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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Deliberately Designing Culture for Creativity and Innovation
Aug 15, 2022
Podcast with
Dean Guida
by
Shane Hastie
In this podcast, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Dean Guida of Infragistics about what's needed to enable and support a collaborative, innovative culture.
 
Uncover emerging trends and practices from domain experts. Attend in-person at QCon San Francisco (October 24-28, 2022).
Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie from the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I'm sitting down with Dean Guida. Dean, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
Dean Guida: Yes, absolutely. Really great to be here.
Shane Hastie: So you are the founder of Infragistics. So probably a useful starting point is, who's Dean and who's Infragistics?
Dean Guida: I started off as a software developer, freelance consultant, and got an engineering degree. And I founded Infragistics 33 years ago and we build UI and UX tools for professional developers that are building enterprise apps, commercial apps. And we really focus in on simplicity and beauty.
And so we have a whole set of UI frameworks for mobile, web, desktop, data visualization grids, everything to build all the different UI patterns in your application. And we also have a lot of design-to-code tools that help designers and developers do that handoff.
So design systems that work in your favorite prototyping tool, whether it's Adobe XD, Sketch or Figma. So you have this whole design language. And then we can then prototype that, bring that into a code generator and generate production code for that with components.
So we're really big in the software space. So our biggest segment is software companies, and then after that it's financial services.
But we sell to every industry and we've recently, which I think is going to be beneficial as we talk about teams today, we recently introduced a product called Slingshot, which is a business tool that is a digital workplace that connects everyone that you work with with everything, data analytics, project, task management, content, chat, all in one simple and beautiful experience.
Shane Hastie: Strong technical background, building tools for technologists, our audience are technologists, what's different about running a company of technologists? Maybe it's not different, but as a founder, as a CEO, what do you need to take care of to make sure that your teams are well looked after?
Dean Guida: Really, the foundation is people, and we actually intentionally built our teams and our company across many different cultures. So we're in six different regions around the world. And we actually did that to have diversity of thinking.
So when you have people from different cultures and different points of view, and we want to build software and do build software for the world, that's one thing we purposely did. So early on in my career, I would always hire people just like me, think like me, act like me. And everyone got along, but we always solved the problem the same way.
And when you have diversity of thinking, someone could be going to the right and then thinking differently, making you go left, and then you build on that idea. So that's just kind of one technique we've done. But at the center of any company and certainly software companies is people and really designing the physical, the processes, the environment, the culture that really allows people to be creative and work together.
Shane Hastie: Culture is such a wide term. I use a subtle definition from Johanna Rothman, culture is the reality of the lowest common denominator that management accepts in an organization. What is culture?
Dean Guida: I don't really like that definition. Culture to me is how you act and behave and get work done and work with each other. So that's culture to me. And culture has to be just like designing software, caring about the experience, culture has to be thought of in a very design experience way. And so we do a lot of things.
I'll keep some of my answers short, but even comes down to the physical space that you want to create this, or at least we do, want to create this warm and welcoming environment. Because we want people to feel at ease, to be creative, to be relaxed.
And then when we meet, we have food at the table. And again, everything to just kind of be relaxed and create this environment where people can do their best work, not feel that pressure.
And then another technique is really just creating as leaders and as people that you hire, always wanting to help somebody and having a safe space where people can ask for help, people can express ideas that may be silly and nobody disregards that. Because that's the best way to solve problems, not get stuck on problems too long when someone else can help and really leverage the whole team in building the best software and delighting your customer.
Shane Hastie: How do you create that safety?
Dean Guida: Well-.
Shane Hastie: Psychological safety is probably one of the most talked about terms lately. But I'm skeptical because a lot of organizations give it lip service, but I see less than safe things happening on the ground. How do you make sure.
Dean Guida: Yes.
Shane Hastie: That you build that safety in?
Dean Guida: First, it starts with hiring so that you look for people that are lifelong learners, curious and open to other ideas. So you try and hire those attributes in the beginning, certainly with skills in the areas you may need. And the second is leadership.
What's critical is all your indirect leaders and your direct leaders need to demonstrate that openness to other ideas, not shooting down ideas, not making people feel silly for asking a question. And so it starts with really by example, with your leaders and indirect leaders.
And then something that I always do is I'm always very conscious to have everyone participate. So if we're in a meeting and we're talking and someone is not expressing their point of view, I always like to call them, ask for their point of view.
And that does a couple thing. One, they could actually really disagree with everything and they're being silent, which is a horrible thing. You want them to speak up their point of view and maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong or maybe it's somewhere in the middle, until you're just drawing out open conversation.
But a lot of it is with leadership. I mean, when people kind of come in to your organization, they're sensing what's the norm here, how do we behave. And the outcome you want is, "Oh, I felt really comfortable here. People were very helpful." And so it starts with leadership.
Shane Hastie: How do you build those skills in leaders?
Dean Guida: You demonstrate it. And when leaders, and we all do it, misbehave, that you talk to them one on one outside of anyone. And I learned this technique, situation, behavior, impact. And so you really say, "Hey, here was the situation. You were over talking everyone in the meeting and the behavior was, no one could really express themselves.
And the impact was it shut down conversation." So it, which people can relate more to feedback when you tell them the situation, behavior, impact. And then you just pause and you let them speak. And it's not a confrontational thing. It's just kind of giving feedback.
And if the dialogue goes on and on, back and forth, it's just not even worth it at that point where you just say, "Okay, I gave you the feedback and I hope you think about it." But it's really you as a leader, making sure that when bad behavior creeps up, that you're talking about it.
And it has huge business value, because when people are afraid to ask for help, a problem could take a day to solve or it could take a week to solve, if you don't ask for help. And then just ideas and collaboration, always a team makes the best decision. No matter how smart an individual is or thinks they are, a team always makes the better decision.
Shane Hastie: That's great. Thinking about teams making better decisions and giving leaders feedback, how do you help people who are moving into a leadership position for the first time?
Dean Guida: You really need to train them. I mean, whether it's you or someone in your company or externally, it's not fair for anyone to not give them any level of training. But it happens all the time. So what's really important is one, is that we all think we communicate clearly, asking someone to do something, giving them a task.
And that's one just really important learning is that you may think you've communicated clearly. Someone goes off and does the work and comes back and you're disappointed. Now it could have been you didn't communicate clearly.
So we teach this whole kind of communication style, which is okay, what, when, who, what's your expected outcome. But then, actually whoever you're communicating to should repeat back what they heard, what they're going to do.
And then you should have that open dialogue like, "It's okay to keep coming to me if you would like help or clarity on anything," and have that. And so you're building up that trust and communication. And then you teach people too, that things always happen.
If you're an A player you're usually getting bombarded with 20 tasks and you either work late, work long hours and achieve it all, or you communicate to those that are involved, "Hey, we have to prioritize these things because I can't achieve all of this."
So that communication of, "I'm blocked, I'm overloaded. We need to reset this" or "I need more information here" is critical, that open communication. And so that's important.
And then the second, which is really also to the foundation of culture and creating that safe space is trust. You have to work so hard at building trust with your team. And trust is easily lost. So it's a very fluid situation. So you're always should be nurturing trust. And there's a lot of ways to build trust.
But the first thing in building trust is just show up as yourself, be you, be authentic and share something personal and have meals with people. What we do on our executive team, we meet once a week, we kick every meeting off and we start off three or four minutes and just share something personal. And you can share whatever you want.
But I can't tell you how much of a bond that creates. You start to really get to know the person as a human and that creates trust. And as a leader, always do what you say. That creates trust. As a leader, you can show emotion. I believe in emotion in the workplace. But you should have controlled emotion and just be real with people and be authentic.
And so those are some of the techniques to really create a well gelling team. But yes, be yourself, show up and be authentic and be real and don't have any kind of work mask versus outside company mask and just be yourself.
Shane Hastie: So you've touched on it, that means it's got to be safe within the organization to be my authentic self then. For many people that's hard.
Dean Guida: Yes. I mean, there's nuances there as well. You be yourself, but of course that doesn't mean you're doing something crazy and wild that you'd do on the weekend with your pals, but still be yourself. So of course, there's nuances in how you behave.
Shane Hastie: It sounds to me like a lot of this came from the in-person culture and collaboration your organization has. We've shifted. We are now very, very remote. You mentioned being globally distributed, but we are more than globally distributed now. We are in remote teams. How is Infragistics handling the remote aspect, that shift to remote and what is hybrid?
Dean Guida: If you're a senior person or an experienced person, it's a lot easier working remote and working from home. Where it's really difficult is when you're bringing on new people or more junior people. I mean, that is harder because they lose that benefit of just watching and observing and being around people that are experienced and skilled.
So that becomes more difficult. But we use Slingshot, so the product I talked about in the intro, which is a digital workplace. And everyone uses Agile in software development. But I also believe in Agile business teams and from a business perspective.
And so with Slingshot, it's a digital workplace. Everyone checks in every morning, each team, whether they're a business team or a product team, what did I do yesterday, what I'm doing today. And just that simple check in and transparency that's kind of digital to asynchronous, it builds trust.
Because you know what everyone's working on. You can see what their priorities are, because it's what they're working on. Or you can see whether it's taking longer. And so getting rid of that uncertainty for managers. And a lot of times managers will just have possibly negative thoughts when they don't know what's going on.
That helps create trust and transparency. Then the other thing with Slingshot is that for each task, it's all digital and you have threaded discussions right next to the task, which is so helpful. So it's, "Okay, I need you to go design this experience for onboarding."
Okay, great. Well, you can see all the threaded discussions of where what's happening. If someone's blocked, if there's an issue. And so you don't have to have status meetings around what's going on, you're seeing it right next to the task and all the content you need to achieve that right next to the task.
Slingshot's is a very powerful tool that through the tool itself, you have this asynchronous communication without doing extra work and you get rid of all those horrible status meetings and someone micromanaging you because they want to know what's going on and it happens more fluidly.
Shane Hastie: And what's happening with your office space with this shift?
Dean Guida: We invested a lot of money in all our offices space, because we really believe in experience and having this really relaxed atmosphere. So our headquarters, we have a 75,000 square foot building in New Jersey. It's kind of empty right now, I have to say.
So we surveyed. We're in South America, we're in Europe, we're in Eastern Europe, we're in Tokyo, we're in New Jersey. We're in all these locations. And pretty much consistently across every location, only a third of our team wants to come into the office.
And of the third of the team that wants to come in, it's on demand or part-time or just around team events. So we left it up to our managers to define when they come in. And we also told our managers, "You can't force anyone to come in as well, just because it's this kind of new world where people have really enjoyed working from home."
And so we're going with that and just rolling with it. So we still have offices around the world. It's funny. We have an office in Montevideo in Uruguay, they like to come in. And we have an office in Sofia, Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, they like to come in too.
There are different regions of the world people want to come in. Now it's still only a third, but they want to come in. And it's fluid too. Even myself and my own team, learn to be around people physically. So we're not demanding it and we're being flexible. And so our offices, some places are more populated than others.
Shane Hastie: So that fluidity and flexibility, how do you prevent it being chaos?
Dean Guida: Well, what's really important is,  there's all these pieces that contribute to culture. So one, everyone should understand what is the company trying to do, what's their vision and purpose, that helps. Ours is creating simplicity and beauty and happiness in the world one app at a time.
So we really believe in simplicity and beauty digitally of course, and helping companies through our tools and the apps we built to achieve that. Then everyone should kind of understand the objectives.
And so directionally when you know what your objectives are and your goals and you give people the autonomy to execute, you'll actually get innovation, new ways to solve problems. But with giving goals and direction and using Slingshot, our digital workplace, it's not chaotic.
There's a false security of everyone being in one building that you know what everyone's working on, everyone's being productive and you're working on the right things. A lot of CEOs and boards of directors and executives need that. They want that, but it's a false security blanket.
And so these tools of where are we going? Objectively, what's the outcome look like? And then using a digital workplace, whether it's Slingshot or some other tools where you can really transparently see the collaboration, the tasks, the conversations, it really helps.
Shane Hastie: How do you encourage innovation?
Dean Guida: Again, it starts with that curiosity and continued learning. So I always work at trying to create this learning organization and data driven organization. So it's like a foundation that we're constantly working at. So you hire for it. We ask questions like, "What books did you read last year? What books are you reading now? Do you have personal professional goals improvement?" So just really trying to test for it. That's one thing.
The second is really what we talked about already, which is just creating an environment where people feel safe to ask for help and to offer opinions and points of view.
And then the other is where you go and tell someone, it depends on the level of person and skill, but instead of being prescriptive on how to do something, you just tell them what you want the outcome. And that gives them the agency and autonomy and even intrinsic motivation to do it a different way, which is one form of innovation.
We have a big formal program around innovation where we put 50 million dollars in to nurture ideas that are not revenue generating. And we have a process for validating and then funding these ideas. So at every level, you can nurture innovation. It all comes back to culture and people.
Shane Hastie: Let's dig a little bit into that 50 million dollars to do things that are not revenue generating. You mentioned there's a process to pitch your idea. How does that work?
Dean Guida: Anyone in the company can have a vision of a product or something that solves a problem, starts with that. And then we kind of teach them to express it in affirmations too, just like, "Here's my vision of this product and the problem I'm solving."
And then if we solve that problem and built that product, what would it look like? How would the world look? So actually visualize that. So that's step one. And then step two is what is the addressable market? What market share can we win with that product and so that the investment and the chances of winning a reasonable share of market would justify the investment?
So it's the idea, how to express the idea, then prototype it. And then we get feedback from a prototype after some market validation of addressable market. And then we're just a big believer in feedback.
We a hundred percent believe in the design code and iterating and getting feedback before you code. So we prototype it, get feedback with other team members, with customers, with partners. And before a huge investment, just testing the reaction to it and getting that feedback. And then if it passes all those things, there's five of us that make a decision.
Then we fund it and we fund it so that people can design and build the software. And most developers and designers know that once you have a customer base where you start selling something, you get stuck in the mud, it just takes longer to add value, due innovation.
And so it's a really nice incubation period where there's no pressure of revenue, no customers asking for these specific things. And you just get a longer runway to realize your vision of solving some problem. I think innovation and funding different ideas too, you have to be careful.
Because you don't want to create a environment where… Like I've been asked, "Well, do you give them special stock compensation? Do you give them this special thing?" And it really excludes the people that are working on your core products that are generating the revenue that's funding this.
So I'm very careful to appreciate everyone that's working on our core products that are giving us the cash flow to do this. And we're not making people have this special, they're special because they're doing innovation or R and D. No, they had a great idea. It's market worthy, and so they're doing that. But we try and treat and recognize all parts of the product team and organization, their contributions that's enabling this.
Shane Hastie: One of the things that I've seen in organizations that sometimes gets in the way of collaboration is the way incentives have worked. We ask people to collaborate and work in cross-functional teams and then once a year we stack rank them against each other. How do you manage that?
Dean Guida: Yes, that's horrible. It has a lot to do with how you pay people and also how you coach people. So we've separated coaching and feedback. We don't do annual reviews. And so what we do is we buy data every two years globally, because we want to pay people at fair market.
And then so at the 50 percentile and then for our A plus people, the 75 percentile. So we kind of want to know what market is to pay people fairly. And we have a whole coaching season that's way off cycle. We give raises in January.
But our coaching cycle happens in the second quarter. And we stretch it out because different product teams have different needs of delivering product. And the coaching, we have a really kind of lightweight coaching process that we've evolved over the years. Because if it's heavyweight, no one does it.
It's unbelievable how you invest in coaching, but managers and even people that are getting coached don't want to do it, even though we fund personal development plans. Because it's more work. So we try to make it very lightweight to give feedback, areas for improvement.
And then we have three to four goals, everyone’s personal development goals, and we invest in it. So someone wants to learn data science or some ML algorithm, oh great, we’ll fund that. So separating pay from coaching and feedback is really critical. And then paying fairly, we always want to pay fairly and know what paying fairly means.
Shane Hastie: Dean, there's some really interesting stuff there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
Dean Guida: Our main website is Infragistics.com. That's Infragistics.com. And then Slingshot is a freemium model. So people can go use it free forever. Three digital workspaces are free, so they could find that. It's native in Apple, Android, web, and desktop and macOS. But if you go to slingshotapp.io, that's the website for it.
So it's slingshotapp.io. So it's a great way to run hybrid and remote teams and work from home. And even if you're all in the office, it just creates that trust, transparency and accountability. And there's a deep analytics part to it too, which we hook into all kinds of SAAS systems and big data to make data driven decision.
Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.
Dean Guida: Thank you.

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