A creative colleague once remarked to a developer who had the cheek to make a creative suggestion 'the problem with marketing agencies is that everyone is a #~$*%g marketing expert'. That statement received tacit approval among senior management at the time and arguably still does today in many companies. That's a problem...
Why? because I got to know that ‘developer’ over the intervening years and he changed rolls many times. He went on to be a web designer, a stint as an entrepreneur, a screen writer, and then an actor who still codes on the side, and did I mention he speaks 3 languages.
An unusual path for an unusual guy I grant you, but the unusual creative mind he possessed as a developer were never tapped at the time. He was seen to have value only as a coder an interpreter of instructions, a data scientists’ type with a logical left brain devoid of creativity. But he was in fact a polymath brimming with ideas that we potentially could have used.
A polymath (Greek: "having learned much") is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
Our developer friend stood out but if you think of the implicit meaning behind the creative colleague’s statement he actually meant that the problem with digital marketing agencies is that we have too many #~£$%g opinions to supress.
And there is a preverse logic to this as if you still think about a company as an army requesting input from all the soldiers prior to going into battle. Yes, this would be chaotic, disastrous even. But a marketing company is not an army, and the type of battles it faces every day are in many ways unprecedented events, so addressing the rank and file might actually be a good idea. Especially those rank and file with emotional intelligence, creativity, leadership, and commerciality, plus an ability to follow through.
So how do you pull ideas from the ranks? It’s a cultural shift for most agencies so below are four key thoughts.
1. Everyone’s a genius
You must assume as a starter that all of us are polymaths and declare this to the team. We all have interests outside of our day-to-day which form more of our character than the day job. We all tend to have a healthier balance between left brain magic and right brain logic than we give ourself credit for. It’s just that we tend to accept being ghettoised into roles patrolled by the thought police.
2. Be prepared for crap
To be clear I am not saying that all opinions will be fantastic big ideas that are grounded, measurable and will deliver a return. Most, I will wager, will be bad so embrace crap, as within them will be the odd real pearl. The big challenge is getting those people within the company who wish to express their ideas to actually do so.
3. Create platforms for interaction
Set up both explicit and implicit moments where ideas can be winkled out, weekly or monthly polymath groups. Have it build into any pitch process or new project process even put up signs in the toilet stating that you’re a polymath. Encourage more regular staff coffees, parties and generally mixing between silos. On the implicit side, make space for standing and sitting areas around water coolers in kitchens. If you have budget, engineer it into your office. Googles new campus in Mountain View, California, resembles bent rectangles designed, in the words of the search giant’s real estate chief, to maximize “casual collisions of the work force. Or when Yahoo banned its employees from working from home in 2013, the reasons it gave had less to do with productivity than serendipity. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” Failing that sort of budget, spill some glue on the floor to slow people down.
4. Awards the pioneers
You will get some first movers who are bursting to show off their polymath credentials and rise to the challenge. Over reward the pioneers, make a point, give them something they value, avoid cash if possible, as this might be as simple as a public thank you or actively promoting them across the company against the skills they have.
5. Practice what you preach
Don’t be afraid to propose new and in your world brilliant ideas. In my experience staying in the shadows of false modesty will get nothing done. Challenge yourself to do something creative once a day.
So we need to stop passively supressing ideas and start to coach and nudge others towards great thinking. Make it your mission to know each person, ask about their interests outside of work, what they did in the past what their interests are now. Some will resist and shrink back into their perceived role they must be encouraged, but the people who recognise that their additional value is in their extended skills, they will love it. By doing this you will start changing the way you do battle, start rewriting the rules and doing new things (crafting experiments), interacting with different people (shifting connections), and reinterpreting each other through the lens of the emerging possibilities.
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