Building Creative Organizations Through Modeling

As creative agencies grow, they often find that the tools that worked so well for them in the past, often become hinderances in their push to continue the organization's success. While this is true of agencies of all sizes, smaller organizations have a more rugged time during the growth stages between 10, 20, 40, 60, 100 & 150 employees.

To help ease the stress of small shop growing pains, I often recommend that the agencies, agency owners and creative team's look to other successful organizations to model their success. I don't think this concept is too foreign to most of us. As individuals, I think we are pretty familiar with the concept of modeling others. We often look to others to emulate and achieve similar success by studying how someone else went about it.

At the core of modeling, is not just about copying the tools and systems people use, but learning the real behaviors and strategies behind what makes the organization, leader and group successful.

By just mirroring the processes of a larger or more successful agency yourself will not guarantee that you will have similar success. Because, it's important to understand that what makes a company successful is not one single path, person or process. To truly understand what makes a place work, we need to consider many additional variables, including team dynamics and the complexities of people working together. I believe that the success of an organization is based on the collective behavior of its team members. I also believe that what makes agencies partially successful, is the uniqueness of their makeup — something that is not easily replicated.

The Basics of Modeling

One of the first steps in modeling is taking the time to really understand what makes the other organization or individual leader or team member successful. It is not enough to copy their organizational chart, job titles or structures. It's about (learning and) focusing on what the person does (their behaviors in what they do outside of process), how they do it (what strategies they employ) and why they do it (what are their underlying beliefs and values).

The "what" they do, can be gained from direct observation, the "how" and "why" is gained by asking questions. This is a bit different then traditional learning, while you still learn all the elements, tasks and steps, and distill them down till you identify the real underlying system of what works, you also need to learn by observing what real behaviors they employing during those steps.

Without a doubt, this can be a difficult process, how many of us have access to other organizations or the opportunity for an extended learning period? However, without having the benefit of being with the individual or organization for an extended period of time, you will not be immersed in the reality of how things work successfully for that organization.

As someone who has great interest in understanding how creative organizations work, I've visited and talked with many agency owners. In order to learn what makes them successful, I concentrate on learning what their individual and organization wide behaviors are, the stories behind their success, what makes them unique to their success, and what the differences are that make a real difference in what they do.

For example, decision theory is often divided into two camps, one concerned primarily where decision making it the choice among competing actions and the other with decision making among modification of beliefs based on incoming evidence. The later theory is very important for us to consider when modeling others, and its also the hardest to observe. This is why it is important to not only watch people go through the steps, but watch what they do when they ignore or skip steps or apply other strategies during their decision making. This is what we call, situational awareness. Situational awareness is the up-to-the-second cognizance and multi-dimensional awareness required to move about, act or maintain momentum within a system, project or larger program. This is also called the "what did you just do there?" behavior, or the "Huh, I see what you did there" behavior.

In all cases, the modeling behavior to look for is what do successful people (and creative teams) do when faced with conflict situations — when the rules no longer apply.

Modeling Basic Team Effectiveness

In order to grow what you did in the "past" to what you need to do for the future, comes down to setting up strong team dynamics. Teams that are just task oriented are not enough in their own right (Heck, if they can only follow one sequential paths of steps, how important is critical thinking to the organization?). People need to not only have a feeling of trust and interest in each other, but they need to socially relate to be effective. In reality, teams that act autonomically and with responsibility are more effective when their teams are given complex tasks. And creative projects are certainly complex ones to solve. Teams that can capitalize on the diverse knowledge and skills in the team are the ones that will kick ass every time.

For me, this is where the word integrated can actually means something in creative organizations. Teams that can grow, trust each other, have an agreed common approach, are multidisciplinary and complementary to each other. This is true integration thinking.

In small agencies, they often "rock" due to having a group of people act as one team in a similar integrated capacity. When and where things break down is that after twenty individuals, the one team approach rapidly disintegrates. Too often, the agency has issues building multiple teams in the organization, since duplicating the success of that original twenty people can be expensive, frustrating and difficult to fill with talent. What made the original group so powerful, becomes diluted. It takes a while for multiple teams to form and trust in one another.

If the agency becomes successful in developing multiple teams and reaches the thirty to forty person level, the agency will then begin to bring in new specialists, and potentially a new perceived layer of management. On the plus side, at this size, you may also have the internal ability where a weaker team can model and learn from the stronger team. This can be done, by immersing key weaker team members in the stronger team in order to learn behaviors and strategies that they can bring back with them to the weaker team.

At the forty to sixty person level, the agency reaches a place where many smaller teams can form, where people often gravitate in forming their own teams that have similar values and levels of trust. As you can see, at each level, the organization is able to mature, but it takes new thinking on how the organization team structure works. At the same time, the types of potential team problems or positive team dynamics can grow very quickly. On the operational level, in a larger organization there are more opportunities to find and fit teams together in order to cultivate a strong productive work environment.

Moving from sixty to one-hundred and fifty is often a matter of both a growth of scale as well as expanding on a company's offerings. The organization is also at a maturity level where the organization has the ability to form more formal structures in process, but its also a place where teams can learn greatly from internal best practices as much as looking outside the organization. The backgrounds and experience of people in a larger organization has the benefit from being able to learn from all of its vast diversity. In many ways, this larger size organization also benefits from the ability to form more self-directed teams, where behavior and strategies take a higher perceived value than simply following sequential tasks.

Learn From Each Other

There are many ways that I think a creative organization can learn from other organizations. Certainly joining industry organizations is one, as well as attending local industry events. The other is to look internally, the existing teams may have worked in other organizations that employed some great methodologies. Creating an internal forum allows these team members to share possible "best" or "right" practices for your current organization. It's also helps to network as much as you can.

One of the reasons I originally built was to share the many different models I worked with in the past. But in the end, learning about models is just one step of the change process. It's important to remember that you need to build teams that are empowered, autonomous and that are able to apply critical thinking. Process is a place where we seek to show the rules of the road, how you drive on that road is up to you and your team.

About the Author

Ed Burgoyne has been on management teams for ad agencies in the New York City area, running operations and integrated production for over 18 years. He has an active interest in agency operations, project management and organizational development. Independently, he has provided consulting and organizational development services to both large and small agencies across the country. He also runs a website called focusing on agency culture, process and workflow.