Investing in curiosity
Challenging the status quo, finding comfort in discomfort, and building solutions to our clients’ hairiest problems
April 8, 2015
Curiosity—it’s one of Slalom's core values.
It’s one thing to talk about curiosity. It’s another thing to invest in it.
Slalom helps companies be amazing by solving their biggest, hairiest business and technology challenges. Upholding that brand promise is an ongoing exercise in curiosity—it requires asking questions, taking risks, and pushing the limits of exploration.
As a company, we continuously make investments in curiosity, ranging from the formal (our Experience Design service area, for example) to the informal (such as hackathons and brownbag lunches). Doing so not only pushes our people to grow and learn, it teases out unique ways of helping our clients do business better.
To design and build solutions that clients may not even know they need, curiosity is table stakes.
“If you’re going to do work that [will] engage today’s consumer in a way that’s impactful and relevant and meaningful, then you better be curious,” says Jason Cremerius, practice area director of the products and innovation team.
“We challenge a lot,” he adds. “It’s not always comfortable.”
But it’s in that uncomfortable zone where problems are solved, says Cremerius, so he encourages his teams and clients to get comfortable in that space.
The solution may be unique to client or industry, but the process is the same. It involves casting aside assumptions and constraints, asking question after question after question, and looking at things at a human level, Cremerius adds.
If you’re going to do work that will engage today’s consumer in a way that’s impactful and relevant and meaningful, then you better be curious.
“Why does it have to work this way?”
“Our practice is essentially born out of this idea that it’s okay to look outside the norm,” says Jason Davis, managing director for the products and innovation team.
The team uses engineered prototypes to help clients quickly validate whether a digital product can help them solve a particular business challenge.
“[Many of our clients] have had that cathartic moment where they [realize] that they have to radically do things differently,” says Cremerius.
That radical change stems from a “why does it have to work this way?” kind of spirit.
Cremerius cites the example of a recent project with a healthcare client.
Rather than following a prescribed template and “hardened ideas” for how the industry works, his team looked to other industries for inspiration.
In the midst of a discussion on healthcare, asking “why can’t we make this more like a travel experience?” can lead to a product that’s more than just what the client wanted or expected.
Project spotlight: iBeacons, wine, and the perfect selfie
Take the case of Robert Mondavi Winery.
At first glance, iBeacon technology might not be the obvious pairing for a glass of the winery’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon.
However, a casual conversation about Apple’s location-based technology led to an exploration of using the technology to connect winery visitors with information on the grounds and wine.
That exploration—which began with a wine-tasting-party-turned-proof-of-concept with Mondavi executives, and careful observation of and conversation with winery visitors—resulted in the creation of a mobile app enabled by iBeacon.
The app features a one-of-a-kind interactive winery tour, organized around the ability to find scenic vistas to take great pictures.
Without pursuing a casual interest in iBeacon technology, the app wouldn’t have happened at all. And without taking a closer look at how visitors were touring the winery and asking the right questions, the app wouldn’t have included the additional photo-opp element that visitors wanted.
Hackathon spotlight: Wrecked cars and virtual reality
Hackathons are an excellent way to tap into curiosity, says Dennis Janek, practice area lead on the Slalom national team.*
His team’s shared interest in the virtual reality technology, Oculus Rift, led to a “no boundaries” hackathon with a personal insurance company.
The company’s claims department training program is bar none—it converted a warehouse roof into the ultimate hands-on learning experience—unless you’re located anywhere other than its HQ.
Today, new hires in claims can see and interact with wrecked cars in every condition imaginable. But to do so, they must first be flown in from all corners of the country—a pricey operation that’s difficult to scale and maintain.
With virtual reality, however, the options and reach become limitless.
It enables the scenario—a fallen tree or snowy driving conditions—to change on a dime and provides a cost-effective alternative to trainees in any locale.
Exploring the possibilities of such a technology in a hackathon format allows for quick and dirty prototyping. Giving people the freedom to hack and play lets them “take it to the edge and learn a few things along the way,” says Janek.
Brownbag lunches: Breaking bread and sharing know-how
Many teams, including the national teams in both Seattle and Chicago, hold weekly brownbag lunches to share lunch—and knowledge.
They’re a chance to explore a topic and uncover insights, says Cremerius.
While topics largely fall into the technology realm—think programming languages like Python and Ruby, and Twilio, the voice-to-text recognition software—they also cover non-technical topics such as StarCraft, cameras and industrial design, and urban farming.
“We hire people that love technology,” says Arthur Best, solution principal on the Slalom national team. “They’re anxious and eager to learn more.”
The weekly brownbags help sate that natural curiosity, and they also provide an outlet to explore technologies that the teams anticipate using.
“It’s an opportunity for us to stay on the cutting edge and dive into something that’s on the cusp and start to build some expertise in that domain,” said Best, citing the example of a presentation on Swift after the programming language’s unveiling at WWDC 2014.
It feels like it’s part of the company DNA.
“Creative authority to explore”
Slalom is a place where people can express their passions and have “creative authority to explore,” says James Young, managing director in Slalom Silicon Valley.
“We’re always looking for the next big thing,” he adds.
Young encourages his teams to not only build the Slalom brand, but also build their personal brands.
Passion projects take different forms, whether it’s blogging about tennis analytics, entering Viz of the Day competitions, sharing a love of cameras and industrial design, collaborating on a motorcycle mural, or tinkering with Google Glass and iBeacon technology in the office kitchen.
When it comes to hiring, curiosity is a trait that’s “way up there at the top of the list,” says Cremerius.
By design, Cremerius’ team consists of makers. People who are “uncomfortable with the status quo” and see “ambiguity as opportunity.” People who want to know how things work.
Davis echoes that sentiment.
“It feels like it’s part of the company DNA,” he says.
*Since this article was originally published, Dennis Janek has left Slalom.