It’s ironic that since starting Clearleft, we’ve been advising our clients not to become too reliant on agencies like our own.
We remind them that they need to develop both internal capabilities and organizational memory, so that when their agency partners leave—as they always do—they’re not left with a critical skill or knowledge gap.
We start every project with an awareness that we’ll leave as soon as is practical, and it’s our job to make sure the client and their team are in the right place when we do. We’re not here to get you addicted to our services, as many other agencies are wont to do, and pump you for every last bit of budget. Far from it. Instead our goal is to help our clients improve the speed and quality of their output as quickly as possible, and then get out of the way.
We do this by acting as “player coaches”. By embedding in teams, raising standards and setting pace. Now I’m probably the least likely person at Clearleft to use a sports analogy, so apologies if it’s not your bag. But I liken our impact on a team to when David Beckham went to play with LA Galaxy. His very presence caused all the other players to up their game as a result.
We often start our engagements with a skills audit, to understand the existing skills and experience of the team, and where we can add the most value. This can feel intimidating at first. Especially for design leaders who are tasked with building the perfect team. What will we uncover, and will it potentially make them or their team look bad?
More often than not we discover teams with a high level of competence across the board, but lacking depth in a few key areas. This is often for good reasons.
One of the main reasons is simple pragmatism. If you’re running a team whose job is to iteratively improve an existing project, they probably don’t need (or get to flex) their new product innovation and prototyping skills. That doesn’t mean that they can’t add value. Just that they’ll be more efficient, more effective and learn more on the way if they’re paired with a team that does this every day. This is especially true on week-long design sprints, or six-week innovation sprints, where time is tight, and efficiency and replicability are key.
We’ve also been garnering a lot of interest in our design system experiences of late. It’s not that your typical in-house teams lack the ability to deliver a first-rate design system. In fact, I bet they’ve been reading up about design systems for the past 18 months, and can’t wait to get stuck in. But if it’s the first or second time they’re doing this, there are a tonne of common pitfalls they can avoid, as long as they know what they’re looking for. Those pitfalls can slow adoption to a crawl, and force you to go back to the drawing board.
So while it may feel like an unnecessary expense to bring in outside help when you have a team waiting to go, there can be an extraordinary difference between delivering value in 6 months versus 16.
Product teams are all about “build, measure, learn” these days, so it’s ironic that the biggest gripe we hear from internal teams is their lack of learning. The first 18 months of a new job is all about learning the company business model, culture and jargon. It’s exciting and keeps folks engaged. Once you’ve been there for a while, the next 12 months can start to look very similar to the last. A lot of the teams we partner with feel like they’re stuck in a bit of a slump, and are secretly on the lookout for their next move.
In fact we worked with a team recently who were in exactly this space. In the first week, our lead designer was politely told not to get their hopes up because “nothing ever changes around here” and “most of us are looking for our next gig”. Jump forwards 6 months and the team were still there, and loving their work. It turned out that while the company they worked for did present a challenge, the number of opportunities we’d been able to unlock had shown that it was a challenge they could take on and affect in a meaningful way. On the day our designers left, they were taken out for lunch, bought leaving presents, and treated like another member of the team. A wonderful testament to the impact we can have, if ever there was one.
I think there’s a myth still circulating inside large companies that you either have an agency or an in-house team, but not both. In truth, agencies can be a great enhancement to an existing team. Just as long as you pick the right agency (hint: Clearleft are pretty good at this).
In some ways a good agency is like seasoning. While you can get away without it, the right amount of seasoning brings out the individual strengths of each ingredient, and makes everything perform better. But too much seasoning can ruin a whole dish, so you need a light touch.