Toronto-based Klick is an organization that defies many traditional definitions. It is a full service health marketing agency. But its also a training and development company, a creator of CRM software platforms and a consultancy. What can’t be debated is how unique and compelling their culture is. So much so, that they have a New York Times bestselling book – The Decoded Company – that talks directly to how they’ve created a organizational culture for the 21st Century. I sat down in their Toronto offices with Jay Goldman, a member of the Klick Executive team and Managing Director of Klick’s latest business venture Sensei Labs

HB: Thanks for taking time to chat Jay – and thanks for the ice-cream, I mostly just get coffee when I have these chats. Can you give us some background on you and your newest role here at Klick.

JG: My career has gone through a few iterations since I started within IBM’s Lab here in Toronto working on DB2. My degree in Information Systems and Human Behaviour was almost a perfect springboard for what I’ve ended up creating here at Klick. It was a great mix of Computer Science, Psychology and Sociology and going to IBM when I graduated was a perfect way to put what I’d learnt immediately into practice. Since IBM I’ve formed, and then sold, an agency organization and it was after that acquisition I was head-hunted into Klick to help build their initial Strategy offering. That was in 2010 when the organization was about 150 people. That grew into a role to imagine and subsequently build Klick Labs, which is now an actual physical lab on the 7th Floor of our building. I joined the Executive Team in 2012 and in 2014 co-authored The Decoded Company with our co-founders Leerom Segal and Aaron Goldstein and our good friend Rahaf Harfoush. Sensei Labs is the newest part of my role. I am the Co-Founder and Managing Director of our newest division and tasked with building that out.

HB: In comparison to some of the other interviews I’ve done, you’re a relatively young organization. Is Digital Transformation perceived somewhat differently here versus, say, a 100 year-old organization?

JG: Absolutely. We’re set to celebrate our 20th anniversary at Klick this year which means, in many ways, we’re an organization that was born digital. When the organization started, and what is at the core of our DNA, is unmistakably a familiarity and comfort with digital. That certainly sets us apart from organizations that were created earlier and under a different set of circumstances.

Where that difference is perhaps most pronounced is in how we think of the “Transformation” part of that phrase.

Quite simply you can think of Digital Transformation as a project, with a stated goal, budget, timeline and set of deliverables. Or you can think of it as an ongoing part of how you operate. Almost a perpetual state of self-review and self-disruption.

To us “Transformation as a Project” is almost an acknowledgement of failure and is typically driven by a radical need to change because of an imminent or recent disruption in your sector. On the other hand, if Transformation – or more accurately Perpetual or Constant Transformation – is how you always act, then you have more control over your destiny. You’re doing it to yourself before a competitor in the marketplace does.

In some ways that notion of constant transformation is baked into our credo and our culture here at Klick which is this idea of “The Relentless Pursuit of Awesome” For us that means, each day you’re striving to be more awesome than you were yesterday. If you had a great client meeting or technical launch yesterday, congratulations, but was yesterday. Because “awesome” is an ever-changing standard, that credo reinforces we keep needing to raise the bar on ourselves, and our work.

 HB: That’s easier said than done for most organizations though. What other factors play into your ability to keep transformation central to how all of your people think and operate?

JG: True, we definitely have a few advantages over other organizations grappling with Digital Transformation. One is our fiercely-held independence, which means we’re not beholden to a sprawling network agency model where someone in another geography or time zone is making decisions on our future. We have the luxury to make our own decisions and investments as we see fit.

The other is that our founders had no formal business school training when they started Klick. That may sound counter-intuitive but it also meant they had no formalized or regimented approach for tackling problems.

Case in point, we’re very solidly against the notion of “best practices” because that often means you’re utilizing outdated thinking for a current problem.

Best practices are often derived from an organization – which may be in an entirely different sector and have an entirely different set of circumstances – that successfully tried something for a few years, then a consultancy took another few years trying to codify the approach, and then you try implement it yourself for a few years. You’re now 7 or 10 years behind the moment the “best practice” was adopted. At the rate of change today that’s just untenable in our opinion. Case in point there is a series of great videos about Spotify’s engineering culture which have been watched – and probably copied – millions of times. Reality is, those are excellent and perfect for Spotify but you can’t assume they’ll be equally great for you.

Finally, and not surprisingly, our people are a huge part of that ability to keep transforming. We jokingly – and with a certain amount of pride – refer to ourselves as “The Island of Misfit Toys” here at Klick. Or perhaps the more PC-term would be “The Island of Digital Natives”. Many of our folks come here from organizations where they didn’t fit but they’ve found an environment at Klick that allows them to do some of their most rewarding and fun work.

HB: Now we’re getting into some of the juicy Culture stuff. Can you give me a few more examples about Klick’s culture?

JG: Many of the examples are in The Decoded Company. In fact, much of the initial rationale for writing the book was the idea that it would act as a recruitment tool and explain how we do things a little differently here. We have three basic beliefs that we’ve been able to live or imbue since starting Klick. Technology as a Coach springs from the idea that there is no excuse for a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to growth, learning and development anymore. That may have been true 20 years ago but today we can use data and patterns to help coach us. Data as a 6th Sense is also about leveraging all the amazing data swirling around to help us avoid mistakes we’ve made previously but also to find unique ways to streamline processes, flows and projects that are unnecessarily inefficient. All of these enhancements allow our people to do more meaningful work and grow. The 3rd – Engineered Ecosystems will prevail over Hierarchies – is something we’re all seeing around us. It is how you design your teams and how collaboration can really work when its informed by data.

Those are systems or principles we’ve built the Klick culture on but we absolutely realize that Culture is really the only way to attract unique talent.

To that point, what’s remarkable is that we’ve been able to sustain a 40% annual growth in employees while having such rigorous eye on ensuring we hire the right talent – those Misfit Toys I referenced earlier – that its harder to get hired here than it is to get into Harvard. That’s not a boast, more a reflection of how many submissions we constantly get. So we absolutely merchandise our Culture to ensure we attract the very best talent. For example, and as you’ve seen, we have an ice cream fridge here at Klick.

 

Free ice cream whenever you want. Its just something we’ve always done. Well on one of our recruitment drives down the East Coast we took an ice cream van to a bunch of competitive offices and gave out free ice cream in exchange for a business card. We had lines around the block but it was one way of highlighting a quirky little thing we do here that does make Klick different.

HB: There’s a significant amount of talk about building an Innovation Culture or a Design Culture or a XYZ Culture in order to succeed in a Digital Transformation. What are your thoughts on that?

JG: Personally I think that many of those types of initiatives are destined to fail. In many ways they almost seem to be a response to a terrible experience so they’re implemented in a way that is culturally insensitive to the current organization.

Metaphorically I liken it to the aspirations you have when you create a garden. You can till the soil, fertilize it, remove the weeds, perhaps even decide where to build it based on the amount of sunshine. But at some stage nature takes its course. Certain flowers just aren’t going to grow in those conditions no matter what you do.

One of the phrases that we use in Klick Labs speaks directly to this. “You can’t order Innovation by the pound”. Just like you can’t say you’ll have 3 innovations by the end of Q1 if the conditions aren’t right. If you say you’re driven to innovate but your culture has no appetite or mechanism to accept and embrace failure its never going to happen. At Klick Labs we hold ourselves to no more than a 30% success rate on our experiments because we believe that any higher – say 70%-80% – would mean we weren’t pushing hard enough to do new and smart things. That’s just an example of calibrating your Culture in a realistic manner.

HB: Amazing metaphor and examples Jay. A classic question but what advice do you give your peers and clients grappling with these same issues?

JG: Probably two things. First honestly evaluate exactly what type of organization you are. Be brutal with that evaluation but ensure that you honestly appraise where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Secondly, is this “Transformation as a Project” or is this a bona-fide Transformation that becomes part of how you’re going to change internally and adopt a new mindset. Understanding those motivations and the organizational appetite for Transformation will allow you to more accurately set and manage your expectations and those around you.

HB: Anyone out there that you consider is doing a good job at this?

JG: Definitely. I think Amazon is an obvious example (note – this interview happened before the Whole Foods acquisition) and Jeff Bezos’ notion of operating to different event horizons is intriguing. Elon Musk is another one. Perhaps a little like JFK but he’s been able to attract a pretty remarkable bunch of talent to solve some big meaty problems. And then Satya Nadella over at Microsoft has done a really remarkable job turning that organization around from what it was when Steve Ballmer was at the helm. Innovation and fresh thinking seems more possible and likely at Microsoft than it was a few years ago. That’s all down to creating the right conditions, nurturing that culture.