At the beginning of January, Smartlies from around the globe gathered in snowy Finland for our all-hands strategy retreat Futurio to discuss and collectively influence Smartly.io's goals for the upcoming year.
Our CEO and COO have shared their views on why we do Futurios. In this post, I share my key learnings from Futurio. I hope to give a glimpse of what it feels like to participate in an all-hands strategy offsite with 270 colleagues from all corners of the world!
1: Crystallizing the vision helps self-organizing teams stay aligned
One of our core values is to work smartly, which emphasizes making decisions nimbly and executing with speed as a habit. However, moving at speed doesn't necessarily mean you are going in the right direction unless you are following a bright North Star. The way I see it, Futurios are designed to address this issue explicitly.
Futurio kicked off with our Leadership team explaining the five-year vision and company-wide strategic goals for the next two years, and their thinking on what we need to do to reach them. What are the most significant opportunities and challenges we face? Where do we need to improve as an organization as we scale up?
It was fascinating to see this level of transparency at work at our scale. Everyone had the opportunity to ask tough questions during the talks, and the questions sparked new, difficult conversations after the sessions in our internal chat.
Having access to business-critical data and understanding where we stand as a company is crucial because we are growing fast, and things can go wrong awfully quickly if we aren't aligned in the big picture. Understanding the broader context gives my teammates and me a clear indicator of what we should prioritize when we set up our team's own plans for 2019.
I don't think this kind of transparency and open feedback culture would work for all companies. It wouldn't work, for example, for companies where the leadership team is worried about being caught in debate and having to revisit their reasoning. Also, this certainly doesn't work for companies where the leadership prefers to make decisions top-down and have the rest of the company execute without questioning or challenging their thinking.
However, this is what works for us at Smartly.io. Our leadership team has the humility to tap into the collective brainpower of Smartlies to ensure that the decisions we make and the actions we take are the ones that will take us towards our goals.
I find this extreme transparency remarkably motivating because it empowers me to see what impact I can make to help us reach our vision.
2: Hackathons remind us to act, not just plan
If Futurio was solely a visioning and planning exercise, it would probably feel a little up in the air and produce no tangible outcomes other than a set of powerpoint decks. That’s why I really appreciate the fact that one day of Futurio is dedicated for a hackathon.
Futurio hackathons are organised from the ground up and exemplify a few of our treasured values at the same time—taking ownership, working smartly, and thinking customers first. Anyone can propose a hackathon idea before Futurio, and the topics can range from ”The future of business intelligence internally at Smartly.io” to ”Build a selector for image template presets in the user interface”. In Futurio, the initiators pitch their ideas on stage, and Smartlies can join whichever hackathon they like. If your idea resonates with other Smartlies, you’ll soon get Smartlies from all across the organization joining you to work on it together for one day.
I joined a hackathon crew that set out to build a Facebook Playable Ad for one of our largest customers as a proof of concept. I joined this group because I thought it’d be fun to code, but I could also see why hacking this together was valuable to the customer and our company. Strategically, the goal was to deepen our understanding of the ad format so we could evaluate various ways of making the production more scalable or automated for all our users in the future.
By the end of our hackathon, our team of product managers, designers, developers, and customer success managers produced a HTML5 mini game that could be uploaded directly to Facebook and used as a Playable Ad. We were satisfied with our work and so was our customer when we showed it to them a couple of days later.
The way I see it, the Futurio hackathons are more than just a way for us to work with Smartlies we haven’t worked with before to build useful things. They serve a deeper philosophical purpose of hinting that we should be biased towards action so that we can move fast, stay nimble, and solve our customers’ problems. The products of our hackathons also remind us just how much we can achieve when we focus our efforts on solving a problem.
3: Building trust is 100x faster in person
One of the biggest benefits of Futurio is that when 270 people from all around the world get together for four days to debate the future of the company, eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, do morning yoga, go cross-country skiing, and knock down bowling pins, we get to know one another better and knit closer as a team.
I work in the Service Operations team that has members on three continents and four time zones. I have worked with my teammates mostly through video calls and our internal chat for over six months now, but I feel like I have learned so much more about them in these four days than I had in my whole time working at Smartly.io.
For example, I learned that some of them like meetings to be as short as possible and get uneasy at any second that isn't spent strictly on the agenda. Others preferred to be thorough and take time to provide context. Neither is right or wrong—I just needed to know their preferences so that I can work more effectively with each of them. We are all humans with quirks, and when we learn to work with that, we build trust and work together better.
Trust is just one aspect of any company culture. Other elements, like the ones we care about in Smartly.io—taking ownership, maximizing learning, thinking customers first, and working smartly—also accelerate through social interaction. During Futurio, I saw how some of my colleagues embodied our culture in slightly different and better ways than me. That helped me to learn new ways of contributing to the company culture I appreciate and value.
All in all, Futurios are one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy working at Smartly.io. I've learned a lot about how a scaling company operates, gleaned plenty of cultural and social nuggets from my colleagues, and built trust with my team. Most importantly, I've grasped even more clearly what we're trying to achieve as a company, and I'm excited about executing the strategy and reaching the vision we've set as a company.
Learn more about our company culture in our Culture Handbook.