Building Brink: 30 times we swiped left on accepted wisdom

During the financial crisis in 2008 I watched an interview with one of the newly appointed leaders of Iceland. When asked why Iceland had taken their steps his answer was basically that they’d chosen “not to accept the prevailing orthodoxies and instead do what they believed to be right”. It blew my socks off at the time, it was so simple in its elegance and seemed too obvious to think in this way but with that simplicity came the realisation that these orthodoxies can be impossible to tussle with. They’re so ingrained, they’re often mistaken for being innately true.

It ushered in a new chapter of my professional life, where best practise and accepted wisdom is questioned deeply and an intentional ‘other’ tried instead. This spirit of intentionality has been a point of strong connection between me and my Brink co-founder Abi Freeman — as well as the Brinksters we now find ourselves fortunate enough to be surrounded by every day.

Today, four years into our journey, we’ve started to capture a log of the times we swiped left on the default ways of doing things in order to make our own, purposeful decisions instead. Some have seemed tiny at first, but actually ended up having far reaching consequences. These decisions are a mixed bag, but through them you’ll see that our goal is to have a trust-based culture, where we take good care of each other and our work.

Not everything in this log has worked as well as we’d hoped, and others may have worked well when we were a group of under twenty people, but need more unpacking now that we’re scaling. So here’s the log of 30, in no particular order and with a view to continuously update it as we update ourselves:

  1. Monday Morning Meetings designed to foster love and fondness. Inspired by the work of psychologist Arthur Aaron and colleagues who put together 36 questions that lead to love. He shows how, through a series of 36 simple questions, it’s possible to accelerate intimacy between strangers. The idea is that we get closer to one another through sustained, reciprocal personal self-disclosure. It encourages a vulnerability that’s mutual, and unlocks intimacy, respect and trust between people. Every Monday we ask “how are you?” and one other question to build intimacy, like “tell us about your best friend”
  2. Matrix org. We organise ourselves in a matrix that cuts across the programmes we work on, like EdTech Hub, or Frontier Tech Hub and the practice areas or areas of mastery that Brinksters are growing into. These practice areas are: Venturing: designing and running funds | Adaptation: supporting teams and orgs to be adaptive and agile | Collectives: building and nurturing community | Storytelling: turning evidence into great knowledge products and formats
  3. Individual growth journey. Each person’s role is structured across three areas: The programme/s of work you work on,the practice you are a part of and a personal passion that you would like to nurture. There are increasing levels of ownership for each. This ownership bit is really important. We operate quite flatly as an organisation and strive for ‘autonomy with handrails’. Whether it’s day one or day one thousand, your first job or you’re decades in — can come up with ideas and have them flourish. Our way of articulating this is across a spectrum from ‘charted’ to ‘uncharted’. Each of us contributes towards things that have been set out by others and each of us is invited to chart new ground from good stuff you see across your work. Levelling up at Brink looks like taking on more responsibility and moving further into the uncharted space.
  4. A flat structure (really) — nobody is going to sign off your work. As a group of coaches we are always there to support one another but the onus is on the individual to take responsibility for their own list of responsibilities. If you need support, enroll the colleagues you think will offer the greatest wisdom, if you think the work is ready to ship, go for it.
  5. Bake one day a week of free time into our commercial model. Our profitability is based on 20% free time for everyone. Not in a Google ‘come up with new ideas’ extractive way, but in a ‘go for a walk, deepen practice areas, play games, learn together’ way. Of course, this isn’t a perfect science and we often end up using this time on work, but building a financial model with this headroom means that we’re starting from a place of greater ease. As I think Joe Biden once said: “nice strategy, show me your budget.” For us, a commercial model that bakes in free time puts our money where our mouths are.
  6. Emergence and sensemaking. We think the biggest thing is not pretending to have all the answers. We are open and celebratory about things that have emerged which we can then collectively make sense of. Things don’t have to be part of a masterplan to be brilliant.
  7. Open ops kanban. We’ve grown 12x in three years so our operations need continuous tweaking and improvements. We do this through a transparent kanban so that the whole team can see what’s going on now and down the line. The team are also invited to contribute to the kanban and help us to prioritise it
  8. Memos: twice a year (at the end of the fiscal and the midpoint) the whole team contributes to a memo of where we are, how we’re tracking against our goals and celebrating the amazing work that’s been done by everyone. We join the day in a hybrid virtual, real world session of reading, celebrating one another and discussing hot topics of the day.
  9. Summer retreat. Once a year we get together for a week to be together. The time is intentionally relaxed with free mornings and some structured sessions in the afternoons. The idea is to be in the same space without being overly workshopped. We share meals, do yoga, go for runs, swim, mix cocktails and dress up for a fancy meal. The goal: enjoy one another.
  10. Brinkmas. A secular year end celebration that has changed much over the years, mostly through the pandemic. Brinkmas is a chance for us to party with our friends and partners. In the past we’ve donated the time together to a good cause by making everyone in the room work on a problem for a bit of the evening. We’ve hosted celebrations over five days including virtual dance parties. Who knows what the future will bring, it will always be celebratory, a bit zany and a chance to reflect on how lucky we are to work with great people around the world.
  11. Flow Friday. No meetings on Friday, something that’s observed by the whole team means we can use Fridays to get into flow more easily.
  12. Structure your time to match your energy. Brink has core working hours of 10am-4pm but beyond that the idea is for each person to do what they need and what works for them. For some it means a long walk in the mornings, for others it was making sure they got a bit of sunshine in winter by taking an extended lunch break while it was light
  13. ‘Take what you need’ holiday policy. We couldn’t quite imagine a world in which someone needed extra time off but couldn’t get it because they’d reached their quota. This is one of our policies that’s based on non violent communication and has a needs based lens. We ask, what does the work need? What does the Brinkster need? Both are sacred. And when we see people taking less leave, we nudge them to correct.
  14. 16 week parental leave. We think the state of gender equality in the world sucks. In part it’s because women are put at a disadvantage to do more ‘family care’ in relation to their male counterparts. We believe that if men were given the same role to play in family life, this imbalance would be eased. So we have a 16 week parental leave for all parents at Brink and a gradual return if parents so choose. The idea of a two week paternity leave makes us shudder.
  15. Closing over the festive break. We close up shop at around 20th December and into the new year. There’s nothing quite like the relaxation of that time of year, knowing others are away too and having a stretch of uninterrupted time off.
  16. Random days of just closing shop. Brink’s lifespan has been dominated by COVID. Like a lot of companies we noticed people were working long hours and feeling quite drained by the stress of it all. So we shut up shop and gave people the day off a few times.
  17. Feedback. We encourage generous acts of feedback at Brink and as part of our coachlike culture we all ask one another for critical friendship and feedback on our work. Once a year we write to one another offering reflections and inquiries about how we might each take our talents and skills even further in the year ahead
  18. Kindle Book and book club. It’s important to us that we were reading and getting stuck into ideas together, so each Brinkster has a Kindle loaded with books that we pay for. This was an idea originally shared with me by our good friend Alex Wright who implemented the same policy at his agency Friday many moons ago. We are happy to steal his good idea. Every month there’s time for the team to come together around a curated list of books, talks, podcasts and articles around the same topic to discuss and debate.
  19. Sanctus. We have partnered up with Sanctus to provide Brinksters access to a mental health coach once a month. Anyone can book for the next 2 months and there are 6 x 50 minute sessions available in a day.
  20. Dojo Days for us to deepen our practice together. Dojo means a hall or place for immersive learning or meditation. The term literally means “place of the way” in Japanese. On offer are various insightful and fun things planned for the team to pick from including improv, non-violent communication training, workshops to use our bodies as a research tool and more.
  21. Personal learning budget. After a year of working at Brink each person has a £1k fund to spend on learning and personal development as they see fit. This could be conference tickets, a training course, or something else. One of the team learned kickboxing to encourage greater comfort with confrontation.
  22. Inboarding. Off the back of new starter feedback we have co-created a really structured way for people to come into the business that is all set up for them with an increasing emphasis on them taking the lead. The start of the journey is an introduction to our ways of being and doing and then we invite new starters to take the lead and shadow projects and learn for themselves. Why inboarding not onboarding? Because not only do we want to share the Brink way of doing stuff, we want to be shaped by new people too
  23. Working from home fund.To make working from home more comfortable new starters have £150 to spend. It can be anything from a plant, a print, a fancy lamp or maybe some yoga sessions to get you feeling zen for work.
  24. Share options. 10% of Brink has been put aside for the team to share in our success. This isn’t a new idea, but what is different at Brink is that this option pool isn’t limited to the most senior bods in the organisation or those who bring in the most business. The pool is there for contribution overall, including some of what others might consider to be our most “junior” roles who have in their own beautiful way shaped us for the better.
  25. A coach for our relationship as partners. Abi and I, as Brink’s co-founders, have worked hard to make sure our relationship is as good as possible. have had a coach since Day 0. Our wonderful coach Bernie supports us to work on our relationship, keep on top of things and be as great as we can be as a team.
  26. A coach for the team. We have time retained with the incredible Sam Lizars who supports the team 1:1 through coaching blocks and group sessions.
  27. Expenses. Our expenses policy is inspired by Netflix. It is: Act in Brink’s best interest. Treat Brink’s money as you would your own
  28. Brink Global. The pandemic allowed us to accelerate ideas we had on the backburner when we were first dreaming about starting Brink. Moving to remote working by default is a good example of this. An even better example is our ability to work globally with teams around the world, close to the action of our work. While this had always been a five year plan for us, during we accelerated both the move to distribution and the talent it meant we could work with in places like Kenya and Rwanda where much of our work is based. We now have teams in Nairobi, Kigali, Amsterdam, Paris and soon Lisbon. We love how worldly our team is and look forward to this increasing in time.
  29. B Corps. We’ve been a certified B Corp company since Feb 2020! You can see our entry page with our initial set of scores here. It was important to us that the certification was a living breathing thing for our company, so the scoring criterion, especially the ones that we did more poorly on were added to our ops backlog of things to work on and get better at.
  30. Dents. For years when people asked us how Brink was doing and would want details on that progress in terms of team size, revenue numbers, the shape and growth of the portfolio. These things all mattered but they didn’t tell the full and glorious story of what we were doing and why any of it mattered. We’ve been trying to find an authentic way of measuring our progress and making that progress visible and tangible. To do this, we’re inventing a new metric: The Dent. Every day our team makes dents in the world. They shape the worlds of circular economy, technology, education, the way teams work together, and individuals’ mindsets. Dents, dents, dents all over the show. Dent means ‘contribute to a change’, it’s humble enough to know that Brink won’t make all the difference alone and that there’s a bit of a shift that can be affected, we’ll take it. Dent means movement, making a visible mark.

We’ll revisit this log in time to share reflections on what didn’t quite stick and where new things have been added to the list. We’d love to hear which of these you’ve tried or if you have your own swipes to share with us.