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A beloved Creative Director I worked under once said to me ‘a busy agency is a good agency’. Those words, whilst both wise and true, not to mention born of hard-won experience, obscure another truth that can have an effect equally as damaging to the culture and fabric of an agency as a dry spell.
We spend a great deal of our time as a design team head down, laser focussed on specific challenges. These challenges vary widely from broad and open design briefs through to obsessing over carefully crafting a user interface, but regardless of their nature, they require us to focus in. From ‘how can we make experiencing and buying a car online as attractive a purchase route as a dealership’, to crafting a brand new product for a start-up or helping a global bank express its digital vision or get products to market faster. This work builds our experience, hones our skills and challenges us in many ways, but what it often doesn’t do, is broaden our horizons.
We get very good at doing specific things, or even specific types of things. Design, and digital design in particular has many very well established approaches, frameworks and methodologies that make applying design thinking a repeatable and reliable process. The spark of creative genius that often makes the difference between good and great is not bullet-pointed or drawn out as a diagram anywhere, but just about every other aspect of the process is. How we develop a better understanding of a problem, get under the skin of a brand, ideate around a concept, these are well-worn paths. We become creatures of habit, comfortable in the warm embrace of what we know. We become predictable.
We deliver our best work when we experiment. When we look up from what we’re doing at what’s going on around us, we are able to approach things in new ways and incorporate new ideas, approaches and technologies. Now, I’m not saying this can’t be done to some extent as part of the day to day delivery of projects, it can, and there are some very good examples of this, but there are some things we can do that make it a hell of a lot easier. So what are they?
Nothing sparks the bits of your brain that you need for creativity like change.
Well, the first is getting out of the office. Every creative I know has learned to find their own ways of being creative in the office. For some, it’s relentless collaborative discussion and exploration of ideas with those around them. For others, it’s being able to find that space or corner where they slip on their headphones and the world just melts away around them. But these are coping mechanisms. These are ways of getting things done and working with what you have. Nothing sparks the bits of your brain that you need for creativity like change. This can come in a range of ways, some as simple as working somewhere else for a while. But for me, it requires something more. Being exposed to new ideas and hearing others talk about the same challenges you grapple with day-to-day but attacked in new ways is refreshing, exciting and reaffirming. Seeing how others work is something we almost never see as they toil away behind the secretive high walls of their own organisation. But talking openly about not just the end result – the work itself, but the process and how you got there, that’s the stuff that matters. Conferences, workshops, community meet-ups, these are the places where thinking moves forward and new ideas and methods are considered, discussed and iterated upon. I find that my team often has to be cajoled, nudged or essentially forced out of their chairs to go out and engage with the wider community at these kinds of event, but the reward is always powerful and quickly evident. So, this is one way of addressing the problem.
The other is much harder.
If the process is becoming predictable, then the process should change. A repeatable framework will give you repeatable results, which is a good thing in many respects, but innovating within the bounds of a static process is like trying to make a bridge out of cardboard. If the process itself however, genuinely demands constant introspection and exploration of whether you could be doing it better then the process naturally changes where it meets better ideas. In order for this to work though, we need to leave behind some of the good aspects of the repeatable process. We begin to lose the constraints of predictability but we also embrace a more uncertain outcome. We might come up with something truly awesome and groundbreaking, we might very well not. And this is where the idea hits a problem.
For a business to embrace the possibility of excellence, it also needs to embrace the possibility of failure.
For a business to embrace the possibility of excellence, it also needs to embrace the possibility of failure. And failure, when the client is writing the checks, is often not palatable. It takes a brave account manager to tell a client that we might not deliver what they want the first time, and building this into any commercial arrangement is risky and requires a deep and trusting relationship between the client and their agency. It needs a mutual understanding of the risk and reward, and it requires a partnerial stance, rather than the more traditional dynamic of ‘we pay you, you do the things’.
I suppose the inevitable conclusion this is shuffling awkwardly towards is that the commercial reality of what we do often means we have to favour the predictable over the uncertain. And whilst there are many things that we already do as part of our process to encourage iterative improvement, the master framework we generally follow is stubbornly going nowhere. So, we must do what we can do encourage our thinking to move forward, and what it mostly comes down to is – wherever the opportunity presents itself, get out of the office.