Stopping things is just as important as starting things — a conversation with Jonathan Briggs, Co-Founder of Hyper Island.

Martin Bloomstine
Sep 7, 2020 · 11 min read

Welcome to Recommend’it! A organisational design and culture blog by eliot. If you’re interested in creating better and more people positive workplaces, you came just the right place. We talk with organisations and people who dare to challenge status quo and share their stories and perspectives on how to make work, work.

A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of teaming up with the good Mr. Jonathan Briggs — one of the co-founders of the creative business school Hyper Island. In this, very first post of Recommend’it, you’ll learn about what inspired Jonathan and his partners to create Hyper Island, a school that has been praised as “The Digital Harvard” and named “one of the most interesting schools around the world” by CNN.

You’ll also get insights into what inspired Hyper Island’s success, the problems with the management term “agile”, the need for both generalists and specialists, and perspectives on what it takes to build an company based on organisational learning and development.

We hope you’ll enjoy reading it just as much as we enjoyed talking to Mr. Briggs!

Bridging different perspectives

To understand the reasoning behind Briggs’ decision to create a new way of thinking education, we must start by giving a brief introduction to who he is. Briggs graduated from Imperial College London in 1983 with a degree in computer science. After a couple of years working in the private sector, he went back to the world of academia, where he was granted a full professorship in the computer science department at Kingston University.

Specializing in AI, Mr. Briggs was very much a part of the big boom in AI up through the 1980s. When the focus on AI stalled in the late 80’s Jonathan Briggs changed his focus to the field of multimedia.

“So, I went into multimedia. At the time it was defined as the convergence between television, telecommunication and computing. There was a little bit of a wild west going on in multimedia at the time. The design departments said it’s a design problem, the business people said it’s a business problem and the computer scientist said it was a computing problem. My view was that it was all of them. We needed to bring all of them together.”

The realization of the need to bring all three aspects together led Jonathan to start an agency specializing in exactly that. And so “the OTHER media” was born. Through the work done in the OTHER media, Jonathan met two swedes — David Erixon and Lars Lundh — who, just like himself, had seen the need for merging design, business, and computing into multimedia. The three of them later went on to found Hyper Island together.

“We had the agency and we had the academia and the motivation was to really say there’s an opportunity here. There’s an opportunity to create something new in which we don’t have this specializing view on the world but where we bring together these different perspectives.”

And thus, Hyper Island was born.

Doing over teaching

Hyper Island’s first location was in an old prison on an island of the coast of Sweden. So how does an alternative business school located in an old prison become one of the most renowned schools around the world according to CNN and get the predicate “The Digital Harvard”, with campuses all over the world?

“When we started Hyper Island, we went around to look at other schools that we were impressed by. We visited the Kaospilots in Denmark. We visited Fabrica in Italy, which is Benettons school who were really doing inspiring projects with the learning by doing approach from an artistic and architectural point of view. We also went to some technology schools, Futurelab in the UK and ArtTech. We took the best of these schools. Hereafter, we quickly realized that we needed some sort of cultural direction. What’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Shortly thereafter we introduced the whole facilitation and leadership into the education. A few years into the start of the school we brought in some good people from the Swedish military education. They added the meta-layer of facilitation and leadership, which has been essential to what makes Hyper Island educations unique”.

But is bringing in inspiration from other schools and from the military really enough to create a successful progressive approach to learning? Don’t you also need some sort of teaching philosophy? It turns out that most of the teaching philosophy at Hyper Island was inspired by a specific foundation very close to Brigg’s heart.

“I was very much affected by the Nuffield Foundation and how they look at teaching”.

The Nuffield Foundation is a charitable trust established by the founder of Morris Motors, William Morris, in 1943. The foundation seeks to improve social well-being by funding various research and innovation projects in education. With an alternative approach to teaching the Nuffield Foundation handed out grants and donations to promising students and research projects who shared that approach.

Jonathan himself was a product of the Nuffield Foundation and its philosophy. But what was it exactly that influenced him from the Nuffield philosophy?

“What they said was that we should always be experimental. The idea was simple. The thought that there were too many people teaching physics without doing physics, so Nuffield said that we need to set up labs were people do physics and I’m a product of that science and philosophy. So, we took that idea and used it at Hyper Island as a guiding principle. Instead of learning about stuff, let’s learn by doing stuff. Instead of talking about game design we challenged people to design a game. It’s about putting the challenge first and then solve the problems that comes up and then use reflection and facilitation as a way to draw out the learning”

Designing with the vision: “Non-Traditional”

Hyper Island is known for designing their educational offerings, let’s just say, quite different from most other learning and education institutions around the world. But, what was the guiding principles for designing the learning journey?

We never really said no teachers, no exams, no books, no grades. What we said was non traditional in front of everything. Part of what we’re doing with Hyper Island is to say: You don’t need traditional teachers, You don’t need traditional exams — you still need to let people know whether they made progress or not, so you still need to be able to allow people to show of their work. If you think again about the artwork school, people show their work to others and get it criticism and reviewed by other people. That’s an examination, just not the examination as we defined it in most educations. We are true to the idea “No Traditional X” but we’ve put ourselves in the academic frameworks. Look at our masters (Hyper Island’s) for example, they are as good if not even better than other masters. That’s by playing two games at the same time. We need to look respectable, we need to show up and say “yes, we can play by your rules but at the same time in a nice way we need to be able to disrupt and make change happen and it’s that slightly two faced view that I see most people have difficulties with. They either embrace disruption or they embrace gentleness and conscious and again, it’s that friction between the two of them.

What about the more normalized academia then?”. According to Jonathan, there’s still a need for both generalists and specialists.

“If you just fill a room full of generalists nobody does anything and if you just fill a room full of specialists nobody does anything”.

But where does Hyper Island fit into this perspective? Are they educating generalists or specialists and is it their teaching philosophies or the skill sets they teach the students, that makes them valuable to the organisations out there in the real world?

What I find really interesting is that what we do seems to work everywhere, of course with some slight adjustments, but whether you go to Hyper Island in the States, UK, Sweden or Singapore you still go like, Ok, this is Hyper Island. I think that’s because we are appealing to some universal ideas.”

Appealing to universal ideas sounds quite nice and a great approach to education. But it doesn’t really say much does it? How are they doing this? What are the universal ideas Mr. Briggs is talking about? And what is it all good for? Universal ideas aren’t necessarily a guarantee for success. At Hyper Island though, they have a special approach to teaching that, according to Mr. Briggs, enables the students to better function in a diverse and challenging organisation and corporate world.

We’re appealing to the idea of empowering people with a set of skills that are highly transferable. For example, the Design Lead education in Stockholm is really only 50 percent about design. The rest is about leadership, working in teams, designing processes, enable learning and that is true for all Hyper Island courses. There’s a content layer but the transferable skills, the things you’re going to be able to use for the whole of your life, are far more important than the individual content skills. The students and alumni are the reason why Hyper Island is still relevant. We’ve created this group of change agents and that’s something very, very special. It’s the value of the people, it’s the people we’ve created on this journey that’s really worth while. I think it’s back to what we talked about before, seeing Hyper Island as these two parts. There’s the people part and there’s the skills part — and you have to have both. That’s the philosophy of the school, really.

Talking vs Doing vs Being

A growing trend in management and organisational design is the idea of self-managing teams and organisations. The advantages are clear – the elimination of management layers increases speed, ownership, innovation, relevancy, and people’s motivation and engagement.

But, as it is with most management and organisational trends and theories, it become buzzworded. Some of which are agile, holacracy, teal, responsive etc. They all flourish around the idea of seeing your organisation as a living organism rather than a static machine. But, while there’s a lot of talk about these concepts there are very few organisations who actually manage to successfully transform into the idea of a self-managing living organism.

Jonathan shared his perspectives and how Hyper Island equips people to not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

The problem is that most organisations end up talking about culture rather than being a culture. If I look at organisations, this is a massive challenge. All organisations talk agility — far fewer organisations do agility. Saying “We’re an agile organisation, doesn’t make you an agile organisation”. The only way you can be an agile organisation is by doing agile, reflect on what you did, to eventually be agile. I think that’s the difference between having a culture where it’s all up on the wall — there’s statements about openness or customers, and actually doing that. I think most organisations fails into the trap of talking the talk and not walking the walk.

As we like to say “moving the values from the wall into the hall”. The culture becomes a branding and communication matter rather than a how we collaborate and create matter. But, why? Why do so many organisations battle with this?

“They don’t actually do it because it’s harder to do it than it is to talk about it. It’s scary, you might get it wrong — there’s the whole social pressure about being seen to get it right. There’s the traditional leadership roles and the traditional fellowship roles, that says .. you need to be well behaved. Early in your career, you have all the ideas but no authority and then later in your career, you got no ideas but you have all the authorities and it’s clear that, that doesn’t work because you unable to make change happen if you’re not careful. I like the idea of rebel founders, people who still cause trouble. Early on when David Erixon was still a big part of Hyper Island, he talked about the necessity of friction. What we need to be doing is rebelling, we need to find stuff that’s going to be able to change the world or change our world or our team, rather than trying to sit around and come to some conclusions about what’s the minimum we can do for it to be okay. That’s hard for people to do — particular in some cultures.”

There’s definitely lots of tacit norms, structures, and rules that are dated and not serving organisations nor the members of it anymore. Unfortunatly, these can be extremley difficult to break with. So, what do we need to be doing if we want to move from talking to walking the culture? And how do Hyper Island tackle the issue themselves?

I’d say even Hyper Island there’s a danger that we become so self-reflective that we exist on some sort of meta layer, thinking about what we should be doing, rather than doing it. I need to constantly remind myself that, even though we have a clear idea of who we are, all of us finds it difficult sometimes to live up to that and what we need to constantly do is to push ourselves. On a micro level you need to be nice to each other but on a macro level you must not be nice to each other. You really must push the team, push each other, push the whole concept. If all that you do is being nice to each other, there’s no progress and I think people find that very difficult as social animals we want to make sure that we don’t make other people feel uncomfortable and often we do and we need to in order to make progress. To solve problems, we need to call out bullshit. The current situation in the US (Interview done before the tragedy of George Floyd) is not acceptable. We need to be calling it out and looking at the people who relying on us as leaders.

I think it’s absolute essential that you review all the things you do, because it’s no longer contributing to our progress. I think that’s part of the experimental mindset, stopping things are just as important as starting things.

What should you start doing?

As a product of Hyper Island, we at eliot are of course big believers in doing things — especially when it comes to culture because in most organisations culture is inflated by fluffy words and empty statements that are not serving anyone and it certainly doesn’t support people in doing their best work. So here are a few recommendations for what you should start doing to develop your culture from talking to walking.

  • Identify and run safe to try experiments with how you collaborate and work get work done (Check-in & Check-out’s can be an easy way of starting)
  • Review what your team and organisation are doing on a regular basis to figure out what’s serving you and what isn’t. The 4-step reflection and retrospectives are somne of your methods to figure to get started.
  • When hiring, training or developing teams or individuals remember there are two parts that you need to focus on, the skill part and the people/culture part.

Stay tuned as we’ll continue sharing stories on self-mangning org. team culture vs org. culture from Spotify, Webflow amongst others.

For now, thank you for reading and as always, we apperaicate your thoughts and feedback!

eliot is an org. culture agency on a mission to improve life at work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, drop us an email at hi@eliot.works or head to our website www.eliot.works.

eliot.works

eliot is an organisational culture agency on a mission to improve lives at work.

eliot.works

If you want a culture where your teams are effective, healthy, and resilient, you need to stop talking culture and start doing culture. eliot helps you start doing the things you say you want to do. We implement, teach, and develop the methods, rituals, and shared beliefs need

Martin Bloomstine

Written by

org. designer and co-founder at eliot

eliot.works

If you want a culture where your teams are effective, healthy, and resilient, you need to stop talking culture and start doing culture. eliot helps you start doing the things you say you want to do. We implement, teach, and develop the methods, rituals, and shared beliefs need

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