Talent+Method+Culture. Scaling an Experience Design Studio.

Luca Mascaro
Jan 29 · 8 min read
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Talent + Method + Culture: our recipe to scale in quality

Being the best Experience Design studio on a scale, thus bringing high value to many complex projects, requires constant retrospective work, comparison and shared responsibility.

The statement of the title is undoubtedly bold, but it is the synthesis of the question we asked ourselves in the studio when we started to climb from 35 to 120 designers in three years:

How can you scale for culture and quality a distributed Experience Design team?

I want to share how we have acted and what it has been necessary to do and keep under control not only to maintain a high quality but also to keep it identical in all the locations where Sketchin works.

A bit of history: from the garage to 5 studios

Sketchin was born thirteen years ago in a small room in Lugano, in Switzerland, and since then has operated from Switzerland to the rest of Europe with the primary objective of shaping experiences that exceed people’s expectations. It was a hard job that took us to have five studies in 4 countries and go from one person to 120.

In the first part of our history, we had to focus on the methodological dimension: how to perfect techniques and methods to work always at high quality. We created our design method, we tested it, demolished it and evolved it to a configuration that, for now, satisfies us.

Then three years ago, more robust from the methodological point of view, we started to grow and climb, also thanks to the partnership with Bip. We opened a studio in Milan — first in coworking and then in our own spaces — to be closer to our customers on the Italian market and thus be able to better respond to their needs. We have understood that to be genuinely useful and to lead the evolution; it is necessary to work in close collaboration with our customers. We go much faster, but the most important thing is that working closely it is possible to transmit the culture of design to those who work with us.

In the meantime, we have opened another studio in Rome, which now employs about 20 people.

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Sketchin from 2006 to 2019

Beyond talent: the recipe for scaling in quality

The growth has led us to hire in three years, about 70 people among the best professionals in Italy, rising from 45 to 116.

First of all, it was necessary to design a distributed, shared, participated and fair recruitment process.

The designers themselves select their colleagues, follow the first part of the selection of the curricula that reach us, assign practical tests to assess the candidates’ skills and monitor the first level of interviews. Only after this step, the selection process can be continued.

The selection process was fierce: we hired about 2% of all the people who applied. We are aware that we have underestimated about 3% of the applications and that we have mainly favoured senior profiles. But we did it consciously: in a phase of active growth like the one we experienced, it is crucial to invest in protecting and preserving the culture of the firm. For this reason, we have given priority to hiring people with well-established technical design skills, who do not need training in this sense — as in the case of more junior profiles — and who can be socialised especially in the methodological and cultural dimension that distinguishes Sketchin.

The real challenge is to keep the culture, method and operations of the distributed studio constant, wherever it works.

That is why it is not enough to take on the talent. After all, a team is more than the sum of its parts.

Let’s try to explore all the dimensions that make up this matrix.

What a value generation team is for us

Before continuing, it is better to clarify what is meant by the word “team” in Sketchin.
A team is composed of 6 people and allows you to manage up to 3 project streams, called pipes (minimum unit of a team, consisting of 2 designers). Each team is self-consistent, autonomous, independent and multidisciplinary. Each team is composed of: a service designer, a visual designer, three hybrid designers, a possible practitioner and can be added up to 2 temporary support persons from Sketchin or outside it.

Scaling teams and operations in Sketchin
Scaling teams and operations in Sketchin
Scaling Teams and Operations

Scaling practices

The distance from the headquarter and the growth mean that the risk of developing methodologies and subcultures is very high. For this reason, all Sketchin sites and teams work according to similar practices. Of course, each team adopts its own, but it does not change what is decided; instead, the specifics of each group are the starting point to improve the practices of all constantly.

Harmonising the practices of all teams, across all locations, allows people to acquire a standard working method and then you can change team or join another unit without changing the way you work and indeed, facilitating the acquisition of practices by newcomers.

To protect the practices, we have introduced two groups of people: the coaching team and the “enablers” who act as a sort of emanation of the coaches within each design team.

Coach

A coaching team is a group of people who help Sketchin to cultivate and evolve its culture and support people to act by the values of the Firm, the Agile culture and the needs of Business.

Coaches guarantee continuous improvement and maintain a constant level of listening towards the people and teams to which they belong, allowing them to focus their margins for development and supporting them in taking the path to fill them. The work of a coach is aimed at maintaining a healthy balance between the well-being of people, method and business

Enabler

In each team, there is an “enabler”, a designer who is responsible for facilitating the exercise of practices and continuous improvement and reconciles Sketchin’s initiatives and ceremonies with the activities of his team. He is responsible for observing and managing any problems within the team, coordinating with the coaches and requesting support if necessary.

Distributed design-line

The design line of the studio does not descend in a monolithic way from me and is then spread to all the teams on all locations, but it is a collective and participatory process that involves the whole studio through a collegial entity, the Design Council, and is protected within the teams by the Design Directors and Lead Designers.

The design line is a collective and participatory process that involves the whole studio

Design Council

This group gathers people from all the studios and every two weeks meets for a moment of discussion on the design experience gained during the projects to define the new operating model, new practices and continuously refine the vision of Sketchin, bringing it back into the individual teams.

Design Director

Their task is to define the experiential approach and vision of the project. They are responsible for developing the proposal for the client and sharing Sketchin’s project vision with all stakeholders involved. The Design Director draws up the team’s activities and governs them through the backlog and indicates the necessary outcomes, leaving the designers free to define the approach and deliverables, while controlling their quality.

Lead Designer

They are senior and qualified designers with the specialised role of facilitating the operational path of the team on a project or a design stream. The leads know the operational practices used at Sketchin and ensure communication and management between the client’s executive contacts and their design team. They provide that the team is performing all tasks in a methodically correct manner and set the work on an iteration by refining and detailing the backlog, and finally report any critical issues by aligning the directors on the progress of the project.

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How the design line and practices are scaled up among teams

Manage the portfolio in a unified way

We decided to manage the client portfolio in a unified way according to a Kanban approach. During a specific weekly ceremony, the opportunities, the starting projects and the needs of the ongoing ones are addressed and managed.

The Project Review is the moment when Strategy Directors, Design Directors and a representative from each Team discuss the progress of existing projects, present the outgoing projects that teams can pull off and the business development needs that need the support of a team in the iteration or iterations that follow.

This ceremony provides a shared and collective view of the status of activities, team employment, the type of projects and their progress. Even at a superficial level, everyone is informed about which projects the study is committed to and the specific needs of each team.

Culture, culture and more culture

Two years ago, driven by hypergrowth, we realised that the cultural dimension was fragile and needed specific attention. There were many people; many of them had never even seen each other. The differences between the studies were beginning to be noticeable. The danger of everything falling apart was real and concrete.

The key to keeping the entire building intact is the culture of the study that must be defended, reaffirmed and enlivened on a regular basis.

That’s why we decided to close three days together and share: words, faces, ideas, practices and methods. This was the primary purpose of the YaRRR. Indeed, three days in the beautiful setting of Villa Erba are not always possible, but moments of cultural effervescence as was the YaRRR instead yes.

For this reason, every three months, we have a similar moment — on a smaller scale — in which, however, we take care of the same things: to strengthen the values that define the study and the bonds between people.

Final Party at the YaRRR event
Final Party at the YaRRR event
YaRRR final party

Cultivating Talent

Now that we have consolidated the cultural framework of the studio, we can return to dealing systematically with the individual growth of individual designers.

For this reason, we are conducting a census and evaluation of all the skills of each of us, assessing the level of competence as well as the expectations.

This work will allow us to prepare, with the help of the Coach, an ad hoc training course for each person and to set quantifiable and measurable growth objectives for each of us, according to the OKR method.

The aim is to balance the skills of each team towards the others.

Talent + Method + Culture

To keep the structure of the firm and the individual teams intact and thus be the best on a scale, therefore, requires constant work of comparison, retrospection and sharing of responsibility. What emerges is a three-dimensional matrix made up of talent, method and culture. In the space that these three axes define there is the quality that sketchin can offer.

Moving forward

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