Designing Creative Culture
March 22, 2018
This week on The Digital Life, for our 250th episode, we discuss designing a creative culture with guest Juhan Sonin, director of our studio, GoInvo.
Many companies try to create a design-centered culture in order to drive innovation but fall flat. We talk about some of our studio tenets and approaches that have worked. In particular we dig into the concept of transparency: seeking to tell the truth to others, both within an without an organization, with the intention of doing the most possible good. We also explore the concept of continuous learning, as we are curious, open creators, who welcome new ideas and the input of others. Join us as we discuss!
Welcome to episode 250 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast, our 250th episode, we’re going to discuss designing a creative culture with guest Juhan Sonin, who is director of our studio, GoInvo. Juhan, welcome to the show.
All right. As you can tell, Juhan is excited to be here. So, lots of companies try to create a design center culture. In fact, the past couple of years, bringing design in-house has been an important aspect of software design, especially so you can have design within your four walls. You can control it better. The insights can affect other aspects of your company, etc, etc. So, creating this design culture, this culture for innovation has been an important, or needs to be an important part of what companies are doing around software design. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, this doesn’t really succeed, and the designers can have a difficult time. I think that at our studio, we’ve had the opportunity to develop a culture here over the course of eight years, and there have been a few things that we’ve done that have been successful, and we wanted to talk about those a little today.
Or somewhat successful.
I would say there are varying edges of how successful or not they are.
I think it’s a very successful culture. The specifics of the tactics of what has worked and what has not, there’s ups and downs, but it’s a wonderful culture, actually.
So, let’s talk about one of the more difficult aspects of the culture, to start with, and this is transparency, right? So, openness is an important part of how we do business here at the studio. Juhan, when you first embarked on this, when you first said, “Okay, we want to have transparency and flatness and openness as a core tenant of our studio ethics,” what was on your mind and how did it play out over time?
Well, I was born into open source in essence. It oozed through me, I think as someone with parents who are academics, as well. And one was in high science where your life was creating things, typically, that were open to other people, whether it’s papers, whether it’s science, whether it’s research. And the other side was, my mommy, was a musician at Julliard, and her music, and by performance, it’s open, in essence. Those things are open, and what they do were open to the planet. So, I was sort of indoctrinated as a fetus. So, it has just … ever since, I didn’t necessarily see it that way, up until probably my mid-twenties.
But, I was born NCSA then, the National Center for Super Computing Applications is one of the homes of the internet in which all the fundamental technologies there were open.
And then, when you’re born again, it sounds weird, at MIT, and other places, and at MITRE, and here. It just felt natural.
The seeds that your parents put in you as a child, not even intentionally-
… they took you down paths that sort of reinforce themselves and led this to be core to who you are.
Yeah, and so I couldn’t run away from it. I think it just was there.
But that doesn’t mean that you live it perfectly. Living it, something that you intellectually understand, and professionally understand, it doesn’t mean that you have to live it all the time, and that’s where I think the dip switch for me came in is, how do you design your life in order to better be transparent? And that’s not an easy task.
Transparency is one of those things that sound good on paper, but it seems almost impossible, right? We’re all wearing clothes here, right? There’s not complete … complete nakedness is not possible, in a certain way. I mean, I just read an article today about the more that people talk to coworkers about how much they make, the more all of them will end up making, which will have unintended negative consequences on businesses to go out of business, just for example. So, where are the limits? When you talk about transparency, there’s opaque, and there’s transparent, what does transparency really mean, because it doesn’t mean open access to everything always?
Yeah, I think as the human condition is such, and the way we as species work, doesn’t mean that we always want everything to be open about us, emotionally, especially, right?
There are cultural little sub-tribes within even a small company like ours. And they have different openness standards. But there’s a baseline I think that we have introduced to say, anything goes, and there is a dynamic where it’s a self modulating culture, whereas we say, “Look, financials, open for anyone to investigate at their own leisure. Here’s the place to go to get it. They can see it. Tada.” Second is everyone knows everybody’s salaries, already. We make them together as someone new comes in. So, you understand the latter already, as the company evolves.
Even using that example, if we give someone an out of cycle pay bump, it’s not like an email is sent to the whole company, that Jane is now making this amount, right? It’s not that explicit.
Yeah, they can … but that will be realized if anyone wanted to. It’ll be realized in the documentation that’s open every month.
But you know, how many people actually do that? Very few.
Right. I have trouble going in every month going, oh what the hell is the business doing? But it is at least accessible, and the action, the moment of the culture is such that it is available to everybody.
But there are nuances and little things that happen daily, that I am usually one of the main needles of how the company goes, and I’m not privy to everything. That’s fine, but a lot of it goes through me and I don’t necessarily relay it either, just because limited bandwidth.
It’s tricky, because then you look at it yourself and it’s like, how open am I? What am I keeping? I try not to be, but inevitably, there’s something that inexplicably happens that way.
So, we’ve talked about transparency being so specific to you, but beyond that, you have beliefs that transparency is a general good, right? So, for other companies, for other leaders or managers who are thinking about transparency in their group, or their organization, how does this translate beyond a small company that you’re the owner of, and you can make all of the decisions, and impose that. How can this be adopted in larger, more complex organizations within someone’s more narrow point of view?
Yeah, its … you would have to graduate the transparency knob. You can’t go to a Nigel Tough 11 immediately, because it would probably actually be way counter to actually doing good culture, because if you swipe it open, all of a sudden the floodgates come open and then there are so many conversations, so many things that happen. So, I think it has to be graduated, but the lessons for me, if I were to take this somewhere else are … one is, most people want to know how decisions are made, and to feel like they’re involved in how those are made.
And then, even if there’s bystanders, they need some kind of pipeline in. So, for me, it’s first, decision making, as a group grope, as a … that’s probably not the best term, but something that allows people to say, “Hey, I know what happens,” or, “I know how it’s getting there.”
Then, I think at least you have a histogram into decisions. Without that, I think everything else is stuck to it.
Yeah, I mean, we’re really focusing on transparency, but what I think was really interesting in what you were just talking about is that transition needs to be designed and managed. You can’t just take and read about best creative practices, and dump them down, because there will be a lot of negative unintended consequences. You have to go from zero to one, to three, not from zero to eleven.
Not just in transparency, but in many of the pillars of making a healthy, creative [crosstalk 00:09:18].
Yeah, right on.
Yeah, and I think that’s something that we’ve done well here, that you’ve done well here, Juhan, is creating these end points. So, transparency is the desired end point.It doesn’t mean we get there all the time. It is the ideal, right? So, the default is, if we’re making decisions, we’re gonna be transparent about them. And then, of course, if they’re sensitive for one reason or another, or the information shouldn’t be shared, or what have you, you can layer those types of gates on top, but if you start with an open default, and then close gates as needed, that’s very different from starting with everything closed, and then opening them as needed.
So, it’s an opt out strategy. The hope is that you’re hiring and bringing people in that are in that fold already, or at least doesn’t want that. It’s almost like open source … the three tenants of open source are, a license, you have some kind of service level agreement of what you’re distributing this under. You’ve got the code itself, or the operating procedure that is open, and you have community. It’s very similar in business in some ways, right? So, we say that hey, look, we have this kind of opt in strategy where we’re open, open, open. And then, you peel it, depending on what happens.
So, let’s shift now to another one of the tenants that help drive the studio, and I think this one’s something that I’ve really appreciated, and that’s, we do have a culture of continuous learning, so on our website, we talk about learn, share and build, and one of the things that new hires have to do is give a tech talk about some area that they are expert on, and share it with the group. So, we have all kinds of different tech talks, whether it’s about voice user interfaces, or standard health records, or what have you. Every Friday, we get together for a lunch and learn, and that continuous learning is embedded in our culture, all the way to the point that there are giant bookcases that divide up the studio, and those are almost entirely full of books now. When we started out, we had one giant bookcase.
That are collecting dust. Who [inaudible 00:11:54]?
No, come on.
What was the emphasis for this particular tenant Juhan? Because once again, this is not … this is slightly atypical, the emphasis on continued learning.
Well, I think it’s more in the R and D and academic setting that you see this more often.
At least, that’s where I see it most often, or where I’m getting poked from.
Yeah, and again, it goes back to your own origin story.
Yeah, maybe, and the kinds of … some of the projects we work on are also in that realm, but it’s because we’re in healthcare as well, there are known studies that say if you are learning across your lifetime, one, I mean, there’s obvious biases towards, well, you learn more about health. You learn more about yourself, and understanding the world, but there’s a fantastic graph in the study that says, “As you keep learning, your brain keeps moving, and learning other things, your longevity is directly proportional to that learning, in terms of how much you do.” So, if you’re just a high school graduate, if you’re just in college, if you just stop after grad school, PHD, it levels off after four years, or five years of undergraduate, or graduate level, but if you keep learning other ways, and out of [inaudible 00:13:21] cycle, other ways, longitudinally your health, and your life will get longer and better.
So, I just think it’s sort of a natural selection type of thing, I mean bending natural selection, by keeping your brain active. Also, it’s just a matter of Oh my God, most of the people in the world are smarter than us, we gotta bone up, and just as a competition thing.
Yeah, so obviously, the continuous learning makes sense for us as individuals, but how does that translate into a creative culture? How does that translate into making the group healthier, making the organization better beyond just the one?
Oh, you’d think that’d be an easy one to answer. It gets tricky. Generally speaking, it’s good for humans. One, get your read on. What is it? Thinkers read, and readers think? Is that the Ralph Nader line? At least, I have learned it from him.
Something like that, right? So, there is something about having a tribal aspect to slurping in new knowledge, and trying things together, so in projects that we’re doing now, we have a fairly big project of five or six people on it, not only are we trying new technologies, we’re also trying new techniques, and that’s done by, well, okay, what are other people doing? How are they getting good results? What are the outcomes of those? And we need to read other studies. The mantra is, the smarter people are always outside your firewall. What the hell are they doing, right?
How are we soaking that up? So, I think as a group, that resonance builds, and it amplifies our work over time. That’s the hope at least.
Right? And then another thing that we do is, we don’t have restrictive agreements on what you can do outside of work. I know a lot of big companies do, because they’re like, “We’re gonna own every part of your blood stream. We’re gonna own it, because every idea, it’s ours.”
But learning comes from stuff you do outside of work, in your own work, whatever that is.
So, a key thing is, you learn from a lot of different ways. You need the … nature abhors uni-culture. So, you need people to flower and grow outside of the typical confines.
Yeah, yeah. And one thing that’s very distinctive about the studio is the studio space. So, when the company started here in Boston, almost ten years ago now-
… it was just one giant square ballroom, beautiful, huge high ceilings, but it was one room. There was a bathroom out in the hall that was used by other companies as a [crosstalk 00:16:40].
Or a plant.
For you, of course, a plant.
But that was happening during a time where open offices were trendy, people were excited about it, so it was beautiful, but it also felt right, and it felt correct, in a certain way. As time has passed, the company’s grown, and we’ve gotten some other spaces beyond just the ballroom, but also the trend has changed away from open offices into way more mixed or closed workspaces. What’s also interesting is, I’ve seen, at least, are people move from all just hanging out in the big space to going to the smaller spaces more and more as time goes on. So, I’m curious, what are your thoughts now about open workspaces, and creative culture. I guess your thinking has transformed since originally moving into the way.
Yeah, and thinking like this does change. I think there’s these ten year cycles to it. You think about Bow House, or pre Bow House, and the pictures of architecture, the one room together. Basically, these lines of huge long desks.
All the Frank Lloyd Wright work. Yeah, yeah.
Yeah, where you see five rows of like eight people on each row and things like that. It was a little bit of like a designers chop shop, right? And then, they go into offices and you see advertising in the 60’s like that, right? Now, if you think about the real estate, individual real estate has changed dramatically over the past 75 years. For one, we had a room like this, a ten by, or twelve by twelve room for one human being in a white collar job like this, as a typical space. That has shrunk by I think it’s down to three by four in a matter of 60 or 70 years.
It’s a pretty remarkable transformation from these big private offices to small open. You’re right. My thinking has migrated. I still love the open space, but I think people need diversity in how they want to achieve flow, or whatever you want to call it. Not everyone can be concentrating perfectly beautifully in an open arena like that.
But you definitely see it, you’re right. Once we’ve gotten these four or five other rooms that are attached to the ballroom, some will migrate. I like it. Humans are weird and funny, and they need different things to be able to go into.
Yeah, the ballroom gives us the opportunity to have that serendipitous interaction, learn something new, encounter something that is outside of our project, or outside of what we’re working on, whereas the workspaces give us the time to focus on things and to concentrate, or to achieve that flow state that you were mentioning, Juhan.
It’s so nice that the ballroom when we first got here, there was nothing in it. There were a couple plants, a couple desks, and there were times when I was in there where I was like … I remember when I was alone, riding my bike.
Yeah, I remember that.
And then I took a video of myself. This is how busy we were at the time. I took a video of me thinking about design, riding a bike around the studio like a fat bear on a tricycle. But, it was fantastic for me at that point, because I could really … I used the space to concentrate, now it’s different.
You really explored the space.
Oh yes. That’s what it was.
Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the Digitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in the Digitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find the Digitalife on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare, and emerging tech, which you can check out at GoInvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening. Juhan?
Oh, yes. It was lovely. It was amazing. 250 episodes. How many individuals? Can we count them on two fingers, three fingers?
How can our listeners get in touch with you?
They don’t want to.
Clearly, not now, but let’s give it away anyway.
Oh, oh, Twitter? Is that what it is?
Whatever you want, yeah.
J … because my Twitter feed is so fat. J-S-O-N-I-N. I’m sure I’m gonna get lots of do … you know, bounty.
Well, thankfully that’s it for episode 250 of The Digitalife. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.