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Here’s how to go about piloting a new initiative or system at your agency

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

April 12, 2022 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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How should agency businesses approach a trial or pilot scheme? / The Drum

Last week, we looked at agencies offering their staff unlimited paid leave, including AKQA, which is currently testing out its policy in a trial scheme at two of its offices.

Now businesses explore new ways of doing things – from HR policies to payroll provision, SAAS platforms to new workflows – all the time. But most organizations don’t just install new infrastructure and walk away – instead, they trial it or run a pilot, so that they can gather usable data and make an informed decision about how to move forward.

Do you improvise and play things by ear? Go big or go home? Or use the scientific method, with control groups and set parameters? We asked experts from across the agency world for their advice.

How do you solve a problem like... piloting a new business initiative?

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Micheline Grace Lewis, chief people officer, Mother

When we’re piloting a new initiative at Mother, we follow four key steps. First, a stakeholder review. We discuss the potential new initiative with interested and impacted parties, refining the plan.

Next, we move to executive review. We ask questions like, can the business financially support the plan? What is the impact? Can it be sustained long-term?

The third step is pilot group testing. This doesn’t always apply, but when possible we prefer to test the new initiative with a subset of Mother employees for feedback and fine-tuning.

Last step is implementation. With that comes much planning, training, reinforcement, pivoting, planning, training and reinforcement – you get the idea.

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Eric Moore, chief executive officer, Elephant

In 2022, we launched a slate of new time-off benefits at Elephant. There were two important learnings that came out of the pandemic: we must embrace new ways of working, and also provide the necessary time to take care of ourselves. We introduced Unlimited PTO, Caregiver Time, Wellness Days and Elephant Off (three designated weeks each year where we all take time off concurrently).

But how will we know these benefits are working?

We implemented a new time request tool, so we can quantify how the benefits are being used, and couple this data with sentiment surveys that measure our employees’ work-life health.

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Katie Ramp, director of talent and operations and associate partner, Muhtayzik-Hoffer

With any new program that affects people culture, you have to go at it with three key things in mind: communication, feedback and measurement. Let everyone know why a new scheme is being tested and what you’re hearing from the people that prompted this so that they know it’s not just a ‘business decision,’ but a decision made as a direct result of their feedback, and something you think will improve their lives in some way.

Be honest that there’s a possibility for failure and quick correction, knowing that it is better to try something than remain stagnant. Measurement should be done both qualitatively and quantitatively to use not just sentiment but also hard numbers to inform decisions.

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Nicola Kemp, editorial director, Creativebrief

Unless you have the resources, support systems and management structures in place to deliver them at scale, flashy initiatives simply won’t make a meaningful impact beyond that one-off headline. According to Microsoft’s Annual Work Trends Report, 52% of gen Z and millennials are likely to consider changing employers this year, while 50% of leaders say their company will require full-time in-person work this year.

Grasping this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better demands more than a soundbite or another shiny, yet empty, initiative. From WACL’s groundbreaking #FlexibleFirst checklist to taking a long hard look at how your starting salaries stack up against the ever-increasing cost of living, now more than ever we need deeds – not words announcing yet another initiative.

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Ellie Wilson, operations director, Taxi Studio

When introducing new initiatives to the business, it’s essential to take the team on the journey so they understand ’why.’

By being upfront with the team about the desired impact of the change, getting everyone involved in a trial and inviting feedback along the way, we can quickly see if the change is working and has merit. Ensuring a business has a culture where people feel confident expressing their opinions and giving constructive feedback is vital.

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Karen Mawhinney, chief talent officer, EP+Co and Hill Holliday

Piloting a new business initiative shouldn’t look any different than what we do in advertising – leveraging insights to solve problems. First do what it takes to understand the customer – in this case, employees – before tackling new HR programs. Ask, what are their needs and challenges? What can I do to support them? And how will I know if I’ve been successful? Then, start small. Usually a new initiative can and should happen in phases. That way, if something doesn’t work, you haven’t wasted precious time and resources. Instead, you’ll be able to quickly gather learnings, evaluate outcomes, iterate and evolve.

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Courtney Biebuyck, people ops director, Hook

We know people are more receptive to trying new things once they understand how a change will impact them and their team. So before initiating change, ask yourself: who in the organization will this initiative impact? What is it solving? Where will people experience change? When are the key milestones? Why is this important to them and the organization? How will it be approached?

Although it can feel crucial to have it ‘all figured out’ before rolling anything out, that behavior can paralyze progress. Creating space for well-thought-out trial and error makes way for a more agile, growth-oriented organization.

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Scott Micklethwaite, managing director, Wonder

If a business is truly engaged with its staff, a new initiative should feel natural to implement because it has already been discussed with people, formally or scientifically, and the decision for adopting change – or not – will be clearer because of consultation. We value the whole team’s opinion, especially those who will be impacted most by any change. So getting other perspectives is always a great benefit. We listen and make change if it feels right, hopefully making the business the best it can be for all of us.

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Sarah Cerqueira, talent manager, Wilderness

When we returned to the office we trialed a hybrid approach, only expecting people in the office three days a week. While our people enjoyed coming together again in person, they were still craving more flexibility.

In January 2022 we made the decision to move away from our office completely and to a more flexible hybrid way of working. Our global teams now work remotely with membership access to coworking offices across London, Amsterdam and South Africa. We come together a minimum of two or three times a month, and make time for monthly socials and activities to support our culture.

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Nathan Lomax, director and co-founder, Quickfire Digital

Introducing and evolving systems and processes is vital in order to scale an agency, but how do you go about it? For us it’s about marginal gains. Make little changes frequently and test everything. Start small, get feedback, learn, refine and go again. The success of the roll-out will be heavily dependent on the buy-in from your team.

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Ben Scoggins, chief executive officer, Organic

We adopt an experimentation approach to most initiatives; internal and external. At the heart of our experimentation approach is listening – we actively listen to our team, our clients and our other partners. We don’t pretend to have the perfect answer to things such as getting our hybrid working balance right or deciding the ideal way to minimize team stress or increase wellbeing. As a result, we’ve found that while we don’t always have the ‘right’ answer, we tend to get ‘righter’ all the time.

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Aurelie Haroutunian, head of human resources, Syzygy London

As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, agencies should now be taking the time to implement more permanent people initiatives without rushing into things.

At Syzygy, we’ve outlined an initial year-long HR strategy that puts our employees at the heart of our decisions. Employee surveys have provided usable data to inform agency culture, and workshops spread throughout the year aim to define our values. Through incremental change, we’re taking an employee-led approach to co-define the future of our culture and values strategy.

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Dax Callner, strategy director, Smyle

If you are confident the pilot will yield positive outcomes, conduct a baseline analysis of attitudes and behaviors prior to launch and regularly compare results against that baseline. If it’s something more innovative or where the impact is uncertain, trial with an employee subset and evaluate these results v the larger population as your control group.

Finally and importantly, observation and experience can tell us a lot. A competent HR professional will likely know if something is going to work and/or if it has worked based on what they see. Data is critical, but insight and intuition are important too.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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