How to make a founder cry

Using mass participation to bottle the winning culture of Rosa’s Thai Cafe

Change is a dance between the past and the future. It can create exhilarating, fleeting moments in which everything becomes much clearer. But so often it is awkward and messy, as the ghosts of business past and business present seem to pull in different directions. Founder vs. Buyer. Us and them. Different backgrounds, different cultures, different interests. In the search for common ground, the masses on the periphery can help to find what lies at the heart of it all.

Rosa’s Thai Cafe is a hugely successful fast-casual restaurant group. From humble beginnings it now operates across the UK with ambitious plans for the future. Conscious of their fast growth, the management wanted a clear cultural framework that would allow them to hold on to what is special from the past while making the team comfortable with future change.

Working with Rosa’s Thai Cafe was about shifting the conversation from sticking points to a shared ambition. Not to be confused with a compromise, this was about finding common ground in values and behaviours that are respected on all sides - young and old, old and new, Thai and non-Thai, back of house, front of house and support. We did this through a process of mass participation across the business, compressed into a very short period of time. By involving all the people of Rosa’s we were able to generate more creative texture, a more honest reflection of the culture, and take them on a journey of discovery and agreement, together.

We only interacted twice with the founders, Saiphin and Alex Moore; a very frank conversation at the beginning and a day of reckoning at the end of the project where we shared what the people of Rosa’s had helped us create. It’s not everyday a founder is so proud and supportive that they say “You’ve brought a tear to my eye”. So, how did we do it? We had an exceptional project team at Rosa’s that had faith in our process and, of course, we had the people of Rosa’s themselves. Here are some lessons that have shaped our approach to mass participation:

Using the language and ideas of the people
Culture is not something we can manufacture or impose, it has to come from within. Our job is to shine a light on the culture that is needed to achieve the business ambition, finding ways to supercharge the positive behaviours and leave behind the less helpful behaviours. Through a series of working sessions across the UK, we facilitated conversations with over 180 Rosa’s team members to co-create the answer. From their spirit animal doodles to their casual Thai phrases, it was the content from the people that made it into the final framework. This not only made for a richer, more original articulation that people were proud to stand behind, but also showed that we really listened, that they truly were (and are) fundamental to the change process.

Using different tactics for different actors
The journey we chose to take with each of the stakeholders varied significantly: A one-on-one interview with the founders right up front to reflect and get perspective; Regular and razor sharp working sessions with the project team to push faster and build team confidence; An intimate pow-wow with the chefs as acknowledgement of their central role; An anonymous survey to all staff to release some steam before the creative picnic sessions to collect the texture. Taking the time to construct and deploy different engagement tactics directly impacted the value of each team’s contributions and how they embraced the change in the end.

In-person really counts
We’re avid proponents for remote and online working and used it in many creative ways across the project. But as lockdown lingers, we’re faced with the cold reality that online relationship building has its limits, especially when trying to connect with a large group of people you’ve never met, with a different first language, and varying comfort levels with tech. We were able to gather the chefs in smaller socially-distanced teams, with Wan, head of food, as our trusty translator and neutral confidant. We held small team picnics, simultaneously at all 20 sites across the UK, to get every employee actively talking about Rosa’s. The giggles and the quips in the spaces between put the room at ease - the physical realm bred a creativity and honesty you’d be hard pressed to get on Zoom. It may be harder to shift offline in lockdown, but it’s not impossible and if you choose your moments wisely the quality of conversations far outweighs the effort.

Giving them something to work with
A typical consultant process looks something like this: gather loads of info to find the problem, go away and fix it, then sell the answer. This linear approach is an inefficient tool for real engagement. Before reaching out to all staff, we focused on getting to an initial answer, and quickly, so that we would have ideas for the teams to gather around. Our first stab wasn’t right, and that’s ok. The point was not to sell an answer, but to elicit a response and encourage rich debate to send us in the right direction.

Making it memorable
Change needs its own space. Every site across the country set aside 2 hours, in a park, with no kitchen or powerpoint in sight. The Day of The Picnics signalled a sharp break from business-as-usual and a sign that things are going to be done differently. We used artefacts and MacGuffins that participants could take back into their day-to-day work, creating experiences they can return to as reference for the change. Some were about theatre, like the Thai-inspired time-keeping gongs we used as a theatrical prop to keep up momentum and win a few smiles. While others were about participation, like asking people to draw imaginary spirit animals (not for every organisation, but perfect for the young-at-heart and soulful bunch at Rosa’s). Using these techniques helped teams get in the right spirit and created a day for them to remember.

Building the right tools... and letting go
There were 19 restaurant managers, with little to no workshop facilitation experience, who independently and successfully ran sessions with teams of up to 15 people. Armed with carefully planned facilitator guides, props and worksheets and not a consultant in sight, these managers were active participants in the change process, from both sides of the table. A deeper level of mass participation and therefore co-creation encouraged initiative and allowed the management team to take ownership of the process.

Taking it into the future
Change is not about a booklet and a t-shirt. Together with the project team we identified, prioritised and kicked off new workstreams off the back of the changework that demonstrated the company’s commitment to change. The workstreams modelled the behaviours that were identified through the cultural framework, taking all the great work from a nice sentiment to a living reality unfolding each day.

If you’d like to read more about our work with Rosa’s Thai Cafe, check out the project here.