ribot Days

By Jerome Ribot on 4th March 2014

Let me start with what ribot Days are…

Every month here at ribot, we essentially shut down our service operations for two back-to-back days. We’ve been carrying out this process, known internally as ‘ribot Day’, for a few years now and we thought it was about time we opened up and talked about what it is, how it works, what we’ve changed and, arguably of most importance, why we do it.

’ribot Day’ is a small chunk of studio time focused on achieving two things:

  1. Improving internal systems and ways of working, known as ’Cogs’
  2. Researching, creating and / or writing about new ideas, known as ‘Concepts’

I’ll elaborate more on the details a little later on, when we discuss what problems we’d overcome and improvements implemented over the past few years.

For now though, I’m going to dig a little deeper into why we choose to forego what equates to roughly £20k of vital service revenue for two whole days each month.

So, there are many reasons why we do this…

1. Staying ahead

First, as a digital service company, the industry we operate in, though it has matured a little over the last 5 years, is still constantly in flux. Given that, it’s crucial that we stay ahead of all relevant emergent trends and technologies.

The research and experimentation that happens during ribot Days allows us to sort the technological wheat from the chaff, as it were. This then means we can make much more confident decisions regarding their usage (or otherwise, dissuading clients, with credible reasoning) within our service projects, both in terms of high level strategy and in implementation from a technical / UX perspective.

2. Constantly improving our processes

Beyond research, we’re fully aware of the fact that the processes we have at ribot are - and should always be - open to improvement and necessary change as we grow and mature.

At ribot, we have a pretty flat structure that encourages independence and openness. We actively encourage ribots to find better ways of working, and ribot Days are a perfect opportunity to play around with and test out new ways of doing what we do each day. It could be a reusable development script, distilling a series of steps into a single line of code, the creation of a SVG icon library, or even the design and construction of a standing desk.

Every ribot has a unique perspective on process, and there are fascinating traits that come out, around self-organising behaviour. Perhaps the most important of these lies in the natural shift towards greater ownership of the tools and systems that we adopt - we’re more likely to use and iterate the things that we feel a sense of control over.

3. An important opportunity to think broadly

On a higher level, ribot Days offer us an important space to think openly about broader questions that sometimes get overlooked within the context of a project. Looking at designing around a particular emotion, for instance, is fascinating. Creating a digital service focused on achieving empathy, for example, throws up all kinds of interesting considerations around the UX. How would it differ from one focused on sympathy - a close, but nevertheless distinct emotional cousin?

4. Intellectual Property

We also run ribot Days to create our own IP. As a service company, other companies come to us and pay us for the work we do for them. IP retention tends to be a contractual obligation for most, and though a natural expectation for our industry, tends to impart natural clinging feelings of surrogacy, post project birth.

ribot Days offer us a perfect place to counter this, with IP creation increasing the sense of ownership, opportunity and collateral within the company, as well as many reusable tools that make our service offering more effective and compelling.

But what about the problems; the changes?

The reason we’ve chosen to write about ribot Days now, after having done it for about 4 years, is that it feels like it’s reached a stage of maturity and level of learning that would, we think, be beneficial to share with others.

And it’s changed a lot. We’ve tweaked this, questioned that, and I’d like to share some of the problems we’d faced, and how we dealt with them.

1. A lack of collective structure

Problem: ‘When’ was always a challenge

When ribot Days first started, there was very little structure around when these days would take place. They’d also take place on an individual basis, rather than as a group. People would have what was known as a ‘gold card’, which they’d individually allocate to a given single day in their calendar. This concept didn’t work very well, as they felt like there was never an appropriate time for them to use their card.

Solution: We made it social.

We decided that we needed to allocate a given day to the practice, for a number of reasons:

  • It sets an expectation about an upcoming, unmovable and repeatable event
  • Everyone would use their gold card at the same time, bringing about greater collaboration and sense of occasion
  • A single, regular day is easier both to communicate with all clients, and for them to recall.

This had profound effects for the concept. Motivation and collaboration both blossomed, and the set time structure removed the (somewhat unnecessary) need to choose a time. It also allowed for us to create ceremonial events both during (Fondue Night; ribot Cinema) and at the end of each ribot Day, where we’d present our cogs and concepts back to the group.

2. Preparedness in advance

Problem: We wasted time

To begin with, the sheer luxury of allocating service time to innovation and thinking was an excitement in and of itself. However, we found that there wasn’t enough structure around the innovation, namely around areas of focus and planning. People couldn’t choose what to work on, because there was too much choice. Vital time was wasted during the innovation period that could have been spent much more efficiently.

Solution: Collective pre-planning

The solution was initially the setup of a pre-planning meeting, where we’d sit around a table and openly discuss our ideas, who’d work on what with whom. We also have been lightly dabbling with themes, though this is in the early stages.

We’ve evolved the process since. Now, we individually share our ideas for how we’ll use the time within a ribot Days Basecamp thread, and continue the conversation in a special ribot Days Skype room. It had a profound effect on the level of conversation and self-organisation that, to some curious extent, was missing when we’d meet physically. Most importantly, though, it meant we weren’t wasting time any more.

3. The 8-hour length of ribot Day

Problem: Not enough time to innovate deeply

Even with pre-planning sorted, we felt we could only do so much in 8 hours, a point brought up in our monthly ‘riFresh’ meeting, where we all sit around at a table and chat about high level company stuff. It was felt that we could only do so much in a single day, especially with time spent prepping the presentation at the end of the day, which made ribot Days more stressful than was necessary for adequate focus.

Solution: Double the time

In that meeting, we collectively agreed to trial a two-day ribot Day. This allowed us more time to work through our concepts and cogs in more detail, and crucially, with an evening in the middle, more time to reflect, think, and reassess expectations and focus. As a result, the trial has become standard and, despite its name, ribot Day is now a two-day affair.

4. Client expectations

Problem: Issues around awareness and why we do it

So, as mentioned earlier, we’re a service company, doing work predominantly for other companies. One issue we faced was that we generally didn’t factor in ribot Day time into project pre-planning, because it was so new, unestablished and without too much structure at the time. It was certainly difficult to retrofit, once collective expectations were set for a given project. What that then meant was that we had to be almost apologetic when flagging that we have ‘this thing we do’ each month. It didn’t make sense, because there are benefits to all.

Solution: Communication and thoughtful flexibility

Shifting to a collective period for ribot Days has made things a lot easier. We now tell clients we’re essentially closed for two days per month, but we’re still flexible, if any major releases are imminent. We now give plenty of notice and even invite our clients in to take part. As well as coming up with great ideas together, this invitation helps break down any fears around what they might feel our true priorities are.

5. Being too ambitious

Problem: Trying to achieve too much

Naturally, ribot Days are an exciting affair, with everyone wanting to make the most of the time, and come up with the most amazing things. However, we have a limited period of time, and we tended to over-estimate how much was achievable in such a time. The shift from one to two days also required a reconfiguring of expectations.

Solution: Part a process of education, part through experience

The solution was really two things. Firstly, it’s an education for the team - Antony and I had prior experience at other companies of these innovation periods, and we consistently communicate to the team the importance of keeping the task small and achievable. But no matter what you say, the best way to learn is to go through the experience, getting it wrong a few times, realising what then feels achievable, and adjusting expectations in future months.

Beyond ribot Day

Getting serious with the bigger projects

It’s not so much of a problem, but more a yearning to take some of the bigger ideas borne out of ribot Day further. Frustrations around wishing to launch and subsequently maintain some of these creations have been plentiful. They require nurturing within an internal product-focused incubator which, until now, we’ve just not had the resources to set up. They also require on-going support after birth.

However, we’ve now hired an experienced COO with product experience, who will help oversee and define core structural changes for the appropriate product / service mix at ribot. A lot of digital agencies have been itching to get into product recently, but few have done it well, perhaps with the exception of UsTwo and a few others. To go from two days per month to a full-blown product division is a significant jump for a small service company like ribot but, as well as the risks and resource requirements, we understand the myriad benefits it will bring in the future.

Some final considerations…

However you choose to foster innovation in your company, it’s incredibly important that you actually find time to do so. It’s easy to let everyday processes and expectations - not just externally, but internally too, if your organisation is large enough - get in the way of fostering an ideas-based culture. It’s vital that you set up a consistent structure that’s ridiculously easy to communicate, maintain and grow. If you’re a service company with other commitments, make sure you allow enough flexibility in what you define, so as to accommodate differing client expectations.

However, it’s crucial that if you’re serious about fostering such a culture, you need to remain firm about your values and not give in to short-term project pressures. Despite best intentions, nobody else will naturally put your needs first, but having an open-door policy with clients seems like the best way to educate and share in the benefits of what is, in our case at least, quickly becoming the beating heart of ribot.

With special thanks to Ben for the illustrations and the production of the ribot Day videos, and to Lindsay, who assisted with lighting and scene setup.

Lastly, if you found this thought interesting or helpful in any way, please do share it! That’s all we ask.

Cheers guys!