Labouring in Lighthearted Luxury

I snapped this photo at a brainstorm meeting last year. A group of us were sitting around the big table. Instructions were being presented. People were scribbling down their thoughts. Good hydration was being practiced. And everyone was very focused on the task at hand.

Seems pretty mundane, right?

But, despite the fact that my stupid thumb is covering part of the lens, I actually love this photo. I think it’s perfect. Because it exemplifies what makes Modern Craft different and—dare I say it—special.

Let me explain.

The goal of this session was to come up with a new name for a client organization. This client had hired us to help with their brand strategy. Along the way, they’d decided it was time for a new name. They’d started this process on their own. But, as any start-up founder can tell you, finding a name that represents you perfectly AND isn’t already taken can be a real challenge. So even though this isn’t our core competency and even though this deliverable was nowhere to be seen in the Project Plan or the Statement of Work—we offered to pitch in. Gratis.

We organized a brainstorm over lunch. We invited all of the full-time staff (plus a freelancer—hi Annabelle!), fed everyone sushi and got down to work. It was an optional “meeting”. No pressure to give up your lunch hour. But people came. Actually, everyone came. Despite the fact that it was a glorious sunny day and this wasn’t their client or their project, everybody wanted to help.

Moments like this—where our true character really shines through—happen every day at Modern Craft. They rarely get photographed, but they’re incredibly important. In fact, we wouldn’t be here without them.

So how did we make this happen? How did we create an environment where people:

—Care about doing the right thing?
—Are willing to give more to solve the problem?
—Choose to be supportive instead of competitive?

Getting our values and culture right has created the foundation that allows moments like this to happen.

And, like anything worthwhile, it turns out getting values and culture right isn’t easy. We’ve been well-intentioned from Day 1. But intentions only get you so far. It took a lot of time and effort to define these things clearly—and turn those definitions into everyday reality.

Looking back, the story of our journey from good intentions to something deeper and more meaningful unfolded over four distinct acts:

  1. Figuring out what our values actually are
  2. Facing challenges that cause us to rethink things
  3. Reviewing and revising
  4. Ongoing practice and refinement

 

Act 1: Figuring out what our values actually are

When we founded this company 5 years ago, I had some ideas about the kind of business I wanted to build. I believed in hiring and contracting people who—as I liked to put it—Give a Shit and Get Shit Done. That’s a fun thing to say, but I never took the next step of defining what that actually meant in a candidate or how to look for it in an interview.

Our first few hires were ex-colleagues from our previous agency, so we had a shared understanding of what it meant to work together. At this stage, our culture wasn’t something we were forced to define or even think about. We just sort of kept going with what we were used to.

In terms of values, we defined some loose rules that were rather simplistic. Don’t be a dick. Go the extra mile. That kind of thing. Our first company handbook (a simple shared Box note) documented some of these values and beliefs. It was fairly short and informal, but in some ways we were quite clear on how we wanted to operate.

The Modern Craft Handbook circa 2015.
The Modern Craft Handbook circa 2015.

 

Over the next two years, we began to grow and change. In particular, we started adding new staff. People who had never worked with us before. Quite naturally, they had no idea what we were like to work with. And they brought their own experiences and expectations to the mix.

Despite these changes, we got by with our janky handbook for a while. But eventually we realized it was time to think more deeply about what it looks and feels like when we’re doing our best work.

So, in June 2017, our leadership team spent a few days out of the office to better define some foundational elements, including our values.

The sausage making part of defining our values.

 

We emerged from this workshop with these statements:

(How We Work) Collaborative & Brave

(How We Think) Curious & Customer-Obsessed

(What We Deliver) Above & Beyond

(Our Character) Honest & Kind

We felt pretty good about where we’d landed. We shared these with our team, got some feedback, made some adjustments and added them to our handbook.

Job done, right?

 

Act 2: Facing challenges that cause us to rethink things

It took an eviction notice for us to realize that we had neglected to work on our culture.

Later in the summer of 2017, we received a letter saying that our building was scheduled for demolition. We had three months to find a new home.

Goodbye 155 Water Street.

 

This news forced us to scramble and find a temporary place for our team of 12 to call home—a 6-month pit stop while we redesigned a new, permanent office space. (That’s a whole other story in itself.)

We looked at WeWork. We considered remote working—for half a minute. Eventually, we opted for short-term lease on a move-in ready space that was previously occupied by a design and branding agency.

The temporary office.

 

It wasn’t terrible to look at. But the layout was all wrong. Essentially it was a long hallway, with one end facing a busy road. The lack of meeting rooms (there was only one), heavy street noise and general lack of sound-proofing made it a challenging space to work in. Headphones were mandatory.

Once we settled in, we realized that the space was a bit of a culture-killer. People were hard at work with those headphones on but we could feel that something wasn’t right. So we decided to work extra hard on establishing a stronger culture.

We started by hiring someone amazing (Hi, Erin). Her mandate: make the place we work at more than just a place to work.

Pro tip: a unicorn pinata filled with candy and booze can really bring people together.

 

We established new rituals.

Showing, sharing, breaking bread.

 

We did random shit like this.

Why not get to know your colleagues by arm wrestling them?

 

And—most important of all—we took a full day away from the office to talk about our fears, embrace our differences and to get to know each other’s idiosyncrasies.

Time for an offsite. We opted to skip the trust falls.

 

By the time we were ready to move in to our new, permanent home on July 1, 2018, we were a stronger team with a clearer understanding of what it meant to work at Modern Craft.

Home: July 2018

Act 3: Review and revise

By this point, we’d learned that culture requires constant effort and vigilance.

So soon after we moved in, we hired a consultant to do a deep survey of our staff to help us understand what they loved and what we needed to improve on.

We also did a similar survey of our clients. And some of what we heard from them told us a lot about how our culture and values feed into our work:

“I have high expectations and they’ve met them, but they’ve done the little things that go above and beyond that help us get going.”

“I felt like the team was very rigorous in trying to understand the problem. They work in an agile way, always iterating on the problem that they’re trying to understand and solve.”

“(They) have a sense of genuine care for the client. The first-hand experience they’ve had on the client-side. Their strong willingness to listen and apply what they’re hearing. Very malleable. It’s confidence in their knowledge and the vibe of the people. They’re very friendly and yet still professional.”

With these insights in hand, we did another offsite and spent some time re-examining our values to ensure they remained true.

Offsite Nov 2018. It is true, I wear vests.

 

We came out of this session with some adjustments. We simplified our value statements. We made them easier to put into action. Here’s the result:

Above & Beyond
Quality matters. We’ve got high standards and it shows. Every project counts, no matter how small. Whatever problem we’re tackling, we go beyond the brief. Beyond the S.O.W. And beyond the obvious answers.

Genuine
In an industry full of posturing, puffery and hidden agendas, we strive to be sincere, impartial and unbiased. We value honesty and kindness. We show up every day as real people with real points-of-view — flaws and all.

Thoughtful
We believe in taking the time to pause and reflect. We care deeply about our clients — who they are and what they’re trying to achieve. We tackle their problems from multiple angles — pulled deeper by empathy and curiosity.

Pragmatic
Our beliefs are idealistic. But as we work to put those beliefs into practice, we’re grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of what’s practically possible. We’re also nimble and flexible — untethered by rigid concepts or processes. Able to adapt on the fly and rise to challenge.

Act 4: Keep practicing

Today, we work much more consciously with our values and culture in mind. They’re not just words in a handbook. We use them and think about them every day.

For example:

We are much sharper on looking for those who fit our values and culture at Modern Craft.

While most people we come across are smart and/or technically capable, we also need big hearts. Our team help each other out. They’re naturally kind. They’re mature enough to see our clients as real people whom we’re fortunate to get paid to partner with.

When we screen and interview candidates, we pay close attention to fit. This makes hiring more difficult, but it can’t be helped. This has lead us to cast our net further—outside of Vancouver—as we hunt for unicorns or pegasi (yes, it’s a word) who have similar values and add more diverse thinking to the mix.

We embrace our crew of smart, often introverted and sometimes pretty weird consultants.

I love this article because it’s so close to home. I’m a non-strategist managing a crew of brainy, quirky, self-aware, potentially genius, never uninformed and rarely-duplicated group of people.

It makes for an interesting mix. One moment, the office can be super quiet, with everyone hyper-focused on their work. The next moment it can be a lot more random—or even rowdy as we gather together for a stand-up or some Friday afternoon cocktails.

I love our team. And the worst thing I can think of would be to make everyone wear suits and act like typical consultants. We try to keep it professional. But we try just as hard not to take ourselves too seriously.

When we moved into this office, Erin and I worked on defining the ideal “experience” at Modern Craft. She coined this term to sum it up: Lighthearted Luxury.

Here’s what that idea looks like in practice:

Sorry Tom, but this photo needs to be shared outside our closed doors.
Erin baked Batman cookies for the office because she’s a better person than I am.
Keeping it weird.

 

The passing of the monthly Wind Beneath My Wings butterfly award.
And a little luxury in everything including our cocktail menu.

Celebrating and operationalizing our values

We try to give our team the space to make decisions based on our values.

The example at the beginning of this post — the naming workshop—is a direct result of this. I’m proud of that moment. But I also realize that it took some time and some effort to create an environment where that moment was possible.

Thanks, Mike. Big love.

 

At the moment, we’re working on some things that will help us further operationalize our values and improve our culture. More tweaks and iterations are sure to follow. And that’s as it should be.

I’m proud of what we’ve done. But I know that this work is never done.

Above all, I’m truly grateful to everyone who has helped us make this a better place to work.

Randy Siu
Feb 14, 2019

Further Reading