How to Innovate With an Agency Partner

The key to true transformation and innovation isn’t just about investing in new technology. It’s about investing in new mindsets.

The term post-digital was coined by a tech journalist named Russell Davies in 2009 to describe a new paradigm he saw on the horizon. His use of the term in no way suggested that digital was to become obsolete or a thing of the past, rather that digital was becoming so commonplace, so deeply entrenched in how we operate in the world as humans, that to even differentiate something as such would soon be futile. To be post-digital, he explained, would have nothing to do with not being digital, but the opposite; to be post-digital would mean to be totally, completely and fundamentally digital. Digital to the core. In the words of architectural designer, professor and writer Adam Fure, the post-digital “is deeply digital.” Fast-forward 10 years, and whether or not we have arrived in the post-digital age Davies described is still up for debate. What is undeniable is that in the 10 years since Davies coined the term we have only become more deeply entrenched in all that is digital, so much so that it now seems easier to point out industries that have not gone digital than those that have. For the most part, the industries that are still lagging behind (think healthcare, insurance, financial services) have all had digital transformation agendas in play for years, yet many are still struggling to digitize even the most basic functions of their businesses and tend to confuse the use of technology that has been around for years (i.e., chatbots) with innovation, all the while being left in the dust by industries that either grew up digital or went digital years ago. These later industries don’t have digital transformation agendas; they are already digital. Instead they are focused on true innovation. While acknowledging that digital technology will inevitably play a role in the future, companies doing true innovation aren’t focused on technology as an end in and of itself, but are instead embracing and experimenting with different ways of thinking, learning and working that breed creativity, out-of-the box thinking, and ultimately new transformational ideas. Whether you are just getting started with innovation or are further along on your journey, there are a few key things we encourage our clients to keep in mind when partnering with an agency: Stop buying deliverables. Invest in mindsets. “…we must not be seduced by the artifacts of this process” - Dwight D. Eisenhower Clients often come to agencies frustrated by experiences they have had with other agencies; they are tired of paying high dollar and getting "nothing" actionable. All the while they are up to their old tricks, requiring pages and pages of documentation and slide after slide of deliverables that show the work happened. From my experience, slide decks and documentation are never evidence that innovation or transformation has taken place and are seldom a playbook for how to achieve it. Evidence of innovation and transformation can be best measured by looking at you (and your team) and how mindsets have shifted over the course of the engagement. If the engagement has been successful, people think, work and operate differently. In short, you are the deliverable. Everything else is just office decoration. See also: 3 Steps to Succeed at Open Innovation   My advice. Stop asking your agency partners simply what you are going to get or what they are going to help you build. If this is what you expect out of a successful engagement, you are looking for and buying the wrong thing. That website redesign isn’t going to change much of anything, at least not anything sustainable or real if you haven’t actually learned anything. Your mindset hasn’t changed. Instead of expecting your agency partner to leave you with cool new product ideas, expect the partner to teach you how to think like they do. Any skilled agency can create deliverable after deliverable, but if you are exactly the same person you were before the project, you still won't be able to do anything with the deliverables. Your mental models will still be the same. You will be the same. Your team will be the same. Left alone, things will devolve into what you already know, and what your team knows. Going through a design-thinking process is about living in the messy, no clear lines/phases between things. If you haven’t come to terms with that ambiguity, you haven’t really experienced what it feels like to work in this very different way -- let alone explain it to others, no matter how clear that project plan is. It’s not just different outputs, or a different process. It’s actually a different way of thinking. You should be buying mindsets and outcomes, not things. Think of it as Marie Kondo for your brain. For this to happen, you’ll need to let go of control, of rigid lines, of business as usual. For innovation to work at scale, you have to stop evaluating the in-between against a rigid framework (i.e., the three-year plan, the requirements document) and start measuring outcomes. Your success or failure is dependent on that truly incongruous detail. Can you imagine if Starbucks had a three-year plan that they refused to move away from? Instead, they are constantly responding to and evolving the customer experience. They experiment, they test, and what works gets rolled out and what doesn’t gets designed out. They don’t just innovate at the product level, they innovate at all levels of the business from manufacturing down to the drink straw. That’s why they were named the most innovative company by Fast Company in 2018. Innovative companies have innovative cultures, not just innovative people. While transforming mindsets should be the goal of an agency partnership, changing one person or even three isn’t enough. Innovation is about investing in new mindsets to change how the whole organization thinks. Much like Starbucks’ end-to-end approach or Microsoft’s famous shift from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture; the responsibility of innovation is on everyone at every level of the business. Toyota is famous for making every single person on the workforce focus on continued improvement. That’s what it takes. Success in innovation is about respecting and empowering everyone, the model for a true learning organization. No matter how "innovative" you or your immediate team is, the larger business you reside within is probably still operating very traditionally (unless you are one of the lucky few). The same poorly structured incentives, the same operational structures, the same LOBs, the same territorial blindness and the same power politics – all of which are the death knell to innovation. Innovation today requires much more than a surface remodel, it requires a new business model. It also starts at the top-down. That grassroots stuff, it's cute, but it rarely works and requires an incubation period way longer than most businesses have the patience for. You can't just snatch all the innovative thinkers and plop them onto a new "innovation lab" and assume the barriers are gone. All you've done is just create a siloed vacuum of a bunch of smart people who "get it." The problem is that a large percentage of them have only an academic understanding of what an innovation process actually “feels” like. They have to be set up for success at the highest levels of the business. In the end, those corporate innovation labs almost always end up hiring an agency to “fix things” or to get “results faster.” Worse is when they want to learn new ways of working, but don’t make time for it and aren’t around for the actual learning part. Innovation is more than a process. It’s an experience. “To achieve breakthrough results, you can't just change what you do.
 You first must change how you think… New thinking leads to new doing.” - Mark Bonchek True innovation goes beyond practices and processes. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain it. There’s a deep understanding that comes from real, in-the-trenches problem-solving. Innovation is all about learning a new way of thinking and working. It’s about developing a nimble mindset that allows you to move through an ambiguous problem-solving exercise, constantly revisiting your original thesis, to solve wicked problems. This kind of thinking requires an honesty and a flexibility that is contradictory to most command/control structures. All that success of those Silicon Valley people isn’t because they are “Agile.” It's because they solve problems differently; as a collective, that’s a powerful thing. You have to want to “think differently,” not just want to be successful. And you can’t learn to think differently, unless you actually experience what it’s like. See also: Era of Insurance Innovation Is Upon Us   And this experience is something everyone in an organization needs to get a taste of. Here at Cake & Arrow, we run workshops with our clients where the whole output is shifting how a department thinks, giving them hands-on experience with the methods to help them sustain that shift. To do so, we aren’t just working with the “creatives” or the “innovative thinkers” within that department. We are working across the organization, with people from marketing, from operations, from IT, etc. In doing so, we help them move from a service mindset (cog-thinkers are quickly being replaced in today’s world of automation), to one where they form strategic relationships with their partners across the business. These new patterns of interaction are what businesses need to solve complex problems today. With the proper support, fundamental change like this can cascade throughout an organization, providing longer-term, sustainable transformation. Every now and again, in partnership with amazing Agency X, companies manage to bring that consumer optimized digital experience to market. While that’s all fine and good, it’s just the beginning. Without the right minds on hand to actually continue to evolve and sustain that product long-term, they will eventually end back right where they began. They relapse, and two years later, they go right back to the agency to redesign and relaunch the experience. This is because they bought a thing (a website, an app, a sparkly powerpoint) and not a mindset. Innovation is about a new way of working; it’s a different way of problem-solving that requires continuous nurturing to expand and grow. When it comes time for your next project, stop buying deliverables, and instead invest in mindsets. Only then will you have the right tools to solve for what’s next and finally move beyond your digital transformation agenda, because now you have actually transformed, and digital was only part of the story. This article originally appeared here.

Emily Smith

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Emily Smith

Emily Smith is the senior manager of communication and marketing at Cake & Arrow, a customer experience agency providing end-to-end digital products and services that help insurance companies redefine customer experience.


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