing their own Playbook, we decided to strip things back and be even more open. We’ve moved all of the content to a new location, renamed it to also be called a Playbook, turned it into a single-page format, and expanded it significantly to detail pretty much everything about how we run our business.

To many people, that’s a scary step, giving away all your secrets and allowing your competitors to copy you. We feel differently–it keeps us on our toes and gives us a huge competitive advantage over many of those who don’t have the same transparency. It helps make us vastly more appealing to smart people who might want to work with us, and gives us a better chance of competing with companies who are bigger than us when it comes to hiring great people. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever win a three-way battle with Google and Facebook to offer the highest salary to a great engineer and persuade them to join us. In fact, it could never happen because we wouldn’t be able to justify this according to our salary formula. But we can compete in other ways by delivering something different.

For me, trying to gain competitive advantage through secrecy is a strategy that’s far less appealing than the route we’re going down. There’s only so long you can succeed by exploiting market inefficiencies and taking advantage of that little extra bit of knowledge we possess. Eventually, you need to compete by being better and continuously improving the way you do things.

It’s already paying off, massively

By documenting so much about what we know, we can onboard new hires far faster. Anyone reading the Playbook can immediately get a pretty deep insight into the way we work, which leaves them far better prepared to jump in and work together with us. While we’re not one of those agencies which relies on constantly shuffling freelancers without having a stable and consistent team, it’s nevertheless massively helpful for us to be able to be able to smoothly bring skilled experts in on certain projects, where they can add something to the team and help us deliver even better work.

The thing that seems to become clear with every bit of information we put out there, is that the very act of sharing it forces us to make sure it’s clear and logical. While previously, we might have taken advantage of the hiding space afforded by internal wikis and documents, we’re now forced to explain our logic and come up with clear processes and workflows. And that’s a huge benefit.

As I said when I wrote about the process of opening up and making public all of our team salaries:

“Since we no longer have to obscure how much people are being paid, we can open up our internal finances completely—that makes it far easier for us to streamline our processes, automate things, and get several eyes on the finances to help us make smarter decisions.”

Even if we’re wrong in our assumptions, at least by being as transparent as we can, we’ll ultimately fail having hopefully been a positive influence to others and helping other teams to do things more effectively and efficiently. Let’s hope that we’re just a small part of a growing movement towards companies publishing their own Playbooks, and helping others to learn.

I think it’s worth asking ourselves how much of our operational ‘data’ like this really needs to be private. Wouldn’t we be forced to be better, fairer, and more ethical companies if we put more of ourselves out in the open?