Cross-pollinating Innovation Across the Organization

I believe frameworks that foster cross-pollination of ideas work better than top-down policy implementation when it comes to spreading knowledge and innovation across an organization.

The Need to Share Knowledge and Innovation

Atomic consists of self-managing teams that are organized around projects. Our projects can typically last anywhere from three months to over two years, and people often get shifted around when projects end and new projects start.

Atomic applies user-centered design and agile practices through our integrated teams of designers and developers. Our teams follow heuristics and a general product development process, but they also have the autonomy and authority to innovate and try new things.

The long cycle time of projects means that innovation within teams can stay localized for significant periods of time. Theoretically, it could take several years for certain practices to spread throughout the office. I wanted to speed up the sharing of knowledge and innovation across the company.

There’s always the command and control, top-down approach of identifying the best practices, distilling them into an algorithmic process, and educating everyone on the new process, but I agree with Joel Spolsky that command and control management doesn’t work in places like Atomic.

Atomic’s Design Series

I thought it would be more interesting and effective to create a framework that allowed for bottom-up sharing and cross-pollination of knowledge. I created the Atomic Design Series that consisted of six months of presentations and workshops. There was approximately one presentation and one workshop each month.

When I first created the series, I had no idea what content would be included or if anyone would attend. I asked for volunteers to present on subjects of interest. I believed the framework was enough to inspire people to Teach and Learn.

I couldn’t have asked for better engagement. The series filled up quickly with presenters. Each event was interesting, well attended, and generated great discussion.

Presentations were held at lunch, and Atomic provided food and refreshments. Presenters spoke for half an hour, and we had fishbowl discussion or open Q&A for the following half hour.

Kedron Presenting

Workshops happened on Fridays at 4pm. Atomic provided snacks and catered in beer and wine (thanks Aprille from “D. Schulers“). Presenters put on interactive workshops that lasted approximately two hours.

Paul Presenting
Paul Presenting

The events were held at our Grand Rapids office. Out of 37 full-time Atoms in Grand Rapids, we had an average of 22 people attend each event. The attendance min and max were 18 and 30. People attended during their free time out of interest for professional development.

Chris Listening to Presentation
Chris Listening to Presentation

We spent a total of 127 hours creating and giving the presentations as well as managing the framework. Total attendee hours came to 348 hours. My time involvement came to 11 hours including time spent contributing to one of the presentations.

Brittany and Matt at a workshop.
Brittany and Matt at a Workshop

The design series framework offered simple opportunities and constraints. The participants made the series great. The series reinforced the benefits of creating enabling frameworks instead of creating policy and process.

Please share any methods you are using to promote cross-pollination of innovation and knowledge between teams in your organization.

Design Series Events

Below is a summary of the events we held in our series. Please feel free to contact us if you are interested in having us speak at your company.

Presentation: What is design? – Kedron Rhodes
A foundational overview of design. What do I think of when I say design? What do you think of? There are a lot of definitions. Let’s focus on one definition of design: finding the intersection of the problem, the people, and the constraints.

Presentation: Visualization is for everyone – Matt Fletcher
“Visualization is for everyone.” Duh. Right? Duh? Err…maybe not. Until earlier this year I wouldn’t say visualization is for me. Visualization was always one of the last tools I would reach for. Now that I have a better understanding of what visualization is (read: not simply pretty pictures), I’d like to share the tools and tactics that turned this word-oriented persona into one of visualization’s biggest advocates.

Presentation: Using Storyboards and Interface Sketches to drive backlog creation and build team consensus – Brittany Hunter
This will be a case study of a project’s usage of storyboard and interface sketches. We’ll talk about what we did, why we did it, what the benefits and drawbacks were to our techniques.

Presentation: Data Visualization – Karlin Fox
Principles for communicating data visually to customers, users, or fellow makers. Covering guidelines by Alberto Cairo, Edward Tufte and Stephen Few, and examples by Nicholas Felton and David McCandless.

Presentation: Visual Storytelling Lessons from Understanding Comics – Jason Porritt
How do you tell a story using still, silent frames on a page? Comic books have a lot in common with the storyboards we create. We’ll talk about the spectrum of iconic to objectified images, types of frame-to-frame transitions, time, motion, mood, and how we can apply them to communicate effectively.

Presentation: The Design of Business, Roger Martin – Carl Erickson
The knowledge funnel describes the tension between exploration of new knowledge and exploitation of existing knowledge. I found it to be a simple and powerful model, and one which is useful to understand for both Atomic’s business and our projects.

Workshop: The Whats of design thinking – Matt Fletcher
Design thinking is an approach to growing a business. You could pour over market analysis Excel spreadsheets — but then you’d be building boring solutions that no one cares about. Join me as we empathize with people and use design thinking to work through what is, what if, what wows, and what works to discover new product and service offerings.

Workshop: Visualization techniques and exercises – Matt Fletcher
“To solve the problems of today, we need to see and hear, read and look, write and draw.” – Dan Roam, Blah Blah Blah

Dan Roam describes pictures and words as the two wheels of a bicycle. Sure, you could ride a unicycle (by communicating only in words), but you’ll get a lot further on the bicycle. Join me as we review some of Dan’s techniques for creating and refining pictures to communicate complex ideas.

Workshop: All I Need to know about Design, I learned in Middle-School Art Class – Brittany Hunter
Heavyweight tools such as OmniGraffle and Photoshop make it difficult to iterate on project artifacts such as storyboards and wireframes. Often, all you need to gain team consensus on scenarios and features are a few quick sketches. In this workshop, we’ll play with pencils, paper, pens, tape, tracing paper, printouts, photocopies, scissors, rulers, and other fun tools to learn techniques that anybody can use to quickly sketch out a storyboard or interface.

Workshop: Cooper UX bootcamp review – Paul Hart
One of the most helpful things I took away from the Cooper UX Bootcamp is to take a step back before I begin the process of deciding the ins and outs of the app and think about the big picture. By understanding the context, motivations and desires of the person using the product, I can better determine how to design the details.

This part of the design process involves telling stories about the future to enhance the user’s experience. From these stories, key activities are identified where the needs and desires of the user intersect with the business goals. And, finally, the graphic user interface can be brought to life. The level of fidelity goes up with each step.

Workshop: Innovation Games – Mike Marsiglia
Atomic Object has used Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games® many times during the Research, Design, and Planning phase of our projects. Atomic takes a slightly different approach than Luke recommends. Mike will present how Atomic applies Innovation Games to our work and will specifically focus on the Product Box game.