What reason are you giving them in the first place?


My employees are not engaged in their work.” It’s possible but what reason are you giving them to engage or invest themselves in the first place? A weekly pay, social benefits, 3 weeks vacations, company shares, on-site cafeteria? These are different types of compensation for the work that is being done. Not reasons to justify why a work needs to be done. One way to identify a “reason why” is finding the most inspiring common denominators. Whether in your own or your team’s work. Opposite to aiming or settling only for the least inspiring and common factors. Here’s a story to help you with that.


It wasn’t the first time she had to do it; fire someone. Being the owner of a small business, Sonja wished she’d spend time on more pressing issues. Like having a more stable cash flow for her design studio – through developing repeat corporate customers instead of one-shot-deals. It would be a hard goal to achieve until she could actually rely on a team that would always get the job done. In truth, the problem wasn’t with everyone on the team but only a few people. The problem wasn’t neither with “always” but only in some cases. Things like a product’s prototype that ended up not meeting all the specs agreed upon with the client. There were also some low costs-big margins contracts that were almost lost because of inexplicable delays in handing out to clients a set of different sketches for their products.

Discussing the matter with one of her peers, she came to the conclusion that “my employees aren’t engaged in their work”.


By comparison with the competition, Sonja’s studio was rather small. A total of nine people, including her, where the big design companies in her town had teams of 30+. They also offered complementary services – like advertising and web design – but Sonja wasn’t into that. She wanted her bread and butter to come only from designing industrial products and consumer goods. There was a market for it anyway.

Still, she wondered how she could get everyone on her team to row in the same direction. Not only when they “felt” it.

How much are your employees being paid?” “Are there any performance bonuses structure?” “Do you offer your people things like prescription and dental plans?” “Did you think of turning them into shareholders, by giving away a very small percentage of your company?

All the questions and wisdom she could hear from other entrepreneurs she knew, atop of what she read on the web, seemed to be about money. Yet, giving bonuses or benefits didn’t prevent most of her peers from having to let go of some employees too. Or having almost as much problem as Sonja in recruiting qualified employees.

So the grass wasn’t that much greener elsewhere.

Because of the studio size and still relatively small but growing number of clients, Sonja couldn’t afford to offer more than a competitive base-pay. All those other “big guys’ solutions” weren’t possible to adopt just yet. Maybe in 18 to 24 months. If her biz development plan went well. For now, she had to find another solution path.


Look at how crappy these guys’ work is. Ours feels way more crafty. At least of better quality.” So said out loud Manuel; one of Sonja’s employees, that day.

Every month, Sonja’s team received their copy of an eMagazine some design fans had started to publish a few years back. Mostly filled with ads, it covered all things related to design; consumer goods, furniture, architecture and fashion, both on a local and state level. Although there were very well documented articles on some key issues and trends, the center piece was always this long profile of a design firm. That month, it was Dee&O. A company where Sonja had worked for in the past and that was now considered to be the town’s flagship, in terms of industrial and consumer goods design.

The article didn’t say much more than Sonja already knew about the Dee&O’s history and culture. On the other hand, the illustrated recap of what Dee&O had been working on the past year told a lot more. Enough for Sonja’s employee; Manuel, to say what he did.

These profiles were always accompanied by multiples pictures. In Dee&O’s case, some pictures showed a very good looking series of park benches and tables. The series on camping equipments… that’s the one Manuel’s commented on. Maybe it wasn’t as crappy as he said but Sonja agreed it lacked distinction. At least to really stand out from what was already available in the market. Even more, as mentioned in the article, that this new product line had been designed for a new outdoors brand.

For having worked in other studios before starting hers, Sonja knew that making compromises were part of the game. Of being in business and wanting to please clients. Even more if you wanted to reach or exceed Dee&O’s financial success. At the same time, she’d always kept in mind what one of her teachers used to say: “Don’t compromise on your beliefs and values for the sake of popularity or financial success”.

Dee&O had grown a lot these past years. Not always by staying true to what they believed in when the founders first opened their shop. The design community, at least on a local level, had learned about it over time. Still, Dee&O was regarded as something to aim for, a model.

The lack of distinction in the camping equipment triggered a series of questions Sonja then asked Manuel “If you had been in charge of that camping equipment series, in what way would you have made the large size cooler more useful and distinctive, while still good looking?” From the short discussion that followed with him and some other designers, Sonja went on to make an informal survey with the whole team. Even the admin assistant and the person responsible of accounting & payroll.

Over the next few days then, everyone’s thoughts were heard on different topics. The products and clients the studio had worked for during the past year. How the team worked and liked (or disliked) doing things. Everyone’s vision of what their work’s goal or utility was about, as part of the ensemble. What type of problems, products and they liked to solve or work on the most (or least) and why. The same for the type of clients they enjoyed working with and for (or not).

Ultimately, Sonja thought it would be important to answer “what’s our craft about?” and “what are we about, as a group?”.


These last two questions were very broad. How would you even answer them? As it turned out, from all the questions Sonja asked, those that helped the team the most weren’t speculative questions. Like “What do you think should be our company’s culture?” They were very practical, down to earth questions. Like “In the way we do things, how do you think we differentiate ourselves from the other design studios or companies you’ve worked for? The same for the studios you have seen the work and know people working there?” There was also “For what type of design problems do you think we really come together as a team, in terms of collaboration, and seem to do some of our best work?

All pointing in the same direction: What is the studio’s signature? Something that sent back to what Manuel had criticized Dee&O for in the first place; their lack of distinction (in their work for the camping equipment series).

Less than two weeks after Manuel’s comment, Sonja and her team had all they needed to define the studio’s signature. It all went like this:

> Our goal, as a team, is to improve people’s work and personal physical environment.

> The way we do it? By putting the user (not the product) at the center of what we design. Then, by giving priority to simplicity, ergonomics, durability and sustainability.

> All that because we love to put a smile on people’s faces with a dose of sustainable style in their hands.

Most of the team was surprised and taken aback a little when they heard it as a whole for the first time. It wasn’t a typical Mission statement. By the end of the day, though, everyone had came to see Sonja and told her how they liked it. Why? “Because it has an inspiring feel to it” was the most cited reason. “Because it says very well what I like best about the work we do here” was another one.

If Sonja had gone for the least common and inspiring denominators, like Dee&O did *, it wouldn’t have triggered the same type of reactions from her staff. Moreover, it wouldn’t have given her what she needed most: leverage points to foster either the engagement from the team she already had or of the people she would eventually need to hire (to support the expected studio’s growth). All that without having to hand out more money (like bonuses or social benefits or else) to stir such engagement. Because her employees now had a clear reason to invest themselves in their work; improve people’s environment with a dose of sustainable style.

Spontaneously, what reason justifies the most why the work that either you or your team does has to be done?

* Dee&O’s Mission statement: “We provide professional design, advertising, and architectural services. As a full service firm, our mission is to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations.”

Signature PF