Activating Innovation

Author: Darwin Tomlinson, founding member °shaper / ECD Tribal Worldwide Sydney

A year ago, a small group of us set out on a mission: to create a business innovation model freed from the pressures of the day to day, and in doing so help infuse thinking to support change within the wider agency model. We didn’t know exactly where this aim might take us and we certainly didn’t know it would take us nearly six months just to develop an answer. That answer was °shaper.

ºshaper is a beta business model that aims to harness social creativity and innovation to solve unmet human needs, and in turn, deliver social value to the communities in which we operate. Highlighting DDB’s commitment to thought leadership in the use of data, technology and digital; it is embedded across the group and accessible to the entire agency.

When we announced our lofty aim in July of this year, the industry’s response was positive. Unsurprisingly, we were also met with some cynicism.

Despite months spent exploring, debating and waxing philosophical about everything from the rise of skate culture to the pros and cons of Marxist theory, I am pleased to say that our goal has been brought to life in the past seven months with the development of two prototypes intended for market in 2014.

This journey has provided equal measures of pains and pleasures that I would like to share in the hope they might help others achieve things that matter to this world.

1. Developing an appetite for innovation within the people of an organisation

Let’s face facts – at this stage pretty much everyone is out there demanding innovation in their business. Depending on how you go about it, developing what innovation means for your own business can be an incredibly painful process. But there are some key aspects to our approach that helped us avoid triggering any major gag reflexes.

Primary aspect? The people. To drive the vision and ideology of innovation as a whole it must originate in those that already demand it.  Those inspired will inadvertently develop what it means and initiate the process that inspires others.

At the beginning stages, there were only three of us having the conversation and we were very willing to admit that we didn’t have the answers.  We were however, fortunate to have our national CEO Chris Brown within the three, setting the remit and acting as part of the team.

This allowed us to get buy-in directly and efficiently whilst also getting on the radar of the rest of agency, who began raising hands for involvement. We had already begun to feed the hunger for innovation beyond the client.

Chris also taught us that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly how you are going to get there but you do need to know where to steer the ship.   Innovation is about exploration and possibility. Everyone involved needs to learn as they go, do it together and be prepared to fail together also.

From this understanding, being able to frame what we were doing, how we were going to do it and most importantly why we were doing it, alleviated what could have been a great deal of debate.

2. Feeding the hunger for innovation through process

I’ve yet to find the utopian agency that can financially support people to sit around and dream about innovation, outside of any client remit. So while the nature of being time-poor was certainly a pain point, we have found a couple of ways to help alleviate that pain.

Do what agencies do best – form teams of people around the project, and ensure the projects are respected. We had immense expertise at our fingertips and harnessing this effectively was key to the development of a new way of working, one that would allow us to unlock a new process that would fit the bill.

We soon realised that process set us free. Much to the agile movement taking over the industry, alternatives to traditional project management were welcomed within the democratic thinking at the heart of  ºshaper.

From great minds in both agile development processes and lean start-up methodologies, we also learned a single defining principle: Make lots of little things, quickly. We weren’t afraid to fail and fail fast before moving forward to the next concept.

This allowed for opportunities to assess the direction of each project throughout the early stages of its lifecycle.  Although, for our first project, (a wearable tech solution for sport enthusiast) finalising a process that focused on developing minimal viable products (MVP’s) for prototype testing helped us manage all of our expectations in the short-term, while still progressing toward long-term goals.

We knew the pragmatic benefits of creating these prototypes, but the pleasant surprise was the sense of achievement everyone felt when theory became tangible.  It became a perpetual cycle of enthusiasm for everyone involved.

3. Expanding the interest through harnessing partnerships

We also found out early on that you can’t do it all.  We found our solution in the solutions of others. We don’t claim the credit, and the partners we reached out to amidst our vision were integral to ensure we continued to move forward.

Across the two °shaper projects currently in production, these types of third-party partnerships have ranged from sources as diverse as product development and distribution to community and educational leadership, such as Sydney’s tech start-up hub Fishburners, friends at Google, and a lot of hardware developers.

As a result, we have seen new waves of partnerships echo throughout our client work, along with the use of new tools and methods for better collaboration on every level. This alone already provides us with a success we had only momentarily addressed, yet always hoped for, when starting out.

And here we stand seven months in – proud and fervent with two prototypes developed and dedicated teams still inspired by small progress, but hungry to get each to launch. Our aim for the new year: make more, talk less. So if the business of °shaper interests you, our hope is that you’ll be more likely to be learning alongside us rather than just from us.


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