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Let’s Play - what I learnt at this year’s AMA conference

Categories: Events, Inspiration, Learning things

This year’s AMA conference saw hundreds of art marketers from across the UK converge in Liverpool for two days. The theme for this year was ‘The Power of Play’. As someone who loves to use games and play in team building and decision making, I was looking forward to hearing stories from across the sector on how people are using play to drive change forwards and experiment with new ideas.

One key theme everyone kept coming back to was how quickly we forget how to play as adults, and how the fear of failure becomes a blocker to playing, having fun and experimenting.

Why playful work cultures are great

The closing keynote on day one was presented by Emma Rice, Artistic Director at Wise Children. Emma spoke about how she uses play to build trust and confidence in her teams. By getting the cast and production team together to play ball, take a moment to clear the mind with yoga and come together to sing before rehearsals, Emma’s teams become more confident and she can get to know them better. This time is well spent and crucial for Emma to get the very best out of her team.

Day two opened with a keynote from Tom Rainsford, Founder at giffgaff. Tom’s keynote, titled ‘Putting Play at the Heart of Your Brand’ looked at how you can innovate and engage people with a playful approach. But, more than putting play at the heart of a brand, Tom spoke about the importance of putting play at the heart of your organisation’s culture - you can’t have a playful brand if your team hate working there.

Both Tom and Emma spoke about the responsibility leaders have at their organisations to embrace play and encourage experimentation. This means giving people the space and time to have fun, and celebrating when new ideas are tried out, even if they don’t work out at first.


You can’t experiment and innovate without being playful

The link between experimentation, innovation, creativity and play was spoken about throughout the conference. Tom Rainsford told us that ‘children are smart!’ When playing they find ways to navigate the rules and quickly change tactics to get the best outcome. This ability to adapt to changes, be open to trying new things and experiment is a key skill we learn in game play.

During her talk on Liverpool Philharmonic’s Leap Into Live Music programme, Elizabeth Heague told us how being open to change and experimentation was vital to the success of the project, which works with various communities in Liverpool to introduce new people to classical music. The project began with a five year plan, but changes and adaptations had to be made along the way to ensure its success. Elizabeth used data to inform the change, but the openness to change is what ensured the project could move forward successfully.


Take play seriously

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp (Director, Africa Centre) spoke about taking play seriously during the opening keynote, reminding us that even children take their games seriously (don’t try to interrupt a child mid game!). Kenneth spoke of his time working with young dancers and how they learnt key skills such as creativity, motivation, critical thinking and resilience through learning to play with purpose.

Play was certainly taken seriously by Paul Kaynes, Chief Executive at National Dance Company Wales. In his session ‘Roots, Robots and Riots — revolutionising dance across Wales’, Paul spoke about how they were using data and audience development goals to inform how they played with new ideas. It was great to hear how playing with ideas was becoming part of the NDCWales’ culture, from giving the dancers freedom to be playful and share their fun on social media, to using play to inform new work, including their production of a 1917 piece called Parade. And whilst Paul was honest about things that hadn’t worked (some work wasn’t attracting new audiences), embracing play and experimentation was transforming the culture within the organisation and helping bring new audiences to the company’s work.


So what did I learn?

Although it’s unlikely we’ll be setting up a Supercool Choir anytime soon, I came away from this year’s AMA Conference inspired to be a bit more playful and not be so scared of failing. Whilst losing a game of Monopoly to your little brother is annoying, it certainly doesn’t stop you starting a game and we should all take this approach to giving things a go at work. It’s when we give things a go we truly tap into our creativity and innovation can happen. As Tatiana Oliveira Simonian said in her closing keynote - ‘give that hobby you think you might suck at a go, and suck at it’. We can only find the things we’re good at, and the brilliant new ideas by giving stuff a go. You never know, maybe you won’t suck at that new hobby!

Of course, as well as all the great sessions, the AMA had the usual social events and plenty of time to catch up with old friends and make a few new ones. Next year’s conference at NewcastleGateshead is already in the diary - see you there!

From Brum with love

Categories: Extra-curricular, Inspiration

Memories of a great night at Symphony Hall with the CBSO, pianist Steven Osborne, and conductor Alexander Vedernikov.

Music made in Russia, played in Birmingham – accompanied by orchestral ale from the Wye Valley. Win.


Symphony Hall <3


What a lovely brochure …


Cheers, CBSO!

How to go remote

Categories: Inspiration, Our work, Useful/interesting

Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Photo by Peter Alder
Jungfrau, Switzerland – by Peter Alder

Firstly I should clear-up a language thing – we aren't actually, strictly a ‘remote’ team. We all work from our respective homes in and around Birmingham, rather than on a beach in Goa, up a Swiss mountain, or from a Portland coffee shop.

‘Remote’ just seems more immediately understandable than calling it telecommuting which sounds super '80s but is technically correct, or saying we're a ‘distributed team’. Again that’s an accurate description but the phrase isn’t that widely understood – at the moment at least.

So, for the time-being, ‘remote’ is decent shorthand.


Supercool's former HQ – bye-bye!

Having explained the reasons why we were considering ditching the office, how did we make the decision once-and-for-all to do this thing, and then turn a business that’d been based in the same building for nigh-on 13 years into a more lightweight and flexible entity?

Here's how we approached the change – minus the overly-obvious stuff like "we packed-up the office", "we made sure everyone had a chair" etc.

1: Make it a team decision

This was one of the main considerations for us. Work’s a big part of people’s lives, and every Supercooler has an input not only into their specific role, but the work we do as a company, and how we do it.

No longer having a central office would be a big change for everyone, so we discussed the possibility openly and at length – what we thought would work, what’d need to change, the things that worried us …

And right from the start we agreed that if we weren’t all happy with the change, we wouldn’t do it. Simple.

2. Research and plan

We researched as much as humanly possible; which primarily involved reading about the various types of central-office-less working that other companies had already tried-out; the benefits, the potential pitfalls, and the practicalities. (Links to some of these are listed below.)

An added complication in our case was that, alongside potentially ditching the office, we were hiring a new team member. Ruh-roh!

So, as well as trying to find a new person with the right skills, who was the right fit for the team in general, we were looking for someone who was okay – at least in principle – with working from home. We were open about our plans during the recruitment process and, happily, found Naveed who fitted the bill on every count. WIN!

Back to planning – all each of us really needs to do our job is a decent computer and a decent internet connection. But added to this are the nuts-and-bolts that make communicating with each other quick and easy. Most online tools that're useful for remote/distributed teams we’d been using for ages – Slack, Trello, Hangouts etc. – so were already ingrained in day-to-day processes, but other stuff was new and needed setting up.

The most useful thing we put in place fairly early-on was a VOIP phone system. Even if we didn’t end up ditching the office, it made sense to have VOIP rather than a traditional phone line – the same phone number, with a bunch of added functionality, for a lower cost? No brainer.

3: Beta test

We applied some of the same principles we use to run digital projects to going remote, specifically that meant getting the bare bones of what we needed set up quickly – a minimum viable product if you will – and giving it a go.

We ended up doing several week-or-so-long trial runs.

Perhaps it was that we'd all discussed it openly and thoroughly. Perhaps it was the prior planning and preparation. Perhaps it was because we were using most of the tools already, so the change in how we work was actually fairly minimal. Whatever the reasons, the trial runs went brilliantly and – crucially (see point 1) – everyone was up for making it a permanent change.

Farewell cumbersome desktop computers; laptops all round!

4: Be clever with communication

Rather than one big meeting a week, we now all get together in a Google Hangout first thing every morning.

It’s a good chance to catch-up with each other and go over what work needs doing that day – as well as reminding ourselves that we work in a team. This was one of the things all our research suggested was a good idea, and it really is important. I’d go so far as to say it's vital.

During the trial runs Josh found, and got us into using, Appear.in; a mega-simple screen sharing service which we’ve since adopted to talk-through designs. It’s great – so much easier and more efficient than doing the same thing face-to-face, all gathered around a single screen.

And it wasn’t just the screen-sharing; we’re now working together more efficiently in general. I guess having to be more structured about when and how we talk to each other has forced us to make better use of that time. Nice side effect.

Our communication isn’t all about work though.

We've been sure to keep-up the little niceties which are important to human interaction but could easily get cut-out when people aren't actually in the same room.

Tiny things like saying “Hi” and “Bye” every day, and nonsense chat about this and that over Slack – with added emojis/animated gifs, obvs – are a a bit of human interaction and help punctuate the day. It seems to do a similar job to tea breaks IRL.

We also still get together in person; the next meeting conveniently coinciding with Supercool’s 13th birthday \o/

5: Cause zero disruption to clients

Last but by no means least …

From the trial runs – which no clients noticed were happening; schmoooooooth! – to the timing of The Big Move (over the Christmas break), we made it a priority that this change wouldn’t affect clients. No delay in projects. No change to the way people contact us. No change in working hours. Nothing. Nowt. Nada.

I’m really proud we succeeded in making a change that, although a big thing for each of us, hasn’t impacted our client work at all. Not negatively anyway – as I said, if anything we work better together now.

We’d mentioned the potential move to a few clients over the decision-making and planning period but, once we knew the change was definite, we told everyone our plans ahead of the move; explaining our reasons, and of course giving folks the chance to ask questions or raise any concerns. I was quite concerned that people might think Supercool was somehow less professional, or less hard working, or less real without a central office.

I’d been worrying needlessly as the main feedback was “Does this mean you all get to work in your pyjamas?” Ha! In answer to that question – it hasn't happened yet, and the frequent video chats make it unlikely …

But never say never.

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From the early, tentative conversations to actually ditching the office took us about 8 months.

We didn’t rush into it – making sure we knew what we were doing, and that it'd work for us and our clients – but equally, we didn’t dilly-dally once we knew the change was happening.

Nimbleness – one of the benefits of being a lean team.

It remains to be seen if there’ll be any negative feedback about our set-up from potential new clients which, I have to be honest, is a lingering concern for me.

Only time will tell if not having a central office will hold us back, however, I’m optimistic that new clients’ll be likeminded sorts who'll see the benefits of working with a flexible, productive and happy team of designers and developers.

Incidentally, other folks who famously work(ed) from home include:
Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, and The Queen.

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Resources

Some of our favourite tools and services:

Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, Dropbox, Appear.in, VOIP (through Dial 9, who’re ace), Tracking Time, Zendesk, Basecamp, Github

Useful links:

Why we’ve ditched the office

Categories: Inspiration, Jewellery Quarter, Useful/interesting

The outside of 8a Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

At the start of the Christmas break we closed those black double doors on our office of the last 13 years one last time – as of January 2017 we’ve become a ‘distributed' team. Basically this means that we work together remotely day-to-day (from our respective homes most of the time), meeting in person every week or so.

There wasn't one catalyst for taking this decision – as with most big changes there were lots of reasons – but certainly one of the biggest drivers, and biggest changes for each of us personally, was to get rid of the daily commute.

Ugh, that commute! Despite the team all being based in and around Birmingham, between us we were still managing to rack-up a ridiculous 26 hours a week travelling to and from the office each day.

It's one thing having some time to get into the 'work mindset' every morning but that’s more than 3 working days worth of time sat in cars or on packed commuter trains. That’s how long it’d take to (re)watch a complete season of 24, with several generous tea/loo breaks between episodes. That’s the time it took the entire globe to see-in 2017 – from Kiribati to Baker Island – for goodness sake.

By any measure, this is neither good nor sensible use of time – but particularly in terms of work/life balance. Not to mention the significant environmental impact and monetary cost of all that travelling to-and-fro.

The old office meeting space – sofa and all

And how often were we actually meeting with clients at the office? A handful of times a year at most; which doesn’t really warrant having a permanent dedicated meeting space. And the construction work happening in the street, while not crippling by any means, had been fairly noisy for a good few months and was unlikely to be finished in less than a year. Plus there was the possibility of our building being sold within the next couple of years and, if so, we’d have to find another office anyway – paying a lot more than the current rent for not-as-nice a space. Hmmm. You can see where this was going …

We realised we’d actually been working perfectly well with clients in different locations for years, so … why not each other? We’d done the odd day of home-working anyway, so making that a permanent set-up didn’t seem an impossible leap.

Once the idea was planted it was time to hit Google and research the pros and, particularly, cons of moving away from all working in the same space, from people who’d already done it.

A combination of our hypotheticals, along with the practical experiences of those who’d already taken the no-office plunge, gave us a decent list of pros and cons:

Pros

  • No commute! This is a big one – saving time, money and the environment – so definitely counts as three-pros-in-one
  • No travel disruption (leaves on the line, snow/ice on the roads etc.)
  • Not paying over-the-odds for city centre rent; hell, not paying *any* rent!
  • We could each create our perfect working environment; noisy/quiet, messy/tidy, dressed/pyjamas
  • Forced to be at the cutting-edge of digital technology and communication – as we’d be relying on it
  • We’d have to be more structured with internal meetings – yes, this was a ‘pro’
  • More internet connections = someone’d always be connected
  • No construction noise/disruption from the new flats apartments being built a stone’s throw away
  • We’d be all set-up incase of out-of-hours emergencies
  • Opens the possibility of working in-house with clients, with little disruption/set-up
  • If any Supercoolers move away from Brum, they won’t have to leave their job
  • We could recruit from further afield without the need for someone to relocate or have a huge commute (and, practically at least, setting-up a new home-worker’s easier than adding another body to an office)

Cons

  • Possible barriers to effective communication – both regarding projects day-to-day, and the ‘team spirit’ side of working with others
  • It doesn’t suit everyone
  • More temptation to eat ALL THE BISCUITS IN THE HOUSE

The pros pretty much speak for themselves and are pretty convincing; but obviously the big worries were the cons.

Communication barriers were mentioned in nearly every essay, news item and blog post we read as part of our research into remote working. However, each of these articles also detailed how other companies had overcome potential communication issues; primarily with tools we were already using day-to-day – Slack, Trello, Hangout, Skype etc. We also knew it’d be important to be sure and maintain social/personal communication as well as working together on projects. So, this 'con' was definitely surmountable.

A large part of the reasoning behind ditching the office was to give everyone in the team a better work/life balance, so this change absolutely had to work for everyone. It had to be all or nothing … so, how did we go about planning for, trialling and, clearly, ultimately taking the plunge into ditching the office?

Find out in the next thrilling installment: How to go remote – detailing the myriad considerations and months of planning that go into becoming an office-free business.

(Oh; and as for being tempted by unhealthy snacks, I'm still working on it …)