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How We Lead Agency Change

Eugene Chung, Mentally Friendly

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For most agencies and organizations, we already know our burning platform for change. Whether it’s evolving our offering to meet changing client expectations or a radically changing customer expectations fueled by disruptive technology, we know that change is a constant.

But if we all embrace that change is a constant, then why aren’t we actively building up our capability to change?

From our perspective, the answer centers around how we change through design and more importantly, how we setup our teams for success.

Combining Strategy and Action

Most organizations are well along the design adoption journey—whether it’s employing more design thinking or HCD methodologies, or embracing agile ways of working. Some have just started, and some are further along and there’s less of a need for design advocacy (e.g., why we need design), and the conversation is now about how we use design to deliver the greatest impact.

The single greatest contributor that dictates whether design will be effective is an organization’s ability to create teams that combine both strategy and action.

All innovation, including how an agency adapts and evolves its business, services and teams, lives on a gradient from Strategy to Action. Pure strategy is building strategic visions and decks—and pure action is building, creating, and implementing.

Strategy without action is innovation for innovation’s sake, and action without strategy is just a task. The edges make people sad, are de-motivating, and no actual progress is made.

For today’s agencies, design and innovation needs to be done with a combination of strategy and action (so somewhere in the middle), where people have a say in what to do and why. We fundamentally need to rethink.

Why Modern Organizations Kill Innovation

The problem is that most organizations are setup to create this gap. On one end, you have the pull of hierarchy, which moves people towards promotions, getting paid more, and having more influence.

On the other side, you have the push of doing—people who are too busy to plan. People who have millions of tasks to get through.

And this push and pull separates strategy and action further and further apart. Powerpoint presentations that won’t get seen, and Jira tickets that aren’t properly understood.

Which is what you have in agencies—leadership teams who are tasked with the responsibility to set strategy (the thinkers), and teams that are tasked with implementation (the doers).

Essentially, we’ve created teams that can’t bridge this strategy-action gap, which kills design, innovation, and most importantly, the ability for agencies to change.

What results is that the best people leave, micro-managers are spawned, and the people who are left learn to follow. Because of this gap, there’s a need for more middle managers, which is ultimately more expensive, inefficient, and unproductive.

Closing the Strategy-Action Gap

So, how do we close this gap to successfully change? The answer lies in the middle, which is where truly empowered teams live. They have clear, compelling missions and blend both strategy and action together to be able to work better, faster and happier.

Here are some principles to close this gap:

1. Happy teams create change.

Creating an empowered culture isn’t about ping pong tables, it’s about providing emotional security for your teams and giving teams real missions that can help move the agency forward, not tasks.

People need to understand how their work effects real outcomes and need to feel empowered to not just solve a problem, but to help redefine what it is and how it gets solved. When people feel supported and empowered, they do better work.

2. All problems are people problems.

Agencies are really adept at identifying and solving client problems, but when it comes to their own business, the design process gets thrown out the window.

If agencies viewed their own problems like they did client problems, they’d take on a more people-centric perspective and process to solve them.

3. Co-create the future.

Change shouldn’t be mandated from the top-down, it should be co-created by agency leadership and teams working together. Make sure that you bring diverse groups of people together in smart ways to participate to build what the future should look like.

This means having the teams that will implement involved from the beginning. And don't let the leadership and management get too busy when it’s time to get into the detail.

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About the author: Eugene Chung leads Organization Design at Mentally Friendly to empower teams to adapt to change, adopt new mindsets, behaviors, methodologies and achieve their missions.