Michael Polivka, JUXT
Ready for Your Agency’s San Andreas?
Back in 1996, I saw Johnny Cash play at the Ohio State Fair with his wife June Carter. Seeing this couple perform the Ring of Fire was a magical moment. Interestingly, to this day there’s still some debate over who wrote this song and what it’s actually about.
The Ring of Fire we’ll be referencing today is far less controversial. It’s the string of volcanoes and earthquake-prone seismic hotspots that wrap around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. 75% of the planet’s active volcanoes reside there, and nearly 90% of all earthquakes occur there – including activity from the cinematically popularized San Andreas Fault. Simply put, it’s the lifeline of our planet’s change.
RING OF FIRE
While it may be scary to ponder, violent change is quite natural and commonplace, and leads to new growth and opportunities. Looking out my window, California wouldn’t even be here today if not for huge shifts in the planet’s tectonic plates.
Jumping to the other side of the world for a moment, I recently learned there are trilobite fossils at the top of Mount Everest, which stand at 29,000 feet and grow an inch taller each year. Trilobites, a once prolific group of little buggers, were one of the earliest known groups of arthropods. A whopping 500 million years ago, they began to flourish in our oceans, falling to the bottom of the sea when they died. Their fossils at the top of Mount Everest tell us the tallest point on Earth was at some time one of its lowest. Crazy. Big. Change.
What the hell does this have to do with the workplace and positive change? Everything!
I like to think that agencies live right along a sort of metaphorical Ring of Fire. And, for companies here in San Francisco, we’re also living along the real one. As my friend and business consultant Yumi Prentice once told me “Agencies are three phone calls away from disaster.” I agree. But we’re also three phone calls away from incredible success. Kind of like our planet.
AGENCY CONSTANT CHANGE
Winston Churchill once said “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” With that, here are five pointers to help make the best of our constantly evolving business conditions:
1. Always be ready
Our best employees will leave us. Our favorite clients will stop giving us their money. Our newest clients will give us so much work we’ll need to hire twenty new people in a week. Like it or not, this is agency life – and it’s how we roll. So be prepared for change, and lots of it.
Agencies are like high performance cars. Much like owning a 1970 Corvette, we need to know the condition of our parts at all times. This way, when something inevitably breaks, we’ll at least have a general idea of how to remedy it, how long it will take to fix it and how much it’ll cost.
When it comes to money, we need to manage our books responsibly and have realistic predictive models for the year. When it comes to talent, we need to hire great teammates and keep tabs on group and individual performance. Overall, we as agency leaders must have day-to-day plans (as well as contingency plans) that let us focus on the work at hand without distraction, yet allow us to be prepared for the unexpected.
2. Be grounded in the present, but plant seeds for the future
The work we do for our clients today is significantly different than it was just a few years ago. It’s more advanced, more difficult to scope, and requires more trust with the client – and collaboration with their myriad partners – than ever before.
It’s wise for us to regularly break out our agency bifocals to address immediate short-term needs while also considering our longer-term trajectories. We need to get our current work done amazingly well with our best practitioners, but we also need to do everything we can to support internal labs, incubators and intern talent farms. They will be the next generation of our agencies.
The future will be upon us quickly, and this new and fresh talent, with different perspectives and lifestyles than the team of today, will help our agencies grow and prosper. These up-and-comers may not know what a cassette tape or a Walkman is (unreal), but they’ve been using touchscreens almost half their lives (surreal).
3. Stay committed to growth
Sooner or later times will get tough, and we’ll need to make difficult choices in order to survive. Things as unfortunate as layoffs, moving to a new (and somehow already unpopular) office space, and spending freezes all come to mind.
But we mustn’t give up. Our eyes must always be on the prize.
Feel like you can’t accomplish all of your dreams this week? No problem – It’s impossible to accomplish all of our dreams in the short term. But that’s ok. We keep the ideas alive by using a parking lot list, along with the promise that we’ll grow and make the agency better when we can.
There’s incredible value in reactive, short-term thinking, planning and actions. But these alone obviously can’t be the basis of our business model.
4. Remember this is a performance business
I watch sports playoffs as well as pre-season preparation to see how teams in hyper-competitive spaces adjust to all the changes they face. Sometimes change is minor – adding and losing a few mid-value players. Sometimes it’s significant – such as the rebuild of the San Francisco 49ers in 2015.
In the NFL, regardless of what anyone tells me, I know only about 6 of the 32 teams are really considered contenders to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of any given season. Some teams are rebuilding while others making small tweaks. Some have money to spend on talent, others don’t.
We need to know where our team is, being honest about expectations for the year. We can then build around its core competencies constructively. Individual accountability is key. If our team members simply aren’t performing – or if they demonstrate behavioral issues – it’s our responsibility to help them. If they’re simply not going to generate more energy than they consume, then it’s time for them to move on. In those unfortunate instances, we need to make that happen before they take down our agency’s morale. We need to own this.
5. Live by tenets of success
Truth, integrity, kindness and responsibility – these are values that ultimately lead to genuine and long-lasting success. They are also values that attract other great people to one another.
It’s simple: We all know right from wrong, and neither our employees nor our clients want to work with bullshitters. So don’t be one. And don’t let fear of failure drive your business decisions.
BENDING WITH THE WIND
Kensho Furuya, the legendary Aikido master, once said, “The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action.” And as Bruce Lee continued “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.“
Agencies, like everything else in the universe, encounter continual change. With flexibility and adaptive strength, we can succeed.
Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’ I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.
About the author:
Michael Polivka is a business leader and transformation specialist with a focus on human interaction, awareness, design and technology. He is the Principal of Operations at JUXT, a San Francisco based creative innovation agency and member of SoDA.