Breaking the Traditional Agency Model: Innovation in Technology as a Culture

Posted by: in Entrepreneurship, Thought Leadership, w20 group on March 15, 2013

In a crowded, competitive field where every interactive agency across the globe seems to offer some sort of “Labs” or “Innovation” practice, group, or center of excellence, it has become difficult to differentiate one agency from another and identify the true leaders and influencers. It seems as if the playing field has leveled, as companies all appear to be pushing the envelope and offering cutting edge solutions and big ideas.

Digging deeper, however, certain truths become evident:

  • “Labs” is just a storefront in most places. It’s window treatment, a nice display with mannequins decked out in the finest seasonal garb. Once you walk in, you’re dismayed to find that none of what you saw while window shopping is actually sold in the store. And what you purchase is on back-order.
  • Vendor partnerships, old-school thinking, and archaic software practices are lurking in the dark. These suck the life out of innovation and lead to boxed, brainless solutions that are costly, do not take advantage of the most appropriate technology, and are short-sighted.
  • Most agencies do not provide end-to-end, in-house services. Your “innovative” solution is designed in California, developed in Romania, and overseen by account executives and project managers in London and Barcelona. This disconnect and co-location are detrimental to collaboration and delivery of software and applications. It’s not efficient nor does it have a client’s best interest in mind.

So how do you the break the mold? And why has this become an accepted practice, one which does a disservice to your clients, fattens the pockets of your partners, and doesn’t truly challenge and best enable your digital staff?

Having been part of technology practices within corporate, start-up, and agency cultures throughout my career, I’ve seen the best and worst of innovation. I’ve seen how it’s done right, and how it can be completely misguided and poorly executed.

While at a previous employer, I ran a team focused on innovation and emerging media. For a while, we were very productive and successful, featuring a group of highly skilled developers and SMEs, working closely with smart creative minds and delivering innovative solutions in the mobile and interactive space. Once our success was noticed by the rest of the organization and as a result, envied and coveted, things began falling apart; there wasn’t an inherent culture, a shared mindset, and therefore once it was attempted to spread innovation into multiple offices, timezones, and cultures, such efforts failed due to the lack of understanding and commitment.

Flash forward to my time at W2O Digital. Our at-large Technology team features an agency solutions driven interactive development discipline that focuses on more traditional delivery – responsive websites, mobile/social applications, and API and CRM development; alongside, we feature a Data Sciences team (which aligns with a more recognizable “Labs”-type group) which is focused on developing new, big data platforms and SaaS solutions that can serve as a backbone for large enterprises and smaller companies alike providing relevant and actionable analytical data. Both the Interactive and Data Sciences teams, however, share a common interest and staff along with similar principles at their core – innovation and productization is applied to everything, from websites to big data platforms to mobile frameworks and applications. Tech Leads, Developers, and Business Analysts are encouraged to evaluate and consider each solution and project from an optimization and scalability perspective, leading to innovative, marketable, and repeatable execution.

Keying our success is a shared organizational mentality encouraging innovation that is accepted and is the norm rather than the anomaly. It enables and cultivates the confidence to successfully deliver time and time again, allowing for quick failure as well. When we do fail, we quickly learn and adapt, not repeating the same mistake twice. Coincidentally, failure is very rare.

When an organization supports innovation, a “Labs” and a productization mentality are effortless and a simple byproduct of every-day work. It’s the accepted reality, a driver, a force, and it’s contagious. It allows and encourages individuals and teams to think outside the box and push the envelope. It creates healthy competition, rises above limitations and constraints, and instead focuses on the possibilities. If funding and budgets are limiters, they are then treated as challenges instead of deterrents. Thoughts turn to “how will we creatively overcome” instead of accepting defeat.

Based on my experience, here are the key traits to an innovative technology culture as an organizational mindset:

  • It starts at the top. Executive leadership has to understand, support and encourage the culture.
  • Vendor Partnerships are limited to key drivers and enablers. When a vendor becomes a true partner, work is not viewed at in terms of outsourced, but instead as a collaborative effort. I’ve experienced both sides of these relationships on several projects in my career. An outsourcing mentality leads to a one-off, hacked and barely passing solution. When vendor-based projects are approached from a collaborative point of view, when vendors are trusted and enabled, great results are achieved. Client relationships approached in this manner reap similar results as well.
  • Key operational teams are centrally located, pairing for optimal and natural collaboration. For instance: Design and Development, Account and Project management, etc.
  • Process is not a deterrent, but instead an enabler. Organizations that become enamored with too much process hurt themselves greatly in this regard. This is where the right infrastructure and software help circumvent and enable… More on that shortly.
  • Staff is perfectly balanced with good cops and bad cops. Good cops create opportunities, build relationships, and say “Yes”, while bad cops balance out priorities, set expectations and ensure delivery and balance.
  • Everyone is on the same page and politics are set aside. Employees work for the greater good and are not fearful of beauracracy, a peer or a senior colleague being a deterrent or stealing credit, and red tape. Instead, employees know they will be credited and rewarded.
  • Solutions are not viewed as one-offs. Instead, productization and reusability are considered, even for simple deliverables and projects. This encourages deeper thinking and almost always leads to an innovative approach.
  • Infrastructure is key. Hardware and software are huge enablers when strategically provided, set up, used correctly and trained on. It’s important to note that infrastructure alone is not in itself a problem solver or a crutch; simply upgrading systems and providing employees with iPads doesn’t mean a company is now innovative.
  • Innovation can be done at even the largest corporate level, as proven by companies such as Intel, Samsung, Verizon, and Redbull.  Apple and Google are also obvious innovative meccas, though one could argue Apple has seemed to slow down a bit. As noted by the first item on this list, it starts at the top…

Consider that a Lab can not only become an internal product development team managed in a fiscally responsible way, but can also spread into other areas of a larger group. We’re seeing this happen at W2O Digital, and not only is our “Labs” group being driven from within but is also bolstered by external organizational sources and collaborations. A well run and positioned Lab ultimately leads to more value than the traditional services business through SaaS models and services bundled as software or platforms that are built to scale and can quickly be reproduced and repurposed. A Lab then simply becomes a product focused Business Unit with measurable outcomes that drive growth and innovation.

In order to innovate, an agency or a practice cannot become or think of itself as a one-size-fits-all technology shop. This lacks scalability, vision, and fluidity. Areas of focus that meet market demands must be identified, short term and long term, and then concentrated on ferociously with the intent of executing on all cylinders in those areas. In order  to enable innovation, productization, and a supporting culture, a company must inherently believe in it, support it, and encourage it. Key, baseline factors are critical from an overall organizational framework perspective – location, hardware/software, the right and focused leadership, etc. Ultimately, however, a Technology Lab or Innovation group cannot succeed or be correctly enabled without a supporting organizational culture and mindset.

By: Shai Reichert

Group Director, Technology

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