Un-clarity, un-risk and un-management: words from Ije Nwokorie, MD at Wolff Olins, on leading a creative business


Facilitation is a word that Ije Nwokorie, Managing Director at Wolff Olins (international brand consultancy), uses with pride.  He sees it as one of today’s most important management skills. So he made it his mission to make it something that Wolff Olins would become famous for, and he’s well on the way to achieving this. Ije recently led the internal development at the agency towards a structure that allows for “inevitable collaboration” and self-managing teams. It’s an unconventional approach that has turned a lot of traditional theory on its head. He has put an ‘un-‘ in front of the words management, leadership and risk to create a more chaotic/less regimented, but rewarding and inventive environment.

I first met Ije last August, and recently saw him give a presentation on his vision for leading a creative business. I was delighted when he agreed to talk to me for this blog. Following is a collection of notes from Ije’s presentation – hugely inspirational for Collaboration Catalysts everywhere!

Risk un-management… and creating possibilities

A leader’s role is to facilitate creativity and to help their organisation move forward in an uncertain world. It’s not about risk management – we don’t know what the risks will be before we start. If we try to predict what will happen, that leads to predictive thinking.

Leadership is more about creating new possibilities. This is what excites creative people, and so that’s what we should be working with to keep them motivated.

Un-leaders… and purposeful facilitation

Traditional leaders have been seen as the ‘messiah’ – the person standing on the stage with arms outstretched. This worked because organisations had to put another layer on top of mundane jobs, to make workers think and feel like they were part of something.  But we can’t motivate people artificially by making a mundane job seem exciting, so they need to be naturally motivated by what they’re doing.  Leadership needs to be enabling and empowering, so the image of the messiah is now outdated. It’s reflective of the world we live in as it’s no longer a world that just broadcasts.

Leadership is not a role or position – it’s a behaviour. It requires being sensitive to where people are going and facilitating them to get there. But it has to be facilitation with an outcome, not just listening.  Great facilitation means getting a group of people to work towards the same goal in the quickest time possible.  It’s about being able to cope with a blank whiteboard – going into a workshop session at 12pm with no idea of where’s it’s going, and coming out at 1pm with a hypothesis.

Un-clarity… and unleashing potential

Around 2.5 years ago, “management” was stripped out at Wolff Olins, and at first this was scary and messy. People were unclear, but it also forced them to be inventive. Stripping something out creates opportunities for people to be creative. It wasn’t un-clarity for the sake of it, but if pursuing clarity leads to a lack of creativity then it’s gone too far.

Ije’s sketches of how the structure at Wolff Olins has changed


So now, rather than management, it’s more about coaching – support for people to do the things they want to do. Borrowing a concept from their office in NYC office, people now write a personal plan (rather than objectives) which outlines their ideas for how they would manage themselves in the business. Asking people what they demand from the business, rather than telling them what the business demands from them, was quite scary. But it worked because it put a lot more control in the hands of the individuals, in effect, making them responsible for things – in other words, leaders.

Un-structure… and support for teams

Teams are the centre of the business, and internal ‘coaches’ and communities support them.  Teams are made up of individuals from across the organisation, built around what they’re trying to create – rather than being matched through disciplines – as this provides more opportunities. They can be made up of account managers, freelancers, employees and clients and each team has its own identity. This might create more ‘un-clarity’, but as long as leaders are responding, there are no problems.

It’s all about giving teams more freedom and de-emphasising management. Everyone at Wolff Olins is united around three core values: 1) do game-changing work that has a positive impact, commercially and socially, 2) create healthy growth for the company,  and 3) have fun doing it.  Of course, people need to know that they’re looked after, are doing great work, and it’s important that they’re not putting the financial health of the company at risk. But rather than management, teams are provided with tools and support to enable them to do their work, such as:

  • Face time: time to pick the brains of someone outside of their team
  • Huddles: receiving funding to do (social) things together which will build the team dynamic
  • A lot of time is spent on both team kick-offs and ‘adjourning’ (the final stage of Tuckman’s “forming, storming, norming, performing” team theory).

Un-rules… and introducing risk

honey clubEvery management book will say that the four things that need to be managed are: process, utilisation, working hours and job descriptions. But this doesn’t work in a creative environment.  The shared ambition around Wolff Olins’ three core principles is a much more useful way to drive the business. The old approach fosters comparison and commoditisation, whereas the new approach encourages people to think differently.

For example, The Honey Club – a social enterprise with the aim of creating bee-caring communities in urban gardens – is one of the most exciting things that Wolff Olins has created, and this would not have fitted with the traditional management rules. With this venture, risk was introduced rather than being avoided, by taking an asset (a rooftop garden that was created in 2008) and considering how it could be utilised to meet a social need.

As a business that continues to strive to be radical and break the rules, Wolff Olins has not reached end point or “cracked it” – new problems are identified at each stage of development. There is more work to do, such as balancing the personal needs of individuals with a collective/collaborative culture; making the resourcing, review and recruitment processes more open rather than management-led; and identifying the right shape for a business that keeps this all manageable.

But overall, because of these changes, Wolff Olins has seen really exciting results. It’s a more agile organisation and the lack of dependency on one leader makes it more responsive to external events. The result is an environment of creative fluidity and prolific inventiveness.  Pursuing unmanaged risk creates surprises, and amazing things happen.

One thought on “Un-clarity, un-risk and un-management: words from Ije Nwokorie, MD at Wolff Olins, on leading a creative business

  1. Hi Alison,
    TheWolff Olins initiative for bee caring communities is truly innovative and so important as a global issue. On a personal level I am part of an East london Allotment Society, where we work together to grow produce,and we have recently set up two bee hives. Allotments have a long history as collective enterprises, there is much to learn from this type of local enterprise that embraces a wide diversity of people who are self managing and embrace the idea of invention, sharing and collaboration. In short, collaboratively we get stuff done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *