I set out on a journey to realise that dream about six years ago with the most amazing team. We’re in the business of design-driven innovation – meaning that we’re in an industry that is under enormous pressure for talent. Everyone seems to want designers and creative technologists these days. 

We’ve managed to grow fast – we are almost 100 people now, with five offices in three countries. We’ve been profitable, and so far, together with our clients, we are behind more than 300 innovations, many of which have won prestigious awards. 

We have worked hard for that, and we have worked just as hard to create a culture that we believe in. A culture that is adaptable and set up for innovation. A culture built on autonomy, compassion, and trust. 

How do trust and change come together to create a thriving innovation culture? At Oslo Business Forum's conference Leadership in Changing Times in April 2018, Ulla Sommerfelt shared her seven secrets to the innovation culture of EGGS Design.

The rumours about our culture have started to spread. Many have asked me what the secrets are, and I am more than happy to share what has worked for us. So, I named this piece Seven Secrets to our Innovation Culture, but when I started preparing it, I realised that there were probably more like 20! That would be far too long and boring, so let’s keep it to seven. Here we go:

1. We explore

When we started the company, we wanted to go beyond conventional thinking. As designers, we try new things all the time. We experiment. We prototype, and we test. We also explore. 

Exploration means going into the unknown. It means asking questions that you don’t know the answer to. It can be really scary, and it can make you feel vulnerable as a leader because you can’t always be in control. It requires that we dare to trust the process and that you dare to trust the people you are with. But with an exploration mindset, it’s easier to adapt. 

Our COO, Øyvind, joined the company a little over a year ago. He came with a backpack full of experience from a big corporation and a business degree. He was used to working with strategies like this: you choose what not to do, create a plan and stick to it. At EGGS, we work differently. We select a few focus areas that we pay special attention to, but always leave room for the “radar”. We want to be able to pick up signals from our surroundings to make sure that we can explore new opportunities and always be agile and adaptable to change. 

If you want to create something completely new, you need to be willing to explore. Otherwise, innovation will just mean keep improving what you already have and know, and somebody else will probably come up with the radical and new. 

 

2. People lead themselves

We believe silos, hierarchies and rules are damaging to an innovation culture. Instead, we trust people to make the right decisions. We don’t control or micromanage. 

When I give internal courses on self-leadership, I always ask this question: “In a company where people lead themselves, what do we need leaders for?” And the answers I get go like this: “We need leaders to give direction, to inspire us, to be good role models. And we need leaders to push us out of our comfort zones, and to have our back when something goes wrong”. 

Therefore, our leadership philosophy and the structures we have in place are designed for the purpose of making sure that people thrive, and get real challenges, so they grow both professionally and personally. With as little friction from the structure as possible. 

We trust people to lead themselves, so leaders can help, inspire and then get the hell out of the way. 

 

3. We are firesoul-driven 

Secret number 3 needs a little explanation: You know the kind of people in an organisation or in a community that always takes initiatives, those with a lot of passion that gets things done; they are enthusiasts. In the Scandinavian languages, we call them “ildsjæl”. In English that directly translates as “Firesoul”. Firesoul is part of our vocabulary because we know that firesoulness can lead to amazing things. 

A few years ago, we were invited to participate in an exclusive exhibit called the 100 series. Each participant had to design and produce 100 items of a unique product to be sold at the exhibit. Some firesouls immediately volunteered to do that.  I was sceptical at first because where was the business case in that? But the firesouls volunteered to do it on their own time, and I ended up agreeing to give them a budget to cover the production cost, pizzas and beer, and so off they went. 

What came out of this was Tundra: a whiskey glass with a soapstone bottom. You put the stone in the freezer and it will keep your whiskey cool without diluting it like ice cubes do. Tundra was a success, if not financially. The product created a lot of internal pride, inspiration and was a good learning experience. It also generated some effective PR, too. After that, we came up with a model for future internal development projects. In order to be accepted, a project must tick the three boxes of HR, PR, and KR – KR being the currency in Scandinavia. Rhymes better than dollars…   

Firesoulsness can lead to amazing, and very often surprising innovations, which is why we are firesoul driven. 

 

4. Great minds don’t (always) think alike

When we hire new people, we set the bar high. We want brilliant people, but we don’t want brilliant bastards. Cultural fit is extremely important. So, to make sure we get the right people onboard, we put them through a test on values and have a separate culture interview during the hiring process.   

But we are not looking for sameness. We want diversity; different people with different skillsets, preferences, and backgrounds. Introverts, extroverts, visionaries, and nerds. We are 25 different nationalities. But we all share the same dream: to build the world’s best creative nest. 

Not only are these different perspectives important when we innovate with our clients, they also inspire the culture, because great minds don’t think alike and thus we never stagnate.  

 

5. We put the fish on the table

We encourage people to bring problems and worries up, for example, we have an exercise we call “fish on the table”. It goes like this: a problem is like a fish in your pocket; when you keep it there for too long, it starts stinking. We encourage people to bring out the problems – get them up there on the table - before they start stinking. 

We don’t have an annual employee satisfaction survey. Instead, we have a weekly engagement survey. Through this tool, we get feedback that very often provides nuggets of gold. Take Caterina, for example; she wrote a little piece about the worries that she and some of her peers were having about our rapid growth. They were afraid of losing the family feeling. I am grateful for this kind of feedback – it is a gift for the leadership and nourishing of any culture. 

Caterina and I had a talk, and together we decided to arrange a workshop in each city facilitated by the junior designers. Here all the good things and all the worries about the growth strategy came up and became valuable recommendations. 

Our "fish on the table" exercise is a good way of having a conversation about the difficult things.  

 

6. We dare to share 

Let’s talk about capital. There are two types. Financial capital and intellectual capital. I’m sure you know the difference, but here is my take on it: 

Financial capital works like this: If I give you a dollar, you gain a dollar, and I lose one. Whereas intellectual capital works like this: if I give you a piece of information, knowledge or ideas, you gain that, and I get to keep it too. When shared, intellectual capital multiplies. 

When people share openly, great things happen. When ideas are shared, new ideas pop up. When personal stories are shared, you get a chance to get a new perspective. When insight is shared, it opens up the playing field for new innovations. 

We have weaved sharing into our DNA, and so Dare to Share is also one of our core values. One of my colleagues, Hans-Martin, told me the other day, that having that value has led him to share things automatically instead of wondering if it would be the right thing to do. And he found out that he gets more back than what he gives.  

Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, so we dare to share. 

 

7. We celebrate EGGSfactor 

Besides colleagues, friends and family, the other people that we care deeply about are our clients. And because we do business with people, not with companies, we want these people to have outstanding experiences when working with us.  

So, we went to the mountains, the beautiful Norwegian mountains, and co-created a program that we call the EGGSfactor. The program consists of a number of moments where we want our clients to feel something special. Like for example, the Magic Meeting. One of my favourite quotes from a client is this: “When Martin showed the artwork, a shudder went through me, and I could tell that everybody felt the same”. 

And for us, that is a moment to cherish. And of course, we celebrate these moments. We share them on our intranet, and we pick a winning team that becomes EGGSfactor of the month. 

Happy clients create really good vibes!  

 

Anything is possible  

I want to finish by going back to Kristine, the young designer that feels that anything is possible. Her statement made me curious, and I wanted to find out if others felt the same way. So, I set up a poll last week – anonymously. A little bit nervously, because I asked a question that I did not know the answer to. What if nobody else felt that way? Where would that leave me? It’s kinda like saying “I love you” first, right? 

Here is what I got: on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is “At EGGS I always feel that anything is possible”, the average score was 8.1. That’s an amazing number, and much more than I dared hope for! 

Every day, the people at EGGS inspire me. They blow my mind and melt my heart. And with the spirit they have, together we can achieve amazing things. Maybe even change the world. 

Because now I know for sure, with this team, anything is possible! 

 

This talk was first held at the conference Leadership in Changing Times by Oslo Business Forum on April 10, 2018.