John Lynch

Uncover the polymaths within

Five years ago an art director colleague stated to a developer, "the biggest problem with marketing agencies is everyone is a f$ *%g creative expert". This was in response to unsolicited 'creative' suggestion the 'developer' had made. The art directors statement received tacit approval among the senior management at the table, a reaction i suspect would be shared in many agencies. Big Mistake!

the polymaths Why? Well I got to know that ‘developer’ over the intervening years and he changed rolls many times. He went on to be a web designer, a stint as an entrepreneur, a screen writer, and then an actor who still codes on the side, and did I mention he speaks 3 languages.

An unusual path for an unusual guy I grant you, but the unusual creative mind he possessed was never tapped into at the time. He was seen to have value only as a coder an interpreter of instructions, a data scientists’ geek type with a logical left brain. But he was in fact a polymath brimming with ideas that we didn’t tap into and that was the real lost opportunity.

A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymaths, "having learned much") is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

So if you think of the implicit meaning behind the creative colleague’s statement he actually meant that the problem with digital marketing agencies is that we have too many f#~£$%g opinions to suppress. Its a stay in rank and follow orders statement. 

And there is a certain logic to this, if you still think about a company as an army led from the top. Requesting input from soldiers prior to going into battle would be catholic. But a marketing agency is not an army, and the types of battles it faces every day are tactical not massive set pieces. They are in many ways unprecedented with new weaponry in the mix, handled by a new type of enemy. So addressing the rank and file to tap into an knowledge pool might help. Especially those rank and file in possession of emotional intelligence, creativity, leadership, commerciality, adaptability plus an ability to follow through.

So how do you pull ideas from the ranks? Firstly it’s not an overnight job. It’s a deep cultural shift for most agencies, and this takes time. It’s something that we have well underway at e3.co.uk, and we are approaching a tipping point I believe. We got here by following the following key thoughts.

thought police

1. Everyone’s a polymath

You must assume, as a starter, that all of us are polymaths and shout it from the roof-tops to show you actually believe it. Think about it, we all have experiences and interests outside of our day-to-day job and those have formed our character more than the day job. We all tend to know a wide range of different subject areas. We all also tend to have a healthier balance between left brain magic and right brain logic than we give yourself credit for. It’s just that we tend to accept pigeonholing into roles policed by the thought police.

2. Be prepared to swim in a deluge of crap

To be clear I am not saying that overnight all opinions garnered will be fantastic world changing, grounded, measurable ideas that will deliver a return. Most, I will wager, will be bad, terrible so embrace failure with big hugs as within them try and sift out the odd pearl. Also, be humble, remember some ideas may be genius but you don’t see it immediately. Steve Jobs originally thought the App store a bad idea but went with it.  The big challenge is getting those people within the company who wish to express their ideas to actually belch forth.

3. Create platforms for interaction

Set up both explicit and implicit moments where ideas can be winkled out. Try and weve it into the culture, have it build into the pitch process or new project process. Encourage more regular staff coffees, parties and generally mixing between silos. On the implicit side, make space for standing and sitting areas around water coolers, in kitchens, any escape areas. If you have budget, engineer it into your office. Googles new campus in Mountain View, California, resembles bent rectangles designed, in the words of the search giant’s real estate chief, to maximize “casual collisions of the work force. Or when Yahoo banned its employees from working from home in 2013, the reasons it gave had less to do with productivity than serendipity. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” Failing that sort of budget, spill some glue on the floor to slow people down.

4. Awards the pioneers
Its your first follower that creates a movement. You will get some first movers who are bursting to show off their polymath credentials and rise to the challenge. Over reward the pioneers, make a point of calling them out, give them something they value, and thats not necessary cash, it might be as simple as a public thank you or actively promoting them across the company against the skills they have.

5. Practice what you preach
Don’t be afraid to propose new, odd and in your world brilliant ideas yourself. In my experience staying in the shadows of false modesty will get nothing done. Challenge yourself to do something creative once a day.

So we need to stop suppressing ideas, albeit passively, and start to coach and nudge others towards great thinking. Make it your mission to know, really know as many work colleges as you can. Ask about their interests outside of work, what they did in the past. Some will resist and shrink back into their perceived role and that’s OK give them time they may still be in the majority, but the people who recognize that their additional value is in their extended skills, they will love it and once they eventually become the majority, the tipping point will be reached. By doing this you will start changing the way you do battle, start rewriting the rules of engagement and doing new things abnormally (crafting experiments), interacting with different people (shifting connections), and reinterpreting each other through the lens of the emerging possibilities.


COMMENTS

Posted by Gemma Costello, 19 August 2015

Great post John thanks for sharing! I agree with you that we need to break down silos - some of the most innovative thinking comes from those chance meetings in an informal setting between two staff members. Giving credit for innovative ideas too is a big motivator - companies could consider having an 'Innovation award of the month' for example to encourage a pipeline of new business (or other) ideas.

Posted by John Lynch, 19 August 2015

Thanks Gemma. On knowing how to award innovation, this i belive is the most difficult task. It could be argued that the 'Innovation award of the month' is just one short of McDonalds Staff member of the month. This is polarising at best and I think some people just play the system. I believe that you must be able to act on the innovative idea/thought in some tangible way that results in a real world project, be it a better way to solve a problem or a new product something you can point at and say I did that. Otherwise innovative ideas are commoditised and can become a trite value exchange between employee and company.


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John Lynch Digital Ministry John Lynch
Company: Digital Ministry
Position: Editor
Involved in the digital media and Marketing industry for many years, through working at the Economist Group (uk), Universal McCanns, Zivo, emitch, OneDigital, IBM (client side), Agency.com & now TBWA NY Now in Bath, UK working as a consultant

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