Want to Grow? Embed a Culture of Learning in Your Agency

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Ross Beyeler
Ross Beyeler



culture-learningMost agencies have aspirations for some level of growth.

While not everyone desires to run a 1,000-person global agency, most seek to evolve their practice. Perhaps this growth is financially driven, accolades-driven, headcount-driven, or something else, but the one type of growth that not only supersedes but also drives these types of growth is knowledge. Your staff requires growth in knowledge to stay abreast of emerging best practices and technologies.

Your clients turn to you as their agency partner to use your knowledge to help guide them through unfamiliar territory. The more knowledge your agency amasses, the more likely you are to improve your staff and client work — two drivers of revenue growth, awards, new hires, etc.

So how can an agency make learning a core focus?

Learning in Two Flavors

The first element to recognize is that learning cannot be done passively. Although "being in the trenches" day-by-day will naturally result in some learning, it's crucial to look at learning as an activity that requires active cultivation. Learning needs to be built into the culture of your agency so that it turns into an active practice for everyone. In thinking about specific activities that can be built into your culture to drive learning, it's helpful to think of learning from two perspectives: Learning From the Past and Learning for the Future.

Learning from Mistakes

Every deliverable created, project completed, and relationship forged presents a learning opportunity. As your agency completes and delivers more work, the success of that delivery will always come into question. Some projects will go flawlessly and result in huge client-side ROI or awards, while some projects feel better forgotten. In either outcome, Learning From the Past is about analyzing these experiences to understand what went well, what did not, and what to change about your future behavior. It's about taking the time to ask hard questions in an open-environment and reflect deeply on the experience.

Living in the Fringe

Just as Learning from the Past helps drive growth through experiences, Learning for the Future is about driving growth in the experience your agency wants to accumulate. Your clients look to your firm for answers about their problems today and potential opportunities tomorrow. In a way, they expect you to play the "fortune teller," helping to identify emerging trends, technologies, and practices that could radically impact their business. It's vital that your firm lives up to that expectation and participates in "fringe" areas of growth within your respective discipline. Learning for the Future is about pushing your firm beyond its comfort zone and gaining exposure in areas that may contribute to your capabilities.

With both Learning from the Past and Learning for the Future each playing their own role in the growth of your agency, let’s look at three practices respective to each one could employ:

How to Learn from the Past

1) Weekly Projections and Reflections

Like many agencies, we try to keep meetings to a minimum to allow folks time to do the creative work our clients commission. However, we start and end every week with two important meetings. Mondays are planning days and start with a team meeting we call Weekly Projections where we run through each client project, do a status update on deliverables, and set a schedule or delivery expectations for that week. It's a tactical meeting and a great opportunity to get everyone on the same page.

Fridays, however, bring Weekly Reflections. This is where the real learning happens. Weekly Reflections focuses primarily on each team member sharing the highs and lows of his or her week as well as lessons learned. It's especially amazing when you drill in on any "lows" during the week and try to draw out specific lessons around why an experience did not go well. The issues we uncover include communication, scoping, scheduling, and capabilities, and sometimes, we even discuss personal issues. It's during these moments of uncovering where we start exploring adjustments to our process, platforms, and people to establish better future outcomes. To tie things off, we actively review the previous week's Lessons Learned during the following week's Weekly Projections.

2) Project Debriefs

Although Weekly Reflections help to uncover lessons learned, they don't always look at the "full picture" of a project's outcome. In an effort to evaluate whether a project was successful and to fully understand how it turned out, we hold a Project Debrief when a major milestone concludes. Project Debriefs include all team members involved (and sometimes even the client). During these meetings, we run through everything quantitative (i.e., budgets, schedules, support requests, etc.) and qualitative (i.e., feelings, communications, etc.) associated with the project. Although every project is somewhat different and some have more glaringly obvious issues to address, we tend to use the following questions to prompt our conversations:

  • Did we share the same vision with the client going into the project?
  • Were we focused on achieving the same goal with the same success metrics?
  • Did we have agreement on process and method to pursue that goal?
  • Were expectations around timeline, budget, and communication shared between both parties?
  • Were the right people involved in the creative, evaluation, and execution portions of the project?

We record notes during the meeting and translate these into action items and general Lessons Learned for future reference.

3) Documentation

Given that both Weekly Reflections and Project Debriefs result in a fair number of Lessons Learned, we find it critical to document those. We've found three methods of documentation to be quite helpful in this process: Reflections, Operating System, and Blog Posts.

Reflections is a chronological, relatively un-edited list of Lessons Learned. It's an ongoing document that has hundreds (or thousands) of bullet points summarizing things we've learned in our practice. Many of these repeat (a sign we need to do a better job creating action items), and many become less relevant as our business evolves. Regardless, taking the time to read through this body of lessons can be quite powerful when evaluating changes or performance of the business.

When a lesson is turned into something concrete (i.e., a process, a template, etc.), we include it in our Company Operating System. As techno-geeky as it sounds, our Operating System is a master document that outlines key processes, platforms, and people within our organization and links out to related materials. It can be thought of as Table of Contents for our business and is a helpful guide to share when onboarding new employees or reviewing how we function as a business.

The final method for documenting Lessons Learned is blogging. We've found some of our most well-received blog posts are those where we honestly write about mistakes we've made and things we've learned. It's not unlikely that if we've experienced an issue, someone else has (or will) and might benefit from sharing the experience. Taking the time to write our Lessons Learned in a structured format such as an article helps crystallize that lesson.

How to Learn for the Future

1) Teaching Workshops

One challenging activity that has propelled our exposure to emerging technology and trends is the practice of teaching. We regularly hold workshops and teach classes on topics related to our agency offerings. Although some of these are geared for beginners and live in the world of familiar territory, we find workshops that focus on emerging trends to be among our favorites. The process of preparing for such a workshop exposes us to new information. We strive to make the content as relevant as possible as many participants in these workshops come to the table with challenging questions and references. Perhaps it's purely ego-protection, but this pressure helps ensure we work hard to stay abreast of the latest developments in our industry. In addition, the questions and conversation posed during workshops do often lead to new discoveries for our team.

2) Hack-a-Thons

One of the most effective ways to gain exposure to new technologies and practices is by participating in a hack-a-thon. This is typically a day-long or weekend-long event where designers, developers, business folks, and subject-matter experts gather to experiment with a certain technology or idea. Pairing off into small teams, you're thrown into an environment of extreme constraint (time, resources and skillsets) with many unknowns. This structure (or lack of) instills creativity, innovation, and discovery that you don't always find in project work, and it provides an opportunity to gain the insight and perspective of dozens of professionals that introduce new learning more effectively than independent research.

3) Forge Fridays

Similar to the concept of Google's 20% Time, we reserve Friday afternoons to experiment with internal projects. Granted, looming deadlines and last-minute fires sometimes compromise these "Forge Fridays," but they're blocked out weekly. During this time, we experiment with newer technologies or design ideas in the form of internal projects. Some have the potential, and intent, of being spun off into their own offerings in the future, while some are more for our own amusement. Regardless, they act as a playground where new ideas are tested and explored without the constraints of scope, budget, or timeline associated with client projects. In some instances, we actually tackle a client problem as a way to try out an approach we can't fit into the project scope. Forge Fridays generally provide the freedom to experiment and learn in ways that typical projects don't allow.

How to Win Friends and Influence Culture

As agency owners, we want to grow, and we realize that learning drives growth. In addition, we know that successful learning requires embedding the practice deep into agency culture. Culture, however, is often hard to define. Despite typical "artifacts of culture" such as mission statements, core values, and office environment, there is no culture KPI to measure against. Yet, as the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words when it comes to influencing company culture. By establishing and continuously executing these six (or any of your own) activities, you will take a step towards action by embedding learning into your company culture.

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