Daniel Schutzsmith: Follow Thy Checklist and Prosper

During FITC Toronto 2015 I had the opportunity to hear Daniel Schutzsmith talk about project management in creative enterprise. In case you’ve never attended an FITC event, part of FITC is about dreaming big and fearlessly taking on life-changing projects. Another part of FITC is about actually getting them done. (For a full conference re-cap, click here.)

Daniel Schutzsmith’s talk was strongly in the second category. The main theme was that in a creative enterprise (or legal one), chances are that you’re not running short of great ideas. What may be missing, Schutzsmith says, are the processes that help you consistently deliver great results.

Checklist
Use a consistent check list for routine tasks and quality assurance

Background

After working for 17 different studios and co-founding digital creative design agency Mark & Phil, Schutzsmith shared his wisdom on what it takes to bring process into creative firms. The first step for entrepreneurs and agency owners is to get processes out of their heads. Answering over-the-shoulder questions on how to do things works when a company is five people or less. Larger teams quickly swamp managers, eating up precious time with questions that have been answered many times before.

That’s why Schutzsmith recommends we all live by DRY: Don’t Repeat Yourself. Documenting processes in an organization is that simple. In the early days, it actually helped save lives. Doctors eventually adopted a “checklist mentality” after realizing that doing every operation from memory led to some awful mistakes. Now every routine operation runs by checklist, and so should your business.

Clean Up the Mess

To start, Schutzsmith recommends documenting roles in your business. People generally like knowing what’s expected of them. Writing down what’s expected of each team member helps develop a work ethic and builds morale. It’s positive on all counts.

After roles are mapped out, everyone’s attention should turn towards the business. Schedule three sessions over beer or coffee, ideally at least a week apart:

  • Talk about everything that’s going wrong.
  • Talk about everything that’s going well.
  • Decide what the team would like to see working better.

That helps align everyone towards making things work better. Maybe there are things going wrong you’ve never thought of. Invite the usual gripers and the quiet ones. Find out how to clean up the mess before you’re running tight against a deadline.

Plan the Process

After your team has identified critical areas for improvement (for example, sales, HR or training new employees), it’s time to make a process. The final product should be documented, ideally in something simple like a checklist or flowchart. Schutzsmith recommends you find someone on your team who can help get this done. They can’t be too process-focused; it’s important to make room for creativity and freestyling. Similarly, he recommends defining tools but making space for people’s unique favourites. Balance is key, all with a DRY mentality.

A great example Schutzsmith featured in his slides was a checklist for the complete sales cycle. This list could be integrated into a CRM system, so initial contact with a prospect dropped the list in a client manager’s inbox. Processes don’t need to be stifling—ultimately they make time for more creative things.

Share, Evolve, and Scrap Every Process

Once your firm has a basic handle on its processes, Schutzsmith recommended they be openly shared, discussed, tweaked, and ultimately… scrapped entirely.

That’s because processes are living, breathing things. Sure, they change. They should be reviewed every six months. Steps might get obsoleted as teams find better ways. And they should be. Schutzsmith recommends that teams go a step further and throw processes in the garbage every five years. Building on the same skeleton only works for so long. If the entire process isn’t re-invented, we risk becoming dinosaurs.

Schutzsmith ended the talk with a call to action: go do it. Just write down a process. So what’s next on your list?

Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.

Wearable Tech Out of Sight, In Mind at Genesys’ Toronto Tech Summit

Wearables, user experience (UX) design and the internet of things (IoT) took the stage at Genesys technology’s first Toronto Technology Summit this April 2, 2015. Attendees were guided through afternoon talks and discussions by Betakit’s high-energy senior editor Tom Emrich (@tomemrich). I attended the event to learn more about Canadian startups pursuing opportunities in the area and I wasn’t disappointed.

Surprisingly, the event wasn’t all positive on wearables: the theme was that IoT has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Wrist wearables like Fitbit and the Apple Watch have the same problem as phones—they take our eyes away from the world. IoT is really about freeing people from a reliance on visuals for data. We won’t see the best IoT until we’ve fully unlocked our other senses’ potential to interact with our environment, including movement, sounds, touch, breathing and yes, thinking.

When entering the tech summit’s venue at 87 Elm Street, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: Genesys’ Markham team was out in full force. I have no relationship to Genesys but I have to say they did a great job organizing the event. The event was free and the staff were friendly—it was hard not to like the bright-eyed co-op students who came to talk about their first job. Many were from the University of Waterloo. For software developers, UX designers and tech folks out there, Genesys also made it very clear that it’s hiring.

Genesys Toronto Tech Summit

The event started out with casual networking over a great lunch spread. I met a few Genesys employees who seemed genuinely excited about their jobs. They explained that the company makes call center software that uses your voice to direct your call. As a Genesys spokesperson later explained, there’s more to it. They want to move to a point where customer service calls going “off the rails” can be detected in real time. For example, Rogers could hear customers threatening to transfer to Bell immediately so supervisors can save the day. Not a bad idea.

The tie-in to wearables, IoT and Genesys is this: technology like voice-detection is about building more efficient links between the physical and digital world. Whenever it’d be faster to think, breathe, talk or gesture rather than push a button or click a screen, there’s an opportunity for wearables and IoT to speed things up. It’s about building technology that’s passively aware and responsive. In a similar fashion, great UX design is intuitive and lets people interact naturally with digital displays. The Summit speakers did a great job elaborating on those three themes.

Wearables can monitor your brainwaves

The first headliner speaker at the event was Jay Vidyarthi (@jayvidyarthi) from Toronto-based startup Muse, the brain-sensing headband. I hadn’t heard about Muse before, but their idea is worth talking about. They’ve designed a headband that measures the Electroencephalography (EEG) waves emanating from our heads. As Jay said during his talk, EEG technology has been around for a long time. The Muse difference is that it offers clinical-grade EEG for $299 MSRP, instead of a $30,000+ hospital setup.

The device’s measurement capability provokes some interesting questions. For example, could we use it to monitor and predict oncoming epileptic attacks? Jay said that the company is talking to research institutions all over the world who are interested in using the Muse headband to study EEG waves.

The primary use Muse is going after is helping people meditate by making them more aware of (and therefore control) their brain waves. They liken Muse to a gym for your mind. The device can help you monitor your attention span and strengthen it over time. Personally, I thought that use was interesting but its benefits need scientific support. What did stand out about the company was its exceptional use of customer-centric reviews and feedback loops to improve the product. It was a great intro to the next topic, which was about making design methodology core to a business.

Design culture is about simplicity and efficiency

The second headliner at the Toronto Tech Summit was Joel Grennier (@jgrenier05) from Ottawa’s You.i. Joel switched gears away from wearables and focused on design as a business methodology. You.i created the design cross-platform multi-device UX you’ll see on Canada’s new Netflix competitor Shomi_. From what Joel showed us in his very sharp looking slides, the UX on Shomi is formidable.

Joel had a few pointers on creating well-designed products. The first was that truly responsive “infused” design processes take time to build. Companies can’t add a designer to a software engineering team and call it a day. The management at You.i made a conscious decision to build an integrated design-programming team culture. Joel warned that your company needs both willpower and dollars behind a design strategy before it will amount to anything. However, if design is taken seriously and built into a true capability, it can “change a company’s trajectory.”

How does a company do that? Joel had two great examples. At You.i he said that HR had to make “design” a sought-after language, just like in software. The company had to be able to recognize design talent, seek it out and retain it. I liked that idea, but I liked the second one even more: You.i took all the art and pictures off the walls. Every wall is covered teams’ ongoing work product, to create a culture of transparency and generate discussion. Talk about an embedded focus on design.

Toronto has leaders in UX design and wearables, but there’s work to be done

For the rest of the afternoon, the Toronto Tech Summit continued on with other great speakers:

  • Macy Kuang (@macykuang), an expert developer for Google Glass/ Google Cardboard;
  • Leor Grebler (@grebler) from The UBI, a platform that integrates voice commands and language interaction with IoT devices;
  • Renn Scott, Founder and Chief Designer, Daily Goods Fashion Tech;
  • Nick Van Weerdenburg (@n1cholasv) from io Inc.; and
  • Director of IoT at Telus, Sachin Mahajan.

During the talks, topics like the Apple watch and Fitbit came up. However, the audience piped up and was quick to point out the current limits on wearables and IoT. The wrist-bound tech that’s entering the mainstream market has all the flaws of the phones they’re meant to replace. What consumers want is to be able to freely interact with their environment while also benefitting from the information that tech makes available.

Although the legal and privacy issues inherent in wearable tech and IoT never made an official appearance at the event, it was a success all the same. I’m looking forward to attending Genesys’ next Toronto Technology Summit this coming Fall 2015.