Building systems and structure that create an innovation-friendly environment.
Environment & Attitude
While it might be tempting to simply issue a decree to your entire office demanding that everyone begin innovating immediately, the truth is that real innovation doesn’t appear out of thin air. It’s something that’s nurtured, coddled, and shepherded. It’s an organic outgrowth of environments and cultures that have been thoughtfully constructed. Offices that innovate are pieced together to function as a hyper-creative ecosystem, with all of the elements necessary to see that the seed of innovation not only appears but also takes root and flourishes.
Giving Them Enough Rope
Creating an environment that encourages innovation takes a little adjustment of the organizational mindset. At a typical agency (and most organizations for that matter), there’s an accepted, deeply ingrained notion that success is something to be rewarded and failure is a thing to be frowned upon as a waste of time and resources. It’s understandable. Most agencies need to have guardrails set in place to cut waste and boost profitability. But this kind of rigid model can have unintended and negative effects on innovation by stifling the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that innovative thinking requires. But if you can rebrand failure and soften its perceived impact across your group, you can create an environment where big risks are encouraged. One way to make this more palatable is to start considering failure a necessary part of the innovation process. How? Double-down on your attention to post-mortems – those moments of learning around the post-failure period. Breaking a failure down and quickly deriving next steps will help you move more rapidly to a more viable idea. So set some post-failure mandatories. Give people enough rope to hang themselves, but set the expectation that out of each failure must come a quick and actionable course correction.
Making Your Intentions Clear-ish
Sometimes a lack of innovative spirit is simply the product of a muddled message. As much as innovation is thrown around in agency halls, rarely is a direct call for innovation heard. So if it’s something an office is expected to achieve, it should be made known. Without a clear directive, you run the risk of falling into the trap of bystander apathy, a well-known social phenomenon. People will assume that the task of innovating is being handled by someone else and is not expressly their responsibility. So be clear that it is an objective whose responsibility is shared across the entire office. But don’t avoid one trap by falling into another. Being direct and dictating are two very different things, and pushing people to innovate is very different from telling them how to do it.
The goal is to create an environment where people feel comfortable to play. If they feel like they’re delivering on direct orders or against an overly specific request, the results are likely to be more straightforward and far less breakthrough.
Beyond creating a nurturing environment, the nature of an office’s structure can have significant effects on its innovative output.
As organizations built to foster ideation, most agencies are already poised for innovative production. But the strength of that system is also its weakness. Employees are trained over time to maintain a certain creative status quo, to deliver on the agency’s (and the clients’) needs. Delivering again and again provides a certain amount of professional security. It’s how juniors become seniors, seniors make their way to the c-suite, and clients stay clients. But there are times when bucking the system isn’t just a harebrained scheme…it’s a necessity.
Recently, the Energy/XI Chicago office took a significant risk by playing outside of the process sandbox during a sizeable pitch. To put it simply, they broke the rules and followed their creative instincts. In doing so, they ended up walking away with the prize. But if your group has the right constructs in place, risks like these can feel far less risky – they can feel like part of your routine. There are simple structural tweaks that can be made to maximize this potential and ensure that the necessary pieces are in place to safely carry an innovative idea from thought to reality.
Starting At The Top
As innovation bubbles up from the creative ranks, it’s best to have somewhere for it to bubble up to. With day-to-day agency business and client concerns to field, finding upper management that can dedicate time to review, refine, and approve innovative ideas can be tough. Because of this, creating a management silo that’s dedicated to these initiatives can go a long way. Choose one or a handful of progressive managers that can act as a sounding board and review panel, and give your innovators access to them at certain times or on specific days of the week. Make it part of their job description, a requirement even. The sooner it becomes part of their weekly calendar, the easier it will be to maintain working sessions and reviews.
Getting the most innovative output takes the most innovative thinkers in the building. But don’t mistake innovative thinking for well-roundedness or more traditional success metrics for performance. Oftentimes, people with incredible strengths in one area are lacking in others. The key is to determine those points of high-performance among the talent pool and clan them up with others with complementary high-performance areas. Rather than spending time fretting over and trying to bolster their weaknesses, the members of your creative clan can focus on what they’re great at, knowing that the other members of the group have skill sets that cover their shortcomings. This kind of comparative advantage will keep the focus on the innovation at hand and create a cohesive, confident, and highly skilled unit.
Learning To Love The Random
Most agencies have some sort of continuous learning or in-house educational programs or courses that are available to employees at no charge, with classes and workshops that run the gamut from writing to strategy to tech and dev. As you might expect, classes focused on writing tend to draw writers. Dev classes, dev people. But these classes have the potential to do a bit more than hone already-used skills. By repositioning them as “open call courses,” and inviting folks from across disciplines, you can introduce people to new ideas and help them flex creative muscles they may never have used before. By randomizing the learning opportunities, you’ll be building a more diverse creative pool. The “outside” ideas that they learn in those classes can help them make creative connections that they might have been unaware of otherwise. You are, very simply, extending the possibility of innovation and laying the groundwork for breakthrough ideation.
The Issue Of Time
Most are familiar with Google’s playful policy towards working hours. Their 20% approach has been covered at nauseum as proof of how liberating, organization-wide mandates can bear creative fruit. But the trouble with that model is the same trait that makes it so effective: its flexibility. When outlining a similar policy for an agency, it helps to be just as serious about the way employees implement the time as you are about allocating it.
As mentioned earlier, agencies are notoriously busy places. Distractions are a way of life. This kind of environment, however energetic, runs counter to the kind of attention and concentration required of truly innovative thought. One way to combat this is to limit the number of possible distractions your innovators can encounter. That means sequestering them from the daily grind in terms of their workload. Their 20% (or whatever length of time you determine) should be used in unbroken stretches, as consecutively as humanly possible. In the same way that many European laws require workers to take two full weeks of uninterrupted vacation each calendar year, your innovators should have clean calendars and free minds during their periods of ideation. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check in on your escapists. Just make sure that any meetings they’re scheduled to attend are explicitly tied to the project at hand. This can be taken even further if need be – a creative sabbatical can be used to make sure that the daily grind has absolutely no interference with the process. It won’t just be an attractive proposition to your in-house creatives. It’ll also be a nice carrot to dangle when recruiting new talent.
Innovation doesn’t come easy. But it also doesn’t have to be burdensome. Once your structure’s in place and your environment’s been optimized, the process itself will start to feel much more organic than you might think. They key is to remember that you’re creating an ecosystem – a dynamic, new, and integrated whole made up of familiar parts. And you’ll need help. So get heads nodding before you dive in. Down the road, those same heads will be bringing you the kinds of ideas that will put your agency on the creative map.
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