How we’re turning RSA Digital into a beacon

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The first steps in establishing an in-house team are in themselves huge. Managers like Facebook’s Julie Zhuo have already written extensively on the subject – so I won’t go in to that here – but we’ve been asking what comes next? How do you go from feeling like the scruffy start-up to becoming an agent of change? How do you share your achievements and spread the good work? More importantly how does your isolated group of designers, researchers, strategists and builders become a beacon for the future of your organisation.

Thankfully this challenging transition is not new for in-house teams and we have been looking at a number of success stories to guide us. Here I’ve captured some lessons learned from taking a little time to consider the long game and turning our in-house team into something more aspirational.

1. Be open and invite everyone in

We throw our doors metaphorically and physically open. The worst thing you can do is be guarded or secretive. It’s easy to instinctively be protective and try to keep outside influences away from your team, but this quickly descends to elitism and alienates the people you need to win over. We let anyone with any interest come in, work in our space, soak up the culture and have a poke around – internal teams, external teams, partners and suppliers. It’s not a natural behaviour for big companies, but it serves the team and its reputation enormously. Plus we find that the more accessible you are to internal teams, the less they will worry.

A great example of this approach is the team at GDS, who struck out against the trend and made all of their build, processes, principles and achievements public, with the use of a simple blog.

2. Mark yourself as different, but the same

Some form of identity is important, but looking like an entirely different organisation can create a disconnect. It is vital to achieve a sense of ‘new’, but attainable. Otherwise your team will begin to intimidate other groups.

When Robert Brunner set up Apple’s Industrial Design Group it was in a building across the street from 1 Infinite Loop, to purposefully seem different, from the rest of the business. Following the iMac launch in 2001 the team promptly moved back into the main office and immediately became more central to the company’s plans. That internal visibility was an essential step in Apple becoming a more design-focussed organisation.

3. Create outposts with ambassadors

This has been one of the key aspects to our team’s development. Most internal teams I’ve seen aren’t conscious of the long game. Many teams fail to show their whole organisation how to operate differently. By staying isolated they keep all the thinking in one place. So we reach out to interested people around RSA. We try to bring the most scared/pessimistic teams into our fold and ‘sheep dipping’ them in our micro-culture, before sending them back in to the wider organisation, fully loaded with the tools to become digital.

I would go so far as to recommend giving out a faux qualification. It sounds pithy, but it can be very powerful to give your new ambassadors to put on their desk or email signature. Items like this extend the reach of your beautiful digital beacon.

Conclusion

As the digital industry moves from a scruffy, self-doubting adolescent into a more refined, established being, so to must our approach to running in-house teams. We believe our team holds the responsibility for being a guiding light, as well as a maker of digital products.