The Innovation Dilemma
Innovation and collaboration
To truly innovate in today's world of emerging technology, responsive Web design, and connected devices requires a fluid and fit agency model. It's agile (lowercase “a”), risky, and absolutely necessary to anticipate the industry's constantly evolving course.
The worst thing to happen to innovation is that it became a “thing”—a buzzword. As with most vaguely “technical” terms, as soon as innovation became hot, heads turned to the technology departments. Suddenly, the onus was on tech to bring “shiny objects” to the table regardless of relevance. But that's not innovation, that's “tech for tech's sake.” True innovation doesn't come from any one department; it can come from anywhere. It comes from the early collaboration of open thinkers focused on a client need. But that kind of close, cross-disciplinary working relationship is hard to come by in the traditional agency model.
The change must start at the intersection of the creative and technology teams. They are seasoned veterans to the ebb and flow of client wins and losses. But in the current agency wheelhouse, these teams are typically at end of the cycle. While marketing, account planning, and strategy are all assigned early in a client engagement, the creative and tech teams are typically benched until they get the flight plans. It's an approach that not only stunts some of the most talented minds in the agency, but it puts those same people in jeopardy of being underutilized, uninspired and, possibly, cut from the team. It's bad for culture and stifles innovation.
Remember, if someone has chosen to work at an agency, regardless of the role, that person typically has a creative bent. Regardless of their “department”—technology, marketing, finance, ops—these people are probably also in a band, they might published authors, they might e bloggers, or even training for their next marathon. The key is to harness those creative energies toward innovation on behalf of clients, especially at times when workflow is at a slow point. Breaking this cycle, however, requires a completely different game plan and leaders within the organization who are willing to invest in the new approach.
I know, I know. The word “invest” has no doubt sent shivers down your spine. But don't close your browser yet. I'm not saying an agency needs to set aside bags of money for innovation; that's just not realistic in this day and age. I'm saying that our business has natural ebbs and flows, pockets of free time in which our creative resources are free to play with evolving and emerging technologies. They're doing it in their spare time anyway, so why not harness that?
Of course, the trick is knowing when that spare time is coming. Forecasting will always be an issue for agencies. Our work is just volatile by nature. Account teams don't want to over-forecast, which means development teams are constantly understaffed. It's important to have great, plugged-in resource managers who can help juggle ever-changing schedules. And, of course, having all capabilities—creative, tech, etc.—embedded from the start helps with this issue as well, since both sides have a vested interest in making it successful.
To paraphrase The Incredibles: Once everyone's innovative, no one is. Innovation isn't a thing; it's a way of thinking. And it doesn't come from one person or one team; it comes from collaboration. If we're being honest with ourselves, we need to change the agency culture so that innovative thinking permeates all the work we do. But in this case, to be more fluid in our process, we must create a tighter structure that allows the ideas to flow. The true innovation comes when you're not looking for it.
Joe Lozito oversees Rosetta's technology practice, which includes over 400 architects, engineers, developers, quality assurance professionals, and business analysts.