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Justin Dauer on Creative Culture

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Justin Dauer about his new book Creative Culture – Human centred interaction, design and inspiration.


Key Takeaways

  • Designers and developers have a unique advantage in solving the problems that are plaguing us culturally
  • Reimagining the onboarding process to create a great first impression and engage new people with the organisation culture
  • Humble leadership is an attitude that acknowledges the value people bring to the team and works to create a nurturing, supportive environment
  • Leaders can and must protect the culture because it has tangible business benefits: It helps engagement. It helps quality of work. It helps quality of life. It's organic marketing for the business. It helps retention for teams.
  • When transitioning into a leadership role, practitioners need to find ways to transition their fulfilment from individual contribution to supporting and growing others


00:00 Introductions

00:00 Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the  InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down with Justin Dauer. I'm in New Zealand. Justin's in Chicago, Justin. Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

00:17 Justin: Hey, Shane. Great to be here

00:18 Shane: Now, you're the author of a great little book, Creative Culture - human centered interaction, design and inspiration.

00:26 And did I get that quite right?

00:28 Justin: Yes. Human centered interaction, design inspiration.

00:31 Shane: Before we get into that. Do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself,

00:35 Justin: Certainly - so I am a lifer Chicagoan, and I've been in Chicago my entire life. Like you said, that's where I'm at now. I went to art school here. I was an art school boy in the late 90's. And that's kind of, when you would tell your mom or dad that you were a web designer, and they would scratch their brow and wonder what you're talking about. So formal training in design. From there, it was just the application of design to what I'd like to call  the digital landscape from that point on and creative and visual problem solving have kind of driven the arc of my career.

01:03 So it's been working, you know, design side in house, out of house studios, tech firms, product firms. Right now I'm in the healthcare industry, applying design and human centered design to that, and creative problem solving and design and the application of that towards the betterment of the human experience, that's kind of my passion.

01:21 Shane: How do we link culture and design? How do we link interaction and culture?

01:26 Linking Interaction Design and Culture

01:26 Justin: Well, there are some hallmarks of both processes that are identifiable and I'll say exploitable or leverageable amongst the two. So one of the things I say in the book is that designers and developers have a unique advantage in solving the problems that are plaguing us culturally.

01:43 And by that, I mean, when we create, and this can be in a design sense, in a digital sense, in a programmatic sense, we always have to be cognizant of those on the end the experience that we're creating for, and usually that's articulated through the lens of empathy. Putting myself in the shoes of the other person.

02:02 And again, I said applies design and programmatically, and we're always mindful of those things. And in a programmatic sense, are things loading quickly? Is it intuitive? Is someone who has, you know, JavaScript disabled or enabled, can they engage with my experience? 

02:15 On the design side are we usability testing things? Are we being inclusive of the very people we're creating with along the way?  And we generate empathy through that process.

02:24 When you take those same themes, those same pillars, and we turn them inward in terms of how we engage with one another at the office. How we view someone as a human being as an individual, instead of a name on a spreadsheet, someone is bringing their passion and their talents to the team and the office and being respectful of that, being respectful of the unique lens, different people bring to the way we create.

02:49 And again, that's that same kind of empathy and the way we create that applies to how we function together as a team. So that's something I'm very passionate about and something that I very strongly believe in, and there's many facets to that. And I think kind of training ourselves to spot them and how we can leverage them, that's kind of where the secret sauce occurs.

03:07 Shane: One of the examples that you have in the book is the engagement and onboarding process for a new person. Why should we bother designing that?

03:15 Re-imagining the Onboarding Process

03:15 Justin: Wow. That's one of the things culturally that I feel is most often missed or most easily missed.

03:23 And that is to say it's very easy to have someone start on a Monday and, you know, Have them attend training or onboarding and, you know, have it be, you know, you sit at a desk and someone's kind of lecturing at you and walking you through setting up email or, depending on the size of the business, that can have varied levels of depersonalization.

03:42 And then, you know, the logic being there's five days then stretching before me. There's five days to get involved in client work, maybe on the first day, sometimes. There's five days to have orientation. There's five days to get into it, in a business sense.

03:58 That's well and good, but I feel like that's the biggest opportunity to engage with someone and set the tone for what the rest of their tenure will be at the business is that first day.

04:07 So what I like to do, and I like how you use the word design, I've redesigned that first day and I like to call it the new day one.

04:13 And rather than having someone start on a Monday, I prefer that they start on a Friday because I'm looking for a different momentum. I'm looking for a momentum that isn't five days, I'm looking for a momentum of positivity and respect and momentum that carries through the weekend, instead of through five days of a business.

04:32 So, on that first day, on that Friday I make sure I'm greeting someone at the front door. We've all been in that situation where we starting a role, we're starting at a business and you walk in for the first time and you see people already in groups and they're in their cliques and people are hanging out by the coffee machine or they're scurrying off to a meeting and you kind of walk in and no one's there.

04:49 You know, it's like that first day of high school thing where you feel very out of place and you feel like you don't fit in, and I make sure I'm there and I'm greeting someone, face to face when we can shake hands again,  you know, I'll shake their hand and I'll welcome them, and I show them around.

05:02 I show them where the coffee machine is, where the mother's room is, tell them where they're able to work. You can work on a couch, you can work here, you can work there. And when they get to their desk, their computer's waiting for them there. It's not like, you know, let's find a laptop for you. I mean, everything, there's thought given to every step of the way.  Their laptop is there, and maybe there's a card signed by the team welcoming them aboard, very personal touch. And then, you know, that morning they can configure the laptop, and I have people around that answer their questions for them.

05:27 Around lunch, very straightforward, we go to lunch, you know, hopefully that's pretty straightforward, but then, you know, you're talking about where are you from, or, you know, things like that, tell me a little bit about yourself, and after that, we'll go to get coffee.

05:38 And we talk shop. We'll talk about the creative process and we'll, if it's a developer, we'll talk about our tech stack or we'll talk about programmatic things. And after that is where the biggest differentiator comes in.

05:49 That's where I tell them, take me someplace in the city that inspires you and the intent there is to get a sense of this person as an individual that transcends any body of work that they've shown to date; it transcends a portfolio, it transcends their body of work in a programmatic sense as well.  Because I feel like these spatial dynamics, when someone ultimately takes me to a space and we talk about why did you bring me here? We don't just go there and we look at it and I'm like, this is cool, okay, let's go back to work.

06:15 When we get there, I want to know what about this space influences them. What about this space influences why they became a designer or developer?

06:23 There are always stories that are incredibly applicable about that. It takes some extraction to get to it, but it makes the experience personal instead of formulaic. And I think again, that, that helps set a tone and  a dynamic throughout this person's tenure, about how we respect them as a business perspective as a team, because when someone is joining a business, they are extending a trust in us that we are going to help them grow as an individual and grow their skill sets.

06:46 And we have to show that trust back in a day like this. And it usually wraps up about three, four o'clock. And we're not saying let's go back to the office and work. It's like, okay, enjoy the weekend. And then there's a different momentum there.

06:56 They go back and they talk to them family and they talk to their friends and they are charged to come back in on Monday and then we can start doing some shadowing and getting observation done with projects, we don't throw someone right into client work.

07:06 But that whole dynamic is a change. It turns the onboarding process kind of on its ear in a very healthy and engaging way.

07:13 Shane: That's radically different to, Oh, you have arrived - who are you?

07:19 Justin: And we've all been there. We've all been there.

07:21 Shane: Go down to HR and fill in all of these forms.

07:26 Why should we bother though?

07:27 Justin: Like I said, the first day is so often a disconnect and I think it's, honestly  it's a sign, like, if you do join a business and, you know, say there's a disconnect, and I'll use that word again, between we've interviewed and in the interview process was very healthy and strong and you've got a good gut feeling about things and people, you know, treated you well and everything was looking good and you come in.  And then there is a disconnect in the boarding process and you join and ,like you said, go down to HR and fill out some forms, find your desk, see if you're able to connect to the network, and it's just very clinical and depersonal, I think those are warning signs. Honestly, because, you know, some people might be fine with that. Maybe some people , you know, they just want to kind of clock in and clock out. And that's kind of the level of engagement they're looking to get. And if that's their comfort zone, that's fine.

08:10 But some people who are joining a business for something more, for something where they can thrive and grow and be supported by leadership and you interview, and then you go in the onboarding process seems like the exact opposite of what you thought you were getting into. I think that's the point to kind of keep your head on a swivel.

08:26 I say, you know, when you're interviewing, we're all trained in the design of programmatic as to observe and be mindful of what's going on around them and to use those same levels of experience of observation when you're interviewing. I mean, everyone's kind of are my hands sweaty, or how does my breath smell or do I have lint in my pants, but be mindful of your surroundings as well.

08:44 Are you seeing people around you who are looking upset or, you know, running to meetings or are people actually pausing and having a coffee with one another and people seem like they're in a collegial, engaging environment. So why do we do it on that first day? You know, to set the tone of what generally is going to lie in front of them ahead, and like I said, to be demonstrably actions over words, respectful of this person on that first day and hour.

09:09 Shane: So how do we extend that into the design of the organization culture?

09:14 Starting with humble leadership

09:14 Justin: 09:14 Well, the beautiful part about that is that the pillars, I'll use that word again, the pillars and the hallmarks of that experience, being respectful, humble leadership, you know, as a leader, I'm a VP of a fairly large shared service team within a fortune 10 company in the United States, and that's not to pat myself on the back or flash my business card, but it is to say there are a lot of meetings that I could be in at that point, but I'd make it a point that the most important thing to me on that day is to be there for this person.

09:42 And it is to make that personal connection with them and say, thank you for joining, I appreciate you being here. And because I genuinely passionately believe in that, then the leaders on my team also followed suit and they make sure that the way we are engaging with someone and the way we are respecting them in the process and respecting them as an individual and respecting their time, if someone has to leave, you know, at four o'clock or three o'clock to pick up their kid, no one is tapping their watch and saying, Oh, you have a half day today, like there's no passive aggressive digs like that throughout the experience. And that's the cultural side of things, you know? And then we make sure that everything that we offer in a cultural capacity is a known quantity.

10:19 You say, how do we do that on a day to day? As a new employee, you might see people leaving at one o'clock and then coming back,  at  1:15 or 1:30 and you're like, well, you know, lunchtime already passed, and they're  just going around the block for a walk and to cool off. And you let your team know that it is okay to do that. It is okay to have a messy desk. It is okay if you have to leave early and pick up your kids or it's okay to have flexible time, it's okay to work from home.

10:40 So being as transparent and communicative with your team as possible to say that, you know, these are the thing, our culture affords that you can take advantage of these and then letting them know.

10:49 Cause I've been in business before and, and you know, you see people doing things, you don't know what the culture offers in a supportive sense, and it's like, is this person preferred over someone else that they're able to go out and do this?  No, everyone can do it, but I didn't know I could do that.

11:02 What does that help? It's not just, we're all going to burn incense and sing kumbaya.  It's because it helps the business. It helps engagement. It helps quality of work. It helps quality of life. It's organic marketing for the business. It helps retention for teams. So there are actual tangible benefits to this stuff, if you will, that transcends just feeling good. 

11:22 Of course it feels good, you're doing the right thing by people, but at the same time, it's good for the team. It's good for the business. It's good for the work that we're creating.

11:28 Shane: And in that creative environment, how do we, perhaps the term I'm looking for is, how do we protect that culture? How do we persist that culture? Because one of the things that we often see, and it's almost a stereotype: when you're a small organization, small team, you've got all of that, it's nice. It's great. It's comfortable. And then we grow a bit bigger and the bureaucracy starts arriving. And, and, and... so how do we persist that culture?

11:56 Justin: That all falls to leadership, honestly. The leadership needs to not only be protective of that, and it's in the original book, this is the second edition of the book we're talking about, but  the original book was called Cultivating a Creative Culture and cultivating that environment is incumbent upon leadership.

12:11 I mentioned actions over words before but being protective and advocating for a team and advocating for a culture as you're upscaling, as you're acquired. As your business goes from 50 to 300 to 3000. And like I said, I run a shared service team within a business that's owned by a fortune 10 company, and throughout these acquisitions and mergers, I report to the CTO and he sees that these things that I do that are a little different within a technology organization, that they work.

12:39 That when we put out surveys to our team and we talk about self-care or happiness or things like that, it comes back in metrics. This is not pseudoscience. This directly translates to tangible benefit. And by me as a leader, advocating for that and not just showing my boss who is the CTO, but also other C level people that these things work, then they become protective of them as well. Then it goes from my team to the organization level, the tech org level, and then it goes to the greater business level and it just kind of organically expands and it's not by happenstance.

13:10 It's because I am passionate about it, and I am protective about it and making sure that aligns for our business's values as well.  Our business has a great baseline culture and I leverage those to do the things I want to do for my team. So, there's no disconnect and if nothing else, it amplifies our baseline cultural values as well.

13:25 So we are protective of it in leadership. I like to say we are data informed over data driven, but data, you know, speaks to why I do what I do is successful, and again, that's not just because it feels good. It's because it translates to all those other bullet points that I cited before. Retention quality and things like that.

13:42 Shane: This is early May, mid-May, by the time this goes out, who knows  what the world will be like, but it's certainly going to be different to what it was a few months ago. And it's going to be different to what it is today. 

13:54 Persisting and nurturing culture in remote teams and organisations

13:54 One of the things that is definitely part of that difference is people have through this been working remotely. I have a hypothesis that a lot of people are not going to want to go back to working in person, some will. So how do you persist this type of culture in a remote organization?

14:10 Justin: First of all, to the latter point you made, I completely agree. I feel like a lot of people are going to not just hesitant to go back, but businesses are going to realize that they can work remotely completely and, you know, what does the office space look like when those who want to return do go back and, you know, elevator trips, like four people to an elevator and partitions and temperature taking, like, there's going to be a ,tremendous shift of what the actual office environment looks like, you know.

14:32 To working from home and maintaining that culture, I think if you adhere to those pillars and be, you know, I mentioned that this is incumbent upon leadership to champion these things and support them, humble leadership, just being humble, broadly. I like to say that humility is the most important skill for a designer because you're always a student, you're always learning, you're always open to growth and receptive of feedback.

14:53 And I feel like humble leadership really helps drive that level of genuine support, be it in person face to face or in a remote sense.

15:01 So for example, you know, if one of your points of comfort as,  let's say, an insecure leader, is I could see my team outside my office, so I know that they're not screwing around. I know that they're getting their work and then we're all working remotely, and I can't see them. So I'm making sure I'm checking in 25 times a day. I'm making sure there's any free block in there calendar where I can see there's an open spot, we're going to get something down.  I want them to show me their work and I want to know what they're doing. And then over meeting syndrome is exactly what's going to choke people down and you know, we're all in survival mode right now, just on the day to day, how do we get through things and not feel depressed or feel like we're practicing self care or we're getting out and getting some sun on our skin.

15:38 It's absolutely incumbent the leadership to figure out that balance between,  in a design sense I would say backseat creative directing, where someone's working and you kind of lean in and you say, what  if you tried this? Or what if we did this or let's go ahead and do that. And when you take that to an insecure leader and you're amplify it in a remote sense, I mean, that just crushes the creative process and slows things down, and people are, like I said, already dealing with so much, and then they have to deal with a leader who's breathing down their neck.

16:02 So. In a cultural sense remotely, I mean, let's even look at that onboarding thing: I just had two people start in my  team remotely three weeks ago, and I was thinking, how do I do the new day one on, in a remote sense, and what are the core tenants of that?

16:16 It's being respectful. It's connecting with someone. I like to call it pausing with intent, slowing down, not just to slow down, but slow down with value and meaning. And you know, one translation of that is pausing for a coffee break to connect with people.

16:28 Culturally, in a design sense, it means we're not rushing the designer.  In a software sense, we're not just hitting release, release, release, release, release, we're releasing with intent or releasing for the betterment of what we're ultimately trying to build or design. And we're slowing down and connecting with people.

16:43 And again, all those things I just said, slowing down to connect with people, apply that in a virtual sense. So I still had people start on a Friday. I still did the same thing with set up. I still did the same thing with lunch. We did it obviously via, I don't know, WebEx or zoom or something like that. I still did the same thing with coffee.

16:58 And I said, show me something that inspires you, rather than taking me somewhere that inspires you. And we just talked through it, like I said, talking through it. And what about x that you're showing me influenced you or influenced the way your work or how you solve design wise or programmatically, and the same thing,  we called the day early, and I asked them to think about their first day, and then we came back and we started throwing down the following week.

17:18 So all those things are not dependent upon me laying eyes on you, eight hours a day, or me checking in on you repeatedly.

17:26 Humility and respect and putting an individual first are the core foundations of a culture. It doesn't matter if you're in person or remote. I mean, they just kind of fuel a healthy process either way.

17:38 Shane: What are some of the other elements of the book and particularly the new release, what's coming?

17:43 Justin: Well, the first edition of the book was more about the way we treat one another and how that impacts the way we create, how we create.  The second edition focuses on that, how we create more and then the synergies between practice and process.

17:56 And like I said, there are a lot of aspects from onboarding, and I appreciate you mentioning that, or welcoming a new team member more specifically, to day to day interactions to someone's evolution in a role, people transitioning into management influences a section of the book.

18:12 I like to call it the transition of fulfilment. It talks about how, when someone is transitioning into a management role, and I even use myself as an example here, a lot of my success ,and I say this with air quotes, fame in the design space was through design. I got a lot of my notoriety through my design and my work. And then as I started progressing up the career ladder and I started getting some direct reports and I realized my design capacity was going down 25%, 50%.

18:37 My days would be more predicated upon the evolution of those in my team and their wellbeing and their growth and their work, and I would go home and I would feel this feeling of my chest like I wasn't satiated, I wasn't fulfilled, and I was like, what is going on? And that's because my identity was hung on Justin Dauer, the designer and the reception of my work and then when that was removed, I was starting to feel hollow. 

18:59 I had a good conversation with the person who leads my front end development team and they were going to same thing, and they were saying, you know, I love being a developer, but you know, I'm going home and I'm just feeling empty some days because you know, I have this team and we talked through it and I pulled the percentage, you know the percentage doesn't matter too much, but I said assume for every person you hire, your development is going to go down like 25%, your time is going to be more focused on the wellbeing of others.

19:22 Once I'd made that shift and now I can't see it any other way, supporting my team and championing their growth and their evolution. Now, my fulfilment is directly tied to that. Just like being a parent when it's not all about you anymore, it's about the growth of someone else, the growth of your offspring.

19:37 So that's talked about in the book as well, those correlations between growth and as a creator and a leader. A lot of the content is focused on design or observation, but those core tenants that I've been talking about throughout our conversation are omnipresent throughout the book about how to champion and support healthy culture, how it's more than just feeling good, how it is tangibly beneficial, to the way we create and the way we function and ultimately the product that we release,  design or programmatically.

20:04 I feel like I'm biased here, but it's a fairly engaging read, it's not the most strenuous material to get through. Its something you could probably get through in a few nights before bed. But I feel like there's a lot there that isn't being talked about these days and I think it's certainly applicable in an era where we're evolving the way we create and the way we work almost by the day.

20:23 I think there's a lot of good there to be had.

20:25 Shane: Thank you. Can we explore that leadership one? The great technologist who's now been promoted to ,very often, the worst leader, because they're given absolutely no support and training. How do you help that? And if I am in that position and maybe my organization, isn't providing me with everything that I need to figure out how to be a good leader now.  Where do I find stuff, what do I need to do for myself?

20:50 Justin: You know, thankfully the industry, you know, I'll just use myself as an example. I've worked with people who have been phenomenal managers and they have gone through a formal management training and you can see it shows when they start citing formal practices or methods they employ that are fairly foreign to me.

21:07 But again, being humble and being always amicable to learning has tremendously helped me in my personal growth and having peers and mentors who I can glean nuggets of wisdom from along the way. But there are always courses online and, you know, there's a Skillshare and copious books on management and leadership, but there's no one silver bullet, I suppose I'll say that is going to be applicable to you.

21:30 I think when you are humble and you are able to self-identify where you need to grow or what you are lacking in a leadership sense, I think you can kind of pick and choose the nuggets from the material that you go through that are going to be most applicable and appropriate to you.

21:44 So that would be my recommendation. Certainly making yourself open and available to different viewpoints. There are some tremendous speakers who speak about leadership. Simon Sinek comes to mind, who's a  tremendous speaker on leadership, and humility, and it's just a wealth of information on humbly engaging and motivating a team and motivating yourself as well.

22:05 So a broad swath of material, I would say, and being as humble as possible about what nuggets are applicable to you and identifying where you want to grow and what your current weak spots are.

22:15 Shane: Justin, thanks very much, some really interesting and valuable stuff there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you and where will they find the book?

22:23 Justin: They can find the book at It releases on June 23rd. It'll be paperback, hardcover, and ebook Kindle, or for Apple as well. Social media wise, @the_culturebook is the book social media presence. Personally, I am @pseudoroom on Instagram, Twitter, what have you, and I'm always receptive and amicable and appreciative of any and all feedback.

22:53 If you were listening to the dialogue  and it resonated, or if you think I'm full of it or anything, I'd love to hear it because I'm always looking to grow and appreciate that kind of candour. So that's where you can find me. And I hope you'll check the book out and I hope it's of value.

23:04 Shane: Thank you so much.

23:06 Justin: Thanks.


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