Startup Once Again

At a team strength of 30, we probably qualify as a mid-sized design studio now. In the league of small, founder-led design firms, we have become bigger than comfort would allow. On a taxi ride through the English countryside recently (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONB as Google reminded me), I asked my co-passenger — founder of a fascinating media company in Kenya — about his organisation’s growth to a fifty member team spread across two countries. We were both returning from a conference on leadership and change — reflecting, as it were, on purpose-driven organisations. I asked him at what point in their journey did they realise the need to build and formalise team processes and systems? He remembered it being around the time they grew to a size of 20.

Wavelength Connect is a six month program bringing together leaders who have the ambition and authority to make a real difference in their businesses. I was speaking at the leadership summit held in the idyllic English countryside last month.

The challenge of transitioning to a larger practice may seem trivial given that we are often working with organisations that are tens of thousands of people spread across the globe. But the remit of our work has always been innovation, and even within large organisations, the culture of innovation is shaped by small teams stepping outside business as usual. Small teams are agile, more adaptive and possibly more empowered to drive innovation. And so, in the last 12 years of our practice, we have embodied that value — as a small team we have taken on bold challenges, ranging from tackling urban sanitation in India, to reducing environmental pollution in Cambodia or imagining new home care products for low income consumers in Nigeria.

It is not as if we haven’t flirted with the idea of a bigger practice in the past — in fact the ebb and flow of a growing and shrinking team at Quicksand is part of studio folklore. But thirty has been our largest ever and a change that has come on the back of concerted efforts to bring passionate, diverse people to join the team.

Quicksand on a team retreat in Goa earlier this year.

What then prompts the need for a more sustained change of this kind? For starters, we feel a lot more confident of our practice.

Our belief that interdisciplinary, creative practices hold out a promise for more purposeful pursuit of growth — or at least one that is adequately balanced between the needs to create impact at a business, societal and personal level — is stronger than ever. With this conviction comes the need to express and test the beliefs beyond a core group.

Secondly, in the spirit of solving complex design challenges, this particular one of balancing purpose with growth, is an incredibly exciting one. We haven’t seen a precedence for it yet — not in the manner in which we feel our challenges and context demands. Design thinking is not the catch-all term that describes all that we do, nor does social innovation or human-centred design. Quicksand exists as a hybrid between a business consultancy, a design studio and an art practice — and therefore identifying its philosophy, values, processes and culture and codifying it into some kind of embodied knowledge, seems to be a worthy challenge to pursue.

The idea of diversity has been a founding tenet for the studio. We started as a trio of a business graduate, a toy designer and a film-maker. The core team grew to include a literature major, a product designer and then some. Over the last decade, our collective interests have multiplied. On the outside, trends and ideas from technology, media, research, business and social sciences have shaped the world around us in dramatic ways.

The desire to make ourselves relevant as a studio to increasingly more diverse challenges, has meant that we develop a credible point of view on different domains of human experience. The obvious demand of being an innovation consultancy is to have the courage to explore, re-skill and collaborate.

But interdisciplinary is what interdisciplinary does. The idea that you can fill a room with a motley crew of skills and talent, and magic would happen, is utopian. We all know that collaboration is a tough act to follow. It requires a unifying purpose, a common language for innovation and an implicit trust that allows everyone to lead and be led at different times.

As the team grows, implicit hierarchies become more pronounced and visible — for some it brings the role of mentorship and coach, and for most, it requires forming new relationships outside the zones of comfort one is naturally accustomed to. The process of human-centred design perhaps gives us a common language — but there’s a lot more that has to fall in place before we can re-invent our practice.

And so we are back to somewhat new beginnings as we enter our adolescent years as a studio. On the one hand, we are rediscovering what it means to be an interdisciplinary practice. While our consulting avatar takes us to completely new domains of enquiry, we are also experimenting with more diverse expressions beyond just consulting — an incubator of purpose-led organizations, a cooperative space in Goa co-habited by Quicksand, Tandem (a policy think tank) and The Busride Lab (an urban design lab), and our own products borne out of a process and a culture that we have lived first-hand.

On the other hand, we are back to being a new, larger team — of more diverse backgrounds, experiences and ambitions. And the feeling of mutual trust, respect and tolerance — that have been the foundation of Quicksand — must be re-established.

Oh, the joys and pains of being a startup once again!