All professional services agencies entering the third decade of the 21st Century—from digital product agencies to marketing, public relations, and management consulting agencies or anything in between—have many responsibilities... but only one essential task.

They must constantly, continually, and rapidly adapt to change and innovate.

Although there are some differences in this continual reinvention—depending on agency type—the basic driver is the same. The world in which it lives is constantly changing, with new tech, new market dynamics, new kinds of customers, new regulations and new competitors. Since the birth of the modern Web, these dynamics have operated at hyperspeed, with trends rising and falling like waves in an ocean storm.

And, as in the ocean, the next wave is not always visible until it hits you.

So, change and adapting to change are givens for an agency. The bigger question: How?

Almost Like a Law of Physics

To retain the ability to rapidly innovate, agencies must design and monitor themselves to counter the tendency of organizations to drift into stasis and convention.

Organizations develop mechanisms against innovation naturally—almost like a law of physics.

Employees protect their turf. Systems are set up to endure. Silos develop as the most efficient way to maintain order, and it's easier and safer for managers to ignore or dismiss data that indicates the emergence of new directions.

Countering that natural tendency is the biggest challenge for agencies looking to survive in this turbulent modern age, but it's also the most essential.

You—as an agency or marketing leader—have to institutionalize counter-institutional thinking, behavior, and processes.

That is where your organization's culture, collaboration, environment and process strategies kick in.

Creating a Culture

The key is establishing a culture that solicits, encourages, and accepts new ideas from all quarters, creating a way to filter the best ones, test them, and then implement the winners.

In other words, it means adopting the mentality of a hungry startup.

Even if your agency has been around for years and works with staid clients, it must learn how to stay hungry. That, of course, runs counter to the organizational imperative to stay fed and happy.

Fortunately, there are some approaches innovation-oriented agencies can employ.

Leading by Example

One important strategy is to start at the top with your agency's leaders. In virtually every organization, the leadership team conveys an attitude that permeates day-to-day work and long-term direction.

For instance, a CEO who frequently and genuinely encourages new ideas and projects from everyone can also direct and inspire all employees to adopt the same approach. On the other hand, a CEO who always plays it safe and resists change will make that position the default across the entire organization.

If the CTO has set up a technical team that supports new initiatives instead of resisting them, helping to explain new technology in layman's terms to all team members, no one is discouraged from advocating for more effective tools.

And if the creative director genuinely enjoys and encourages new directions, no matter the source, the conversation is underway. Anyone's idea should be as valid or as relevant as the CEO's or the company founders'.

Collaboration & Physical Workspace

A second strategy: collaboration.

Teamwork is especially important for moving forward ideas without getting caught up in silos, which are destroyers of new ideas.

Often, new ideas run across departments or specialties—a multidimensional structure that a collaborative ethos can help to sustain and support.

Another important strategy: a physical environment designed for innovation and change.

It's not a coincidence that many of the most innovative agencies occupy non-conventional workspaces that convey a sense of creativity and collaboration.

Common areas, for instance, have whiteboards for quick and impromptu brainstorming. Coffee and other drinks are always available for an afternoon pick-me-up or a late-night session. Office designs or wall decorations are unique and often thought-provoking. And, on the whole, there's a general sense that hierarchy gives way to imaginative problem-solving.

Top Hires & Digital Transformation

These kinds of exciting, dynamic workspaces also have another benefit: They help attract the kind of top employees who value enjoyable workspaces and creative thinking. A flexible workspace also supports the work style of employees who are accustomed to quickly switching between different projects and trying new things.

Those hires become part of a flexible team that iterates rapidly, tests ideas, listens to what's happening in the field and with clients, and works to achieve team success rather than protect individual turf.

Underneath all of these strategies is the digital transformation of your agency. Collaborative software environments like Slack, the rapid collection and sharing of customer data across the organization, Cloud-based tools for such essential tasks as project management or social media marketing... those all contribute to a fast-moving, idea-processing organization.

And one that is not blocked by a vestigial hierarchy.

Guided Questions

Finally, an agency can set up specific processes or activities to promote and guide innovation toward successful results.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pointed out, for instance, that organizations can use a set of guided questions to effectively process new ideas. Your agency might use, for example, a version of a questionnaire employed by a US government agency to evaluate innovative ideas. That includes asking questions like these:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • What are the mid-term and final "exams" [that will allow you to measure] success?

Labs & 'Stretch Goals'

Another process is one we implement at our agency, O3 World. They're called labs, and they consist of time and space provided to our staff to experiment with new technology in order to solve some problem or meet some opportunity. The result is a solution, often shown as a prototype.

One tangible result from such a lab—a clear product of innovative thinking, teamwork, and the availability of resources—is Taskbot, a single application that was built on the Slack collaborative environment. Using robotic process automation and a conversational user interface, it integrates several productivity applications into one so that a team member can check on various status points in a project through one screen.

You can, for instance, check on available conference rooms, see all the progress and reports for a given project, and find a specific employee's schedule for the next day through a single interface.

Another process to embody a mindset built around innovative teamwork is to set a limited number of specific "stretch goals." These are initiatives—each with a plan, a team, and an expected return on investment—that seek to go beyond the current comfort level. Stretch goals might be expanding into another regional market, making a venture project profitable, and adding a new service.

* * *

In these fast-moving times, an agency built for speedy and collaborative innovation is no longer a luxury or a nice-to-have. It's a necessity. And the only question is whether your agency is designed to ride the waves toward your destination—or sink while others pass you by.

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Why Innovation Must Be Your Agency's First Priority

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image of Keith Scandone

Keith Scandone is a co-founder, partner, and the CEO of digital product agency O3 World. He also works with the leadership team on building out O3 World's Ventures program, a separate entity that takes an equity stake in digital product ideas.

LinkedIn: Keith Scandone

Twitter: @keitho3world