Collaborate, Change, Repeat
How to embed a culture of learning at work
Written by Rebecca West
As anyone working in digital knows all too well, continual learning is a necessity, perhaps more so than in other fields. In an industry with a strong emphasis on immediacy and iteration, while we can definitely build on past experiences and projects, there is little room for repeating past successes in any kind of formulaic way. Rather, we need to keep up to date with both technical and cultural shifts, as new ways of connecting and communication evolve. While at some studios this learning is left up to the individual, other companies create environments and systems to facilitate peer learning. I feel lucky that Dynamo is in the latter camp, with a number of practices to ensure that we’re keeping up with industry developments and staying connected to the broader issues impacting our work. Here are a few of my favourite initiatives that could be applied in any similar-sized studio.
Workforce It Out
Over the course of its evolution, Dynamo has experimented with and written about many different forms of arranging teams. From discipline-specific designer and developer teams, to project teams, to full-stack teams, we’ve done it all. As a more recent addition to the Dynamo family, I have had the most experience with project teams, and something we like to call Task Forces. In the lead up to one of our semi-annual country retreats earlier this year, everyone was invited to join one of five task forces addressing Community, Voice, Quality Assurance, Self-Improvement, and Planning & Expectations.
Working primarily on copy, editorial and events, the Voice team was a logical choice for me. Each group was assigned two questions, with the goal of presenting 5–10 ways of addressing these questions at the group retreat. In our case, we were looking at:
- How can we increase the volume and range of our voice?
- How can we communicate our talent and expertise more consistently?
We began by doing an audit of all of our current communications, interpreting the data, proposing an editorial strategy and tactics moving forward. You may wonder why a design studio would need an editorial strategy. While the company has done well so far with a focus on interesting projects, growth and talent, the thinking behind the Task Forces was to see how we could be doing better at what may seem like collateral issues, but in fact, have a big impact on the bottom line. One of the biggest revelations to come out of the retreat in terms of Voice, a.k.a. studio communications, is that on more than one occasion, clients have chosen us specifically because of our culture, as shared through our social channels, events, newsletter and website. While we may think that our portfolio, pitch deck or pricing are the key factors, ultimately, clients are choosing more than a service provider, they are choosing a digital partner, who ideally will share a similar sense of values, aesthetic and tone.
While it’s sometimes challenging to make time for non-client work, the Task Forces initiative has given an opportunity for cross-disciplinary teams to break from day-to-day roles and push ourselves to excel within a different context. Our team for example, is made up of a project manager, an art director, a designer, a developer and myself as editor, with others occasionally stepping in as needed. Other Task Forces are similarly varied, developing their own systems for meeting and project management. This kind of freedom to choose our projects and method within an overarching umbrella of support from Dynamo’s partners is invaluable, and a motivating structure within which to evolve.
The second element supporting peer learning at Dynamo is less about one specific initiative, and more about an overall attitude of proactively staying connected to our communities, both locally in Montreal amongst the digital design scene, and internationally with our peers and client communities primarily in the US. One of the aspects that took me a while to adjust to at Dynamo is the extent to which we are encouraged to attend international conferences, travel and/or work remotely, and subsequently bring back this knowledge to share with our colleagues. Every employee has an annual allowance for training (which is not so unusual), but is then expected to either write a blog post, or host a company Lunch & Learn talk to share their takeaways from the experience within one week of returning to the office. As the Editor of our blog Monday, it has been encouraging to see the extent to which knowledge is consolidated ideas clarified through the act of writing. Coming home from a conference you’re typically left with some scribbled notes, a bunch of business cards, branded swag and dirty laundry. In quickly writing out your thoughts while the experience is still fresh, our peers in the office, and followers of our work more broadly, can gain insight from one person’s learning and generosity.
While everyone has their favourite events, some of the conferences that we return to year after year are often more intimate, offering increased opportunities for relationship building and inspiration, such as Bureau of Digital’s Owner Camp or Digital PM Summit. In my case, I just returned from an amazing weekend at Likeminds in Upstate New York, organized by Human.NYC a small gallery / web studio. Growing up in Montreal, it’s typical to think of New York as an anonymous megalopolis of career-driven narcissists (forgive the exaggeration but it’s a persisting cliche). What I discovered at Likeminds could not be further from this stereotype: a welcoming group of young designers, artists friends and frequent collaborators with friendly, open attitudes. I was impressed not only by their willingness to share, but also their embrace of a balanced life built on meaningful relationships, and non-digital sources of inspiration, such as nature, travel and human intuition. As one of the organizers of our talk series Dynamic/MTL, it’s refreshing to see new speakers and how other conferences are organized. Overall, attending niche events such as these allows us, as a studio with an international client-base, to connect with peers and forge relationships beyond our local scene in Montreal.
Talking the talk
Speaking of events, having attended many conferences over the years and seeing an opportunity for a high-quality yet accessible design event in Montreal inspired us to start our own quarterly talk series in 2014 — Dynamic/MTL. What initially started out as an idea by André Valle and Max Kaplun to bring in guest speakers in for internal training quickly evolved into a full-fledged conference backed by Dynamo. It was a bold (some might say risky) move to have faith that we would figure out how to run a conference, but the experiment seems to be working well so far. Although the production team is small, the entire office comes out to support each edition to get inspired, learn and chat with other local creative types. Our recent edition took place in July and focused on the role that designers play in a startup context, with talks by Sylvain Carle of Real Ventures, Daniel Burka of GV, and Maria Molfino, creator of the Heroine podcast. As big proponents of design thinking and early adopters of the design sprint movement, this was right up our alley. Take a look at the recap video below.
High-bars and soft landings
There are so many other ways in which Dynamo encourages peer learning, such as non-project based teams to foster a sense of belonging across disciplines, easy ideas sharing via Slack, hack days for non-client projects, or a recently formed book club. Above all these individual initiatives however, what really stands out is the persistence of a supportive environment, where learning, experimenting and making mistakes is encouraged. I have never worked anywhere else in communications with such a positive and curious culture. It’s easy working in marketing or design agencies to be cynical about the work, complain about clients or focus too much on the bottom line. While we’re obviously human and occasionally falter with the above, at the end of the day, we try to be there for each other, take ownership of our work and strive for the best.
Originally published at mag.e-180.com on September 7, 2016.
e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.