Skookum: How To Manage Creative Teams + Projects

Get an inside look into how Skookum plans projects, motivates their team, and learns from failures.

Shookum interview with 10,000ft

"You took what we said and made it better."

That's how a client recently reacted during a final deliverable presentation and according to Joe Ryan, Skookum COO, moments like this happen a lot and are one of the most rewarding parts of his job.

But reactions like this are no accident. Over the past 10 years, Skookum has turned their small web-development shop in Charlotte, NC into a full service custom product development company, opened a second office in Denver, and have consistently delivered mission critical software and consumer-facing products to mid-market and Fortune 500 companies.

In our latest Two Beers interview, we sat down over pints with Joe and CPO (that's Chief People Officer) Andew Gertig, to talk about project planning, motivating the team, and celebrating failures.

Joe and Andrew in front of logo wall

Joe Ryan and Andrew Gertig of Skookum

Building A Plan When The Path Is Unknown

Anyone working in a services business must have a certain level of comfort with the "unknown" in order to be successful. Much of Skookum's recent work has incorporated Internet of Things technology, where the path to proven success is nearly non-existent. When they start a new project for a client, there is a chance that they could be the first people to take on that challenge.

"We approach every project with the mindset that it's a new project, in a new industry, with new stakeholders."

"Being able to meet the expectations of the project and deliver on the backend under budget is the hardest thing we do as a services business," says Joe. But Skookum is able to deliver on new challenges time and time again through a combination of tools, strategic meetings, and milestones that encourage constant feedback from the client.

"We are never more than three weeks away from what we call a 'release candidate' – something that is defect-free and has been demoed in its entirety," explains Joe. "This allows us to pull in feedback early and often, and helps us avoid what I call the 'runaway train of development' – where you wait three to four months to get feedback only to find out that your solution wasn't what the client was thinking at all."

Skookum also relies on a proven process that they have refined over the past decade to ensure their team is setup for success. "We know we can't come in to a new project and start writing code on day one," explains Joe. "We approach every project with the mindset that it's a new project, in a new industry, with new stakeholders."

Skookum cltgroup in conference call

Each project begins with an engineering phase where a small interdisciplinary team outlines a plan before others get involved. The team is a kind of "three-legged stool" made up of a product strategist, a designer, and a tech lead tasked with defining the timeline, budget, scope, and team that will ultimately build the product.

"People typically think of planning before writing code as a waterfall process, but that's not what we're doing."

"People typically think of planning before writing code as a waterfall process, but that's not what we're doing," says Joe. "We're engaged in a minimum amount of planning in order to understand the problem and the users. Essentially we want to get to the point where we are all comfortable developing. Then we continue the planning throughout."

With the initial plan in place, the team gets started on three-week sprints with hard deliverables at the end of each. By presenting the work in three-week intervals, the project team is able to pivot when needed, and since those pivots happen close together the deliverable is never too far away from what the client expects.

"It's hard," Joe says. "Each project is challenging but we trust in our process and our expertise."

Skookum denver team in the office

Keeping The Team Motivated – Carrots And Sticks Not Required

Author Daniel Pink has become somewhat of an authority when it comes to motivating teams, mainly due to his book "Drive" where he presents three core principles for motivating teams: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Joe and Andrew are very familiar with Pink's work and made a point to mention that they think about his three principles a lot, especially when it comes to the types of projects they take on, how they structure the company, and how they build teams and incentivize their people.

"I would say we've done a pretty good job of giving autonomy to our teams," says Andrew. "Each team is responsible for everything that gets done on a project and each person is responsible for their representative part."

But it doesn't end there. Autonomy is not just about giving people space and expecting great work to come of it. They need the right information and resources to make decisions; something Skookum is keenly aware of.

"One of the things we preach to our management organization is to give our teams the guidance and the tools they need to get started on a project and then get out of their way," explains Joe. "We've hired smart people to solve problems. We give them the process that we use and say 'Here is a process that has been successful, repeatedly. Break the rules when it doesn't make sense.' They know best when the situation comes up whether this is required or not."

Skookum arduino working with tech

"In terms of mastery, we believe in learning a ton," explains Andrew. "Two of our core values that go hand in hand are 'Thirst for growth' and 'Teach and challenge,' and we do a number of things to make that happen." For example, everyone has a budget to attend five conferences a year on top of their regular PTO. They host the self-proclaimed most technical Meetup in Charlotte, covering topics that range from iOS and Android development to JS and QA. Every other Friday they host a Ted-style talk where people from outside the company are invited to come in and talk about relevant topics.

"Things like this give people a creative outlet to master their craft. And not only do they benefit but our clients do too."

And then there are Working Groups. Working Groups are three to six month initiatives where each team member allocates around 10% of their time to focus on something totally non-project related.

"These are self-selected groups of people who want to gain knowledge of something in a particular area or new technology. We've had people do everything from developing API standards to creating a robot with a camera attachment that can run around the office. The folks in our Denver office like to drive it around to see what we're up to in Charlotte," says Joe. "Things like this give people a creative outlet to master their craft. And not only do they benefit but our clients do too."

"Purpose has always been the hardest one for me to really nail down," reflects Andrew. "It's highly intrinsic; it's not always easy to know what things we need to give a person to get the highest level of a feeling of purpose.

"On a project level, we try our best to line people up with something that they are passionate about or where they are building something meaningful. Teaching has also been a powerful purpose tool for us. People feel a sense of self-reward when they give back, so giving people opportunities to get on stage and teach has been powerful. Purpose is something we're always working on."

Sharing The Right Information At The Right Time

Transparency often comes up in conversations about managing a modern workforce. The team at Skookum believes in transparency a lot, but acknowledge that becoming a fully transparent organization is easier said than done.

"The more people that understand what is going on, the more people that have the information necessary to execute on their day to day, and to understand where Skookum is going as a company, the more ability they have to make decisions that carry us forward," explains Andrew. "However, transparency is a very difficult thing in application. For one, you can sometimes be too transparent. Sometimes there is information that doesn't make sense to share if it is not relevant to the situation. So we're constantly having to balance that out."

Skookum qa session

"There are some things we know that we want people to be transparent about, regardless of the situation," adds Joe. "People typically think about top down transparency, but as a services company, we have cross-functional teams working on many projects at a time. What can happen is Project Team A can learn a really valuable lesson or make a mistake, and without transparency throughout the organization, that mistake is not shared with Project Team Z, and they end up making the same mistake."

"Certainly transparency from the top down is important, but it doesn't stop there. It has to spread across your entire culture."

In order to avoid repeated mistakes and spread knowledge throughout the organization, Skookum holds an internal event called "Celebrate Failures" where project teams that have made a mistake—whether it be with each other, a wrong technical choice, or with a client—stand up in front of the entire company and give a five-minute pitch on what the failure was, why they failed, and what they did to fix it.

"We rip through as many of them as we have for that month so we're not hiding our mistakes; so we're learning from each other. Certainly transparency from the top down is important, but it doesn't stop there. It has to spread across your entire culture."

Sensing that they've given too much attention to failure, Andrew adds, "You should know we have a kudos chat room to celebrate our successes too."

As we finished our beer, the conversation meandered through other topics like the 9 core values that shape their company culture, and a few of the many programs they have organized to engage their community. Things like donating laptops to local coding schools; Innovation Camps, which are like micro-projects for new clients; and Night Shift, a 10-week program where members of the community come in to learn to write code and work on real projects for local non-profits.

When we asked Joe and Andrew about what keeps them engaged and motivated, Joe said it's simple: "As managers, we get to work with people who take raw inputs and create beautiful solutions, and our clients see that too, so it's a very inspiring environment to be in. When you can see the people that you work with have such an impact on our clients on a daily basis — that alone is super rewarding."

Skookum team

Skookum is a full service software development company with offices in Charlotte, NC and Denver, CO. Their team provides product strategy, UI/UX design, development and support services across a variety of domains. Their work ranges from mobile apps to enterprise systems to the Internet of Things. See how they create software solutions that affect real business change at

Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.

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