Charlotte Hillenbrand Interview

Interview by Justin Small

Charlotte was one of the founding partners of Made by Many, and is currently the Executive Director of Digital & Innovation at Comic Relief. She is interested in Learning Organisations and the potential that’s unlocked for digital transformation, positive impact, growing talent, productivity and happiness at work.

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Justin: Hi. You have just left Made by Many for Comic Relief is that correct?

Charlotte: Yes. I’ve gone into a newly-created role as Executive Director of Digital & Innovation at Comic Relief, working with the CEO and peers on the Exec team to take the organisation into the next chapter of transformation. Before that, I was Learning & Development Director at Made by Many, a digital innovation consultancy; I was part of the original team that built the business up and had been there for 10 and a half years.

Made by Many came out of the belief that a combined multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems creates great digital products and services - from the outset we had equal representation within our founders, between technology, design, strategy and product. As we built out the team, that balance was fundamental to establishing a solid ‘product culture’. Our practice took inspiration from the startup movement - we started out in 2007 - when very small teams were rapidly achieving cut-through and growth that confounded the established big org approach. At Made by Many we were radically open, and that was the ethos, borne out of the internet: it’s about sharing, collaboration, being open and working out loud. So, that’s what I am bringing to my new role at Comic Relief.

Justin: Your background includes Learning & Development - which is such a hot topic now with large organisations trying to transform to be able to deal with continuous disruption. What’s really interesting at the moment is how a lot of large organisations have suddenly realised how important culture is for innovation, and how difficult it is to transform operationally if they don’t transform culturally. In your time at Made by Many, were you alert to the problem of growth and culture? A problem that destroys the craft in most agencies, replacing it with quarterly financial targets.

Charlotte: We got to a certain point in our evolution where we felt, yes, we’re small - a team of 35 at the time - but our practice is so profoundly connected to our success and the success of our clients that there’s a lot of value there. We decided that we needed to codify it because it existed in the behaviours and the practices of people in the consultancy at any given

COMIC RELIEF HAS RAISED OVER £1 BILLION IN 33 YEARS, SO OBVIOUSLY WE WANT TO CONTINUE TO FUND THE AMAZING WORK WE ARE DOING INTO THE FUTURE, AND THEREFORE IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO THOSE CHARITIES WE SUPPORT, TO PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE NOW.

time. We had to instill this way of working with new people but also build from what they were bringing to the piece. The idea of continuous improvement is something that’s bound into Made by Many’s way of operating. I think writing the development programme, and more formally codifying our ways of working, helped us remain true to our founding values and vision.

Justin: The reason of an agency is to exist is be different from its clients in my opinion, so if you’re not bringing anything new to the table then you have lost your right to be there. What’s funny currently is that most agencies are now corporations (or part of corporations), and corporations are hiring agency corporations to tell them how to be less corporate. I wonder whether you think that there’s something in that because in order to attract the talent agencies used to be able to attract, corporates are copying agency culture.

Charlotte: You’re right, there is a 50 person limit beyond which it becomes incredibly difficult to retain those founding values and vision. It’s also very difficult to spin out your culture to other locations or beyond 50 people and it’s because of the very human thing of optimal group size. A ‘village’ that’s more than 150 people quickly becomes unmanageable in terms of relationships and interactions. One of the key differences is that agencies are actually hiring individuals, they are looking for a certain mindset, a certain kind of curiosity. My perception of corporate systems is that they are based on checkboxes. What schools did you go to? Do you fit this cookie cutter? Corporates don’t actually care about how you think or how you approach a problem, because they believe that they have that covered. They want you to fit into the machine. Whereas my experience of working in agencies is that everyone is always primarily motivated by the quality of the solution to the problem that we’re solving. Corporates do need a bit more of that.

Justin: So what key lessons do you think you are taking into Comic Relief from your time at Made by Many - from a very free moving org structure to one that I am guessing is more rigid and set?

Charlotte: I’m there to bring in a collaborative way of working that draws the disciplines together, which is a relatively new model for charities, and certainly for more established charities. And that brings interesting behavioural challenges too.

Justin: Behavioural challenges - that’s a great way of defining transformation actually. Because it is 100% about people.

Charlotte: Absolutely. Comic Relief isn’t your typical charity, which means there is a lot more licence to behave differently compared to the rest of the sector. Historically you have these two very different cultures of fundraising / grant making, and the comedy-TV-celebrity-entertainment side. There’s a lot of creative energy, brains and experience to draw on. So the challenge is to bring all of the best of that together whilst putting digital at the heart, to establish a more digital-first organisation.

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To do this, we’ll need to develop a common language between the cultures within the organisation, give people the tools and processes to be able to come together to explore opportunities and execute new propositions. We want to create capabilities within our teams that enable an ‘innovation as usual’ approach to work. We’re introducing value-driven ways of working -- informed by the mindsets and practices of a customer- and product-focused, agile / lean development approach.

Justin: That sounds really exciting, especially because Comic Relief is such an iconic charity brand and has done so much good over the years via the TV event.

Charlotte: Comic Relief is a funder and we always strive to make the charities, particularly the smaller charities that we work with, stronger -- we work in partnership, funding and supporting both medium-sized and smaller organisations seeking to scale proven approaches. We come with the money and we have a team who foster those relationships and who manage the grants in partnership with the charities. We have an arm called the Futures Lab which looks at how to help the charities really sweat those grants and make the most of what they’re doing. But what we’re excited by increasingly is the opportunity for innovative funding, social investment and emergent grant-making models. Comic Relief is very innovative, and that doesn’t just exist in digital and technology. We are very interested in innovation across the whole operation of the charity.

Justin: So, transformation as a process of innovation?

Charlotte: Yes - and it all really lives or dies with the people. I think that’s why calling it a digital transformation is something of a misnomer. What it is really is technologically enabled change and acceleration, which can only work if you actually involve people in redesigning the systems. You know it’s that marriage of people, the problems that they’re solving and the way that technology can facilitate -- by accelerating their productivity or connecting them more closely to a customer.

Justin: So in one sense for you, transformation is about ways of working?

Charlotte: Yes, and I think crucially you come across organisations where things have been commissioned and they literally only think about one part of the entire organisation’s operation and don’t take into account some really fundamentally key drivers to the whole organisation that are impacted by that implementation. And so for me, digital transformation is about having a much more across- the-board approach to things and not thinking it’s just an IT implementation. For example, the employee experience of the internal tools that are created is critical.

Justin: What’s really interesting is the link between what you did at Made by Many, and what you’re doing at Comic Relief - how the agency way of working is influencing how larger organisations restructure themselves.

Charlotte: At Made by Many we had our toolset and we had our approaches but we would always change it up, in true continuous improvement mode -- that was the case for 10 and a half years. The truth is we’re always evolving from one project to the next, almost to the point of making life difficult for ourselves by not just repeating a standard process.

Justin: Moulding processes to the time and the environment the client was in?

Charlotte: Yes absolutely, and having that adaptability, because every client is very, very different. You’ve got the people that you’re working with and then you’ve got the organisations that they have to operate within. Having sensitivity around that and being able to adapt your approach is just really fundamental to the success of any project. So for me, Comic Relief have got a tried and tested community fundraising programme, and that model hasn’t changed much in 30 years. But now with the shifts in consumer behaviour coupled with technological innovations and data we have, it’s time to change, it’s time to do things differently.

Justin: My experience of change is that companies (and people) only approach change when they are forced to.

Charlotte: Well, technology has changed fundraising, fundraising is flat, and the number of engagement channels has multiplied. TV is only one of them, a very important one but a declining one. So it’s incumbent on us to find other routes to engage with people, other routes to fundraising income and not have this reliance on one channel. This is mirrored in many other industries and companies - no one can rely on this mono-channel approach to customer engagement anymore.

Justin: Very good to see that Comic Relief are transforming for the future, strategically, and not just tactically.

Charlotte: Comic Relief has raised over £1billion in the past 33 years, so obviously we want to continue to fund the amazing work we are doing into the future, and it’s our responsibility to those charities we support to prepare for the future now.

Justin: I love that. A company going through the process of transformation as part of its fundamental commitment to doing good by being around in 10 years time. That’s what real purpose does for you.

Charlotte Yes absolutely. Comic Relief’s transformation is based on the concept of innovation as usual, gearing the organisation to be able to be entrepreneurial, to be responsive to what’s happening in the market and to changes in consumer behaviour, to be able to spot an opportunity and then jump on it and do something with that.

Because what I’m observing about charities is that decision making processes are very drawn out and consultative over many, many months, which makes it incredibly hard for people to draw a conclusion. Sometimes that’s because there isn’t enough clarity around the right problem to solve, exacerbated by an old school approach that attempts to map out every single conceivable requirement rather than focusing on the ones that would reduce the biggest pain, create value or unlock significant productivity gains.

After a consultation period of 9 to 12 months, engaging up to 80 people around the organisation, it can get to the point where no-one owns it and no-one knows where to begin. Agencies come in and do brilliantly because they just cut through all that complexity and rapidly get up to speed and apply a clarity and objectivity around the problem. This allows them to very quickly identify a good enough starting point.

It’s a mindset borne of product development and agile thinking which is: if you’ve got enough information to make the decision that’s good enough for right now, you can start. And then it’s a question of establishing processes that enable new information to feed in continuously, so that the accuracy and quality of decision making increases over time.

Justin: Do you think what is emerging is that all organisations need to become more agency like?

Charlotte: If we characterise an agency as moving more rapidly, chunking work into smaller more manageable pieces, making things rather than just describing the problems, then yes. But fundamentally it is about culture. There is this phrase that I heard from Matt Edgar, Head of Design for NHS Digital - ‘look after the water and the fish will take care of themselves’ - in that sense you’ve got to create the right environment for people to strive, to do good work, to enjoy what they’re doing, to be productive and then the rest becomes a lot more possible.

Justin: What is included in the water?

Charlotte: Give people enough of a scaffold within which to operate but aren’t constrained. Give them enough freedom so they can still achieve things that may go outside their usual

way of operating. You don’t want such rigidity and bureaucracy that they can’t just kind of move through the organisation and create value.

Justin: Freedom within a framework?

Charlotte: Yes. It is very much about small teams, clear objectives, kind of short bursts of work that build to bigger goals. That sense of bringing the organisation together, looking at it as a complete piece and understanding how all these pieces interact and operate. And driving the organisational purpose into every level of execution.

Justin: I take it that at Comic Relief you don’t have a problem with purpose?

Charlotte: I’ve seen what our money does for some of the most marginalised people in society -- both in the UK and overseas. I’m moved -- it inspires me and motivates me to do my best every day at Comic Relief. But even still in the day to day, it can get lost. We have to be intentional about creating the culture and environment to drive that social purpose into everything we do. And I guess as we go into other areas and take the amazing Comic Relief brand into new spaces, we need our culture and ways of working to be innovative and daring in order to deliver our purpose, and through that make sure Comic Relief is around for the next 30 years. That’s what gets me excited about the future.