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23 min watch with captions and full transcript

When the business solutions of yesterday can’t guarantee tomorrow’s success, Dominic Price holds fast to his belief in constant innovation. As Atlassian’s Head of R&D and Work Futurist, Dominic doesn’t want to just break the mold, he wants to break the way we work, too. Debra Corey got the scoop on how his operation is faring.

In this interview, Dominic shares his tips for:

  • How to break the way your company works
  • How to see innovation as an investment
  • Building a cognitively-diverse culture


Get more of Dominic’s tips for being a rebel:

  • Innovation exists in everyone
  • Be the change you seek
  • Practice respectful dissent
  • There’s no ROI on innovation
  • You can’t copy and paste success
Our favorite quotes:

To stay relevant, you have to be evolving at a faster pace than the environment… You have to be able to give up the legacy of what was successful for you before.

I have learned that if I get these cognitively diverse people around me, they will rip my idea to shreds. They'll then put it back together again. What we're left with is far better than I would have come up with myself.

If you want to be a leader in innovating and disrupting, you have to take a leap of faith because it is inherently uncertain.

Dominic's interview

DEBRA COREY: Hi, there. I'm Debra Corey. I am the co-author of the book Build-It, The Rebel Playbook For World Class Employee Engagement, and I am here with Dom Price of Atlassian. Thank you so much for joining me.

DOMINIC PRICE: Thanks for having me.

DEBRA COREY: In all honesty and transparency, I think you are automatically going to see a height disparity here just a little bit, so big ideas from Dom. Big guy, big ideas, all about innovation, and we were just talking that actually Dom is not even in HR.

DOMINIC PRICE: True story.

DEBRA COREY: Which I think is good, I think it's good. Tell us about your role and then tell us about the company.

DOMINIC PRICE: Awesome. My role is a two-part role. I'm the Head of R&D and I'm a work futurist. It doesn't come with a crystal ball sadly, so the R&D part is an organization. We are growing a rapid rate. We're scaling every single day, every single week, and the worst thing we could do is to stand still. My role and my broader team's role is globally, as we develop products and finding new ways of working, how do we do that in the most efficient and effective way.

What I've found is a lot of businesses focus on just being efficient, everything's faster, and not evolving the way they work. My time here at Atlassian, which is about four and a half years, we've gone from 450 people to two and a half thousand. We've got more and more customers, and more competitors, and more products. Everything in that world is changing, so we have to evolve the way we work.

Then the other half of my role is, as we learn things that work for teams, we take that externally. Actually my mission right now is to break the way we work. I want to find an organization...

DEBRA COREY: ...I never heard that as a mission, you want to break it. It's a good one.

DOMINIC PRICE: It's a weird one. I've got two missions. One is to make myself redundant, and the other one is to break what we've created. The reason we put that goal out there is we genuinely believe it works for us, but our mission is to unleash the potential in everything. To do that, I want to find teams in every nook and cranny around the world, and often I go for more traditional businesses like government, public service, banking and financial services, where they've got hundreds of years of history, and actually that history might be a noose around their neck. So how do they find new ways of working?

What we do is we take that externally. We learn from them things that work, things that don't. I bring that back internally. We use that to evolve our way of working, and externally again, so it's a very tight loop and it stops us being insular.

DEBRA COREY: I think it's innovative for a couple reasons. First of all, a lot of people look internally and they don't think about what they can learn from others, which is what I've loved about writing the book because I have to admit, every time I talk to someone, I learn a lot from you. But then also about looking for the future and being that few steps ahead of everyone. I think that that's a great way to be thinking.

DOMINIC PRICE: It is, but it's a difficult one. If I look at the challenges that a lot of organizations face, and the resistance, the barriers that come into play, it's this fear, and this plays into the innovation conversation, this fear that what worked for me last week or last year will surely work again next or next year. The problem is it will, it will work. It's just going to pay a smaller dividend. Each time it pays a smaller dividend, your business is shrinking.

To stay relevant - you're in this business world, which is going through epic change - to stay relevant, you have to be evolving at a faster pace than the environment, say, more faster. You have to be able to give up the legacy of what was successful for you before and that's why I like to pick older or more traditional businesses because they often get carried away with the heritage and history of what made them successful, which sadly probably won't be the thing that makes them successful in the future.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah. If you look at some of the organizations that no longer exists, it's because they haven't been able to keep up.

How do you build innovation into the DNA of your organization? I know in the play that we wrote about in the book, you talked about three different programs. But just high level, how do you build that into the mindset of all of your employees.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. Great question. The first thing, which is probably the best gift I ever got given, our of two founders, co-founders, Scott and Mike, when they started Atlassian, one of their views and values was that innovation exists in everyone. Innovation isn't the lone genius. It's not seniority. It's not an innovation lab or an innovation room. It's not innovation posters or paraphernalia. It's innovation and curiosity, courageousness, creativity, whatever you call it. It exists in all of us.

The problem is most of us have had it beaten out of us either in school because we are taught to pass tests and not be creative by our parents or by leaders when we first start in work who want us to comply and adhere. Having founders who espouse a belief that a culture of innovation is essential and not up for debate. That's been the foundation that's had the whole thing going.

DEBRA COREY: Gives you permission from the start when you join the organization.

DOMINIC PRICE: It's a weird one, so it kind of does give you permission. But it almost doesn't because it's so prevalent. There is no permission because no one comes up to you and says you're allowed. It's just assumed. What you get is you get the ability to beg for forgiveness, but you never get permission. It's funny because the minute you grant permission, it becomes a hierarchical thing. Yeah, it's a strange dichotomy.

The first element is, under the banner of a culture of innovation, we expect every single employee to innovate every day full stop, all right? It's not one person's role. It's everyone's role.

One of our values, and our values are quite prolific, one of our values is being the change you seek, which says if you don't like what you see or what you do, you're empowered to change it. You have to change it for good and not for evil, and good being the greater good, so you can't just change things that work for you at the detriment of the other 2,500 employees or organizations. That manifests in every piece of work we do, so our daily routines are constantly evolving. I probably wouldn't even call that innovation. It's like increments, small increments, but it means that you build these little bits of momentum, small rituals, small habits that we change every single day.

The next component is 20% time, or as some of our teams call it, Innovation Week. We give a notional amount of time to our teams to say you own improving the world around you. The analogy I'd like to think about this is military teams and elite sports teams. Look at military teams. they spend 98% of their time training, 2% delivering. Elite sports team, probably 95% training, 5% delivering. You look at business teams and we spend 95% of our time delivering and 5% learning, so we give our teams time to say, "just pause, come up for air, look around you, what's changing in your world in the future, what products are you using, what customers are you dealing with, what new stakeholders are you dealing with, are you increasing in size, are you hiring people, are you changing, what's altering in your world and your environment", and then we give them a week, or we give them one day a week to hack at that, to go and improve it, to drive their own... it kind of looks a lot like spring cleaning, okay? You're not going buying a new house, and you're not building an extension, but you're making what you've got better. That is, again, quite incremental and still we do get some innovations that come out of there where you're like, "Wow! That could be a spark of something." What we find in that innovation time is that we'll find a seed, but they won't necessarily have the time or the right people to turn that seed into anything.

Then the third thing we do, which is the out there disruptive innovation-

DEBRA COREY: Which is where I first read about you, right?

DOMINIC PRICE: Yes. It's called ShipIt. ShipIt used to be called FedEx Day until we got a Cease and Desist letter from FedEx. ShipIt started years ago in Atlassian. The first ShipIt we ran was 14 people, and that's because we had 14 employees. The finals were people walking around each others desks looking at what they'd done. We only had engineers at the time, so it was just a whole lot of code, then everyone was like, "This is a really cool idea. We should do it more often." It's now a ritual that we do every quarter. Every 90 days, we pick a Thursday. Thursday, lunch time all around the world, everyone downs tools, stops what they're doing, and you get 24 hours to work on whatever you want. Literally, whatever.

DEBRA COREY: How much of it comes from the seed? You talk about the 20% time is the seed. Is it then transferred over to people and then they grow it or different ideas?

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. You see a complete mix. You see some people have been germinating on a completely separate idea for ages. Others, something happened to them the day before and they're like, "Right. I want to work on this." We get ideas that work on our foundation, which is our charity. We've got ideas that work on internal process and practice, and ways of working. We get HR ideas, marketing ideas, we get product ideas, like. so many different things. It's because you give them a complete blank canvas, complete freedom. It's a strange litmus test as an organization. ShipIt is a very selfless exercise in creating. But actually if you become selfish, I walk around when we're doing shippings, and many of our other leaders do. When you just listen and watch, and see the passion that's being displayed, and you look at the things that people are working on, I think it's better than any engagement survey you can ever do. It's better than any presentation training you can ever do.

We're now at ShipIt 40. In fact, ShipIt 
40 was the last one we did a couple of months ago. We had over 400 teams, globally, taking part. The one thing we asked them to do at the end of the 24 hours is they get three minutes to pitch their idea to their peers. The prize is a tacky trophy from the dollar store. There's no monetary prizes because Dan Pink and everyone else-

DEBRA COREY: But they want that trophy.

DOMINIC PRICE: Dan Pink and everyone else has proven that if you give monetary rewards, you don't increase creativity. You increase compliance. It's about bragging rights. It's about recognition from your peers. What then happens is a whole lot of ideas you mentioned in 24 hours is quite hard to finish something, so we get a lot of concepts presented. If they get a high number of votes, that';s a hat tip to you that your idea might be a good idea. Those ideas you often then see being done in 20% time to evolve them further, and will get represented or presented to a team, and so it creates this cycle again.

DEBRA COREY: I think it's great how they all work together because you are right. Sometimes, I've seen in organizations you have hackathons or whatever, and you get these great ideas, and then nothing happens with them. It's creating some type of ownership and also giving people the time.

DOMINIC PRICE: Giving them the time. Then also, one of the things we've been... You have to hack at your own practices to stay relevant, so ShipIt 40 bears no resemblance to the first ShipIt, and ShipIt 41 will be different. Again, we're continually evolving how we do it. One thing we added in recently, which was quite amusing, was the Titanic prize. This is the prize for ideas that look genius, but that hit an iceberg along the 24 hours and sank.

DEBRA COREY: You're recognizing failure.


DEBRA COREY: Not failure, sorry. That's not a good word.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. We want to extract the lessons from that because we're like, "Your idea was amazing. It clearly was because it came from the heart, so how can we understand what you did and what didn't work so we can learn from that?"

DEBRA COREY: That's great.

DOMINIC PRICE: Again, it's just a very simple idea of saying it's not the idea to get the best votes or the most votes that are the best. Sometimes there's whole other ideas and golden nuggets out there that just trigger, trigger the thought. Then what you'll see, the shipping finals all around the world, is our product managers bless them standing at the back of the room, normally with a notepad or their phone, taking notes because they're looking at problems that our teams are solving, and they're using it to stretch their mind of how do they understand our customers and what our products do for our customers.

DEBRA COREY: It must be great for them, just this rich knowledge-

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. There's a huge amount of ShipIt ideas, just naturally end up on people's roadmaps. Probably about five or six ShipIts ago, we had three finalists that were all suffering the same problem, but a very different way.

DEBRA COREY: Interesting.

DOMINIC PRICE: The great thing was, the following week, the product manager got those three teams together and was like, "I want to understand how you approached this because it's fascinating, because none of you are right and none of you are wrong. You've just all looked to the world through a different lens, and I want to understand that lens because everyone of our customers is different, so even though we provide one version of our products, it's good to see the different mindsets of people.

DEBRA COREY: But even that's an interesting and innovative type of approach to it because a lot of companies, the product manager would say, "I like that one best," and just push the others aside. The fact that they saw it as an opportunity, I think, is really great.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. We've got our five values, which are paramount to everything that we do. And we've got the unwritten or unspoken sixth value, which is "Seek first to understand." It's baked into everything that we do, which is at the rate of change we're going through the volatility that exists in the world, your uncertainty, the ambiguity, the complexity. It's easy to look for things to be predictable and then you end up jumping to conclusions, which frankly just brings you to a grinding halt. They make you feel great, but they're terrible for the customer. Seek first to understand, enables us just to, again, just to pause, because we run at a rapid pace. Just slow it all down and go, "Why? Why is that occurring? What for? Why and what for?" Really get to understand what happened. We find walking in the shoes of the other person whether it be a teammate or a customer, that builds way more empathy than reading a book on empathy.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah, which is a good segway into something that we were talking about earlier when we were talking about diversity of thought. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? I loved it.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. We're very passionate about diversity and inclusion, for us the two go hand-in-hand. It's pointless trying to hire a diverse pool of people and then put them in an environment that basically they get organ rejection and leave. We are constantly evolving Inclusion, as in how does their environment make people not only feel welcome, but I really want them to feel like they could do the best work of their life every single day whether it be in our office working remotely, working one of our other offices, however they contribute. I want that contribution to be the best of their life.

Diversity side is an interesting one. We've been on the journey for a while. One of my colleagues, Aubrey, is our head of Diversity Inclusion and does a wonderful job of helping us understand the game, build our awareness of what it means and how the world operates. One of the things that we've been pushing on recently is the value of cognitive diversity, the idea that great minds don't think alike. It's particularly relevant, for me, because in my first ever job in the UK, I remember the first time I got to hire people, I just hired people like me.


DOMINIC PRICE: They were really cool.

DEBRA COREY: A lot of people do that.

DOMINIC PRICE: They were really cool. They were like super cool, super cool.

DEBRA COREY: Obviously, yes.

DOMINIC PRICE: The only thing we were good at was drinking together, talking about football, sport and whatever else, and hanging out. We had a lot of fun. But when it actually came to the thing where we're supposed to do, the work, we were terrible because we just agreed all the time, or we violently agreed. It was painful.

What I've learned through working with Aubrey and a few other colleagues is cognitive diversity says that how do you find non like-minded people that will challenge you, and how do you get that background of experience, maybe a different lifestyle, different location. Now gender, race, and religion are all the things that are a proxy to that, but cognitive diversity is just finding that person that won't agree with you. But the very important thing that we hire for here is the growth mindset. I want someone who disagrees with me, but that helps me solve the problem still.

What that looks like on a day-to-day basis, I call respectful descent. It means that I don't care for the hierarchy, I don't care where you sit on the org chart. I can say to you, "It's a great idea, I don't agree with it for the following reasons, can I help you this way." If all you do is play the role of devil's advocate, that's not cognitive diversity, right, you're a pain in the ass, and it's not the growth mindset. What we try and say to people is, "You are free to do respectful descent, but you have to be able to contribute more than you take from the answer." That breeds way better innovation, and creativity, and curiosity.

Also, what you realize at the time is you become more representative of the customers you're trying to serve. The problem with my ideas is they only come from my lens, and I'm not a sole Atlassian customer. The more people I can interact with to finesse my idea, the better the idea becomes. The thing I have to overcome as a leader, or as just a contributor, is the minute you come up with an idea, you want to get your arms around it because it's yours, it's your baby. Letting go of that is the barrier for me. I have learned that if I get these cognitively diverse people around me, they will rip my idea to shreds. They'll then put it back together again. What we're left with is far better than I would have come up with myself.

DEBRA COREY: But it's a great way, and again, it fits into how you deal with innovation. It's part of your language. I love some of the terminology that you used. But if you don't start acting that way, you';re never going to get the innovation.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. I think the struggle that most organizations have in my experience is this reframing or most of it. Things like innovation and collaboration are seen as a tax. They slowed me down, whereas we've reframed them as an investment. It costs the same, a tax or an investment costs the same. It's just what you get out of it is different, and you approach it very differently when you see it as an investment. When you plant that seed, you will nurture it, and you will water it, and you will care for it. whereas when it's a tax, that's the thing you avoid paying until the very last minute.

What we try and do is to say if these are genuine investment, what are their circumstances, the scenarios, the environments that we create that actually give that seed the best chance of turning into a tree. Without ideas, it's often giving our people freedom and support, and encouragement, and they're giving them the right amount of challenge.

DEBRA COREY: It's interesting because a lot of people look at all the things you do with the 20% time and the ShipIt, and think of it as a tax, and saying, "Look at all that time you're not working on your job." But if you have that mindset, you're never going to get to innovation because it's going to hold you back. You need to see it, as you say, as something that's going to drive you to the next level.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. The question I often get asked is normally from finance people. It's about their return on investment.

DEBRA COREY: We want a number.

DOMINIC PRICE: They love, yeah, what's the return on investment? What's the ROI on ShipIt? I'm like, "Six."; I always give them the answer six. There isn't a number because that's not the reason you do it. What I say to those people who are often quite senior leaders, I say to them, "Think about the competition that's going to come and eat your lunch, the one that's going
to come and take your business away. Are they worried about return on investment or are they just doing this anyway? Because if they do it anyway, you have to be as fast as them. Otherwise, you're gone." You can go and try and measure net present value of your return on investment on this innovation thing, but actually, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons. The reason that is, is innovation by its very nature is uncertain. It's not predictable. I challenge people who say, "Oh, we can calculate the return on investment." That's probably BAU. If you can prove it, it's not innovation. The minute you prove something, it's been done, probably by your competitors, so at best, you're a fast follower. If you're waiting for proof, you're following. If you want to be a leader in innovating and disrupting, you have to take a leap of faith because it is inherently uncertain. ROI is the wrong measure. We look at engagement, the things we're creating, customer value and long-term, long time customer value.

DEBRA COREY: It is a long time.

DOMINIC PRICE: How can you build that environment, because if we're counting on doing... If Atlassian was doing all the things, today, that we'd done a year ago, we wouldn't be successful. We have to unlearn and stop doing things, and we have to learn and try new ways of doing things, many of which don't work. But you learn from the things that don't work. The things that do, we double down on. Things that don't work, we share stories. We do a lot of storytelling about the lessons learned from that, so we don't repeat the same mistakes.

DEBRA COREY: I guess to end up, hopefully... I know you inspire me every time I hear you


: ... about innovation. If someone hears you and they think, "Wow, I want to go and start moving into this world," do you have any tips? I know you speak often about innovation, so a couple tips that you can leave us with.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yeah. First tip is a weird one, don't copy our way. Don't copy it because if you copy it, and you try and copy and paste, I guarantee it won't work. It's so situational and environmental. What I always suggest to people is find a way that works for you. To do that, you need to stop, open your eyes, probably shut your mouth, stop telling people what you think. Open your eyes and ears, and go and investigate. Find what works for your environment, what are your competitors doing, what do your customers crave, what's going to delight them, what kind of people have you got. If you've got a whole load people with a fixed mindset, and you implement ShipIt, you're not going to get great ideas. So the first one is don't copy, find your own way.

The second one is, try and find a way of making this cultural or values based. If I think about the transactions of "Be the change you seek" in 20% time in ShipIt, without Mike and Scott setting a tone, without having our mission of unleashing the potential in every team, without those ingredients, it wouldn't be the same experience. If this is something where someone's flipping you a cheque and saying, "Here's a couple of thousand pounds, go and do some of that innovation thing," probably don't bother.

DEBRA COREY: Well, that's what you said at the beginning. It's truly in your DNA. Everywhere you walk around, you can feel it.

DOMINIC PRICE: Yes. It's a spirit thing. Then the third one, and this is quite confronting for a lot of leaders who told me, "I want to do this innovation thing, but I've not got the right people," is I asked them this very pointy question. Did you hire idiots or did you create idiots?

DEBRA COREY: That's a good question.

DOMINIC PRICE: If you hired them, we need to take you out of the hiring process. If you created them, that's a different solution, for you. But what we need to do for them is... if you hired a genius and you've indoctrinated them to your way, they probably still have that potential. You can squeeze that, you can dust that down, and you can find a way of bringing that great mindset back out of them. I think, way too often, organizations like to blame the people when the people are actually the manifestation of the culture and the people they hired. Actually, go and finding little pockets of the organization, and try it. I think organizations that try and mandate globally very rarely works. If you start in pockets, you try it. Something works, you try it again. The fear of missing out kicks in and certainly every department wants to take part.

DEBRA COREY: I think some companies think that their employees don't want to get involved in this, but you can probably share tons of examples of how your employees ... It's a great way to engage with your employees.

DOMINIC PRICE: So engaging. So engaging. It's almost, now, an expectation that you hire someone who's smart, and curious, and courageous. You have to give them an environment where they can be that person, so the last thing I want to do is dumb them down and make them something that they weren't when I hired them.

DEBRA COREY: Well we talk about bringing your whole self and being creative is a part of who you are.

DOMINIC PRICE: Definitely, yeah.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely.

DOMINIC PRICE: Being able to express yourself and whatever that expression is.

DEBRA COREY: Great. Well, I could go on talking forever, but this has been really helpful and I really appreciate it. I know that I'm going to go out and think about how I can make it my own in my company.


DEBRA COREY: I will not copy from you.

DOMINIC PRICE: You can borrow.

DEBRA COREY: I can borrow, yes. This is a big rebel when it comes to innovation. My final tip to you is to go out and be a rebel, whatever that looks like in your organization. Make it your own, and think about how you can bring innovation into your company and make it even better than it is already, so thank you very much.

DOMINIC PRICE: Thank you very much.