Success can be scary. Keeping pace with the speed at which a company is changing, whilst also making sure that the quality of your work and the effectiveness of your team continues to improve, can be a challenge in itself.
So in the spirit of the new year we’ve been thinking about the future. About what makes us who we are and what could make us even better. This month we attended Owner Summit in Austin, Texas to help to clarify our ideas about how we can change with our circumstances and stay ahead of the curve. The advice and information gained has been excellent and the discussions we’ve had since we returned to the UK have been as energizing as they have been important.
We are built upon the hard work, skills and personality of everyone who works here. That’s why we’ve decided to focus on a few lessons we’ve learnt, and are still learning, about how our company culture can evolve to ensure the best results for our team, our clients, and our brand.
Never Fear Change
Pivoting, disruption, taking risks – whatever you call it, change isn’t always the most popular concept in business. Yet in our startup culture it gets more important as the industry grows. It’s tempting to just fall back on what we’re good at, to hope that what has worked before will work again, but we can’t move forward by standing still.
We started with just the four original founders and some local contracts. In less than 4 years we’ve become a hand-picked team of 10, producing work for software and technology companies around the world. Whilst we share the same spirit as those early days, we’re not the same company we were, and as we’ve found our target market, we don’t take on the same clients that we once did.
But that’s okay. As difficult as it can be to turn down a project, sometimes change demands it. Not every client is right for us. It’s not the client’s fault or ours. Whether it’s the nature of a project, the budget, the timeframe or we just don’t click, sometimes we’re just not compatible. On other occasions a digital studio like ours will just outgrow their clients, and sometimes clients outgrow their design agency. Every company grows at its own pace and most clients will understand that sometimes you have to say no.
Be Bold, Not Difficult
But it’s not just knowing when to say no that can be difficult. Speaking the truth to staff or clients can be just as uncomfortable, especially when your company is young and eager to please. But it can also be one of your greatest assets, the concept which gives your team confidence, ensures that everything runs smoothly as the company evolves, and keeps your clients from simply seeing your company as a black box where money goes in one end and projects come out the other. The better your clients understand what it is that you do, and what makes you the best at it, the more honest you can be with them about what you can do with their project, whilst they can be more open about what they really want.
That’s why we laid out exactly who we are and how we work in our article Opening The Black Box.
Client relationships are at the heart of our business and if those relationships are healthy then sometimes it pays to be blunt. Highlighting any risks or issues with a client, whether it’s elements of a build, the quality of work they’ve already done, or the risk of trying something new, isn’t an admission of failure. It shows you have the foresight and the experience to know your industry and be realistic about what can be achieved and what could derail a project. Identifying a potential problem is the first step to finding a solution for it.
If the budget for a project is low, or the timeframe is tight, then make sure everyone understands the limits of what’s feasible. The client might want more than is possible, and your team will want to create the single greatest project ever completed, but that’s not always realistic. Be open about what can’t be done. It’s better to produce great work on time and in budget, consistently, than it is to sacrifice a project because you were reaching for perfection.
Occasionally though, a project just isn’t meant to be. It’s okay, breathe deeply, it happens. You don’t have to be blasé about it, but you don’t have to burn the project down in despair either. The addition of a ‘Pause Clause’ in your contract means that both parties can step away and reassess what they need. The client only pays for the work done and if they want to restart the project again at a later date, for a fee, they can do. If either party decides that restarting the project isn’t in their best interest then make sure you have a clear termination clause. No one likes a messy breakup and the easier the entire experience of working with you is, the more likely it is that your clients will leave with the intention of returning when the time is right.
But it’s not all about saying no and being blunt. Being bold can be as simple as having the confidence to stand by your creative decisions and know your industry well enough to justify the choices you’ve made. What the client wants is important, but they don’t always know what the best way to produce that result is. If they did, they wouldn’t have hired you. They’re paying for your expertise, your talent, and your passion so don’t be afraid to use it. Stand your ground when you need to. Your client can’t always see the bigger picture, the end product, but you can, so fight for it.
Shatter The Routine
It’s said that every time your staff doubles, the cracks are going to show in your organisation, and it’s true. As we’ve grown we’ve had to change more than just the size of our office to make sure that our team has everything they need, to produce the best possible work whilst still loving what they do. Sometimes boundaries can help that. Having a set time for everyone to leave the office by can hold off the temptation to work late nights and end up being less productive tomorrow. Only speaking to clients during normal working hours and learning not to answer that email at 2am means that you can give the client a useful, considered response in the morning, not to mention one that will actually make sense.
But as useful as boundaries can be, routine is the enemy of creativity. We didn’t get into this business for routine, we did it for the love, for the excitement, and to create. We’re lucky that our industry not only allows us the option to shatter the routine, but encourages it. To get the best from our team it’s important that we’re not all just cogs in a machine.
In fact, our industry has fewer cogs than most. Most of us in the digital industry are either designers or developers, but that doesn’t mean we have to pigeonhole ourselves. We need to embrace the fact that we don’t have a traditional career structure, just another ladder to climb and a new job title to claim. We can measure ourselves based on the work we produce, not the title on our business card.
That ability to move and think laterally, to adapt and change, is also the best way to ensure our team doesn’t sink into the routine. It allows us to rotate team members between projects and vary our work to prevent the boredom taking hold and the staff from feeling burnt out. It also creates an atmosphere where an individual, who knows their own talents best, can ask to do something different. Not just to alleviate the boredom and try something new, but to produce more interesting work as a result.
This isn’t just the case for those energetic new additions to the team either. In fact, it gets more important the more experience your team has. Designers and developers are particularly susceptible to the ominous sounding Dunning-Kruger effect. In other words, when you begin you think you know everything and as you gain more experience you can begin to understand the limits of your knowledge, leaving you feeling disheartened, less valuable, and even with the sense that you’re somehow an imposter. But whilst you don’t know everything, nobody does. Still, psychology is a powerful thing and routine only amplifies that. So whilst changing pace and working differently can help, sometimes you have to think outside the box.
For example, in 2010 the British professional cycling team was stuck in the mud as the competition sailed by. But when Dave Brailsford took over he decided that the way to transform the team was to improve everything, absolutely everything they did, by 1%. The team made small changes to rider nutrition, managed to decrease the weight of the tires by a fraction, and even found the pillow that gave the team the best night’s sleep, making sure they travelled with them. The list went on and on. All tiny changes. All small improvements. And the result? They won the Tour De France in 2012 and then again in 2013. It was an incredibly successful approach but, perhaps just as importantly, it was also an incredibly creative one.
Create Space For Creativity
Creativity is what we do. It informs every design decision and is built into everything we develop. But when creativity is so integral to your work each and every day, it can be easy to lose sight of what it really means, what it truly is in it’s purest form; experimentation. Just like children need the opportunity to experiment, play, and learn in order to develop, a company can embrace a similar attitude in order to not just get old, but to grow as time passes.
We have deadlines and responsibilities and projects to complete just like anybody else, but we have to create time and space for creativity too. It’s important to take time out of the workday routine in order to encourage our team to tinker and toy with new ideas. No one ever created anything great without breaking the rules a little after all. But it’s just as important to create room for creativity in the budget. Your pricing needs healthy margins in order to experiment and innovate instead of just recreating the same project for every client, but the result is that the client gets a product that is genuinely unique, which translates into more business, that can mean more room in the budget to keep trying new things.
But not everything has to be built to specification or for a specific purpose. Most inventions are built just because they can be and the use comes afterwards. That’s why it’s important for our team to have more fun with their creativity, to use their skills to do something interesting rather than always just doing something useful. Creative people will always be able to find a use for it eventually anyway.
A few years ago IStrategyLabs created Paintbot, an automated paintball gun that created an explosion of colour every time someone tweeted their hashtag #ISLPaint. They built it because it was fun, but it also proved to be a fantastic viral marketing tool that brought attention to their brand. Pure creativity that found a use.
We’ve done similar things ourselves. Back in 2011 we created a game of Pong that was controlled by everyone in the room with a smartphone. Why? Because we could, and we thought the results could be fun. They were. But it also became an excellent tool to get the audience to really engage with what it means to work as a team, during our talk at TEDx Teesside that year.
And we’re not out of ideas. Not by a long shot. We’re already working on another secret creative project which you’ll want to keep an eye out for in the future. But it’s about more than just a single idea or trying to create the next interesting product. It’s about a philosophy that as our company continues to change we’re going to keep experimenting, keep evolving, and keep rethinking the way we work. Clients, circumstances, and approaches may change but whatever the future brings, we’ll continue to do things differently.
Thanks and credit go to all the Owner Summit speakers who shared their knowledge and have helped to inform the discussion we’re having about our company culture. I’d like to give special mention to Richard Banfield, for the British Cycling story; Jen Dary, for an inspiring camp session on culture; Andi Graham’s explaination of the Dunning-Kruger effect; and Nancy Lyon, who focused on how to maintain a healthy work/life balance.