Episode 427

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Agencies are under more pressure than ever to be innovative. While it used to be easier to solve your clients’ problems and wow them with a great solution, these days, it’s much harder to do that with the bar constantly moving. This is why it’s essential to develop an innovation strategy.

Wouldn’t it be nice to bring a lofty, innovative idea to a client and have them be over the moon and excited to be a part of the process? With the right innovation strategy, that dream can be a reality.

An innovation strategy can help your team jumpstart the creative and problem-solving process while leaving room for co-creation and collaboration with your clients. This streamlines the creative process and takes the pressure off you and your team to have all the answers while you search for the solutions to their problems.

Tune in to learn how your agency can become problem-solving and innovation experts by asking the right questions, enacting decisive decision-making, and building out a creative workflow.

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.

innovation strategy

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The hardest part of innovation
  • Collaboration is key for driving innovation
  • Boiling down the “how” of problem-solving and innovation
  • Creating an upstream methodology — the question-asking stage
  • Getting a client to buy into an innovative idea
  • The importance of collaboration and outside input for an innovation strategy
  • The landmines to be aware of in the upstream production stages
  • Workshopping ideas to produce quicker outcomes

“You must identify the right questions, get to the bottom of them, and draw the right conclusions to create a shared understanding. That's what unlocks alignment in decision-making.” @atifatif Share on X
“I think the hardest part of innovating is actually making the unknowns actionable.” @atifatif Share on X
“Over time, it's become a little less about the big vision and more about how teams think through the idea down to the process of unlocking alignment and decision-making. Collaboration is the key there.” @atifatif Share on X
“Many executives are in a situation where they literally have minutes to make big decisions. And that's why some human factors like fear and thinking small can kick in.” @atifatif Share on X
“The risk as a senior person is that people will do exactly what you say, and that's very dangerous.” @atifatif Share on X

Ways to contact Atif:


Hey, before we get to the show, I just wanna remind you that we have created a private Facebook group just for you, our podcast listeners. There are almost 1500 agencies, agency owners, inside that Facebook group every day talking about what’s going on inside their shop, asking for resources, gut checking decisions, talking about everything from pricing to hiring, to biz dev. All kinds of things are happening there. We’re starting conversations. You guys are starting conversations. What I love about it is the community’s coming together and sharing resources, encouraging each other, and just sort of having a safe place to talk about what it’s like to own an agency. So all you have to do is head over to Facebook, search for a Build, a Better, Agency Podcast group, or Build, a Better, Agency Podcast.

And you’ll find the group. You have to answer three questions. If you don’t answer the questions, we can’t let you in. But they’re simple. It’s, do you own an agency or do you work at an agency? And if so, what’s the URL? What are you trying to get out of the group? And will you behave, basically? So come join us. If you haven’t been there for a while, come on back. If you haven’t joined, join into the conversation. I think you’re gonna find it really helpful. All right, let’s get to the show.

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional digital media buying, web dev, PRR brand, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Build, a Better, Agency Podcast, presented by a White Label IQ, will expose you to the best practices that drive growth, client and employee retention and profitability, bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency from Agency Management Institute. Super excited to bring this guest to you. He is got a really interesting methodology that I think would be fascinating to experiment with clients on. So I’m excited for you to have that opportunity to meet him and learn a little bit more about him in a couple minutes. But first, you know, this is airing in December, and 2024 is right around the corner, and it seems foolhardy to go into 2024 without some sort of a plan. And I know that annual planning can be offputting. I know it can be sort of paralyzing.

It feels big. And you know, like it has to be some sort of three ring binder with all kinds of charts and graphs and data. And while you certainly can approach it that way, we, we propose a much simpler methodology. So over the years we have, we have created and revise what we call very simply the a MI one-page business plan. And it really does force you to really sort of drill down into the most important things for you to think about and for you to focus on in the new year or whenever you use it. But since we’re coming up on a new year, we might as well think about it that way.

And so I would love for you to go and download that. It’s absolutely free. We would love for you to have it simple to find. And it’s agency management institute.com/and this is all one word, one page business plan. So again, agency management institute.com/all one word, one page business plan. So help yourself dig in, work with your leadership team. We’d just love to have you start the new year with a vision of where you wanna go. Alright, lemme tell you a little bit about our guest, then. I wanna spend as much time with him as possible, so we’re gonna get right to it. So Tiff Rafiq has a fascinating career.

He has worked for startups in Silicon Valley, he’s worked for Amazon, he’s worked for McDonald’s. And his role in all of those organizations was to be a change agent, to bring innovative new ideas and to bring those ideas to life and to execute against them. And so you can imagine the, the variety of experiences one would have and have with, you know, going from a startup to McDonald’s and trying to get both of those organizations to be innovative. So he’s written a book called Decision Sprint. And the book, the subtitle of the book, is The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action. It’s a Wall Street Journal bestseller.

It’s a fascinating book and a fascinating methodology, and I’m really excited for you to meet a tiff and to learn more about it. So let’s get to it. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

It’s great to be with you, Drew.

So I’m excited. Innovation is such a hot topic always. But right now, you know, I think everybody is a buzz with the topic. So tell everybody a little bit about your background, how you came to develop sort of this methodology or strategy around innovation. And then I have a ton of questions for you.

Sure, Drew. Well, you know, I’ve worked on innovation from many different aspects of a business. You know, I kind of grew up in Silicon Valley at very innovative companies, including a place like Amazon where an innovative founder is at the helm. I’ve also, you know, ran a venture back startup, you know, in my twenties. So kind of created a company from scratch. So, you know, innovation has kind of been in my blood career-wise, you know, starting from from the beginning. Now, what’s interesting is I made a pivot about 10, 11 years ago to, you know, be in the c-suite of large organizations, incumbents generally less, less about innovation or about incrementalism, and kind of came into organizations like McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM resorts to catalyze innovation.

So I’ve looked at it from a few different corners and, and it kind of brought me to the, the notion of like, what’s the common denominator to get innovation? Right? Right. And, and I found a common denominator, even though it might sound like, well, you know, you know, what could be in common between, you know, Silicon Valley and, and incumbent companies, but to do innovation well and problem solve, you really need to be able to navigate the unknown. And, and that’s why I wrote a book about that subject.

So tell us a little bit about the book, why you wrote the book. What, what are the takeaway? What are we gonna walk away from if we read the book? And then I, again, I have a, a lot of questions about, I think the methodology that you describe in the book.

Well, I think the hardest part of innovating is actually making the unknowns actionable. What I’ve found is that organizations have typically have one or two reflexes around unknowns. And just to back up a second, you know, I assume, and I think people will, it’ll resonate with, with everybody that to, you know, create value in companies, you need to get into new territory, right? And new territory comes with more questions than answers. That’s what I refer to as the unknowns. And the reflexes I’m referring to are generally either fear, which is, wow, this is a, this is a lot of, you know, a lot more questions than answers, so let’s water it down to the known commodities, right?

And when that happens, companies tend to ship something small and, and don’t realize their ambitions. Or, you know, the other end of the spectrum is being cavalier about the unknowns, where, you know, it’s a little bit of wishful thinking, and that can lead to waste and disappointment down the road. So neither are, you know, ideal. So the sweet spot is, is is a way to make the unknowns actionable so that you can navigate this process. So saying, okay, well, you know, we have a lot more questions than answers. How do we identify the right questions, get to the bottom of them, and use what the, the detective work we’ve done to draw the right conclusions and get that shared understanding?

That’s actually what unlocks alignment and decision making. And you can go better from idea to action.

Yeah. And you know, I think from the agency space, we’re expected by our clients to be innovative, to be be the idea generators, to bring them new things. And especially as you and I were talking about, you know, before we hit the record button, especially with AI, now, you know, our clients are looking to us to figure out all these new things and how to use them and leverage them for their business. So, so the timeliness of this conversation in your book is, is spot on. So talk to, talk to us a little bit about the idea this common accelerator. ’cause you’re right, when you think about McDonald’s and Silicon Valley startup, you don’t think, oh, I bet they operate the same way. So talk a little bit about maybe how you discovered this commonality and, and what it is.

Well, and the way I discovered it is, you know, I had a very large mandate to, you know, to drive transformation, let’s say in my first c-suite role at McDonald’s, where I was the chief digital officer of the company, actually the first CDO of the history of the Fortune 500. And within 45 days in joining, I was in front of the board. And you know, you don’t appear in front of the board to say hello. You appear to, you know, put something big on the table, a stake in the ground.

Well, especially as the first ever of something, right?

Exactly. Like, what is digitization? What does it mean for the future of McDonald’s? So right. I went up there and I said, look, you know, this company had been around 60 years, but really it’s about three things, taste, value, and convenience. I can’t help you with the first two, but I can really help you with the third one. Yeah. And so we’re gonna reinvent the notion of convenience and digitization as the way to do it. And then we were more specific about, you know, what that means as a consumer experience in terms of, you know, our restaurants and how they work and our staff and, and pulling all that together. So they, they loved it. And I thought, you know, we could just go ahead and start building,


But I was in for a surprise, which is basically, you know, trying to pursue new ideas in an execution culture is slow, right?


And so the realization I had, the learning I had is basically there’s the what and the how, by the what I mean, you know, the problem you’re trying to solve for the business or the customer,


And the how is, you know, the way in which collaboration gets done, the way in which, you know, teams work together to achieve that. What, and you need to pay just as much attention to the how as the what. So interestingly it, you know, over time for me, it’s become a little less about the big vision. How do we reimagine resorts or cars or, you know, a quick service restaurant like McDonald’s and more about how do teams actually, you know, think through, you know, the going from idea down to the process of unlocking alignment and decision making. I think the collaboration is really the key there.

And so I had to figure out a new way forward on the how for McDonald’s. And I learned a lot in that process.

So did you find that the, how changes dramatically based on the size of the organization or the culture of the organization? Or could you boil it down to this is how every organization can do this?

That’s a great question, Drew. I mean, I think at some level, you know, if you’ve got a dozen or two dozen people, you know, it’s pretty nimble. Yeah. And people sort of, you know, you don’t have functions and divisions and you know, those silos aren’t there, for example,


If you’re, you know, if you’re new, you know, you don’t have that institutional knowledge, well, you know, I’ve been here 20 years and this is what worked in the past, so I know

Right? We’ve always done it this way. Yep.

All of that, the know it all mentality, you know. So I think it, you know, once you get to functions, you know, you’re talking about over a hundred people, couple hundred people, and you’ve been around a little bit, you’re gonna need a system because otherwise you’re leaving it to chance and personality.

Right. And

Unless you have a Jeff Bezos at the top, you know, that’s probably not a good, you know, kind of hit rate for, you know, for being successful. So I think you need a system. And, and the book, what I talk about is a couple things. First is identify that there is something called upstream work, which is the stage where, you know, you’re not ready for execution. And teams do spend weeks and months trying to navigate through the unknown, trying to come up with trying to explore the subject matters, trying to put recommendations on the table, trying to get alignment, trying to unlock decision making. That is all part of what I call the upstream wor world. It happens before downstream execution.

So first we have to Label and name the thing, otherwise we’re not

Gonna right. And agree that we’re gonna do it, that we’re gonna leave room and time and energy and resource to do it.

Right. And interestingly, quite frankly, teams do it anyway. They just don’t have a name for it, you know? Right. That’s why they spend weeks and months before there’s a decision point, or yes, no, or buy-in, or lack of buy-in, they’re still putting the time and energy. So my, you know, what I offer is a way to actually have a method behind the madness to do it smarter and, and more streamlines.

Well, and I would also assume that having a method that everyone is, that everyone understands and agrees that, yep, this is how we’re gonna do the, how re removes some of the friction of the, just that early banging around against each other as you’re sort of trying to stretch and test ideas.

A a hundred percent. And lemme give you an example, you know, often you get in the room and there’s a new idea, idea presented, there may be a rush to judgment, right? Right.


Alternative is to offer like a method where you say, Hey, let’s, let’s do exploration. Before we do alignment, of course, we need to align. We need to, you know, draw a conclusion like, Hey, is this a good idea? Is it gonna work, make money for the company? And should we put time and energy to it? Absolutely. But how we done the right exploration, oh, okay, well, what’s that? Well, those are the kinds of things I elaborate on in detail in my book where I talk about how to build and run an exploration, how to start with a problem statement, how to source story questions to explore that problem statement, how to get to the bottom of these questions, and then how to use that work to draw conclusions.

Because if your conclusions are drawn, you know, on high quality information, well now you’re ready for alignment. And we know that that is just gonna be a better way forward than just going with your raw instinct or rushing to judgment based on blind spots, for example.

Right. Okay. So, so we have an idea, we wanna do the upstream work. So talk about sort of the methodology of what are the first couple steps?

Well, in building and running an exploration, you know, the first step is to craft a problem statement. So let’s take an example. Let’s say you’re Netflix. You, you’re in a meeting with the CEO and, and Reid says, boy, have we seen to have a problem with password sharing? You know, two people leave the room, one person says, I, you know, I had a meeting, I, I was with the CEO, and he said, we need to crack down on password sharing. Another person heard a different thing. And what they articulate to the team is, you know, Reed wants us to help us figure out how to balance between the needs of the user and the business. Those are two different starting points. Right.

And I guarantee you, you know, if you put the team on one mo versus the other, they’ll come up with different recommendations on the table.


The first thing is to, you know, craft the problem statement. Like, what’s the core fork in the road that we’re navigating? A second step is basically to actually dedicate time to source questions. I think the, this is the highest, this is how we get input from the organization. Like, what are the key questions that we need to be wrestling with, sort of the unknowns. And even spending two or three days giving the team time to, you know, source these suggest, suggest questions is very powerful. Because as an executive in a, in a company, if a team spent a few days and came back with a list of questions organized by subject matter, no answers, I’d be really confident that eventually we’re gonna get to the right spot.

And at this point, are you only sourcing questions from internal, your internal audience?

Correct. I mean, most organizations have the collective intelligence, whether they tap into it as a different question, right? They often, they don’t, because, you know, there, there’s human factors here. I mean, part of it is, could be silos, but part of it is, well, if you know a little bit of fear, if I ask this person, like, you know, they’ll, maybe they’ll tell me what they think is the answer, but Right.

Or shoot holes in it, or they’ll Yeah. They’ll torpedo the idea before we explore it or

Exactly Right. That happens all the time. Right? So the way to avoid that is to pick something neutral. And I look at questions as neutral and objective. Like, you can take a skeptic and ask them for questions. And what the questions do is basically they parse out the judgment. You strip out the judgment, right? And the skepticism, you’re left with questions, questions are actionable. You can actually say, okay, thank you very much. I think these are your top questions. Build that into your exploration. Do the work, work, come back and say, it wasn’t as hard as we thought. Right. You know, addressing some of the questions that came up. And that’s actually the way to unlock the alignment because that skeptic, even though they’re skeptical, they were able to put, provide input, which means their stamp is on the work in a good way.


Okay. So I’m gonna have a problem statement so that we’re all clear that the problem is the same for everybody. Everyone understands it the same. I’m gonna reach out to my constituency internally and say, Hey, here’s the problem statement. What questions do you have around this? What questions, if we’re gonna try and solve this problem, or if we’re gonna explore this, then what do I do with those questions?

So now you’ve sort of built the exploration and, and this is actually where teams spend, you know, weeks and months is right, the, the deep diving, you know, and it doesn’t need to be weeks and months. You know, it’s a matter of basically assigning someone to be point to answer a question and, and maybe one or two others to review it. And essentially developing these FAQs, which is kind of what Amazon refers to ’em as, you know, in the end it’s, you know, a two or three page document. It’s got the key questions organized by subject matter, and it’s got, you know, some answers which don’t always have data, but they at, at a minimum have some reasoning process and you can see it.

So if, if you build and run this exploration, I mean, it might take you, you know, one to two weeks, something like that, you now you’re ready to draw conclusions. So if you had, you know, based on this information, what conclusions would you draw? And, and then you’re ready to kind of craft and come up with some recommendations. And the beauty of this is you have the red thread between what you’re recommending and the work, how you got there, you know? Right. And that’s very powerful. Now you’re ready to do things like socialize your recommendations with, you know, executives or sponsors. Right? Because one of the frustrations for sponsors, and we’ve all been there, is like in a 45 minute meeting, you spend 40 minutes trying to understand how they got to the recommendations and all only five minutes sort of interrogating the qu those recommendations,


And many executives, you know, are in a situation where they, they literally have minutes to make big decisions. And, and that’s why things can, some of the human factors like fear and thinking small can kick in.

Okay. So I, I want to take a quick break then. I want to talk about sort of what is the best way to socialize an idea? And, you know, one of the things that’s changing in our business is, you know, if you were working in an ad agency and, you know, the eighties or nineties, for the most part, you were expected to have the answers. And we made recommendations. And clients either followed those recommendations or didn’t, or, you know, signed off on the plan, whatever it was. But today, with technology, and especially around ai, the reality is reality that in a lot of cases, we don’t know the answers. We, we are innovating on the fly with the client. And so I’m curious about how do we socialize ideas that we wanna experiment with, with a client when we’re not sure how it’s gonna work.

It really is still the exploration stage. So I wanna take a quick break, and then I wanna ask you about how do we as agencies, when we’ve got an innovative idea that we have to take to a client, how do we present it when it’s outside of our own organization and it’s gonna cost somebody money to do, right? And it’s not our money. So I’m just wonder, I’m curious about that. So we’ll take a quick break and then we’ll, we’ll chat about that. Hey, just wanna take a quick minute and tell you about a resource that we have on the website that I don’t talk about as often as I should. So it’s an exercise called My Future Self. And the reason why you would do this exercise is if you are in planning mode, and this is really for you as either an agency owner or an agency leader, but you really wanna think about what your future looks like, not the agency’s future, your future.

I find so many agency owners struggle with how they are spending their days, and is it fulfilling and is this what they wanna do? You know, in five years that we created an exercise, and I, I will tell you a a very brief story, but I first did a version of this exercise probably 15 years ago, and it basically walks you through some thinking, and you have to do some journaling around what your future self looks like. And you have to sort of give yourself into it. You have to really suspend like the reality and talk about what it is today. But I’m telling you when I did it, how it was different from my current moment in my life was pretty dramatic.

And I was working with a coach at the time, and I said, this is great, and this is the life I want, but it doesn’t look like my life now. And we talked about just sort of being open to the possibility of transitioning in some of those directions. And I will tell you, for the last 10 years, I have been living that life, the life that I created in this exercise. So it can be very powerful and very eye-opening. And I’m not a woo woo kind of guy, but once I understood what I wanted as opportunities presented themselves, I just took advantage of them in different ways than I would’ve had I not done this exercise. So head over to the am I website and go to agency management institute.com/my future self.

And you can read more about it. There’s an intro, a video intro where I tell you all about it, and then some questions. It’s $197. If you don’t like it or you don’t want, you don’t end up doing it, happy to give you your money back. But I’m telling you, it can be really transformative if you give yourself into the exercise and really do it with an open heart. So, just wanted to tell you it was there. Hopefully it’ll be helpful for some of you. Okay, let’s get back to the show. All right, we are back and we’re talking about innovation and the idea of how do you better explore an idea that you have or a solution that you wanna present in a way that a, gets you quicker to alignment inside the organization.

And also that when you go to execute, you have more confidence that you’re on the right path and you have answered all the questions. So right before the break, I was saying that, you know, for us as agency folks, you know, a lot of times when we have an innovative idea, it’s not for our internal organization, but it’s for a client organization. And, but that feels a little different in terms of presenting that idea, socializing the idea, and getting buy-in. So I’m curious from your perspective, how, how, what is the best way to take an idea to a client that, you know, we may have done a lot of this fact finding and answering the questions, but now, now we have to take it to, in essence, an outside audience, kind of like a board or somebody else who’s not been part of the process.

But this is a, these are people who A, are counting on us to have the right answer in a world where honestly, things are changing so fast, we can’t always have the right answer, and B, we’re asking them to spend money on this idea, which I know is probably not unlike an internal organization. It’s just we don’t have the same influence perhaps that we would if we were inside the organization.

Well, I think it’s an excellent question, Drew, and the shortcut to my response is co-creation. So I want to talk about that a little bit.

Oh, good.

But I do, I do think you put your finger on something important, and quite frankly, it’s kind of broken today, you know, because in this model where we, you know, look outside, we outsource something and then we expect something fully packaged to come back and then, okay, we’re just gonna sit there as an executive committee or a board, we’re gonna listen to the work, hear about the three options, and then it’s going to be, you know, great, we’re just gonna pick one and it’s gonna be perfect. That just doesn’t work


Very well for, and the reason why it doesn’t work well is because we need collective intelligence, and there’s some of the brain trust that’s outside the organization. There’s some of the brain trust that’s inside the organization. If we don’t get involved upstream together, then we’re gonna have blind spots, mis considerations, or, and those things are gonna take us to an idea that, you know, might be interesting, but not yet, not yet at the point where it’s compelling enough to, to be decisive about it. And so, you know, this idea of, of of separate working separately, I’m, I think is needs to be, you know, recast as co-creation.

So how would it work is basically, you know, if I was in an agency and I was working with a, a customer, a client, I’d say, look, we’re at the upstream part. We, we think there’s four things that are worthy of exploration, and we want to be able to do it with you so that we actually get our head around it and assemble the right brain trust to really tackle it.


You know, going through an upstream process like I write about together, you know, with the, you know, proper team formation inside and outside the organization, you know, that’s what’s going to help shape and develop that, those ideas in the best possible way and help them stand on very strong ground in order to unlock decision making. So it’s more of a co-creation model. And I think, you know, the right clients, you know, they’ll, they’ll like that very much. They’ll,

I think they, I was just thinking that, I was thinking a good client would love that collaborative thinking and exploration.

Yeah, exactly. Because I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s not a, it’s still a model where the creativity from external is being tapped into. Right. Which is probably often why, you know, an agency is involved, right? Yeah. It’s just that the institutional knowledge of the company is not missed, which is very important because the reason why agencies may come up with right ideas and that get frustrated that, oh my God, the client is indecisive, is because in reality the client is raising important considerations. And it’s a question mark how they factor into things. We have to, in order to unlock decisive action, people need to be able to draw the red thread.

They need to be able to connect the important considerations right. Coming up in their mind to, you know, what’s being put on the table. Right? And that requires some work to factor in.

So as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, you know, this, this requires sort of a mental shift for agencies, which I suspect is the same as a senior team inside an organization, which is, you know, we, I think a lot of people in their career feel like they have to have the answer that to be good at their job, they have to be able to find all the answers, or already have all the answers. So, given that you’ve been in this role in so many different organizations, how did you wrap your head around the idea that you literally were going in to, here’s a problem I the senior fill in the blank of whatever your title was. I don’t have the answer, but I have to come up with the answer.

So how did you just sort of, in, in your, I don’t know, your professional demeanor and mental state, how did you, how did you wrap your head around the fact that it was actually your job to help other people help you find the answer as opposed to you walking in the room and being the smartest guy in the room?

Well, I think it’s a great question. I think for me, it’s, it’s a little easier because I have a question or personality. Mm. While I have been at the top of a company, you know, sometimes the reaction is, oh my gosh, went into a meeting. This guy has no answers, only questions. Why is he in the role? Right? But after that, you know, initial impression, over time, people see, wow, this is a much better way. We got to a much better spot. Right? Why, why? Because we all have our fingerprint on it. People were, were able to provide input, and most importantly, they actually understand it.


They, it, it was not a culture where they were told what to do because the, the risk as a senior person is that people will do exactly what you say, and that’s very dangerous. Yeah. So, and that’s dangerous for everybody, especially the company. So I think once people understand that we’re actually wayfinding together, right? That’s what we do. And I have some, based on my experience, and you can have vast experience, you’re gonna offer key considerations, but you’re not going to, you know, like put so much judgment in things so quickly, right?


You kind of crowd out the opportunity for other considerations and for all those things to be kind of the puzzle to be solved maybe in a different way. So I think in the end, the best way to accomplish this change is by, is through workflow. Because, you know, in my case I did role model it, but rather than leaving it to a personality, I think you should put on the table sign that I call workflow, which is essentially how are we gonna get this done? Well, we have three phases. We have explore exploration, we have alignment, and we have decision making. Well, what’s exploration? Well, that’s where we source the key questions to get to the bottom of them. Okay, great.

And what’s alignment? Well, that’s about drawing conclusions and what’s decision making? Well, that’s about committing to the necessary actions. Does that make sense? Okay, great. For this initiative, this is gonna take place over four to six weeks. Here’s where we are right now, here’s the step, and here’s gonna be out the output of that step. That’s, that’s the, that’s what workflow’s about. And when you put that on the table, then you’ll get the head nods and the comfort level that, okay, we know how we’re going about this and I think it’s something people can adopt.

I I’m assuming that when, in your experience that when you do the exploration and alignment well and right, and you give it enough time, that when you get to decision making, which is usually the most painful part of the process, is to get everybody to actually agree and then, you know, God help us actually do it in a reasonable time. I would assume that the success rate of the decision-making phase, the speed at which it gets done, and the likelihood that it actually gets executed, grows exponentially.

Hundred percent. I mean, I have seen what I call non-decision decision meetings, which are essentially three minutes long. And people are like, why are we meeting this? Makes so much sense. Honestly, I would say half, half the decision points in my life have been non-decision, drama free decision points. Because we did a really good job of the upstream work, wor work, and we sweated that a lot. It, it was, it was, it was hard. But upstream, we really, you know, force ourselves to think through, Hey, what could we be missing? Are we thinking about it the right way? Would we draw this conclusion based on that? Is there a blind spot? Who else can we talk to?

Let’s get great input. Let’s be obsessed with the right input. Let’s even socialize the conclusions we’re drawing with people to say, where, where did we go wrong? What holes can you poke? And so we made,

Yeah, what were we missing? Right?

Are we missing, we made the work a little better. So when you got to the decision point, and there’s nothing, there’s nothing, there’s no a hundred percent bulletproof Sure. In business, but it says close to bulletproof as you can get. You know, when, when you do that work upstream.

So I can’t help but wonder, you know, this is a bunch of human beings doing this work and, and we’re exploring something new, which for some people is super exciting and for other people is super uncomfortable. Are there certain landmines or places where teams get stuck in the upstream work that we need to be mindful of and sort of solve for before they become a problem?

Yeah, sure. I think a couple of things. One is not having enough range of input. So it’s like, oh, two people are responsible for this thing. Well, that’s great. I like inviting guests to the exploration, which is, Hey, you’re not necessarily asked to be a core working team member, you know, like dedicating the next couple months on it. But you can come in as a guest and say, if you were in our shoes, what would you be thinking about? You know, that opportunity for input, I think is something we don’t take advantage of as often as we should in companies for the reasons you mentioned earlier, Drew, where sometimes when you ask for that kind of input, it’s, it could be viewed as a, as a weakness.

It’s actually another weakness. It’s a strength.

Right. You know,

I mean, of course it’s a weakness if you’re doing it at the last minute, you know? Well,

I was gonna say, those objections are gonna come up somewhere along the phase anyway. So what you’re saying is do it up at the very top of the process rather than in the decision making phase.

A hundred percent. I mean, the, the worst case scenario is you’re at in the decision meeting, right? And how have we thought about X and, and you missed X, you know? Right. Like, you could have caught that X is an important subject matter way upfront, so we could get our, our head around it. Yeah. If that comes with a decision, meaning, you know, you can be the smartest person in the world, but you’re gonna struggle to integrate that into the work that’s been done. It’s too real time. And so, yeah. So one pitfall is obsessed with input and obviously the opposite of that is a good thing, being obsessed with it. Right. So that’s first.

I think the second one is something we’ve touched on a couple times, which is, you know, a rush to judgment and trying to align on some things. And, and I think we just need to create space as an alternative to say we’re not at that part. You know, we’re sourcing, we’re sourcing the questions, and we wanna get to the bottom of that. We have, that is something we’re going to do. Here’s where that fits in. We’re not at that part. And that’s, that’s really, really important. That’s why I think putting a workflow on the table, this is, you know, this is the flow and how it’s gonna unfold is important. ’cause it kind of settles people that we will get there.

Yeah. I, I, I, I think particularly in agencies, but probably in most organizations, we’re so used to being the problem solvers that we do rush to the an to the answer because we want, we wanna provide that for our clients, our clients. So having clarity around, you know, the idea that yeah, we’re not, we’re not there yet. So just suspend that for now and, and here’s, here’s where in the process we’ll start doing that. So that obviously would be in the alignment section of, of your process.

Yeah, a hundred percent. It doesn’t take that much time to do the exploration, but, you know, you, you, you know, you’d be shocked at what kind of eureka has come up when you, we do a high quality job of that. And, and then what we see, you know, we see much more widely, I think when we, when we create space for that.

So in your experience, sort of living this methodology, other than talking to people and asking questions, are there other, other ways to gather data and insight during the exploration phase that are, that you find sort of tried and true that maybe are not as obvious?

Sure. I mean, I think, I mean, there’s always a role for testing and prototyping. Right? Right. It’s basically, you know, I think that’s pretty powerful because by trying to, you know, kind of sketch something or


You know, hack,

You build it out, right?

Yeah. You get, you get a lot of, you know, I always, you know, k kind of carried the mantra of what does good look like and Right. You know, to get some, navigate some of these board meetings, it was, you know, some wire frames or six mockups or things like that, just to give people a taste of, of, you know, what we’re executing for and for the light bulbs to go off to say, yeah, that’s, that’s actually the right ambition. So I mean, when you do that, you begin to force yourself to think through, you know, some of the, what will it take to pull it off, right? Right. And, and some of those things could be hard. So the key, you know, the key dependencies come out. Some of the, the requirements come out, you know, you’re not at that stage, but they help you think through, well, hmm, how can we be more creative around some problem solving here?

So I would say a prototype kind of goes together because it can feed some of the exploration, well, these parts are easy, but we don’t have a way to support this, this part. So what, what do we need to do? It doesn’t mean, you know, the idea’s not a good one. It means we need to do some exploration and give team space and time for that. And maybe they’d come back with a novel solution to it. So I think some of that, I think bringing it to life is important. And then of course, anything you can do in terms of running a test. I mean, at Amazon, I, I talk about an example on Amazon where, you know, we want to do something for authors and we think one thing, but in reality, when we pass a small sample, let’s say 50 of them, and we do a survey, we learn it’s not, you know, it’s not a big deal for them.

So, Hmm. Hey, we were more confident because we had the data to say, you know, this is not going to be controversial, let’s say. So we’re more confident in, in moving forward on that idea.

So when you get to the decision stage, is there a, is there a, a air quote way to present the data you gathered and the alignment to people who are in the room who perhaps have either only participated in a superficial way or maybe, you know, in a board situation or a client situation, haven’t participated at all?

Yeah, I mean, I, it’s, it’s a great question because we need to be pretty succinct and punchy, right?

Right. The

Decision meetings, people are people, you’re gonna get a lot of action junkies, right? Right. You’re ready to roll, the sleeves are, let’s go, it’s gonna be a go or a no-go. You know?

Right. And I have another meeting and X and so let’s, let’s wrap this up, right?

Let, let’s go. So, yeah, I think, you know, a, a kind of a structure could be like, here’s the problem, here’s the starting point. Here’s the problem we were trying to solve. We did the work. Here are the conclusions we Drew. If you wanna hear more about that, we can get into it. But if you are with us on these conclusions, then these are the next necessary actions to commit to. I think that that’s sort of the overview. Now, probably most people are gonna say, well, I need to hear a little bit more about how you got to the conclusions. And then that’s where you begin to show the results of your, your exploration, which is,

Yeah, kind of unpack it for them a little bit. These

Are the key subject matters, you know, these are the key questions. Some of the essential questions and unknowns are here. Here’s how we thought about them. You know, we reasoned through them in this way. This is some data we got, this is something we learned. Okay. Any questions about that? Now you go back to your kind of the front end of your package, which is your problem statement, the conclusions you Drew. And if, if they’re locked in and dialed in on the conclusions you Drew, then they will auto always shift their mode to, okay, what do we need to do? What do you need from us? And those are committing to the necessary actions. And a great meeting actually goes beyond committing to the necessary actions, though it’ll be about, well, hmm, are we ready to take these actions?

What else do we need to do? Do we need to move resources around? There’ll be some, some things that come up, well, okay, c, FO go, you know, find some more money by cutting something else so we could fund this thing. You know, that’s when you’re in that mode Yeah. Where people are actually trying to accelerate the actions. Right.

And the enthusiasm for it.

Yeah. Then, then you’re actually even one step ahead because you’ve not only got the decisions, but you’ve actually got them in, in, in a sense working with you to kind of, you know, within their remit. ’cause their remit is broader. Right, right. To have CFO saying, okay, yeah, have some buffer over here. Don’t worry, I’ll find it to fund this. That’s very powerful.

So in the decision making phase, do you recommend coming with a recommendation of, here’s here is the action step, or here is the, here is the solution, or is that something that you process in that meeting?

No, I recommend coming with it. And that’s really what I’m, I mean by the conclusions. Okay. That you’re talking say, oh we need to, we should build X and this is what X should, you know, be, be supporting, you know, these are the things and capabilities X will contain, you know, so that is really the heart of the decision. It’s just that it’s kind of starts with a problem statement, it’s backed up by an exploration and then it’s carried forward by a list of, you know, very important actions that need to be booted up, so to speak, to bring it to life.

So it’s really, okay, here’s, here was the problem that either you asked us to explore, we explored, we spent a month doing that exploration. Here were the ahas or the big ta, the big sort of high level insights that we glean from that exploration. We all agree that these are critical factors that we have to take into account. Therefore we believe we should do X and here are the next steps that it would take to go ahead and actually execute against X.

Yeah, that’s right. Where the next steps are really more the actions the company needs to

Right. Tactical, right,

Very concrete. It’s like, oh, we need to, you know, start an operational team or we need to, you know, yeah, we need to add technology resources or we need to craft a a go to market. We need to be ready for a particular launch date. Those kinds of things.

So I think in our world, oftentimes there’s a person or two on the client side, if we’re gonna do this co-creation, which I love, who are the, you know, perennial naysayers, oftentimes as, as I’m sure you’ve experienced in your career, it’s almost always somebody like a CFO or somebody tied to the money part of it, or somebody who’s really invested in the legacy solution, which may not be the right solution anymore. Do you recommend having that person, whoever that, whoever that person or people tend to be sort of the naysayers. Do you recommend having them on the exploration team so you can get kind of all their naysay out at that level? Or is it better to do the work and have the proof points and then present it to them at the decision making stage?

Well, I think it’s better to involve this kind of persona upstream, number one, and at a stage where, you know, we minimize the damage, which

Is Right, right.

Essentially we are just collecting questions. So what are your questions? So it is kind of a neutralizer because you know, as we talked about before, we’re trying to, you know, accept, we’re trying to take and pull in the questions, but not the skepticism, which is strips out the judgment. So I mean, that may come out as skepticism, but it is like, hey, what I’m hearing from you is you have a question about X or Y, does that sound right? Okay, great. Thanks so much. We’re gonna factor that into our exploration. I’ll keep you, you know, informed as we kind of develop it further. So I think, you know, one that has a lot of positive side effects, right? And hopefully what that does is give the team the space to actually do something about it.

Which is like, hey, these are probably some pretty good questions. You know? Right. They probably have usable answers. But when we come back and we have a formulated sort of like conclusion like, oh, this, this is a conclusion we’ve drawn this solution makes sense. Then it’s sort of embedded within those things is, is the fact that those questions are, you know, are, are kind of factored in in some way, shape or form, you know, and it’s defendable. Right? Right.

It’s very

Hard because often the trick with the skeptics is that they do the easy part, but the teams, it’s very hard for, they actually don’t think beyond the initial skepticism.

Right, right. The surface.

We just think a little Exactly. Surface level thinking and we think a little deeper. By the time we’ve done the deep work and pull it together, it’s kind of very hard for them to, to kind of, yeah. Try and go up against that. Let me put it that way.

How quickly, because you know, in agencies everything is about speed. How quickly can somebody work through this process? Like what is an unreasonable amount of time? It’s too short for the expo. It seems like the exploration is where all the magic sort of happens. What is for you, in your experience, what is the most, the shortest sort of viable amount of time that we have to dedicate to this? Because I think agencies are always trying to shortcut things and get to something to hand to a client or offer a client or recommend to a client. And I think a lot of times we shoot ourselves in the foot by not giving ourselves the thinking time we need.

So what for you is like, yeah, you can’t do this in, I’m just making up a number, 24 hours or 48 hours. You have to at least soak on it for X.

Well, I mean, if you were to workshop it, I mean it could probably be done in, you know, a couple days. ’cause if the team is having that concentrated time together, sure. You know, a lot can be accomplished in a single day and then there’s some follow up to synthesize things and maybe a smaller team to kind of like make sense of it, you know. So I think for an agency or workshop format is probably a good thing. Is like, Hey, no,

That’s a good idea. Yeah.

You know, we’re going to get the brain trust together. ’cause that’s the key thing is actually the thing that adds time is the fact that the brain trust is busy with other things or there’s lag between, you know, when you want their input and when you get it right. And when you add that up across five or six or seven or people, right, then that’s, that’s the time, that’s why it takes, it could take, you know, two weeks to do it. I think there’s, you know, as, as long as we can assemble the brain crest and have a concentrated period of time, you know, through something like a workshop, I think for, you know, 48 hours to get a, a lot of the, the, the right thinking done I think is very, very doable.

Just in terms of like building and running an exploration.

Well, and the other beautiful thing about the workshop model is everybody is pretty hyper-focused and your and their brain’s not going in a lot of directions and you don’t have to kind of bring them back. So it’s like, okay, for for a day we’re gonna sequester ourselves in a room and we’re gonna just think about this. And so you’ve got everybody sort of focus both client and agency if you’re doing the co-creation. So you also would not have sort of that fragmented thinking that, the thing I wonder about though is do you then have to let it soak for a day or two, you know? ’cause sometimes even in that kind of an intense environment, you know, new ideas crop up, you know, when you’re in the shower or after you’ve woken up or you know, the, how our brain works.

So is it good to let it sort of marinate for a day or two before you come back together to kind of get to the, to the alignment stage?

Yeah, I mean, I think absolutely it probably does, you know, create some space for that. Like, hey, what did we miss? What did kind of came up spontaneously in the shower? It always makes a lot of sense. An alternative is actually that, you know, to do a workshop where basically maybe it’s to introduce, you know, a way of working that’s a little bit new. Take some examples and go through it through. And then people have a frame of reference and are used to it to some degree so that they’re working on an axle problem that they don’t have to do a workshop. Right. They’ll just be more instinctive around well, you know, they’ll just understand it and, and do it quicker.

So another way is to actually, you know, train people on it through some examples that are relevant and then actually run, run water through the pipes for, you know, something specific that they’re working on later that’ll, in in, in that case, they may not need to actually come together. They’ll kind of do it more asynchronously, I think. Right. But they’ll, they’ll be comfortable with it.

Yeah. This, this has been great. I, I love the idea of the co-creation with clients. We don’t, we, as an industry, we don’t do that enough. You know, I think for so long we’ve, we have felt like, and I think the clients have felt too that we were supposed to have the answers. And I think, I think one of the new shifts in agency life and marketing is that everything is moving so fast and changing so quickly that it really is about iterative exploration, change, trial and error and, you know, constantly adjusting. And so that lends itself to working together rather than us having to have all the answers. So I think this, I think this methodo this methodology and the ideas around it are perfect for this moment that we’re in, in, in agency life and I’m sure and corporate life too.

But, you know, we’re expected to be nimble and have a lot of big, bold answers. And so this feels like a much more manageable way to do that.

Yeah. Let’s depressurize things. And at the same time, I think, you know, the agencies can have the answer, but it’s on the, it’s on the method. Right.

You see what

I mean? So the agency will still be the tip of the spear. And so it won’t be a, I’m an agency owner. It’s not like, oh, I don’t, you know, I’m just, you know, I’m not adding value. No, you are adding value because you are the tip of the spear. You are holding the pen, you have the way forward on the methodology. You have a lot of contribution to make to the specific contents of, you know, what the problem we’re trying to tackle. But you recognize that it’s actually about collective intelligence and you have a way to harness that. Yeah. That’s what, that’s what you’re offering. That’s where you’re good at. And of course all your results and portfolios point to great outcomes, but the way you got there was this Yeah.

This mechanism of this set of how you got there.

Yeah. And I actually think, I, I actually think the clients would love it. And you come with better answers at the end of the day because you have the collective wisdom and you have that inside knowledge that a lot of times you don’t get when you go off to a room just as agency folks and I ideate and then come back with some answers. So I I that I think it would make our work better and I think our clients would be more engaged and aligned, you know, which is obviously what we want. Because again, to your point, that gets us to a faster Yes.

I always had a lot for agencies with McDonald’s example, it’s like, why do we do this to them? We literally set up something where we do a brief and then they go away and then they come back with the answer. And we know that in this room there’s seven things that they need to know from us. Right. And we haven’t provided that input. Where’s the mechanism to do that so they could do their best work. I think it’s, it’s more along the spirit of what you’re talking about.

Yeah, I think so too. This has been fascinating. Thank you so much for being on the show. I know folks are gonna wanna reach out. They’re gonna want, they’re gonna wanna know how to get the book, they’re gonna wanna be able to follow your work. What’s the best way for them to stay connected with you? Get a copy of the book, learn more about your work.

Yeah, so a couple of things. So decision sprint.com singular is my website for the book and you can access it there, number one. Number two, along with my co-founder, I created a company called Ritual. It’s available at Ritual Work. It’s an app that actually helps teams build and run explorations.


Grease the wheels. So you can, I mean you can use the workflows in the book and you don’t have to use software, but software sometimes just makes it easy for us. ’cause it kind of guides us through the steps. So that’s ritual. And then, you know, for any other interests, I read my LinkedIns and you know, you can find me there, follow my newsletter, which has over a hundred thousand subscribers who just message me and I usually check my messages.

That’s awesome. We will make sure we have all those links in the show notes for all of you who are listening. But you can’t write all that down because you’re on a treadmill or a subway or walking the dog. This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your expertise. I, I love this framework. I’m already in the back of my head trying to figure out how we’re gonna use it in our company. So it is, it is immediately applicable. So thank you.

You’re welcome, Drew, that’s music to my ears. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

You bet. Alright guys, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. I, I love this. I know that you, I know your brain’s doing the same thing mine is, which is how can I do this internally? How can I do this with clients? Which client would be the best one for us to practice this with? Because, you know, you have some clients who would eat this up for lunch and they would love to do it, and it would actually make them feel more invested in the work that you’re doing together and you’re gonna be able to deliver better results, which is gonna result in better case studies, which is gonna result in more good work. So you can see the exponential power of this idea. So I’m excited to hear from you how you’re gonna apply this, what you’re, what you did, what you did, how you did it internally, how you did it with clients.

So be sure to reach out and let me know that. So put this into action. I think this is a great way for us to think about, about our work moving forward. Before I let you go, of course I need to thank our friends at White. Label IQ. As you know, they’re the presenting sponsor of this podcast, so they make it possible for me to hang out with you every week and bring you great guests. And they do white Label, design dev, and PPC. You can learn more about them at White Label IQ dot com slash aami. And as I always tell you, if you’ve never worked with them before on that website, there’s information on how you can get some free hours against your first project. So super good people have been a part of the AMI community for over 20 years.

I think you’re gonna enjoy not only the quality of their work, but the experience of working with them. So check them out and of course I’ll be back next week with another guest to get you thinking a little differently about your business. So I am grateful for you. Thanks for spending some time with us this week and today, and I’ll see you next week.

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