Haircuts and Happiness: Why I Decided to Work for an Underdog

By Amy Kean, Brand and Innovation Director at &us

Working in innovation follows its own hype cycle — a rollercoaster, of sorts — which I’ve tried to summarise in the image below.

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First is the Ascent into Thought-Leadership: as a young innovator you greedily gobble up Wired articles, retweet Mashable and like everything on LinkedIn about artificial intelligence. You start to network. People come to you for fun innovation facts because you know who made the first self-driving car, even though it has approximately zero to do with your job.

Then comes the Elevated Ego: you mysteriously find yourself spokesperson on things you’ve never created, like the power of virtual reality. You run your first hack. It feels good. The ego expands. You’re the innovation person! Everyone wants a piece of you!

But you need substance, which is when the Haphazard Tech Clutching begins: you want a case study. Any case study! To show you can walk the walk as well as do a twenty minutes lecture on stage about change. Drones. AR. Machine Learning. Raspberry Pi. You name it, you’ve innovated it. You’ll work with anyone, you live perpetually in beta, WHAT A RUSH!

But chasing tech is exhausting, especially when innovation is such a hard sell; everybody wants it but nobody wants to buy it, amirite? So you reluctantly enter the Bay of Bullshit: wheeled out for workshop days, pitches, saying the same old things over and over because apparently that’s what clients want to hear and despite your biggest ambitions you receive emails daily from account men/women saying I HAVE A CLIENT MEETING IN HALF AN HOUR CAN YOU JUST DO ME A SLIDE ON PERSONALISATION.

It’s at this point you become a Realism Refugee. All your professional life you’ve wanted to make change — good change — but only certain environments really allow it. When you reminisce, the ideas that never happened were the best you had. You’ve seen successes, some wins, some awards, but you’ve also seen the fluff, heard all the lies, learned from the mistakes and now all you want is to get shit done. In short, you need a little less ‘transformation’… a little more action.

&us is an underdog. In theory. It’s a consultancy with the skills of PricewaterhouseCoopers, but far less scale. In the Bay of Bullshit, scale can be misinterpreted as brilliance and anything less is doomed for failure. But it’s the size and culture of &us that makes it so appealing to clients. Unlike some innovations outfits, they talk in an accessible language. As much as it makes no business sense, they believe they’ll have done a good job when a client no longer needs them. And in a radical state of affairs, they put their workers first.

There’s no org charts, no hierarchy. When everyone speaks, everyone listens. They read psychology books and check their bias. On your first day, you get a box full of goodies they think you’ll enjoy, tailor-made for you and your personality. You get a free haircut on your birthday. Who does that?! At my first leadership meeting this week, we discussed how to ensure the teams stayed happy during this period of remote working. It was the first and last item on the agenda. Seriously, who does that?!

They’re refreshingly hype-free. After my first meeting (a breakfast chat with their coaching director Emily Dent) my takeout was: “Oh, so you come up with ways that businesses can innovate, and then you implement it, and then you train everyone to work together so it sticks?” EUREKA! It’s so simple, when you put it simply.

I’ve sat in client pitches from the likes of PwC, Accenture and CapGemini and was astounded by the formality and archaic methodologies involved in ‘digital transformation’. The preoccupation with C-suite and political games. The useless 100-slide PowerPoints. But after 15 years and as a Realism Refugee there’s one thing I’m sure of: innovation doesn’t wear a suit. Change doesn’t come from jargon. Transformation doesn’t really mean anything at all.

When Paul and Rob at &us offered me the job (following a weird interactive interview where I provided my own job description in form of an acrostic poem) I jumped up and down in what can only be described as glee. I decided to work for &us because I want to be happy. It’s an undervalued life goal, these days. I want to work with kind, smart people and do fantastic work. I want to get things done with as few barriers as possible, for clients who actually want to change, rather than having change rammed through their letterbox.

&us’ clients come to them with an honest problem, which is what I’ve been begging brands for, for a decade. If this is just the beginning, then I’m almost too excited. And if this is what it’s like working for an underdog, then I’m good.

The End

(Alternative ending, suggested by Rob Isaacs: and if this is what it’s like working for an underdog, then WOOF.)