Episode 144

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I’ve always described our work as being called upon to be creative on demand. Whether an agency employee sits in the creative department, codes apps, builds strategy or works on new business – we are all tasked with being fresh thinkers.

Our clients hire us to ask the right questions. We feel the pressure to provide answers or at the very least, to know the next right question.  It’s incredibly satisfying when a prospect or client says, “I’ve never been asked that before.”

My podcast guest Larry Robertson, encourages his clients – and us – to sit with questions – to not look for quick and easy answers. But to recognize that the real insight rarely comes from the first layer of questions. The paradox is that in times of frenetic change, having the right answers are more important than having the quick answers. Organizationally speaking, it’s a matter of life and death.

Larry Robertson is an innovation and strategy advisor. He is the author of two award-winning books: A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress, and The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, honored with a combined 16 awards.

During our conversation, Larry talked about the research he did as he was prepping to write “The Language of Man.” He interviewed recipients of the McArthur “Genius” award to gather their collective wisdom on creativity and staying power in business and life.

Along with being an author, he’s also a columnist for Inc. Magazine and The Creativity Post, and a regular contributor to Fast Company. He also has been featured guest on or in MSNBC, the Chicago Tribune, AdAge, SmartBrief, and in numerous podcasts.

He is a Graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How to help clients recognize their value proposition
  • The five layers of “why” and how it can be a powerful tool for agency
  • How to answer the “so what?” question about what you do and why it’s important
  • The importance of staying curious and open-minded no matter how long your agency has been around
  • Cultivating the Five Habits of the Mind in your agency and weaving it throughout your discovery process
  • What prospects are looking for when picking an agency
  • The two things you can’t do as you implement the Five Habits of the Mind
  • Your role as an agency during the discovery session
  • Larry’s perspective on change and how it affects your agency and clients
  • The three key things you need to do to expand your agency’s brand lifespan to last longer than 15 years
  • The benefits of implementing “play“ as a habit and how it can help you become a better on-demand creative
  • How to encourage better micro-habits as a leader within your agency

The Golden Nuggets:

“It’s not enough to understand your own big ideas. You’ve got to know how to articulate those ideas and their value to a broader audience.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “The habit of asking questions, just digging deeper into questions is common to all successful entrepreneurs.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Figure out whether or not you're living a full and honest story. If not, what are those things you didn't expect to see telling you?” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Once you recognize what's core and you communicate it to everybody and it’s in front of them every day, you then have something to work with.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “You cannot be creative in a crisis unless you're in the habit of being playful and open and curious. Play is a habit that should not be ignored.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Encouraging the question, ‘what if,’ gives people in your organization permission to explore what might be possible, and even question original assumptions.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “We say it all the time to our clients, but we often forget that golden rule ourselves - to look at things from the perspective of our clients and see what that tells us.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet

 

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Intro:

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 HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25+ years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Really great that you came back or if this is your first episode, thanks for joining us. Hopefully, you’ll find it super valuable. And I believe that you will. I’m excited about today’s guest. Let me tell you a little bit about him, and then we’re going to jump right into the conversation. So my guest today is Larry Robertson. And Larry is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship.

As the founder of Lighthouse Consulting, for over 25 years, he’s guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth and all the way to lasting success. Larry is the author of two award winning books. The first one is The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, which I believe is his most recent book, and we’ll talk about it. And before that, he wrote A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress. So Larry also is a regular columnist for both Inc. Magazine and The Creativity Post, and he and his work have appeared in many places, including best company in adage and productive flourishing and a wide range of podcasts and radio programs. So again, his most recent book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, we’re going to talk about that. But first, Larry, welcome to the show.

Larry Robertson:

Thanks, Drew. It’s really a pleasure to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So give us a little bit of background of how one comes to become an advisor to entrepreneurs, because you probably don’t study that in school.

Larry Robertson:

No, I absolutely did not. And it was a bit of happenstance. After I graduated undergrad, I actually went to Manhattan and I worked for J.P. Morgan primarily in commercial banking. I did some other things for them. Having grown up in a smaller town in the American Southwest, I liked New York, but I didn’t always enjoy living there. So when I had a chance to hop on a plane and go back to San Francisco, where I’d gone to school in that area, I also did some interviewing. And the job that I ended up taking there was with a firm that helped entrepreneurs, helped fund entrepreneurs and then also traded their stocks. This was at the very beginnings of the NASDAQ when it was really a new exchange.

So it was a little bit of happenstance that I fell into that. But even though I was working for what was effectively an investment bank, a venture capital firm at the time, most of my time was spent with those entrepreneurs before they ever hired us, ever paid us a single dollar, helping them to not just fully understand their big ideas. But how to articulate those ideas and what they meant, what the value was to a broader audience, meaning beyond their startup team. How do you go out and tell customers and investors and others who you are and why you should even matter to them? So I developed such a passion for that, that everything else I’ve done since has grown out of what really was a subset of what I was doing when I was in venture capital.

Drew McLellan:

So as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking about how many agencies ironically, given what we do for a living, really struggle with, A, differentiating themselves from all the other agencies out there, and B, talking about their value in a way that is different than here’s the stuff that we make.

Larry Robertson:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

So how did you help those startups, because whether you’re a startup or you’ve been around it for 20 years, I think sometimes the struggles continue to be the same, how did you help those folks recognize from a point of view other than their own, what their value actually was and what their value proposition was?

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. Well, it’s really interesting. So a lot of the companies that I worked with were technology companies. And so when I would come into those companies, there was a good chance that even though I knew a lot about different modes of technology, I didn’t know what they did. And I didn’t come in trying to be an expert in that. So the very first thing that I would do is to spend time with them to say, you are an expert in what you do. And I’m not. How can I understand that in as few words as possible? So the very first thing was saying, it’s not so much whether or not you understand what you do, it’s Can you make other people understand that?

And that led to the second thing that We would spend a lot of time on when I would work with these not even clients but prospective clients. And that was, why should they care? Whoever you’re talking to, whatever it is you do, however you describe it, why is it meaningful to them? And what’s interesting is that the initial answers, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, that your client gives you are typically in a form that’s really talking about them, the client. This is why I think this is so neat, nobody else is doing this. This is why we’re better in all the tactical ways or whatever. And I would say, no, no, no. Dig a layer below that. Why should I care?

There’s this old management technique that was developed by Toyota decades ago, and it’s called the five layers of why. I don’t I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. But basically, this is what I would do with my clients and push them through those layers of why. So to ask, well, why should people care? Whatever the answer is, you dig one layer deeper by saying, well, why does that matter? And why does that matter? And what Toyota figured out was that by the time you get to the fifth level, you’re probably down to what’s core and essential, and most importantly, relatable. And so it’s those two modes. Let’s get down to the simple version of what you do and let’s talk about why anybody else should care, that frankly, were probably the most valuable things that I did for my clients.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s funny. I teach the Toyota thing in the AE Bootcamps, but I call it the toddler why. Because if anyone’s ever had a toddler, they know that kid says the sky is blue. What color is the sky? And you say blue. They go, why? About five layers in you’re like, seriously? It’s the same thing. Yeah.

Larry Robertson:

It’s absolutely the same thing. It’s funny you say that, because in my first book, A Deliberate Pause, I tell a story about my daughter, who was about four or five years old at the time, and her constant asking why. And what was most interesting is that I didn’t just do it as a fun, entertaining thing. That characteristic, that habit of thinking that way and asking that way was key and a pattern across the most successful entrepreneurs. Not just when they started, but it’s an ongoing habitual thing that they did. And again, not just as individual leaders or founders of their businesses, but something that they instilled culturally, which is a really interesting thing.

So take a founder of an agency, in some ways, they’re like a founder anywhere else. Meaning, to get started is a high hill to climb. And you get a lot of pushback as you do that. As you make your way up that hill, as you become more successful, even though you were open minded enough to try to start something new in the beginning, you become closed, and you become, this isn’t quite the right word, but defensive, because you want to defend what you’ve built. And too often, as founders and leaders, we do that even with the people who are immediately around us and are making us successful. So this whole idea of opening up those layers of why to everyone in your organization, making it a cultural habit is a really powerful tool. It’s scary sometimes, but a really powerful tool.

Drew McLellan:

And a great way to something to bake into internal meetings to when you’re talking about innovating, or changing, or new products or services you can offer. But also, as I was listening to you, I’m thinking, this is a technique that we should also be using with our clients because they too struggled to articulate how they’re different. And one of the things that successful agencies do better than most is they ask great questions. So helping a client sort of dig deeper around the whys, I think is a great exercise to bake into your discovery process.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. And one of the things I really appreciate about your podcast is that you’ve always get to two things in conversations. One is a context and perspective to say, where does all this fit in? So if I’m going to start doing something like this with my clients, I use the word why. Why are we doing that? Why is it going to fit in? But the second thing you do so well is you get to things that are really tangible and actionable. So let’s do that right now. If I was going to come in as an agency owner, or leader, or the team and sit down with my clients and try to use more questions and try to orient towards why, there’s a really wonderful technique called the five habits of the mind that is a great way to get there. And so it was developed by this education reformer, her name is Deborah Meier, she’s a MacArthur Fellow winner, which is a fellowship for creativity.

Here’s how it goes. Basically, what she teaches her teams to do internally and then externally when they’re working with partner or client is to ask first, how do we know what we know? So think about in working with a client, sometimes the client, as I was describing my own, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about why they know what they know, or whether or not it’s still relevant. And pretty much everything-

Drew McLellan:

Or if it’s just an assumption they’ve made.

Larry Robertson:

Correct. Or if it’s an expired assumption. So it was relevant once, but maybe it’s less relevant now. Or maybe there are more things that that affect it. So this question of, how do we know what we know, or how do I know what I know is a way of opening back up those assumptions. Just to make sure that they still apply, and if they don’t, to catch them early enough to say, well, what else do we need to learn here? And that leads to the second question, which is, is there a pattern? So if we see something that we think is important or we see something we think is problematic, it could be an aberration, it could be a one off thing. But if there’s a pattern of it, it probably points to either an opportunity or a need to change.

And that’s what leads to this third question or third habit of the mind, and that’s some form of the question, what if? What if we did this? Think about sitting down with that client, and you’re talking about a new idea. But it also works when you’re trying to address a challenge or a problem that they’re facing. What if we did this? And it invites a collective thinking about what we might do about this based on how we know what we know and this pattern that we’ve seen.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it also gives permission to not go with the answer you think is right, because what if implies, this might not be right. So it gives you permission to think probably broader and bigger, and maybe in a more absurd or unexpected direction without you being wrong. Because it’s not a this is the answer. Right?

Larry Robertson:

Absolutely. And so there’s a fear that people have about being broad like that, going outside their borders, as I like to think about it. However, if you started with those first two questions, and notice that each habit of the mind is a question. How do we know what we know? And is there a pattern? You’ve given a common ground to everybody. So once you start exploring the what ifs, people don’t feel like they’re dangling off the side of a cliff as they explore these new ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah.

Larry Robertson:

And then the last two habits or questions are, even once you’ve come up with a great what if, Deborah always asked the question, is there another way of looking at it? So this is really the question of saying, okay, we easily fall in love with our ideas. Or we easily fall in love with the convenient and sometimes they’re the same thing. So is there another way of looking at it is a way of really testing whatever’s come out of that, what if process. And then the last habit and the last question is really the most important. This is what drives towards value, as we talked about earlier, and the bottom line. The last question is, who cares? Because we could sit in a room with our clients and come up with the world’s greatest solution or campaign or whatever it might be. But if we’re the only ones to care, it really doesn’t have a lot of value or a lot of impact.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, that’s a great … For everybody listening, think about your own discovery process, because every agency has one. You might call it something different. But that’s what we have. Client intake time, whatever you want to call it. Some of you have cute acronyms, whatever. But think about how would you weave those questions, and more importantly than the question of thought process in those questions into that discovery session. Because again, I think a lot of times, the place that we get caught up, the place where that we get treated like we are offering a commodity is when we start making this stuff. And I’m not saying that you don’t make good stuff, because I’m sure you do. But everybody makes stuff.

My observation of agencies are the ones who rush through the discovery process, the ones who quickly get to the doing rather than really slowing down and asking the questions, those are the ones who are treated like a vendor. But the agencies that really have a well thought out discovery process that is, part of it is theater, part of it is creating the experience and it might be the cool conference room, it might be the puzzles you have on the desk, whatever your stick is. But by putting thoughtful questions like that, that your clients or prospects are not used to answering. Many, many times when I talk to clients, what they say is, the reason they pick the agency that they did was because the agency is different or better questions.

And so Larry just served up a great methodology for really walking someone through a discovery process in a way that feels very fresh and different and very focused, and that there’s nothing boilerplate about it. And I can’t imagine the kind of conversations that come out of that series of questions.

Larry Robertson:

What you said is so dead on, and I will connect it to one other element that I learned from Deborah. Just as a little bit of background, I interviewed Deborah, along with nearly 70 other MacArthur Fellows for my most recent book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity. So we had this wide ranging conversation, and we did talk about the five habits, which we’ve just described. And the five habits, some people do know about these are there other versions of it, as you said, everybody can have their own form of inquiry and gathering data. But one of the most interesting things that Deborah shared with me is that oftentimes people pick up her version of the five habits of the mind. And they use it once or a couple of times, but then they do two things that kill it.

One is that they are quick to try to get to an answer to these questions, because we’re all answer-oriented. So the faster you move towards saying this is the answer, the less likely you are to, one, gathered the information you really need, or two, in the way you phrased it, to come across to your client as somebody who is actually distinct, interested in them, and likely to provide a truly different answer and not just the answer. And the second thing she said to me is that even after those answers come, people st