Episode 299:

If there’s one thing every agency has to be able to do, it’s innovate. We are paid to be creative thinkers on command. We have to be able to generate ideas on a regular basis that serves both the agency and our clients. This can be exhausting and stressful to deliver consistently, especially because it’s usually only the agency owner or a handful of leaders who can do this work. What if everyone in the agency had the skills and confidence to be an innovative thinker?

Author Carla Johnson has studied the art and science of innovation. The research she’s done and the methodologies she’s built are both fascinating and super useful. She believes innovative thinking is both innate and teachable. It’s been an integral part of human nature since the beginning of time and it’s her mission to help reignite a passion for it.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Carla and I explore all things innovation. We give this buzzword a clear definition. We discuss mistakes made in trying to find creative solutions. We look at ways innovative thinking can be enhanced and taught, as well as how to create a culture of creative thinkers in your agency.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Agency innovation

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Understanding the definition of innovation
  • Why innovative thinking is a skill we all have
  • Mistakes that keep meetings from being creatively rich
  • Is innovative thinking teachable?
  • Does groupthink help or hinder agency innovation?
  • Why adults are less innovative than children
  • The archetypes of innovative thinking
  • How to create a culture of creative, innovative thinkers
“‘Innovation’ means consistently coming up with new, great, and reliable ideas.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Let’s start celebrating the awful ideas.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “When we limit idea generation to just one person, we actually limit the potential of those ideas.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Coming up with ideas is a skill that you develop through consistent, repetitive practice.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Even if you’re not the traditional, stereotypical ‘idea person’, you are still an innovator.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Unless there’s clarity around why you show up every day, it’s very hard to get clarity about why you innovate.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Ideas are that constant pressure that puts movement into an organization to keep it going in the direction it should go.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet

Innovation Archetype Assessment: https://www.carlajohnson.co/innovationarchetype/

Ways to contact Carla Johnson:

Tools & Resources:

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to midsize agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want down the road, sellable. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute with another episode of Build a Better Agency, and this one is awesome. I’ll tell you about my guest in a minute, but first, I want to remind you that the Build a Better Agency summit is less than two months away, August 10th and 11th in Chicago, in-person, agency owners and leaders coming together to learn how to run the business of their business better. We’re going to talk about biz dev. We’re going to talk about imposter syndrome. We’re going to talk about diversity conversations inside the agency. We’re going to talk about starting with the end in mind. How do you think through where you might like to take the agency someday, not only for you, but what is the next evolution? Is that a sale? Is that handing it off to employees or a kid? Is it locking the door, whatever it is, what do you need to be thinking about now around that?

How can you build wealth outside of your agency? How do you grow and nurture leaders inside your organization? How do you bring about innovative thinking? How do you protect yourself legally? We’ve got all kinds, amazing, amazing speakers who are going to bring it for all of us. Even I am going to have a thought or two to share. Here’s what I would love for you to do, the event is capped at 250 participants and we are getting sort of near that number. I’m not going to create false scarcity. I’m not going to say we only have three tickets left. We have more than that, but I do expect that we will sell the event out, knock on wood. So head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com, and at the upper left corner, there’s a little icon that says B-A-B-A summit, Build a Better Agency summit. Click on that and read about it and register. Also, ticket prices go up July 15th, so you have a couple of weeks to grab your tickets before there’s a price increase.

I want you to be there. I want you to soak in the joy of A, being with other people. By the way, everybody will either have to have a proof of vaccine or have a negative COVID test. So we’re going to be safe, we’re going to be able to hug and hang out, and it’s going to be joyful, it really is. It’s going to be a celebration of everything that we’ve gone through for the last year, and I want you to be a part of it. I want you to share it with us. So please grab a ticket, come to Chicago. I promise you, you will not regret the decision. All right. Enough about that.

Let me tell you a little bit about our guest. Carla Johnson is a woman who has studied the science and the art of innovation. She has a brand new book out that I would be holding up if I could, but it actually comes out tomorrow, it’s called RE:Think Innovation. What Carla has done is she asked the question, is innovation something that has a pattern or something we can teach or learn, or are some people just naturally innovative and big idea generators, and other people are not? The research she’s done and her findings and the methodologies she’s built around this are not only fascinating, but they’re super useful. I’m telling you, if there’s something that our business needs, that every agency has to be able to do, it is innovate. We get paid for coming up with ideas, and by the way, we have to come up with them on command. We can’t just wait in the shower until a great idea comes to us. We have to be able to generate ideas on a regular and consistent basis that serve our agency, that serve our clients, and Carla has cracked the code.

And so I know you’re going to want to get the book, but what I also want to tell you is that I am so enthused about Carla’s work and what she has come up with that she and I are teaching a workshop together in February of 2022. So February 17th and 18th, 2022, you can go to the website right now under the, how we help go to workshops, and you’re going to see where you can register for that workshop, because I think that thing’s going to go in a heartbeat. But come down to Disney World with us. It’s cold everywhere in February, but not at Disney World. Come down to Disney World with us. It’s a Thursday, Friday. Hang out for the weekend if you want to afterwards play, but come learn how to not only articulate…

Let’s say you’re that person in your agency that is the thinker, and many of you are. You’re also the bottleneck though, because you’re the only one who knows how to do it. So come to the workshop, learn Carla’s innovation, this ability to perpetually create important, good, valuable ideas, so you can take it back to the shop and you can teach everybody how to be an innovative thinker, because according to Carla’s research and according to the book, we are all capable of it, and in fact, we all used to do it, but it’s been squelched. She’s going to talk to us about how to reignite that. We’re going to talk about it in the podcast. We’re going to spend two days just soaking in it and learning the process so we can take it back and teach it, again, February 17th and 18th, 2022, which sounds far away, but it’s like six or seven months. So grab your ticket right now because you’re going to want to do it.

All right. I don’t want to waste any more time because I want to get as much time with Carla as we can, so let’s get to it. Carla, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Carla Johnson:

Thanks Drew. I’m delighted to be here.

Drew McLellan:

Tell everybody a little bit about the book that I believe launches the same day this episode launches, right?

Carla Johnson:

That’s right, June 29th.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. Okay. This will go out live on the 28th, so all of you people who listen on Mondays, you can buy the book we’re about to talk about tomorrow, or they can pre-order it, right?

Carla Johnson:

They can pre-order it. Absolutely. The name of the book is called RE:Think Innovation, and it’s about how the people that you think of as these prolific innovators, how they actually consistently come up with these great monumental ideas that turn into these extraordinary outcomes that make all of us jealous.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Innovation to me is one of those words that people pop around, right, and it’s like synergies and paradigms and other jargon that we use. When you think of innovation, how do you define it?

Carla Johnson:

That’s a great question, Drew, because one of the things that I did is go through really all of the ridiculous definitions of innovation, and for many of them, even if that was your company’s definition of innovation, I don’t think anybody could read it and know what to do or really understand what it is. I believe a big part of innovation is about simplicity. I think the more complicated your definition of innovation, the less you really understand what it is. My definition of innovation is consistently coming up with new, great and reliable ideas, and it’s short and sweet, but each word has a very specific meaning. The first one is just consistency, consistently coming up with those ideas. I think especially in agencies, that’s why you’re hired is to-

Drew McLellan:

Right. That’s what we get paid to do. Right.

Carla Johnson:

Exactly. That’s your moneymaker is the consistency of your ideas. For people who truly are prolific innovators, that’s one of their bits of genius is that they can do this on deadline at a moment’s notice without thinking. You ask them something going down the hall, and bam, they’ve got the idea, and it’s that consistency that really sets them apart. Then the next three attributes, new, great and reliable are key to understanding the impact of innovation and why I believe it’s something that everybody is capable of doing. The first word, a new idea, it doesn’t have to necessarily be brand new for your industry, but it could be a new take on an idea that’s been used someplace else that you revamp for your industry. For example, McDonald’s pattern their drive-thru layout after a formula one pit stop. Was it absolutely new, well, to the fast food industry, it was, but they took inspiration from another industry. The BMW iDrive system is designed after a video game control. That’s an example of what a new idea is.

But just having something new doesn’t guarantee that it’s workable or usable or even innovative. And so then we move on to great. To be honest, Drew, great is a subjective word and it kind of falls into what David Ogilvy talks about with an idea, it’s one that gets you really excited and makes you jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself, but that doesn’t mean it’s implementable, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily innovative or effective. Great on its own isn’t something that’s guaranteed to be innovative, and just something that’s new and great isn’t guaranteed to be innovative. That’s why we need the third characteristic, which is reliable. A reliable idea is one that makes you money.

Many times I hear people say, well, coming up with ideas is the easy part. It’s the execution that’s the hard part. I believe that the reason that ideas can be hard to execute is because they weren’t great ideas to start with. And so that’s why I use this three-prong criteria to start to evaluate an idea. In the first place, is it a new idea to your industry? Is it a great idea, one that really gets this visceral response, it gets people super excited about it? Is it an idea that in some way, shape or form will make money? Those are the characteristics that I believe everybody can understand, everybody can relate to, and most importantly, everybody can remember.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. That always helpful. Right. I think a lot of people suffer under the perception, and I’m asking you if it’s a misperception that certain people are good big ideas and innovative ideas, and other people can’t really do it. True?

Carla Johnson:

Oh yes. The perception is there, but the truth to that statement isn’t actually. I’ll go back to some research that I went through in the book, and there is a general systems engineer whose name was George Land, and this is in the late ’60s. He’s a left brain science guy, right? He’s an engineer, very methodical, structure process, everything you can imagine. He started a consultancy to help bring out creativity in people and within companies. One of his clients was NASA. NASA came to him and said, they knew they had some of the smartest engineers they could be and they also believed that they were creative, but they couldn’t figure out which ones were the creative ones. So they asked George to come up with an assessment to be able to root out who these creative thinking engineers were, which he did, but after his engagement was done, he started to wonder, like, if you look at a kid, there’s no shortage of ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Carla Johnson:

And so what happens between the time you’re 5 and 55 to make people not be able to identify your creativity. He took that assessment and adapted it for kids. He started out by studying 1,600 five-year-old kids. With this assessment, 98% of them measured at the genius level of creativity, and I think maybe the other two hadn’t had a snack that day or weren’t paying attention or something, because I don’t know any kid that I can’t imagine being a genius level, creative thinker. Then he took the same group of kids and he followed them, and 10-years-old, he gave him the assessment again, and only 30% of them measured as genius. Now, fast forward ahead to 15 years, and it’s dropped to 12%. So it’s dropped 86% in 10 years. But the saddest thing of all is that you compare that to the cumulation of over a million people that he assessed as adults during his work and that number was 2%.

So it’s not that people are born creative or innovative thinkers or geniuses, and it’s either something that you have or you don’t have. It’s actually as adults being taught to re-remember how we naturally think as kids. And that’s the thing is that we all think like this, but it’s been taught and rewarded out of us, and we don’t remember what it’s like to think like that all the time. And so it’s kind of like riding a bike. If you haven’t ridden a bike for a long time, it does take some jog to your muscle memory about how to come up with a great idea. I think one of the things that I absolutely love in doing this work is watching the joy that comes out of people as they remember that part, not only their head and thinking like a kid, but I think their heart and feeling like a kid and looking at everything that they do from a much different and to be honest, a lot more curious nature with what they do.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I would also think too that having that reignited in you would be really gratifying, and to hear big ideas coming out of your brain and your mouth, and sort of watching them float out from you and go, oh my God, that’s actually a really great idea, right? I mean, who doesn’t love when that happens, right?

Carla Johnson:

Yeah. I have been in meetings and I’ve watched people’s faces, and they’re about to say something and then they don’t. I know you’ve seen it too, where people are about to share that idea that they think is great or would be great to at least evolve or talk about or whatever, and then something inside of them says, no, that’s stupid. Don’t do that.

Drew McLellan:

Right. They self-censor, right? Yeah.

Carla Johnson:

Yeah. Exactly. But you go back to that room full of five-year-olds, everybody’s talking about their great idea, and they’re like, “No, mine’s better.” There’s this confidence, maybe not competence at five, but there’s this confidence and there’s this understanding that I’m going to throw it out. We’re going to talk about it. Who cares what happens? Let’s just figure it out as we go. It’s a incredible trait that makes me sad that we lose as we grow into adulthood.

Drew McLellan:

Well, we don’t lose it if we read the book or learn from you, right? I mean, isn’t that why you wrote the book?

Carla Johnson:

There you go. Yeah. It actually is, because I had so many people who would come up to me and say, “I love this, but I could never come up with an idea like this,” or, “I’m just not a creative person.” I’m like, “Yeah, you are. You just need to be retaught the things that you know naturally.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. As you were describing somebody in a meeting who sort of shuts down. I think about all of the brainstorming and ideation sessions that happen in agencies. You can say, okay, you guys, no idea is a bad idea. Your bad idea might trigger a good idea. But I do think people hold back. I think they’re anxious about it. I know one section of your book, you sort of walked through a methodology to have meetings that encourage people to openly share all their ideas. Can you very briefly walk through… Here’s my question. What are the two or three things that we do wrong in those meetings that if we fixed it or did it differently, we would invite more innovative thinking?

Carla Johnson:

I’m going to give you two, because I think they’re the two most obvious and have the biggest impact and nobody ever thinks of them. One is that you prime the pump before you ever get in the room. Actually, I’m going to give you three of them. Prime the pump before you ever get in the room. One of the things that happens in traditional brainstorming sessions is that the extroverts or the person with the highest title rules. Believe it or not, introverted people are wickedly creative and innovative thinkers because they process and they think, and they’re super highly observant because they’re not spending all their time talking, which I think out loud, I think out loud. And so being able to prime the pump and talk about what’s going to happen, what you’ll talk about, what the ideas are for ahead of time, so they have that quiet space to begin to think, then they come into the room warmer.

It’s important because even if you have a more level playing field between titles and seniority and even introverts and extroverts, when you get in the room and everybody is closer on that warm up level, it’s a different dynamic, because if you aren’t, what happens is that introverts get irritated because the extroverts won’t quit talking and won’t stop talking so that they can politely say their part. Extroverts get irritated because they’re like, “Come on introverts, step up. Come on. This is our time to brainstorm, and you’re not even doing anything.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. But don’t give them room to breathe. Right.

Carla Johnson:

Exactly. That’s the first one, prime the pump before you ever get in the room. The second thing is, and I’m highly aware of this because I worked with and for architects for a long time, especially early in my career. I’ve been working through a book called Designing Creative Spaces, and the actual physical environment in which you hold these meetings is critical. If you use the same conference room for every kind of meeting, including a brainstorm, you’re sending mixed messages. How can you expect somebody to be bold and forward and creative in the same room that you’ve given them a performance review in, or in the same room where you had a meeting with a client or a call with a client and you got your behind shoot? It’s really psychologically, it’s hard to be open, free, and push the envelope when you’ve been told in that room to not to. That’s the second one.

The third one that I think is so important is how you start to share those ideas. One of the things that I’ve learned from a friend of mine, who’s a professional comedian, is that the more you can bring laughter into the space, the more people put their emotional walls down and they start to get excited and share. It’s a very universal way to build an intimate relationship and trust in a very short amount of time. In the book, when I talk about brainstorming and teams, one of the exercises I say is that when you’re going to start sharing ideas, talk about let’s present the worst idea first, because that’s what makes everybody not want to speak up is that they’re afraid their idea is a crappy idea. Well, let’s just start celebrating the awful ideas, because just like you said, you have to go through some awful ideas in almost every case before you can get to the great ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So true. In a lot of agencies, there’s a person or two that is wildly innovative, that comes up with all kinds of the big ideas, whether it’s strategic ideas or creative ideas, but they’re the bottleneck in the agency too, because they in their agency are the only one or the handful of people who do that. And so when I talk to people who are like that, and I say, well, why don’t you teach it to the rest of your teammates? I have no idea how I do it. I just do it. It just happens. It just magically happens in my head. And so I don’t know how to teach it. Sometimes I have agency owners who are like, “I’m so frustrated because I need my people to be more strategic, but they just look to me, and I honestly can’t help them because I don’t know how to tell them or teach them or show them how I do it.” So my question to you when we come back is, is it something we can teach? All right? We’ll take a break. We’ll be right back.

Hey there, do you have an up-and-comer inside your agency who’s become like your right-hand person? How are you investing in them? Who are they surrounding themselves with, and who are they learning from? You might be interested in taking a look at our key executive network. It’s built to help you groom the leaders in your agency. It’s designed to surround them with other AMI taught agency leaders, and it’s facilitated by one of AMI’s top coaches, Craig Barnes. They meet twice a year and they stay connected in between meetings with calls, Zoom get togethers and email. AMI agency owners call it one of the best professional development investments they’ve ever made. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and look under the membership tab for key executive network. All right. Let’s get back to the interview.

All right. We are back, and Carla and I are talking about innovation and her new book, RE:Think Innovation. And so before the break, I posed the question, is this teachable? Because all of you know that probably you are one of the people in your agency who just does this. It’s like your magic gift. Just stuff comes out of your mouth. I think sometimes even you’re surprised at how innovative you are. But when your people ask you how you do it, because they want to replicate it, you’re at a loss. So Carla, is this teachable?

Carla Johnson:

Absolutely. And that, Drew, actually is the challenge that I, or the question that I set out to answer with this book is, is the ability to consistently come up with great ideas that have an incredible impact something that can be put into a process and taught/learned? Because the book comes out tomorrow, the answer is yes. But the interesting thing was, and I didn’t even realize this about myself is that this process is something that I naturally do and never even thought about it. I think just in agencies with the creative people who feel this weight and pressure of another idea, another idea, another idea, and you have workload, you have deadlines, you have a real life outside of the agency, theoretically, and it puts a lot of pressure on that one person’s ability to come up with the ideas. Right. Even then, they’re only one person with one set of experiences in life, with one family story and all of these things. When we limit idea generation to just one person, we actually limit the potential of those ideas.

When I set out to study whether or not this process is something that is something that could be put into a process, I went to people that I already knew were prolific innovators, many of them who I cover in the book. The first question I asked them is how did you come up with X idea? Something specifically I knew they did that had a tremendous outcome. Every one of them is like, “I don’t know.” So I knew it was something that was just natural for them. So then I decided, okay, well, let me ask the questions to reverse engineer the process. I would say, what were you doing when that idea popped into your head? I was driving, I was in the shower, I was in a meeting, or who knows what. And then I would ask, and then what were you doing before that, and then what before that?

And then their mind started to go on that reverse journey. And then they would say, well, I guess it all started when we were talking about how we needed an ad, a campaign, a something, I didn’t realize that was in my mind, but what I noticed because of that conversation, so what they started to observe, because they had an objective to work toward shifted. So that seed was planted that they needed an idea, and then they became more observant to the world around them. And then they started to see patterns in what they were observing, and these patterns had meaning. And it was the meaning of the patterns that they related into their work, not these observations themselves. It was the patterns that they could relate to their work. And they use that as the foundation for starting to generate ideas.

And then when they went to pitch the idea, it wasn’t pressure. It was just such a natural conversation, because they said, “I was driving down the street in Soho and I was sitting in the back of a taxi cab, and I happened to look up and I saw this painted brick building and it had the new iPods on it, and each one was a different color and it was dripping paint down. And I loved how it evoked the feeling of optimism and hope and energy. And I think it’s those ideas of optimism, hope, and energy that I’d like to relate into our work that we’re doing. What ideas do we have that express that, that tell our brand story in that way? And then here’s what we came up with. So it’s a very organic way to pitch an idea that helps the person who is pitching the idea feel very competent more than those five-year-olds who were just confident.

Competent, confident, they’ve had the entire idea generation experience personally, so they could speak to it all. And then once the person hears it, it’s a collaboration in evolving and improving that idea, or saying that’s not quite right, but here’s clear, defined feedback, which I outlined in the book, like how to actually give feedback to a pitch. Let’s see where we can go from there. But that’s one of the most interesting things is that the people who are these prolific innovators, who consistently come up with these new great and reliable ideas, all follow this process, whether they realize it or not.

That was the intention of the first half of the book is to outline this process and really break it down, so for people who aren’t familiar in this way, or think I’m not creative, I could never do this, literally, let’s break it down to the small details and characteristic, and teach you each bit of this skill so that you can learn to become this kind of super creative on demand, under pressure, highly prolific idea generator that leads to these projects or just outcomes for whatever kind of work that you do that really are extraordinary.

Drew McLellan:

To the listeners, much of Carla’s book is the outline and the very detailed instructions on all of the things she just talked about, so I can’t cover all of it in an hour. We want you to run by the book. Carla, I mean, you will have step-by-step instructions, so know that it’s in the book. One of the things that happens in agencies, of course, is we gather, we collaborate. We are always thinking that thinking together is better than thinking alone. Is that true for innovation?

Carla Johnson:

Not always. I think it’s the combination of, again, when we look at personalities and introverts and extroverts, people process things at different speed. Some are external, audible, visual thinkers, others are very tactile and more divergent, but in a quiet way. I mean, everybody goes about their thinking process very different. We can’t just say, let’s gather together and even go through Carla’s perpetual innovation process, and then we’re guaranteed to pop out a bunch of great ideas on the other end. It really does take the right environment, and what that environment is, is really different depending on the culture of every agency.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. I think too it’s kind of probably like a muscle, right, so the more you do it, the more you go through the process and the more you just create ideas, good, bad, or indifferent, the better that muscle and stronger that muscle gets, right?

Carla Johnson:

Absolutely. It’s interesting, I had a daughter who played basketball, and I would go, and I would watch her at practice. One of the drills that the coach had her and all of the other players on the team do is that they would stand at the free throw line and look at the opposite end of the court, not the basket that was closest to them. He would throw them a ball from some direction, they had to catch it, pivot and shoot, and practice under uncertain circumstances grabbing a hold of that key part of the game, pivoting to where you need to go, and being able to hit a specific objective regardless of what happened behind you. The only way that they got better at it was practice, practice, practice, practice. It’s a skill that you develop through consistent, repetitive practice.

It’s the exact same thing with coming up with ideas. The interesting thing is once people do become practiced at going through the perpetual innovation process, they’ll catch themselves, bam, coming up with ideas like that and not even realize that in three and a half seconds, they’ve gone through a process that maybe felt like it took three and a half days before. But there’s neuroscience behind this process also, and it follows what your brain naturally does and how it behaves. So just through the repetition of going through the process and practicing it, practice it on something that there’s no risk at all, something as a volunteer, something you’re doing as a family, something you’re doing as friends, or whatever, just that practice wakes up your brain and trains it to start thinking in that way.

And then what you’ll see is there will be that time when somebody says, oh, man, I wish I had an idea about… and this idea is going to pop out of your head and you’re going to think, well, where did that come from? It’s because you’ve reawakened your brain to think like a kid, how we come up with ideas naturally, you just have a little bit more sense and how you connect the dots as an adult, more experienced about how you connect the dots as an adult. It’s really a fantastic thing to watch happen.

Drew McLellan:

I keep thinking about the study. What happens to five-year-olds between 5 and 10-years-old that diminishes those numbers so much? What happened to all of us that has squelched our natural tendency to innovate?

Carla Johnson:

I believe it’s the education system, particularly in America, I think about the number of times I got called up to school as a parent, because our kids are very conceptual, very creative thinkers, and the number of times I got called up to school because the teacher was concerned about my students’ performance when their scores were above grade level, but they weren’t sitting criss-cross applesauce. It’s specific behavioral things that make it much easier for teachers to manage a group of 20, 30, 40 kids, however many kids you have in a classroom. I don’t want to diminish the need for teachers to have order in a classroom, because that absolutely is we don’t want 15-year-olds still running around and behaving like 5-year-olds. There’s that part of the brain that needs also to be developed through education that helps students from the age of 5 to 10 to learn how to discern things.

But I think there’s too much of an emphasis on certain kinds of behavior at the expense of creative thinking. There’s a right and a wrong way, and I think that’s the biggest lesson in that age between, I mean, 5 to 10 is hugely formational, and unless we’re taught that there are other ways to do things. I think schools that give kids the opportunity to learn in a very experiential way may have a different outcome at that 10-year-old. I don’t know, I haven’t seen research or anything like that. It’s just my gut feeling having watched kids as a parent and studied how we lose this ability as we grow up. But I think that’s the main thing is education.

And then there’s plenty of society’s part in it as in, oh, you shouldn’t do that. It’s all of the scared adults projecting their fears and ability to not be able to tolerate risk onto younger people. They’re young, and they just assume, well, an adult told me that, so I guess it’s probably right. It would be interesting for parents or adults listening who have a lot of interaction with kids to start to observe the language that you use as you talk to younger people.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This is a tangent, but I figure most people listening have children or have kids in their life. As a parent, how do we protect our kids from that? How do we help them stay innovative?

Carla Johnson:

One of the things that my husband and I have really focused on is bringing awareness to our kids so they understand the dynamic of what’s happening, and consistently pushing them to try things that are new, and how we describe what’s a learning experience and what’s a failure. I think many times it’s perceived as a failure when something didn’t turn out the way an adult usually expected it to turn out. But I think if we start to reframe trial and error and experimentation and bring more fun and let’s just see what happens to it kind of attitude to it, I mean, one, it’s going to be more fun for-

Drew McLellan:

Everybody. Right.

Carla Johnson:

… adults. Yeah. Exactly. I mean, think about if your child spills something. I mean, my daughter dropped an egg on the floor the other day. In our house, there’s no reaction to that because stuff like that happens. But I’ve been in homes where you would think that world war three just started because they broke an egg. I think it’s that perception again, of a failure and right and wrong. And instead of looking at these things from what we think is right and wrong as an adult, start to look at it from the point of view as a child and even practice our own child-like thinking as adults. There was research that came out from, I think it was University of North Dakota, a number of years ago. They did a study on two groups of adults. The first group, they said, okay, you have the whole day off, like surprise. It’s 8:00 in the morning. You have the whole day off. What are you going to do?

Each group said, oh, I’ll probably go to the gym. I’ll catch up on email. I’ll take care of dry cleaning. Probably mow the lawn. It was those sorts of things.

Drew McLellan:

Stuff. Yeah. Right.

Carla Johnson:

Stuff. It was stuff that nobody wants to do. In the second group, they said, surprise, it’s 8:00 in the morning, you have the whole day off, and you’re seven-years-old. What are you going to do? I’m going to ride my bike to my grandma’s house. I’m going to eat ice cream all day long. I’m going to lay in the park and find animals in the clouds.

Drew McLellan:

There’s no email in that list, right?

Carla Johnson:

There’s no email, there’s no gym, there’s no lawn. It really is things that make us happy, and in an interesting way are what we are highly observant of as kids. I think it’s that remembering to think like a child and observe like a child and say, what if like a child, and begin to experiment with that intention of let’s just see where it goes that I think has also been practiced out of us for a lot of reasons, efficiency, that’s just not what adults do. Sometime you have to grow up and-

Drew McLellan:

God, I hope not.

Carla Johnson:

No. Exactly. I don’t know, I’ve missed that class all together.

Drew McLellan:

I’m going to be 12 till the day die.

Carla Johnson:

You and me both, that’s for sure.

Drew McLellan:

Speaking of you and me both, one of the things you did in the book and also you have on the website and we’ll include the link in the show notes, but you’ve created an assessment because there are different kinds of innovators. When you and I talked prior to scheduling this, you sent me the link and I took the assessment and I sent you my result. And you were like, “Oh my gosh, that’s what I am too,” which I was relieved about because honestly, when I read the description, I’m like, I’m kind of like the hot mess that stirs stuff up, right? I was like, “Oh, maybe I’m not a very good innovator.” But I thought, well, if Carla is that too, then I’m good.

Carla Johnson:

Well, and you know what, it’s interesting because I am also the same architect, we’re provocateurs, and our natural genius is always to challenge the status quo. I tell you, that very thing, realizing that’s my natural genius is what shifted the perception of myself from I’m a hot mess who can never get my stuff together, into this is how I am and this is something to be, is a valuable contribution to a team. Now, for me, I felt like an extra hot mess because one, I’m the youngest child of five, and when you have a lot of kids, it’s like you grow up having to level up. You’re always the latent one in the room, right? And then between my siblings and I, we have 14 college degrees, so I’m the short man on the totem pole, I only have two degrees. I have a masters in history.

Drew McLellan:

Step up, Carla. Come on.

Carla Johnson:

I know. That’s it. They’re also highly, highly left-brained. They’re PhD engineers, they’re military professionals, they’re software engineers, they’re attorneys.

Drew McLellan:

Your parents stole you at the grocery store from someone else’s cart. Yeah.

Carla Johnson:

Here I was in school. I remember telling my dad I wanted to go to the Chicago Art Institute and study design. I grew up in a really small town in Northeast Nebraska, 1,000 people. I remember him putting the newspaper down and looking at me and saying, who does that? How will you ever get a job? As a provocateur, we’re like, I’ll figure it out.

Drew McLellan:

That’s exactly right.

Carla Johnson:

We just know. But I thought, at the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wasn’t exposed to other people, ideas, things like that. I went, “All right. I guess I’ll go to university and study electrical engineering.” I hated it because engineers don’t push the status quo as students at least, but if you’re an art student, you’re expected to always push it.

Drew McLellan:

Did you end up getting a degree in electrical engineering?

Carla Johnson:

No. I studied it for two years and then went into history of undergraduate in business and history, and then a masters in history. One of the things that I liked about history was the storytelling of it. You can gravitate for those people who are provocateurs. But the reason I created this assessment and I felt it was so important is to help people understand that even if you are not that traditional stereotypical idea person, the hub of an agency that everything hinges on, you still are an innovator. Maybe you’re the type of innovator who is able to orchestrate all of the pieces and understand the political environment and how you get things across the finish line. Maybe you’re the culture shaper who is superb at narration and talking about communicating change, and I think that’s particularly important in agencies where you’re not only talking about the change you want your clients, customers to see in the world because of what they’re doing, but you’re also telling that story to your client to get them to be more willing and open to different kinds of ideas.

You have a psychologist who’s more empathy driven and understands ideas from other people’s perspectives. You have your traditional strategists, but it’s not that strategists don’t have great ideas, it’s that they think more about how do I come up with a strategy and plan so these do cross the finish line. So for people like you and I who are hot messes, who have all the great ideas, we need to partner with a strategist to get it across the line, with the orchestrators to figure out the political environment, for the psychologist to help us make sure we have emotion, and the culture shapers so that we can put this together in a narrative. Those are all really important things, but oftentimes, it’s not how people look at innovation or the people who innovate. When we start to see that we’re not just a hot mess, but this is how we innovate, then we bring together teams more cohesively that are much quicker to align at a much deeper level.

Drew McLellan:

Well, that was one of the things I thought about was it would be kind of cool to test everybody in the agency and know what kind of innovator they are so that you had a mix of different kinds of thinkers in a brainstorming session or whatever it is, so it’s not just a bunch of… I wish Price stop calling it hot messes. First of all, the good news is for most of you-

Carla Johnson:

[crosstalk 00:41:51] idea generators, Drew. That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

The good news is only 13% of the population are hot messes, like Carla, and so odds are it’s not you.

Carla Johnson:

Documented hot messes.

Drew McLellan:

That’s right. But I think it would be cool to sort of think about, because you’d normally do it by title, right? You’re like, oh, we need an art director. We need a writer. We need this, we need that, but to say, oh, well, we need a culture shaper, oh, we need this, we need that, that’d be a really interesting way. It would be fascinating to sort of do an AB test, right, like bringing together the normal people you would, and then build a team, even if it’s the accounting person and the intern and whatever, but have that mix of innovators and see if the results are different, because I think that would be fascinating.

Carla Johnson:

It is. I am seeing that the results are different when you look at this, because if you think about a role versus an archetype, a role as a job description, and you see this, in this role, you will and you’re told what kind of behavior you are expected to exhibit. However, with an archetype, that’s just naturally how you show up in the world. When you start to think about, like I say, things like, well, let’s go ask Drew because he’s such a natural people person, that’s a sign that you’re thinking archetype, not role. I mean, when you’re in a crunch, you don’t say, let’s go get the accountant because they’re a natural numbers person. That’s not where you go. And so it is starting to show when teams take into consideration these different archetypes that the outcomes become much more innovative. And a very interesting thing is that you don’t necessarily have to have all of these archetypes on a team, but you have to have awareness of the point of view that they bring to a team.

If your agency maybe doesn’t have any strategists or doesn’t have any psychologists, that’s okay. But you need to understand what you do have so you can understand how to fill that gap-

Drew McLellan:

Where you have to start figuring out what’s missing, right?

Carla Johnson:

Yeah. Exactly. It’s a different kind of perspective in a talent management situation.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Fascinating. Okay. I have so many more questions, but I’m going to wrap with this one, agencies obviously need to be innovative. As you said at the top of our conversation, this is what we get paid to do. Anybody can make this stuff, but how we think and the ideas we generate and the strategies we bring to clients, that’s how we earn our keep and that’s certainly how we retain clients. How do we create a culture of original innovative thinkers?

Carla Johnson:

One is that you have to make the purpose of why you’re in business very crystal clear. I work with this with companies when I do innovation counseling is that the first thing I say is, what’s your purpose as a business? Because unless there’s clarity around why you show up every day, it’s very hard to get clarity about why you innovate. It’s one thing to have it as an agency, it’s another thing to also have it for your clients. I think that’s a question that needs to be asked. With whatever work that you’re doing for a client, have you articulated your brand purpose? A brand purpose is different from a mission and a value. A brand purpose is purely, it’s 8 to 10 words that describes the difference you make in your customers’ lives. Why they can’t live without you.

The second thing is that you have to have values in place to make sure that the behavior is exhibited to deliver on that purpose. An interesting thing happens when you have these two things in place is that you create the perfect ecosystem for people’s brains, because you have crystal clear clarity about why they’re there, you’re very clear about the behaviors that are expected of people. And so all of this emotional uncertainty, should I say this, should I do this, should I raise my hand about this, it goes away. People’s mental space has so much more room now and they know what they’re driving for with purpose that they can become more innovative if we’re looking at that from the perspective of creating original thinkers.

I think the other thing that agencies really need to keep in mind is this idea of consistently coming up with great ideas, both internal for their own work and making sure that they’re consistently innovative, but also for their clients. I have a son who’s 14-years-old and he’s in his second round of braces. We went to take him to the orthodontist a few weeks ago, and the orthodontist said, “Bud, I know we were going to talk about getting these off pretty soon, but you’re not wearing your rubber bands, and so things are going back to where they used to be. And until you consistently wear your rubber bands, we’re not going to talk about getting your braces off.” But the same thing is true about ideas or organizations, is that ideas are that constant pressure that puts movement into an organization that keeps it going in the direction that they should go. I know it can be incredibly frustrating for agencies, particularly the creative people in agencies when you come up with these great ideas and you take them to a client and they’re like, no, no. You’re like, [crosstalk 00:47:12] out there-

Drew McLellan:

We want the same thing. Right. We want the same thing.

Carla Johnson:

Yeah. We want the same thing that we did last year, but in yellow this year, because I hear that’s the hot color. I can understand why after a while, you’re like, just give them last year’s in yellow and green, and it’ll make it look like we’re trying to be innovative. But really we have to think of ourselves as orthodontia for our clients. We have to put that consistent, constant pressure on them to continually change their direction and also their appetite for what they’re willing to try and their level of innovation. A little thimble full of innovation now can open the door to greater innovation down the line, but only if you’re consistently putting pressure on to shift that culture and make sure that it’s going in the right direction.

Drew McLellan:

Well, one of the things we see in our research, so we do research every year, talking to clients of agencies about something specific. One of the things they tell us over and over again is, I know that it’s time to start looking for an agency when my agency stops bringing me ideas that make me uncomfortable, that are different, that are fresh. When they start just dialing it in, boy, when they were courting us, they were full of ideas. But now we’ve been with them five years and they kind of keep showing us the same thing. When you talk to the agency, it’s exactly what you said, which is we used to take them big ideas, but they never bought them, so screw it. We’ll just show them the new bill insert. Looks like the old bill insert, but it’s yellow, and be done with it.

But what we miss, what we forget is even if they don’t buy the idea, they notice it, and it means that we are… their translation of that is, well, you’re thinking on my behalf. You are still invested in my business. Every once in a while, they do buy a crazy idea, right, but if we don’t take it to them, they don’t have anything to buy. Right.

Carla Johnson:

Exactly. They can’t buy what they don’t see. I think, especially in the last year that we’ve been in, people’s appetites for something different has been dramatically different, because everybody expected change, everybody expected to have to do something differently. And if you’re just still showing up, and you don’t always know what’s going on internal to your client. Unless you continue to push that envelope and show them the unexpected, I think it does just as much detriment to the agency as it does to the client.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This has been awesome. Carla, if folks want to, if they want to take the assessment, if they want to… Obviously the book is everywhere. It’s on Amazon and all the places you get books. But if they want to go to the website or they want to learn more about your work, where should they go?

Carla Johnson:

My website’s the best place. It’s Carla with a C Johnson.co. There’s no M, just .co. On my homepage, you scroll down and you’ll see the assessment that you can take right there. There’s plenty of information about the book, RE:Think Innovation that comes out June 29th.

Drew McLellan:

That’s awesome. Thank you so much for being here and thanks for doing this work. Thanks for wanting to inspire us to think like kids again. I think what you’re doing is important for the world, not for our work, but I just think for the world, so thank you.

Carla Johnson:

Oh, thank you. It is one of my goals, my main obsession, not just mission right now is to teach a million people how to become those innovative thinkers by 2025. I think agencies are one of those ways that you can really effect that ripple effect is you touch people who touch a lot of people. And so I’m delighted that my work feels relevant and most of all helpful.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It absolutely is. The book is fantastic, so thank you.

Carla Johnson:

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here. Thanks, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. All right, guys, this wraps up another episode. Here’s the deal, if there is a common currency, I don’t care what kind of agency you are, I don’t care if you’re a PR agency, an SEO agency, if you do content, all of us have to be idea generators. We have to innovate, and by the way, not just for your clients, you need to be doing it for yourself too. You need to be thinking about where the agency needs to go next and what new services and products you need to offer, and how can you be even stickier for your clients. These are big questions that require big ideas, and I want you to be as innovative as possible because I think that translates to being as successful as possible. Carla has given you a lot to think about. I highly recommend you grab the book and begin to practice, right? Start exercising that muscle.

And so the agency may be a great place for that. There’s no risk for you to think big about yourself. So I’m going to ask that you grab the book and you start doing some of this, take the assessment. I’m sorry if you’re a hot mess like Carla and I, but it works out fine, you’ll be fine. You’ll get used to it. But start practicing and start practicing on yourself so you can practice on clients. All right?

Before I let you go, as always, a huge shout out to our friends at White Label IQ. They are the presenting sponsor. They make it possible for me to hang out with you every week and I’m grateful to them. They’ve got an offer, some free services for you if you go to whitelabeliq.com/ami. Remember, they do white label dev design and PBC. They make a lot of agencies very happy because they are a great extension of their team. All right. I will be back next week with another guest maybe not as awesome as Carla, but pretty awesome. In the meantime, you know how to track me down. I’m [email protected] and I will talk to you guys. Thanks for listening.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe to [inaudible 00:53:09]. Don’t miss an episode.