Two truths that influence processes and culture

Too many processes hinder innovation.

As a company grows, processes come into place to give structure and a fallback for newcomers to assimilate into the company’s approaches and even culture. Yet these processes often become impediments for the team, especially when it obstructs innovation. Tze shares how STUCK has been evolving on both the design and business fronts, and the 2 fundamental truths that remain and guide the design practice over the years.

Summary

  • 2 fundamental principles have remained in our design practice at STUCK over the years
    a) The need for constant change and questioning the status quo
    b) Active collaboration within a diverse team
  • On project management processes, STUCK empowers our designers to also be able to lead and manage their projects in order to keep a close relationship with the client
  • On design processes, STUCK looks into integrating team members of various expertise to ensure high-touch interaction and collaboration
  • On a strategic level, STUCK is actively keeping our eyes ahead for what Innovation 3.0 has in store for the future of consulting so that we can continue to push the needle and reinvent ourselves
  • “Being placed in Singapore, we have the benefit of a little bit of foresight because what impacts the industry usually trickles down to Singapore a little bit later.” —we’re in a better position to pre-empt and react to any trends or changes
  • As a company grows, processes come in as a response to mess ups, but this often prevents 5% of the team from making mistakes but ends up becoming a hindrance to the other 95% of the team—STUCK has been resistant to this
  • When the team expands too quickly, many processes and established practices can break if the team is not well prepared for it (e.g. the impact on business development, team culture, work output)
  • “When you’re a smaller company, you can always rely on proximity. You’re close enough to every single project… But when the team grows and it starts to get a bit more disparate, then you’re stuck with that question again: do we put some processes in place so that we can have consistency?”
  • “We really don’t want to put rules or processes in place but at the same time how can we have guideposts or how can we have things in there which help the team?”
  • One of Tze’s biggest learnings over the years is in understanding which clients STUCK works best with (e.g. matching expectations and appetite for risk) and the nature of the STUCK team

Full Transcript

We also didn’t realise that suddenly growing the team has a big impact on culture as well. Culture can’t be written up on a poster and stuck on the wall right. Your culture is an outcome of the people who are on a team.

DESIREE
Today we have some questions more relating to STUCK and how certain processes have evolved over time. Throughout working and growing STUCK, has there been any design processes that have stood the test of time?

TZE
I think quite a lot of tools still get used but if you are talking about fundamental processes, I think there are two fundamental processes. One is the need for constant change. And I think that’s tied to our desire to always question why we are doing things a certain way. So I think that’s a process that’s quite ingrained in how we look at…

When there’s a challenge, are we asking the right questions? Are we framing the right problems? Are we reframing the questions in the right way or the problems in the right way? And that is, I think, one of the fundamental process in our design practice which never changes.

I think how that has affected STUCK also stretches to the organisation. In the early days when we were naive and willing to experiment with different things, we looked at why do consultancies have to be structured a certain way? Even things like salaries, even things related to HR incentives, why do they have to be done this way? Not all of them are successful experiments but I think the premise is that we are fundamentally curious about these things and what would happen if we changed it? How would the dynamics change and if that brings about an incremental difference or something that has more impact? Yeah so that’s one.

The second thing which we have always kept… something that we’ve always kept and that’s also relevant to the current situation is that as a team, even when we were really small team working together, I know it sounds very cliche right design companies and collaboration, but it really is something that’s a big part of why we think we can continue to do good work. It’s because of the different people on the team. And it goes back to I think the first one, which is how do you keep a fresh perspective on getting new questions, asking the right questions, how do you get new perspective on are we or are the users looking at this in the same way that we do?

And having that team, whether it’s a team of three, to be able to elicit that difference in viewpoint and to question each other’s assumptions, that is something that as we have grown now to a team of 20-plus, it still is a fundamental part of that collaborative process.

Whether we bring internal team members or even client team members, that’s something that we hold quite dear to.

So which is why when COVID-19 happened, we’re still trying to engineer that through how we can organise brainstorm sessions, our Sticky Tuesday sessions (which is having the full team on for sharing project learnings or insights) and even the daily huddles, which are in the process of being tweaked right. We know that there are things which work that also don’t work but the thing is that in the spirit of doing, we try.

DESIREE
So maybe on the flip side then, as you’ve mentioned that STUCK has grown in size and also in dabbling into new areas, have you seen new processes that needed to come into play and were they expected?

TZE
Are these design processes or business processes?

DESIREE
Design processes.

TZE
So we’ve been very resistant about going the full… you know as companies grow, the reason processes come in a lot of times is because things mess up, and processes come in to prevent those mess ups.

So it’s like a slap on the wrist, like we found something that broke and now we put a process in place so we don’t make this mistake again. And there’s nothing wrong with that but the problem is those processes are intended to prevent maybe 5% of the mistakes and they become a hindrance for 95% of the other people who actually wouldn’t have made those mistakes.

So a disproportionate amount of processes are intended to do that, which end up getting becoming more of a hindrance. So we are quite wary of… as we grow what processes… do you start having project managers? Do you start having different parts in not just the design process but also the design project management process, which makes things run better? So we’ve been quite resistant to that.

Instead we’ve been trying to say, how can we rethink the project management process that still allows clients to feel very close to the design team who is tackling the project? Can the lead still be part of the project management or do we have a supporting designer do it? Just because sometimes it feels a little bit detached, like you have a project manager who’s the business face of the project, the task master and the whipping boy or girl, and then you have the team who is doing the work. And we felt that sometimes it can be a disconnect. So in terms of processes, I think that one we’ve tried to change it, to be able to handle a wider range of projects but still have enough independence for the teams to run their own projects. So a lot of the designers are being empowered to be able to lead and manage their projects so that’s maybe from a project management perspective.

From a design perspective, I would say most of the processes they’re not really new processes, I would say. I think they’re still based on some of the fundamental things we mentioned earlier.

But now that the team is bigger, how can we figure out how to integrate it without other team members feeling like it’s touch and go?

Like a research project for example, that you’re really familiar with right, how can we still have research projects where it’s not a handoff between researcher and designer and “there you take it and then do your stuff, I’m going on to my next research project”? Because that is really efficient but at the same time there are so many nuances that gets missed that the researcher really still has, and also the potential latent creative solutions that the researcher also brings to the team apart from the designers. So I think those new processes… I can’t think of a specific process but I think how we run the projects take into account this consideration.

And I think on the far end we really do think a lot about what is the future of consulting. We had consulting back in the days where it’s built around the craft and about building turnkey solutions for companies who want product innovation. And we’ve seen the next phase of Innovation 2.0 where it’s around human-centered design and IDEO has been a big champion for this human-centered design. And I think as that starts to get a lot of momentum and starting to be commonplace, we are also keeping our eyes ahead and seeing what is Innovation 3.0 for consultancies. How can we have a finger on the pulse?

And I think also given the current situation, where a lot of companies are thinking about, oh what does this big shift mean for our business, I think a big part of it will be about futures thinking. How can companies also roll in other aspects of the periphery of human-centered design into their futures thinking and looking at how they can shift innovation in their businesses?

DESIREE
Seeing the trends in design and in the industry over the years, has STUCK always aligned to these trends or have we tried to diverge away from it?

TZE
That’s a good question. I would say, there’s a few things here right.

One is the local context, that being placed in Singapore, we have the benefit of a little bit of foresight because what impacts the industry usually trickles down to Singapore a little bit later.

So I don’t know if you can call that trends, but I think these may be more macro things which affect how companies want to operate, how they want to position the innovation. And having that position of hindsight or foresight, depending on which side of the coin you’re looking at, means that we are also in a better position to pre-empt it and react to it.

So I don’t think it’s about following trends but it’s about being aware of, hey what is really happening elsewhere, what is happening globally, what is happening in adjacent industries that can inform the work that we do.

If you are talking about stylistic trends, then I think STUCK doesn’t really have a certain brand of aesthetic nor do we have a certain kind of brand of style. What is really more important to us is why are we designing something and not what it looks like. A lot of the work is informed by the team members who are on the team, how they make design decisions and the clients that we work with, and evaluating what is right for brand, what is their risk appetite in terms of their differentiation, and I think that is, from a stylistic standpoint, that is our thing.

DESIREE
You mentioned earlier about what innovation would look like for consultancies in the upcoming years right, I mean it’s just interesting to understand how you take something that you see happening maybe elsewhere in the world and how do you then apply that to where you see STUCK should be headed towards?

TZE
Yeah so the thing is we don’t know as well right. It is a considered guess. It is also I think a part of… I think there’s a deep curiosity on the team and also passion. Individuals right, we all have different things that motivate the team and it’s finding different team members and tapping on what really are they curious about, what they are passionate about, and how does this fit and feed into the work that we want to do.

So when we’re talking about what could innovation be, yeah I guess on a strategic level, we are looking at what market needs are, what potential market needs are, but at the same time we are also looking at what can this team do, what does the team enjoy doing, and also who are the people out there who think like us who can add to this to the mix, who can push the needle?

Because we’re kind of limited by our own perspective or own judgement. And I think as the team grows, we’ll also need to take in more viewpoints, a different diversity of experiences, to be able to move the company to get there and to keep thinking about how is consultancy shifting, and how can we position ourselves to be relevant or reinvent ourselves to be relevant. And for now, we don’t have to answer, but as you know there are quite a few initiatives that’s happening, to look at what are the potential opportunities that we can actually shift the needle for STUCK.

DESIREE
Kind of over the years right, as in the process of growing STUCK as a company, have there been any major lessons that you’ve learned from the different roles that you play? So as a designer, as a boss, as a mentor… were there any really memorable things that you’ve learned in the process of growing STUCK?

TZE
Yeah I guess it depends on who’s the audience and what you’re interested in, because I think this ties in with the question at the start. We have been suckers for punishment, we have been trying to see what can we change, what can we do differently, so naturally along with that comes a lot of mistakes and then there are learnings from those mistakes.

Okay so one thing that’s memorable at I think a midpoint in STUCK’s growth is that there was a time where STUCK grew quite quickly, I think we jumped from a team of 6 to 12 or 15 really quickly. But we actually didn’t plan it well. So a lot of things broke during that process. We realised on the front end, we didn’t have certain business development processes in place to make sure that there is a consistent stream of work to feed the suddenly larger team. We also didn’t realise that suddenly growing the team has a big impact on culture as well, because we don’t have a culture where…

Well, culture can’t be written up on a poster and stuck on the wall right. Your culture is an outcome of the people who are on a team. So suddenly we had this big shift where half the team was different, they brought along a different kind of culture with them and also because we didn’t have some processes in place, it meant that work wasn’t as consistent, both in terms of the amount of work coming in and also the type of work going out.

And so when we realised this, it’s not something that we can change immediately right, because we’re not a team which hires and fires people. If we bring them on, our role as (I’m putting on my HR hat now right) so our role as a company is also to help our team members grow and also help them find their fit. It’s not always that we hire someone for a particular role and if you don’t fit, you’re out. It’s also our, I think, our intent is that, hey if you really are motivated, you are a good cultural fit, can we find a different fit for you? Can you be doing something else within the team that you’ll be much more happier doing and much more proficient at doing? So there’s a process of trying to find those fits, trying to make that transition happen and also holding on to the team members that we have. It took a while to get back to a steady state, there was some natural attrition. I think we dropped back down to a team of maybe 8 or 9, and then after that when that happened, we learned our lesson and we started putting some things in place; okay how can we have a more strategic plan for business development, how can we look at our hiring process, how can we also look at how we can fit new team members in… So all these things start to come in and then the next time we started to grow, it was a more comfortable, more organic growth.

But we wouldn’t have known that unless we face that problem. No one comes and tells you about this stuff, so I think that for us that was a good learning.

From a design standpoint I think our biggest learnings are, who are the people, who are the clients actually that we work best with, or the clients that we would like to collaborate with.

Because the reality is that as much as you’d like designed to help everybody, or as much as you like to think that design has a certain value for innovation, not all clients have the same perspective on what their desired outcome or intended goals are.

And this mismatch in expectation means that sometimes you don’t find a good… it just means that the delivery is mismatched in terms of expectations or in terms of, hey I wanted a very low risk outcome but you gave me a very high risk outcome. The more work we do, the more we start to understand the nature of our team, the kind of work that they like to do, and also the kind of clients which actually resonate with the kind of work that we want to do, that it is grounded in research, it’s grounded in this need to question, and also in how to deliver innovation in a human way. They are all good things but not everyone prioritises that, there are other core business priorities for other organisations or other businesses. So I think that’s also a good learning for us.

DESIREE
In trying to account for a growing team and also at the same time trying to ensure that the outcomes or the deliverables that are delivered, as STUCK, as a company, do you think that there are any unspoken rules to design, that things that come out from STUCK always follow?

TZE
Yeah I think there are too many unspoken rules. You see I think this ties into company training and also company culture.

When you’re a smaller company, you can always rely on proximity. You’re close enough to every single project, or the seniors are close enough to everybody to be able to kind of infuse or diffuse the way of working and the expectations for delivery.

But when the team grows and it starts to get a bit more disparate, then you’re stuck with that question again: do we put some processes in place so that we can have consistency in work or consistency in process or something? And that’s something that we have always thought about but have also been very resistant because when you have too much… like back to the start right, when you have too much of this, it hinders innovation. So we’ve been trying to find a balance and we’ve been trying to do other things, like not setting the process but maybe celebrating certain outcomes, like how Letitia has done the Best-in-class. And also even things like training right, do you have to have everyone go for the same training? What if you pick your own training? And that’s why we set up the sabbaticals for the team to pick like, hey what do you really want to do and what course do you want to take or what do you really want to build?

Because sometimes growth isn’t about learning or training as well, it’s about learning through making or learning through experimentation, and not just attending a course.

So those are some of the things that we’ve put in place more as aids. I don’t think they’re really processes right, because they’re not fixed you see. So I think it’s a way for us to come to terms with, we really don’t want to put rules or processes in place but at the same time how can we have guideposts or how can we have things in there which help the team.

THE STUCK IN DESIGN TEAM
Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong

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