April 27, 2007

Creating an Ideas Culture – Pt 1

Filed under: 80/20, design management, ideas, innovation, team culture, team dynamics — Warren Hutchinson @ 5:03 pm

Our company is currently going through a bit of a change after some fairly heavyweight mergers. Firstly Oyster with Framfab and then Framfab with LBicon. The group is now an 1800 person, multinational full service design agency. It’s essentially a rollup of Oyster, Framfab, LBicon, Lost Boys, Wheel, MetaDesign, Scient, iXL and some bits of Razorfish.

We now have offices in the UK, US, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and China (!). Pretty huge I’d say.

But with this growth there are the inevitable challenges such as knowledge sharing, creative agility, familiarity and moreover team culture and individual identity. Certainly in the London office where I work.

I wrote about the begining of this challenge, here and here.

The team culture has no doubt been impacted which breeds some questions around personal identity and the sense of place an individual has within the whole. On the whole everything is positive, there are just some interesting challenges afoot. there are also some very interesting opportunities afoot in cross-polinating the disciplines from one country to the next as there is so much to learn.

I’ve already been part of a knowledge exchange with out Dutch counterparts at Lost Boys in Amsterdam. Cool bunch they are too.

Anyway, in order to deal with this the London outfit has arranged into ‘ecosystems’ and these groups seek to deliver small group thinking, sharing and agility within a large, well supported network. The are teams of about 60 people grouped around clients with a natural affinity.

Growth brings process as process is required to control the new chaos. Process can all too often equate to bureaucracy and bureaucracy is an innovation killer in my book. So we’re working on ways to reintroduce chaos (a bit anyway), to reinvigorate a mistake-embracing culture where it’s okay to try new things and get it wrong.

This is design. It’s about invention and experimentation.

All this starts with people and my key observation about agency culture after a few years first hand experience is that very talented people join to work on ‘cool’ brands. Those same talented people are used on projects from week to week, month to month so that all the ‘learning’ takes place on-he-job. Yes there are training course and development packages etc.. but that’s all too often structured around a skill-deficit and is rarely about just trying things out.

I don’t like that and I think that it’s wrong. Who has ever been on a course where they say “Just play. make and break stuff, be curious”?

My colleagues at LBi who lead our ecosystem also agree so we are currently introducing an 80/20 culture to our team.

80% on billed client work. 20% making mistakes working on things that excite them.

It’s not new but the reasons for pursuing it are obvious. It is all about creating an innovation culture where people are challenged and encouraged to work on subjects that intrinsically motivate them. To create a sense of ‘play’ in our workplace.

Any professional service company worth its salt has this approach but I haven’t heard of anything similar in a digital design agency. Yes in product design, but not in digital and certainly at none of our competitors.

I’ve always said that our discipline has a lot to learn from other design disciplines, being the new kid on the block and I stick to that.

So. 80/20. How do we make it happen?

Well there are 2 challenges to deal with from the off:

  1. In a culture of 100% billable, creating breathing space for the ’20’ to happen
  2. Finding out what topics individuals should work on and what the prospective projects might be

Firstly we can consider blocking out sometime each week where we switch mode from billed work to private work. I like the idea of this all happening at the same time each week as I think it will create a nice buzz in the team to have everyone on ‘pet projects’ at the same time.

To get started we’re thinking of setting ‘Design Challenges’ to run for a time-boxed period just to introduce the 80/20 way of life. 80% on projects, 20% on other stuff.

We can let this run for a while, enjoy the distraction and nurture our capacity planning to accommodate the new activity.

While we are re-engineering ‘how’ we do things we can be thinking about those ‘pet projects’, what they are, what interests us all as individuals. Some people can team up and start making, trying and developing ‘stuff’. The Design Challenges will help us establish the time slot and be a conduit for developing some personal ideas.

I’m always up for feeling our way towards this by trying things out rather than talking talking talking too much.

We’ll let you know how it goes.

We’ve discussed it and it’s all systems go on our new innovative, mistake embracing, creative, fun, developmental culture.



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