Embedding innovation-friendly practices in the day-to-day isn’t easy. But getting the right building blocks is absolutely critical.

The idea of everyday innovation is very appealing – the small things that add up to something substantial. But firestarters need support and encouragement and this is where a sustained approach to learning and development can help, I think.

The best training can give you a different perspective, and allow a fresh take on familiar problems.

It can be a bit like taking a holiday, really. Beforehand you’re looking forward to a break from the usual routine. During it you attain a perspective and distance which affords you a glimpse of what’s really important – you maybe wonder why things can’t be like this all the time. Immediately afterwards you’re still buzzing with what it all could mean, but once you’ve been a couple of days and everyone’s asked you how it was everything seems to get re-set to how it was before.

But making even the best training count back in the real world isn’t always easy.

At MEC we have a history of embarking on what I’d call statement training programmes. Everyone does them. They are relevant to all specialisms. They galvanise everyone with a common purpose. This doesn’t mean individuality and cultural entrepreneurship are no longer welcome. In fact the opposite is true – the common experience provides a shared reference point, a platform on which individual talent can shine. People enjoy a shared language, a shared culture, and a shared stake in making the training count back inside the business.

So, fresh from finally having been a delegate myself, here’s my six recommendations on how to get the most out of this sort of innovation-focused experience, and ensure that as much of it as possible travels back to the office with you.

1. Remember that hypothetical exercises can generate highly relevant solutions to real problems

  • Most training includes a mix of theory and practical learning. The best fuses the two into exploratory scenarios that feel salient and valuable as you are doing them. One of the best ways to retain those feelings is to try and replicate the scenarios.
  • The briefs for practical exercises  are likely to be short, clear and simple. You’re not given much time. You’re working with people not usually in your team. The technique you’re trying out is likely to be a new one. You have to quickly articulate your ideas and be subject to immediate feedback once you’ve presented them.
  • All these factors encourage or force out creativity – re-creating them is hard, but if you can remember a few specifics about the way the exercises worked that might be all you need. Taking  home the flip chart you all stood around might provide you with triggers that remind you how you felt coming up with all those great ideas.
  • Remember the type of question you were asked. At DA2 I remember being asked specific but open questions that yielded really rich results from hypothetical questions even on very familiar clients. Questions like: think about why a community exists and then explore how the brand would engage them on that basis. Or: how would you use crowd-sourcing techniques to launch a new product from the brand?
  •  It’s quite possible that in 15 minutes you got to some really interesting ideas. They won’t be fully formed, of course, but I bet they have some potential, and I’m also pretty sure that they’re pretty true to what you think the client should be doing anyway – when the office mentality goes you also lose the editing voice in your head telling you what the client wouldn’t like. These ideas can be used to flush out the briefs the client should be giving you, but doesn’t realise they can.

2. Remember what it feels like to learn new stuff

  • Learning stuff is pretty intoxicating. You’re making connections between things you know and things you’ve just heard for the first time. That kind of combinatorial creativity is pretty addictive, so keep mainlining it when you’re back at work.
  • Make sure you get out and get inspired by things. My suggestion for the IPA’s Fast Strategy app was the suggestion to just go and talk to someone, go to a gallery – anyone/anything for a snippet of serendipitous stimulus. It’s then when your brain is left alone to get on with the hard work of thinking
  • But also look into how you could continue more active learning. It being a digital workshop talk inevitably turned to coding – and there’s plenty of free online tools around to help with that, not least codecademy. I also realised how little I’ve really engaged with optimising this blog – another resolution.
  • If you’re inspired to just get taught stuff, though, I can recommend  you try places like Open Yale, or look into MIT Open Courseware, where you have access to fully developed courses that would satisfy any enquiring mind.

3. Think about applying your new knowledge to something you actually have control over

  • I have this notion that, as agencies, we’re far better at solving problems for our clients than we are for ourselves. We’re also better at making recommendations to clients on communications than we are taking our own advice.
  • When you’ve just been on a training workshop designed to stimulate more innovative ideas for your clients, try thinking about innovative ideas for your agency. Chances are you’ll have been thinking about Owned and Earned communication as much as  (if not more than) paid, so there’s not financial reason why you couldn’t test your new way of thinking out on your own business/department/team first.
  • In fact, I think it’s better that you do – there’s no substitute for direct experience and making room for practising what you preach. That’s why I started doing this blog, and it’s made me start thinking about what a deeper online presence for the agency might look like.

4. Act fast to maintain the connections you made during the moment

  • Training sessions, because they’re different and disruptive to the usual routine, also tend to be memorable – but can become fixed in time by memory if you don’t act quickly.
  • As well as the new techniques and exercises you’ll have picked up, you may well also have worked for the first time with new people. Comments from people if different disciplines can stand out at training sessions – you’ll probably have made a mental note to chat to fellow delegates about some common ground you have. Make a diary commitment to have a coffee with them. Ask about that project you could have in common. You could set whole new workstreams in motion
  • You might even have  uncovered, as I did, that your agency accommodates cool new skillsets you hadn’t been aware of. I for one will be dropping by the desk of the UX specialist who’s been quietly sitting on the same floor as me while I’ve been carrying on in blissful ignorance.

5. Make time for discussion

  • It’s one of the most rewarding facets of time away – finding common ground, the discovery of similar mindsets among different disciplines, the discussion that occupies the spaces in between departments and silos. For once you have the time, you have nowhere else you have to be and no distractions stopping you from forcing think/explain.
  • At DA2 we spent a lot of time dissecting and decoding existing work and digital experiences. I’m sure we all share stuff around – the latest YouTube thing, a great tool, a cool site with amazing production values – but how often does a bunch of people sit around and ask themselves why something’s good.
  • Whether it’s analysing the ASOS site experience, or looking at how a campaign trajectory played out, trying to articulate the anatomy of an idea gets people learning in a different way to how they normally do in the office, where they’ll simply read. It’s a way of crowd-sourcing and accelerating literacy – like the way book club’s provide different perspectives and enable deeper understanding.
  • Try ring-fencing time for pure discussion, for wallowing in great work and trying to decode what makes it great. You’ll understand more effectively what levers you have available to pull.

6 Make a public pledge.

  • Behaviour change is more likely when people make a public commitment to something.
  • Populating cards with pledges helps people capture what they intend to do differently. The neat trick is to have them sent to delegates after a couple of months – it’s a disruptive reminder of everything they promised themselves they’d do.
  • We were asked for four. I actually wrote 5 (the first five building blocks above) – I couldn’t narrow it down.
  • And this post is my own public pledge – making it six building blocks in total.

Do these work? What else would people recommend? I’d love to hear how anyone else has managed to embed everyday innovation. Challenges too, of course, but I’ve tried to focus on the positive here – what we can do as opposed to why we can’t.

But then I’m only a couple of days back into the routine, of course…

A huge thanks must go out to Neil Perkin for his involvement in the workshop that inspired all this.