June 27, 2022


From our very beginning, the idea of fluency has been a core value at my company, Sparkbox. Today, if you read our handbook you’ll see it listed under our entry-level values. Fluency is one of the only values we have that speaks directly to an individual’s skill in their craft. We chose this word with a great deal of care. Out of the context of a digital studio, the word fluency typically refers to someone’s ability to speak a language without effort. This idea that fluency is the mastery of a language fits perfectly within our framework of values.

Without language, the kind of thinking we can do as humans is very different. We often take it for granted, but try to imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have language. Your every thought is constrained by the language you speak. If we didn’t have those words to use, our thinking would be limited to feelings or emotions without the ability to define or communicate them consistently.

Most critically, being fluent in a language means we can take the internal thoughts, emotions, and ideas we have and move them to external dialog. Fluency allows us to define an idea—to fix it in meaning—and then to consider it from many perspectives. In this way, language enables collaboration.

This gets really cool when we extend the meaning of fluency beyond just language. The most amazing improvisational music is only possible when playing an instrument is as subconscious as breathing. Being in the kitchen with someone who is fluent in cooking is tremendously humbling to those of us who don’t have that skill. Watching a potter or a painter or a sculptor manipulate their medium to convey deep emotions will take your breath away. And pairing with a designer fluent in Figma or a developer fluent in JavaScript can do the same.

This concept of fluency can encompass any skill. In my daily work it covers things like design and development, but it also includes financial, human, administrative, and communication fluency. It means we want to be masters of negotiating contracts, we see taking care of each other as a craft, and we want to be wildly skilled at managing projects. I believe every aspect of what we do in our daily lives should be wrapped in fluency, and that fluency enables us to collaborate effectively.

But fluency isn’t everything.

The way I think about fluency is that it is mutable—it can change, grow, and evolve. Afterall, you can learn a new language! At Sparkbox, this value is one of our three entry-level values, meaning it’s part of the focus in our hiring process. The way to get a job at Sparkbox is to align with our entry level values (fluency, humility, and trust-based empathy).

Here’s a picture to help explain how this applies:

Comparing “values alignment” on the x-axis with “skill” on the y-axis, we see the ideal combination is high values alignment with high skill. The second-most ideal is high values alignment with low skill.Comparing “values alignment” on the x-axis with “skill” on the y-axis, we see the ideal combination is high values alignment with high skill. The second-most ideal is high values alignment with low skill.

The check marks are where we can say yes” to a potential new hire. The X’s are where we choose to pass. When we are hiring, we look for people who are on the right side of this diagram. Those are the people who are most aligned with our values. And, while we don’t hire people with no relevant skill, I believe people can develop skills—they can become fluent.

The left side of this diagram is where things are a little risky. The most dangerous hire we can make is someone in the top left quadrant. This person is very fluent in their craft, but they don’t align with our values. The fluency they have will give them instant credibility and influence, but they will have a tendency to use that influence to shift the culture away from our values and towards their own.

The structure of Sparkbox encourages continually moving upward on this diagram, becoming more and more fluent. But we don’t expect that we can—or should—change people’s personal values. Instead, we focus on finding individuals who naturally align with our values and then we trust the culture here will drive a continual increase in fluency.

My encouragement for you is to examine your fluency honestly. Evaluate where you are strong and where you need to grow. Check in with your coworkers and directors, take your peer review feedback seriously, and always be looking to improve your fluency. But maybe more importantly, when someone genuinely asks for feedback, recognize the gravity of the moment. It takes real trust and vulnerability to do so, and those are the foundations of a culture of authentic growth. All of this together is what enables us to make the web a little better each day.

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