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HR's role in maintaining entrepreneurship at Graze

Planning strategies are critical to retaining an entrepreneurial culture during the growth of a start-up

Growing a start-up should not mean losing the entrepreneurial spirit of a business, according to chief people officer of UK-based snack firm Graze, Louise Patterson.

Speaking to HR magazine ahead of her talk at the 2018 HRD Summit in Birmingham on 6 to 7 February, Patterson maintained that the decade-old business is just as ambitious, agile and entrepreneurial as it was when it was founded in 2007. The key, she said, is “magic dust”.

“In a nutshell the challenge is about how to preserve as much of the ‘magic dust’ from the start-up phase as you can, while adding some good light-touch structure and process that will support it and not get in the way.

“Our retail business grew more than 100% last year. We are as hungry and energetic as we were in 2007, but being past the start-up phase and into the scale-up it manifests in different ways,” she explained.

Headquartered in Richmond, the originally subscription-only business has grown into a major e-commerce and now retail brand with two UK and two US sites. It employs a 400-strong global workforce.

“The complexity can tie you in knots very quickly,” Patterson said. “The brand is worth a lot more now and that changes what you can do and your appetite for risk. At this sort of stage there is a very real risk of a slippery slope – of becoming like every other big corporate and losing that agility and creativity.

A key characteristic behind the success of the brand is that the business has “no status quo to protect”, according to Patterson, who joined the business at the start of 2017.

She said Graze’s secret is a genuine relentless drive to do better, fail fast, learn by mistakes and move on, even if it means a complete change of direction.

“What enables us to do all that is a genuine sense of community in the business; we encourage people to be themselves, there is no need to conform to a particular corporate stereotype here, and we find it really allows people to give a point of view.

“It doesn’t matter what point you are at, new or not. As long as you have data to back up your argument or an interesting, creative idea then we want to hear it. If we lost any element of that mix then I would worry that we could lose our way pretty quickly,” she added.

Patterson said that planning strategies are a critical aspect to retaining an entrepreneurial and agile culture during the growth phase of a business. “There is no doubt that as your business gets bigger and more complex you need to plan more than you used to; because there is just more to co-ordinate,” she explained.

Rather than using a fixed, annual planning strategy for all goals, the Graze team has a set of broad goals that are looked at annually and ‘fleshed-out’ on a quarterly basis into detailed roadmaps for teams and individuals.

“Individuals need to know exactly what they are responsible for, what their teams are responsible for and how that is going to add up,” Patterson explained. “This keeps us still flexible and open to new ideas, as opposed to the fixed, annual planning approach.”

Another key strategy for keeping the young spirit of the business alive is the use of the ‘agile sprint’ methodology, which Patterson said has been adopted from the tech world to keep product innovation at the cutting edge.

“At the start of a quarter we will know how many sprints we are planning and who is available," she said. "We bring together people from all different functions and teams who we feel have the right mix of skills and ideas and in that room they will co-create a consumer proposition, in real time. So in a couple of sprints we will have a new product we can take to the supermarkets and our online Grazers.”

Patterson said that, conversely, what holds many large corporates back are the multiple departments, bureaucratic processes and stakeholder approvals that a new product has to go through before it can get to market.

“After each sprint we have a retrospective stage where we discuss what went well and how it can be improved, so the quality of the sprints keeps getting better, our products get better and we maintain our agility.”

Patterson said this agility and entrepreneurial spirit breeds employee retention and job satisfaction. “We are told we are an amazing platform for personal growth,” she said. “Because of the way we work, our staff can go home and see, feel and touch what they have helped create.”