Vendasta’s Bryan Larson on empowerment and strategic autonomy in R&D teamsBy Emily Dyrland
A true creative with a passion for design, Bryan Larson carved his path from high school teacher to VP of Strategy leading R&D teams at Vendasta. Here, Larson discusses his life learnings and how they have guided him to become a leader in team empowerment and strategic autonomy in research and development (R&D).
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The learnings and strategies throughout this article can be considered a template for leading a world-class R&D team. From team and company culture to strategic autonomy, Larson guides other leaders in tech down the path of enabling a high-functioning and thriving R&D team.
From teacher to VP of Strategy in tech
Larson started his professional career as a school teacher, and even then was pioneering a path for creative thinkers who had an inclination in design.
“When I started to teach art, there were questions like, ‘why do you have the computer lab booked for art class so often?’" Larson recalls. “We were downloading open source graphic design software, because there wasn't enough budget to get Adobe Photoshop licenses at the time.”
Always forward-thinking, Larson wanted to introduce graphic design into the curriculum. Seeing where the digital world was heading, he saw the importance of giving students these experiences that he found so exciting.
With a lack of funding for the necessary hardware and software, he submitted some of the students’ videos into a MuchMusic contest, which they won. The prize was exactly the type of equipment Larson wanted for his students. This was when the school started to truly recognize the value of digital education.
“I was pushing the boundaries of the traditional curriculum, but the students really liked it. Then the school started to really like it because we were getting recognition for what we were able to produce,” explains Larson.
Larson took the next step in his career into media production at a small photographic firm while also operating as a freelancer. As he did this full time, he honed his graphic design and digital editing skills. Unfortunately, Motion Picture & Sound, the small firm Larson worked at, ended up closing down. It was then that he found a posting with Vendasta.
“When I was looking out on the job market, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, there's a software company here in Saskatoon?’ I just always thought they were somewhere else, so I applied for an entry-level support position, and I got it,” says Larson.
From there, Larson moved quickly into marketing, which led to product design, and eventually leadership.
“I was working… in web and marketing, and then I made the full jump into product design. Then, from product design, I moved into product design leadership and started to build out that community in prairie tech to show companies the value of having this discipline fused into your R&D. Fast forward, every tech company in the Canadian Prairies has product design, and we have a thriving team here at Vendasta,” Larson shares.
Promoting culture in R&D teams
Culture in the workplace brings people together, builds trust, and forges bonds, which ultimately opens up communication across a group of people.
Proper motivation is foundational in life, in work, and in building an effective workplace culture. But what does extrinsic motivation look like within a work culture?
“There has to be an idea of what success looks like and why you're doing it. If you don’t understand why, you don't understand the purpose. And if you don't understand the purpose, it's hard to be motivated. So, why you're doing it and what success looks like, specifically if that success can be measured, now gives you two very important parameters.”
Parameter one: Know where you are, where you’re going, and how to measure whether your R&D team is successful along the way.
Parameter two: Know why you’re doing it. This gives purpose, which then translates to motivation.
“Then you can start to say, ‘Well, from an ideation standpoint, what's the best way to get there? And where should we begin?’ And then you get into the idea of prioritization. You get into the idea of checking in on whether or not you're actually making progress towards your goals,” Larson explains.
When thinking about putting the right systems in place to facilitate an effective team culture, Larson would define a clear vision in four points:
- A metric for success.
- A clear “why” or purpose in doing the work.
- A method for prioritizing what you do first.
- Openness to change along the way so that you can adapt as you continuously learn. A flexible plan is key.
R&D culture, much like other groups, is very dependent on close working interactions. Larson points out that the culture in R&D teams has changed dramatically since 2020 as working agreements have become more remote-friendly, but the foundations remain the same.
“If I think back to my first time in R&D, a healthy culture was built around the idea of a team coming together and recognizing how it needed to work in terms of a working agreement as a foundation.
“Now we have to go about building and spreading workplace culture with a different lens depending on the working agreement, whether it’s hybrid, fully remote, or everyone is back to the office full time. Leaders have to be cognizant of how they can bring their team together depending on their situation.
“The big change is now trying to have that purely in a digital space or through a hybrid space: Figuring out that culture through a digital space opens up new types of challenges. From a leadership perspective, it can start with spending some time with people talking about life interests and the joys that you have. And don’t neglect to celebrate some wins. It doesn't mean getting to business first and foremost all the time,” Larson shares.
It can be easy to sacrifice camaraderie across a highly productive and busy R&D team, but it’s an important driver of future success.
“The biggest challenge I find in creating a remote culture is just the online hangout fatigue. Everything becomes a booking in a calendar, another screen, and more time sitting in front of that screen. So, now all of a sudden when your job is working within a technical space on a computer and the culture socialization time is that as well, it can be tiring. This has become an additional challenge to try to keep things lively, interactive, fun, and different for R&D teams. Sometimes in just a pure real-world environment, you can overcome this a little easier,” explains Larson.
How to build an R&D team: The drivers of team empowerment
Team empowerment is driven by leadership and supportive colleagues. The outputs of team empowerment include the continuous improvement of processes, strategy, and teamwork.
Larson says, “It's about the idea of making others better. It's not so much about making a system better for the sake of the system being better. It's about helping your R&D teams figure out how to improve in what they do.”
There is joy in helping others, and helping others achieve their goals. Objectives create impact. This is a lesson Larson took from his early teaching days. Moments of shared success radiate team empowerment because of the power of the knowledge being passed on to the next person.
“Not only are you able to transfer knowledge or help somebody to challenge an assumption or get better at what they're doing, but you now have a measurable impact in how that actually achieved your objectives. That isn't limited to organizations; that's just life.”
Realistic but ambitious goal setting and celebrating the large and small wins, especially R&D team wins, is a great way to advance team empowerment.
“It's the idea of actually seeking out to accomplish something as a diverse group of individuals with unique skills and perspectives, and leveraging those unique skills and perspectives to solve complex problems so that in the end, you can actually create an impact and then celebrate that impact with your team.”
How to build an R&D team
Three themes that Larson hits on when it comes to how to build an R&D team are motivation, cohesiveness, and autonomy. These are all important in building a successful team.
According to Larson there are two types of highly effective motivation for R&D teams:
1. Comprehension of the impact being made through your work.
“Ask yourself, what change is this actually making to our customer’s world? Is it solving a real problem? Is it removing toil? Is it opening up some ability to do something that they're just craving? That can be really motivating to solve a real problem,” explains Larson.
2. Continuously refining and learning your craft.
“I know for myself, I love spending time designing things, so it never really feels like work. I take a lot of motivation just by extending those skills and seeing whether I can solve a problem through my craft. But I think it's a balance between the purpose of why you're doing what you're doing and your ability to actually get the job done.”
Structuring how teams work together is another area to consider when building a thriving team, especially in a hybrid mix.
“I'm leaning more and more to the idea where a hybrid team should start operating more as if it's fully remote. If you have remote people in a meeting, everybody just joins as though it's remote. It allows for a better ability for people to share information in the same way. It's challenging when you have a boardroom table full of people and then there’s a couple people on a monitor in the corner who have a hard time interjecting into the conversation or feeling like they are part of that group,” he explains.
Taking care to hire a team of the right people for the job, the business, and the existing team is also exceptionally important for a leader to do. It’s up to leadership to build a team that is made up of people who have a passion for their end user and customer, as well as their craft. Hiring the right people from the start will be the most effective way to build a thriving team.
“With every leader, I believe a human-centric view on running an organization is great. Both on the people that put their effort into growing it and the people that come in and actually find value in it. If you can find ways of driving a positive experience on both those fronts, organizational growth is the derivative effect of that,” he shares.
Strategic autonomy in R&D teams
When autonomy is given strategically, it boosts innovation, enhances belongingness of team members, and improves their performance. This all happens because team members are able to work in their own way, be creative, and solve problems more freely.
As we continue to move forward, it's about solving the right problem and measuring the impact that you want to make, but having some freedom for rapid experimentation and ideation along the way. Also, don't get stuck on a single solution right away. Really understand what success looks like. How might we measure it and how might we impact that? Then the other part of strategic autonomy is having freedom to fail. I don't really like the idea of win or lose. It's win or learn. Rapid experimentation is about quickly finding out if something sticks or not.
Advice to influence and support R&D team empowerment and strategic autonomy in 2023
Larson shares lessons learned that you can take forward into 2023 with confidence to support strategic autonomy within your R&D team.
Can you teach it?
The protege effect occurs when you learn information more deeply because you need to teach others. Having to teach others leads to increased motivation to learn and increased feelings of competence and strategic autonomy (Effectiviology).
“One really important lesson I learned was in education. The lesson was about how much better you learn something when you're asked to teach it. So, I quickly came to find that if I'm going to stand up in front of a classroom and actually teach them about something, the amount of effort I would put in to poke holes into my own assumptions, or to make sure that I double check my research, increased. You want to provide the best information possible, especially in a subjective medium. That doesn't mean it can't be backed by science. That doesn't mean that you can't take something subjective and find objective ways of measuring its success, for instance.”
Leaders can create team empowerment and support their team members by asking individuals to teach each other, as well as taking a step back to check their own teachings and information going forward.
Importance of mentorship
Becoming a mentor forces leaders to question their assumptions. It gives your R&D team the power to question their leader as well.
Larson explains, “It's not to say that you might not have an educated assumption or a validated assumption through your own experiences, but you really want to put pressure on the idea.”
He goes on to explain, “It’s a good idea to ask, ‘Am I right?’ and ‘Do I really want to communicate this?’ If I'm not right and this is something that still needs to be explored, then it just has to be communicated properly that somebody needs to take this undefined thing and continue to move it forward.”
Larson sums it up with the idea of continuous learning in mentorship on part of both the mentor and the mentee.
“It's all about continuous learning and pushing yourself to learn at a deeper level. The flip side of that is just the joy and satisfaction of helping other people.”
Not everyone will have a client-facing role, but that doesn’t mean there should be a barrier between R&D teams and their customers. Leaders need to take time to speak with customers regularly and convey those conversations to their team.
“I was just in a conference and sat down and had conversations with numerous customers. So, often what can be mistaken as top-down direction is actually just indirect customer feedback. Your team might think, ‘Oh well, my boss told me I had to do this.’ When, if you actually peel back the layers of that, those types of things are usually, ‘Oh, that person actually had an encounter with a customer and came to discover things.’"
Going beyond conveying conversations, a leader should connect customers directly to the R&D teams that can solve their problem. Customer feedback and connection is so important to the product design and development process.
“The biggest thing that a leader can do is try to remove themselves as the middle person in the situation. Directly connect the customer who has a problem with the team that's solving it. If we do that effectively, it's not just talking to customers, but conducting unbiased discovery. It’s trying to keep your biases aside to really understand the root cause of the problem. You’re looking for insights that you don't try to reshape into your own narrative,” he shares.
Think people first
All leaders in technology are familiar with the user experience and its importance, but how do you influence and support your R&D teams going forward?
“In all cases, we should be thinking people-first. Often, when we think of people, we think of UX in terms of the user experience or the customer. We should really have a lot of love, respect, and gratitude for our customer. But there's another side to it, which is the EX, the employee experience. People wake up in the morning, show up, and work hard to grow that organization. As a leader you have to have a lot of gratitude for that. When people come in and work hard, it starts with gratitude. It starts with respect. It starts with trust. And then supporting your employees to really showcase what they can do,” Larson says.
What’s next in 2023
As Larson and Vendasta look ahead to the next year and the strategies that will come into play, he muses over his R&D teams' metrics and metrics-driven leadership.
“I really want to work closely with our R&D teams over the next year so that they're very clear on the measurements they have for success. I want to showcase that they've made an impact. I want to provide a reward system for innovation when teams make an impact in unique and insightful ways. I also want to put systems in place that allow for a lot of focus and for the right teams to come together cross-functionally with the right skills and disciplines to achieve some of the complex goals we have,” Larson shares.
The next year will have a heavy focus on team optimization for R&D in order to create and measure impact based on goal achievement and team experience.
With Larson recently accepting his promotion to VP of Strategy at Vendasta, he continues to push boundaries and define standards in prairie tech.
“I'm very much looking forward to providing more frameworks and ways of understanding what a strategic leader does and what they bring to an organization. My hope is that other organizations could potentially leverage those same skills to facilitate their growth in providing value to their customer base.”
Larson’s plan to carry forward Vendasta’s thriving R&D teams rides on the coattails of team empowerment and strategic autonomy.
Larson finishes off by saying, “At the end of the day, if the business finds success and the customer finds value, you've got the foundations of a good strategic platform and great R&D teams.”