Episode 299

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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 i