Soushiant Zanganehpour

CEO & Founder, Swae

We first learned of social scientist and entrepreneur Soushiant Zanganehpour through his interview on the Make Things That Matter podcast. We were fascinated by his bottom-up approach to ideation and innovation, which deals with the bias and disengagement problem that often comes with traditional hierarchical decision-making processes.

Throughout his career, Soushiant’s experiences working in senior management roles led him to realize how poorly designed decision-making processes often led to poor decision quality and organizational performance. Because he felt organizations could not fully tap into the full breadth of available human talent, potential, and collective intelligence from all of their employees, he started to think through a new model, technology, and vision for 21st-century decision-making. In late 2018, he founded Swae, an AI-enabled platform that allows anyone in a company or organization to meaningfully participate and influence the decision-making process. Swae helps employees turn their feedback into well-written proposals for improving the organization.

Soushiant geeks out about social injustice, systems design, bottom-up innovation, and empowering people to have a voice. He also loves to travel and collect photos of doors.

🤓 I geek out about…

Broken systems and how to fix them. I geek out about how systems were designed, by whom, with whose assumptions and interests in mind, and who doesn’t have a seat at the design table. I’m not a religious person but you could say I have as close to a religious experience as one can imagine when I find systems created with really beautiful feedback loops, where the participants with the least amount of power in that system have a non-tokenistic, meaningful, and substantive ability to input into how those systems evolve. The elegance of design, the dignity they enable, the opportunity they afford us to hear trapped insights and unheard solutions, are so beautiful to me. Whether those “systems” are decision-making processes or how the company is structured (whether it’s a cooperative or community-owned organization or entity or a commons), I geek out about how people are included in important decisions.

I also geek out about how bottom-up collaboration can reveal innovations and solutions we hadn’t thought of before by giving people a chance to piece together disparate insights. The collection of these weird motivations is what lead me to build Swae, and it’s been my passion and obsession for a long time. I care about people having a voice, and see a future where that voice can emerge organically into high quality decisions, to help meaningfully shape the directions of organizations and large collectives of people.

🎒 I collect…

(weirdly enough) pictures of ornate doors. When I was living abroad in London UK, this obsession emerged quite organically. I would take 1 Sunday a month or 1 day out my travel itinerary to go to cool neighborhoods and take close-up pictures of ornate doors (and sometimes some street graffiti). I later began posting the doors from my Instagram account called The Door Hunter, which is not active at the moment because I’m not traveling. I am completely obsessed with shabby, broken, reconstructed, super beautiful, rough doors with a lot of history and character. I think they tell fascinating stories about the people that choose to live in those homes. They can tell you stories of the generations or things they have witnessed through time. It’s just fascinating to me the different designs of doors that exist.

💬 My friends ask my advice about…

Complicated problems, like planning a career change, a life change or going through a multi-variable, complicated work or life situation that they need to sort out. I am good at breaking down problems into smaller parts and helping people isolate the root issue from the symptoms, so they can see the bigger picture or understand better what they are reacting to. I’m also good at helping people see the potential they may not see by using words and illustrative metaphors to paint a different picture for them.

🧰 How my weird obsessions show up in my work…

– from breaking problems down to root causes, to designing better systems, aesthetics and fonts, and user experiences – all the stuff I geek out about privately shows up into my work.

🌱 What form(s) of growth is/are most important for your company?

The form of growth most important for Swae is deep usage and engagement, not shallow and broad signups. We’d rather be working with 5 companies using Swae for precisely what it’s been intended for, which is to make more inclusive decisions, than 50 companies using Swae to replace the way they do an employee survey. Swae allows users to test new decision-making processes where people are involved from the bottom and trying to piece together disparate insights to de-risk ideas through collective intelligence. Research shows that having the opportunity to feed views and opinions upwards and involvement in decision making is one of the most important drivers of employee engagement and can minimize bias in core decisions tremendously.

sources: (1) Markos, S. and M.S. Sridevi, (2010). Employee engagement: The key to improving performance. Int. J. Bus. Manage., 5: 89-95 & (2 Robinson D., Perryman S., and Hayday S. (2004). The Drivers of Employee Engagement Report 408, Institute for Employment Studies, UK

So we are looking for a handful of organizations that are wed to the intended use of Swae—not just using parts of Swae for feedback collection or consultations. This is how we imagine we would grow. It will give us the most meaningful feedback regarding our feature sets, gaps, and UI/UX areas to improve. We’d love to see conscious leaders and evangelists who have a similar worldview to ours to use Swae to bring that worldview to life in their organizations.

🌤️ A thing that makes me hopeful about the future of business:

Millennials and younger people are rising into more substantive decision-making roles where they have a lot more power and autonomy. That’s really exciting. I think there will be a tipping point where in the next five years, the majority of senior executives will be from our generation versus the baby boomer generation. Some of the more systemic issues that we’ve been dealing remain stuck because of values of past generations or because of an inability to see systems or recognize their negative impacts. Hopefully, with this “changing of the guard”, there will be greater tolerance to re-think the costs and benefits of the old systems, and an appetite to create different structures, organizations, and values that create positive outcomes.

💭 I wish more companies would…

  • Pay attention to the negative impacts their businesses and organizations produce as much as they celebrate their positive impacts.
  • Be honest in how they speak to people that are impacted by them. I wish more companies would speak to their fans, stakeholders, customers, and employees like humans do - like friends do - instead of hiding behind safely crafted language and messaging put together by corporate communications teams or legal counsel to help limit their liability on a matter.
  • Create systems and invite approaches that open them up to constructive criticism and dissent, to help them find problems and create new solutions faster than they would otherwise.
  • Have employee ownership as part of the way in which they finance themselves or grew so that the economic benefits would be more distributed and inclusion in decision-making would be a natural part of the expectation.

💛 How can companies and industries take better care of people?

The basics like a living wage, giving people more economic mobility, giving people opportunities to grow as individuals (formal or informal learning), providing incentives to own, including them in the decision-making processes but not in tokenistic ways - in ways that are useful.

Through the products that they design, the choices a business or industry makes are choices that scale. They are not small choices but big choices because they can impact millions/billions and because companies emulate one another in their choices. Some industries are consciously avoiding taking responsibility for the environmental or health impacts their products contribute directly to. To solve for this, we need to be honest. A company doesn’t need to have the answer to “How do you solve for those impacts?” but their approach should be that of honesty, saying, “Our industry/company creates these impacts, and we don’t know how to mitigate them effectively.” This allows people to have an honest conversation about how to fix them. We need to create a safe space to think of solutions, not just hide behind language, rules and laws.

I wish more industries and companies would have workshops together to figure out solutions for these industry-scale and humanity-scale problems that have been created because of the negative impacts of systems. For example, think of the amount of plastic and garbage in the Pacific Ocean, environmental waste, and the effect of screen time on teen psychological health and development. These are massive problems that need an equal amount of intelligent thinking, time, and resources to solve. But, the first step is honesty (explains why I believe hiding behind corporate communications teams and corporate counsel perpetuates the problems).

❓ A question I love:

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self given everything you know today? What’s one sentence you would tell that person? What would you ask them to do more of, less of, or pay more attention to? What’s important for that person to know?

I find the answers to those questions really fascinating.

You can connect with Soushiant on Twitter or read more about Swae on Medium.