A Switch That Flicked
The long story of a small realization
When I joined a small studio there were a lot of documented processes. In fact, our Notion was like process inception that explained everything we do, everything we want to do and every blue sky thought we ever had about what we want to do that it was both inspiring and demoralizing. What I figured out was that you could essentially identify the locked in processes by the effort put into that page (icon, colors = official) but the rest of it was layer on top of layer of half-baked ideas. They were all probably the result of super fun collab sessions and truthfully, nothing gets me more keen on my day-to-day than a refreshing all-team aspirational collab. People are talking about the really good stuff. Not the free lunch kind of stuff but the building a creative incubator, or a digital zine kinda stuff. Often resulting in a few dozen stickie notes, a notebook, and some follow-up lists. Needless to say, there was a lot of evidence of collaboration and brainstorming in the studio's Notion workspace.
Anyway - nothing better than that - So stumbling on all these goodies in my first week was tantalizing, albeit I wasn't a part of the actual get-together but whatever, this is my new team! Much like in the past, I felt that in this new setting, things were different and a small studio had figured out how to make these things actually happen. I felt I had finally found a place that had follow-through and didn't just ride the coattails of blind excitement until it wore off (just in time for another all-team!). And there was something different about a small studio - but it wasn't what I thought. They, much like past companies I had worked for also struggled on follow-through, but that quickly became less important than the why. Previously I’d experienced revenue becoming the driving force in decision making, leaving dreamland behind. For a small studio, It wasn’t that. Everyone intended to follow through on quarterly goals, our internal projects, and our overall vision but constantly pushing the vision and focusing on the next big thing at every turn, takes a lot of growing pain, and growing takes up time.
Before this sounds like I’m suggesting learning and growing as a creative studio is bad, I’m going to instead state the obvious; you need as much time as possible for creativity. Because creativity takes on many forms - infinite forms - and half of that time is going to be spent getting stuck, and trying to get unstuck, another quarter of it collaborating and then finally, when you get it, you might use the last quarter of the time to go make something. And this is where we’ve seen a lot of struggle. We can’t expect someone to be able to jump to that final quarter of making things without validating the need for aaaaall that time before that goes into it. As much as we truly wanted to give everyone what they needed, offer them dream projects, and ample time for personal development, nobody was capable of follow-through because we had missed something. We were giving our team permission to use time we hadn’t made for them yet. The workloads didn’t lighten, the processes didn’t change and the roles and responsibilities were still unrefined. But hey! We support you taking that course and please pursue your passion for teaching or illustration. All this gave us was a heavy “should” feeling. “I should be developing my skills, I should be working on that passion project because the studio is supporting me, what’s my problem?” The problem is without having other work alleviated, we’re forced to pile this on top and that’s not how the studio wanted it to be for our team.
So there we were, with was access to anything, but no time to take advantage. This became obvious in several ways. People were starting things but not finishing, people were using the word “excited” a lot, only for that idea to wither away, and the line between personal development and doing well at work was getting blurry in a bad way. It’s much clearer in hindsight but at the time we realized something needed to change and our team needed some breathing room, so we decided to look inwards and refine the things we could refine. Not so that we could take on more work but so we could support and protect honest to goodness time meant for the wellbeing of our team, and the health and happiness of everyone on it. During that time there were only three things that we focused on. Groundwork in the form of;
The time we need to follow through on the blue sky stuff does not need to come from late nights, weekends, and sacrificing recovery time, it can come from groundwork and flexibility. The first form of groundwork is processes in keeping with the integrity of our team. And from that massive process (aka - how we execute on all the elements of our studio) comes tried and true procedures, guides, templates, and resources that make sure nobody has to start from scratch. And along with building these processes and documenting them in a clear and concise way, we also have to educate the entire team on how to find and use all this groundwork - or at least teach them to go looking for it before they dive in. Because if we do the groundwork and nobody is using it, then we’re truly looking at wasted time for the learner and the teacher... and probably a lot of duplicated processes and those half-baked concepts I mentioned finding in my first week.
There’s also groundwork in the form of foresight. Squeezing creative play and explorative R+D into a year that is up and running is SO HARD! Things get pushed and client work is the priority when push comes to shove. To combat that, we made a calendar for the upcoming year when everything was slow and winding down, and added days throughout the year that are designated internal, R+D weeks, and studio closures. When we scope out projects for that year, we state in the contract that the studio is not producing client work on those days and we plan around them. So far, so good.
Then finally there’s the flexibility point. We found that we don’t need to laminate (figuratively) any of those procedures. Instead, it worked to keep monitoring and listening so we could iterate and improve. The people at the studio might change, the size might change, and even service offerings and the relationships with clients will change so procedures need to change with them. In fact, some of the greatest improvements at a small studio were made when someone questioned something fundamental or what was previously thought to be untouchable, like when we overhauled our recurring schedule or rejigged our design process twice in one year.
These three elements are not groundbreaking but that’s what we like about them.
Process - Record things you do so people can learn from your failures and successes.
Foresight - Set aside significant amounts of time, AHEAD OF TIME for internal projects, team collaboration, and studio closures.
Flexibility - When it comes to change, nothing should be excluded from consideration. Just try it out! MVP style.
And that's what we've figured out for ourselves that works for us at the moment. If you’re interested in reading about how these 3 things come to life at the studio, check out our A-OS, Just Because Weeks, or an example of a quick change we made that stuck!