Adam Connor believes that one of the best ways to grow an agency is to follow the interests and instincts of the people who work there – and for good reason. A few years ago, Adam approached his agency, Mad*Pow, about the idea of adding organizational design to their array of service offerings – something he had deep interest in but wasn’t officially offered to clients.
Fast forward three years, he’s now VP of Organizational Design & Training and leads an entire practice focused on transforming organizations and helping them become more creative, design-driven, and consumer-centric. And he’s not the only one at the agency to do this.
Mad*Pow started as a design and creative shop, and they believed early on that rigorous research was key to creating compelling experiences. “In the early days, when a lot of shops were focused primarily on creative, we found that making decisions based on comprehensive research was really differentiating,” remembers Michael Hawley, Mad*Pow’s Chief Design Officer.
So they created a team solely focused on research and were almost immediately set apart from the competition. Since then, they’ve leveraged their team’s insight to help identify other potential areas of expansion, such as behavior change, biometric analysis, sustainable design, content strategy, and more. Mad*Pow is a long-time 10,000ft customer, so we were excited to sit down (over drinks, as we often do) with Adam and Michael to talk about growing a design agency, solving organizational design challenges of their own, and knowing when a new service area is worth exploring.
How do you spot opportunities to add complementary services?
Adam: The most common way it happens is an individual will identify an area as worth exploring based on their interests. They will likely start informal discussions with others who are interested and eventually their ideas will turn into side projects, blog posts, conference presentations, and general awareness in the company. If the ideas gain enough momentum, they can make the case to leadership about why it makes sense to allocate resources to it. And the rationale doesn’t have to be complicated; there is no official process or form—it's more organic than that. If the ideas have a lot of energy and align with the values, mission, and goals of the company, there is a lot of encouragement. It’s paid off for us so many times that we’ve tried very hard to reinforce exploration and support people and their ideas. We’d hate to see how many opportunities we’d miss if we made it harder than that.
It’s paid off for us so many times that we’ve tried very hard to reinforce exploration and support people and their ideas. We’d hate to see how many opportunities we’d miss if we made it harder than that.
Michael: There is also an element of reading the marketplace. If you’re critical in your thinking and you’re collaborating about what you’re seeing and hearing, you’re more apt to recognize an opportunity area when it presents itself. And when it aligns with someone’s interest and passion, that’s when we’ve had the most success.
What are some of the challenges of constantly adding new services to your core business?
Adam: I think our Behavior Change service area is probably the best example of a challenge we faced when introducing a new service arm. It was difficult because when we talk about behavior change, it’s easy to get abstract and heavy very quickly. It took time in the beginning in terms of the marketing and getting clients to grasp the real value of what we were proposing. But once we figured out how to breakdown the language and make that connection, it’s really grown quite quickly for us.
Michael: I’d say another challenge with it is connecting the new service with other things that we do. As leader of a number of different practices, I’m sensitive to silo-ing different business units—which is a weird thing to say as a small company, but we do have to be sensitive to that.
It’s an interesting dynamic in that sometimes these different practices or specializations can start by selling just that service. For example, we can sell just a research project, or just a usability test. But it has more benefits for both us and our clients if we can connect that service to other things. That’s what we’ve been able to do with the Behavior Change practice; it’s not just about a strategy for behavior change, rather it’s about linking it to our other design services, developing something, testing it afterwards, and validating the efficacy with research. That’s when the real wins come in and we’ve found that that takes time.
How do you prevent silo-ing in your organization?
Adam: The easiest way is by not resourcing specific to a department. We’ll put an organizational designer on an interaction project; we’ll put a behavioral designer on a research project. We try to make sure that we keep people working in all different areas. From a resourcing standpoint, the needs of the project and the bodies don’t line up perfectly, so interdisciplinary teams are sometimes taken care of automatically. But we like to push people outside of their comfort zone.
We like to push people outside of their comfort zone.
Other ways we prevent silos is by encouraging people to have open events in their project timelines and bring other people into their workshops and critique sessions. We have weekly critiques where people can discuss what they are working on and what their objective is and get a quick critique on it from someone outside the project.
Michael: At a higher level, we’ve also had a few individuals transition over the course of their time here from one discipline to another. For example, from research to strategy, or from interaction design to organizational design. That’s a bigger picture, slower theme, but it helps spread empathy for different teams throughout the company.
What do you look for when hiring new team members?
Adam: There’s a big backlash about the term “hiring for cultural fit” because it often translates to “hiring people who are like you.” I’m always hesitant to use that term, but in reality, hiring for cultural fit is a good thing—as long as you have the right definition of what cultural fit really means. Our culture is to be open to other perspectives and to try to understand and learn from them. If we just did what we did when we started years and years ago, we never would have grown to what we are. We are what we are because of the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that built this company. So when we interview people we look for people that have had different experiences than we’ve already had.
Michael: One of the most important questions that comes up in group interviews—after we’ve gone through and talked about writing code, or wireframes, or research—is, What do you do besides work? Hearing about people's other interests really gives you a sense of what they are all about. Also, you have to be a passionate person in life and bring that to your work, especially in an agency environment.
What is Mad*Pow’s vision for growth in the next five years?
Michael: For us, it’s not so much a matter of headcount or revenue targets. We have some of that thinking, but it’s more about purpose for us and what we want to accomplish. We’ve found that if we have a well-articulated purpose, it helps us in a number of different ways: it helps us attract the right kinds of people; it helps us do the work we want to do; it helps us get a premium for that work by having experience in working towards that purpose.
For example, our healthcare practice is based on the empathy we built for other people at the very outset of starting the company. We run a conference about design and healthcare that helps us meet and attract people who want to work in that space and make the healthcare system better. We want to grow to the point where we can do good work in all the spaces we care about, mainly healthcare, finance, and education. And by good work, I mean taking a multi-disciplinary approach where we bring something to life. That is what really drives us and the plan is to grow incrementally in order to meet those goals.
Where do you see design fitting in to all of that?
Adam: Every step of the way. We don’t look at design as a piece of the solution, but rather as a way of approaching problems. We have visual designers, interaction designers, people that can make things look certain ways. But what a lot of our practice is built around is how do you approach and solve a particular problem? And how do you build empathy into that, and creativity, and mindfulness. When you start to look at design through that lens, then it really fits everywhere.
When you start to look at design through the lens of how do you approach and solve a particular problem, then it really fits everywhere.
Mad*Pow is an award-winning design agency renowned for its vast array of capabilities. Over the last 14 years, their diverse team of experts (called Pegacorns) have designed over 400 solutions for clients of all sizes, ranging from Fortune 500's to startups. Check out their work at http://www.madpow.com
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