16 June 2021

Our journey, which we started last year at Akbank Lab to share innovative projects and ideas ahead of time, is now enriched with content where we host valuable and experienced names. In our content, we will host many valuable topics and guests, from the use of the latest technologies in the sector to angel investing and entrepreneurship, from creating an innovative culture to effective collaborations. We talked with our first guest Kerem Alper, one of the founding partners of ATÖLYE, about curiosity and creativity in the business world, design thinking, the importance of innovation and successful institutions of the future.

Starting his career as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, Kerem worked in a renewable energy focused Venture Capital fund after his experience in the finance sector. He added the Stanford MBA program and design thinking experience at on top of his work experience. People from different disciplines and companies who work in harmony and create value together in as a hub for innovation, collaboration and creativity influenced him and this experience formed the basis of ATÖLYE, which Kerem founded together with Engin Ayaz.

ATÖLYE is one of the first organizations in Turkey that creates a multidisciplinary environment and brings creative individuals and institutions together with the focus of design thinking. Today, it carries out design and innovation projects with companies, it is more like an enabler which works on not only transforming institutions but also producing new products and services, business models and strategies. At the same time, it is a valuable business partner of Akbank for years by its contributions and opinions in its innovation efforts.

Curiosity and creativity in business life
In business life, our days and the work that we have done can become similar and monotonous over the time. Sometimes, it is possible to encounter with great uncertainty or change, and the pandemic is an example of this. Times like these require us to look at our work with questioning and curious eyes.

According to Kerem, today's participatory design which is sine qua non of co-creation, collaboration and open innovation is the core of creativity. While individual creativity is not enough to solve the complex problems that we face; creative leadership, radical collaborations and systemic design are becoming increasingly important. Organizations need to invest in these three areas and innovation literacy to develop their creative muscles.

“One of the most important issues that companies can invest in; to create environments that make it easier to design together, and enable different units or individuals whose paths would not normally cross, to come together and produce something.”

Corporate learning experience in the pandemic
While offices were the spaces that created the environment of gathering and co-creation that we talked about, we suddenly moved into a new system where most of us work remotely or from homes. After a rapid adaptation process, we observed that working remotely improves the work-life balance and increases productivity. On the other hand, our learning experience has also radically changed.

There are two models that Kerem and the ATÖLYE team pay attention to in their remote working and learning experience. The first is the remote individual learning process that takes place without being in the same room or looking at the same board. The second is an experience model that comes from being a part of the group and that all participants learn from each other. These two models, which are applied intertwined in the programs organized by ATÖLYE, proceed as a process where all participants learn by doing something together, rather than a model that one tells and the other learns.

This approach is also the basis of the Design Thinking Lab series, which ATÖLYE and Akbank have implemented together. In the workshops, according to the bank's strategic priorities employees work on real business problems instead of hypothetical ones. This process, in which more than 100 participants graduated since 2017, and 20 people started coaching as trainers in other cycles, has demonstrated the increasing importance of collaboration and learning from each other. Moreover, it has become a popular program within the bank, where all employees wait in line to participate and the managers wholeheartedly support it.

“The success of the program implemented at Akbank is due to the right combination of these three building blocks:

1. Belief and support for the program at senior management level
2. The ability of long-term thinking in the institution
3. Working on real and strategic problems of the company and disseminating the practices derived from it within the organization as a role model”

According to Kerem, the pandemic has been a process that reveals the importance of this way of learning, with its very fundamental major problems and the uncertainty. Organizations that can evolve their ways of working within the framework of these principles and long-term thinking will have a higher chance of coping with uncertainty and surviving in the future. Those who insist on traditional forms will have difficulty in catching up with developments and may be left behind.

Finding direction in uncertainty
Our country is becoming more and more visible globally in the fields of innovative organizations and entrepreneurship. On the one hand, the uncertainty brought by this pace of development and innovations is growing. Kerem attributes the ability of especially large companies to find their way in uncertainty and remain pioneers to these three items:

1. To be tolerant of making mistakes. The only way to navigate uncertainty and solve the problems we face now is to tolerate making mistakes and not be afraid to try. When we encounter technical problems, an expert will come and tell you what to do. The problems that we are working on right now have no expert, because we are facing with something of this size and complexity for the first time. So, we learn by experience and derive lessons from our mistakes. Leaving the comfort zone and taking the risk of making mistakes is an issue that especially large institutions find it difficult. In fact, experimenting is also a competency and it is very important to develop this competency by adopting design thinking.

2. Supporting diversity. Both our employees and customers create an incredible wealth for the diversity. We need to take advantage of this value and build experiences that will nurture these differences. An organization's transition from a product economy to an experience economy is only possible by observing and understanding the needs of different individuals and developing new products and services focused on them. In a sense, it enables institutions to become more empathetic towards both their employees and customers.

3. Planet oriented approach. It is no longer enough to just solve the problem within or near us. The impact environmental of these solutions, products and services should also be considered. We need to be able to establish a model where all stakeholders and the ecosystem win. We are moving from human-oriented design, which is the basis of design-oriented thinking, to the planet-oriented design. Although this pressure is not yet felt in Turkey, we will have reached this point in the near future. Institutions which interiorize planet-oriented approach, systems-oriented and even ecosystem-oriented thinking will be among the best in the future.

We would like to thank Kerem Alper for having this pleasant conversation with us. Putting creativity and curiosity at the center of the corporate life, transforming the individual and corporate learning experience, and being a pioneer on the path from human-oriented thinking to planet-oriented thinking will be the sine qua non of being among the pioneering institutions of the future.