“Culture is the beating heart of any successful transformation” 

In January Comotion held one of its series of breakfast briefings. The speaker on this occasion was Darren Johnson. Darren joined Reed Exhibitions as the Managing Director of B2B in 2014 and has recently been promoted to CEO of Reed UK. He found a company that needed a significant turnaround to survive in a challenging market. The initial project focused on Infosec, an information and cyber security exhibition that had been running for several decades.  

The exhibition was stagnant in a sector that was growing – obviously needing to take on a fundamental re-think and new strategy. Darren’s team undertook a major project to create a new approach. The development and execution of the strategy encompassed everything from creating a new vision – through extensive research and customer insight/profiling – to new proposition development, team coaching and support, and extensive stakeholder communications throughout. 

The project was enormously successful, it aimed for 12% growth and achieved 21%, and became the role model for several more exhibition transformations in the company. 

Although the whole process was avowedly customer-led and covered a number of the core areas of the Comotion process, Darren’s talk focused specifically on cultural aspects of this process. Indeed, for him, getting the internal culture right has been central to the success of the project. His initial observation was that culture is the beating heart of every successful transformation. 

Alignment and belief 

From Darren’s point of view, a key stage in creating the right atmosphere was an initial alignment and beliefs session. This brought together the whole team and allowed them to describe a future that they could, collectively, get excited about. A frequently asked question at this stage was “What will make us famous?”. The point of this is two-fold: it sets a habit of co-operation and joint thinking and allows the whole team the opportunity to feel that they are active participants in the project. It won’t be something that is ‘done to them’. 

Manifesto and permission 

Once the alignment session is complete the next stage is to take this excitement and ambition to the broader management team in the business. The idea of a ‘manifesto’ is to clearly lay out the ambitions and processes that will be undertaken in the transformation. It makes these things transparent to senior management and, in turn, allows the transformation team to ask for explicit permission to act in certain ways and to spend time and effort on the project. It is a cultural imperative in transformation projects that senior management allow the teams to execute, and to ensure that the project is not seen as incremental to the BAU workload. 

Collaboration in the process of ideation 

One of the steps of the process that Reed Exhibitions undertook was that of ideation and concept development. In cultural terms this sets another marker of inclusion and collaboration. The ideation phase builds on the insight and research of the initial stages. How ideation is run and managed is critical to the internal buy-in and the sense that everybody is involved in, and central to the transformation process. 

Ideation is developed through a series of workshops where no idea is to big or too wild. The workshops are run in a manner that ensures all internal voices have an opportunity to be heard (and indeed, brings in external voices like customers and experts). They are also run in a way that ensures that priorities and focus are established in a transparent and credible way. 

This process ensures that when the ideas are accepted and put into a plan, this plan and how it has been developed feel that they belong to the whole organisation. Thus the plan becomes more accepted and embedded. 

Getting the right people in the right place 

As the project rolled out it became clear that some people were more prepared to accept new ideas than others. Darren felt it was very important to ensure that, wherever possible, every team had project champions and evangelists – even if it meant moving people to achieve this. To enable a positive culture in support of transformation, there needs to be a willingness to alter legacy structures and teams. It’s about finding the passion and making sure it’s widely heard. 

Ensuring the right types of people are in the team 

In the longer term, it wasn’t just about moving people around to get a balance that drove transformation. Darren started to look at the make-up and personality types of his teams.   

Reed Exhibitions uses the Insight Colour Wheel (http://www.thecolourworks.com/insights-discovery/) and this became an excellent foundation of understanding who on the team could cope with the changes wrought by the project. In Darren’s case he found that his teams were struggling because they were broadly similar personality types and that overall the team did not have the flexibility to deal with the various challenges of change. As part of the cultural piece he moved to deliberately recruiting a more diverse team.  

This has been such an important insight that it has led to a fundamental change in how the team members are hired, how the teams are formed, and what he’s looking at in his management metrics. In a world where so many companies talk about people ‘being their strongest asset’, it’s interesting to hear how important psychological profiles are to the process of transformation and change. 


Darren made it very clear that without recognising and acting upon the cultural needs, the project would have been far less successful. This involves: 

  • Starting from a transparent and agreed position 
  • Involving the wider team from the outset and through the project 
  • Getting people to work together to produce and own the results 
  • Ensuring that the right people and types of people were in the right place throughout the project and beyond 

The case study describing the Infosec project can be found here

Article by Staff Writer

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