04/04/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

The Mass Exodus of the Innovative Workforce

Why traditional firms are losing their creative and technical workforces by the droves

By Mike Mates

As a veteran ex-partner in a brand and interactive agency, I've witnessed a radical shift in the creative services landscape over the last several years. Market demand for creative and technical services has been steadily trending upward, but brands are pinched to find the talent needed to adequately service their workload. For an environment where all growth requires the continual onboarding of new human capital, stagnation can occur overnight without the right people.

One might chalk the increased demand for talent up to the recent onslaught of emergent technology (rampant market demand + a steep learning curve for workers to adequately adopt these new platforms), however, I'd offer another opinion...

The model that drives most traditional innovation groups (client/service agencies and in-house departments) is becoming outdated, inefficient, and irrelevant in a world that's shifting rapidly to a place of entrepreneurial thinking, collaborative creation, and decentralized archetypes. While one could easily write their staffing woes off on a lack of qualified workers, or demand beyond workforce capacity, the booming startup industry serves as a sobering point of reflection...

The explosion of tech startups in the last five years clearly shows that there's plenty of skilled innovators - they're just not choosing the traditional path anymore. Instead, we're seeing a mass exodus of the innovation workforce to a more independent and self-actualized space. The proliferation of organizations such as Startup Weekend, TechStars, StartupDigest, and Startup America (to name a few) are paving a highly accessible path towards entrepreneurship that many are now starting to walk.

While the founder's seat may not be for everyone, there are an increasing amount of options beyond the cube farm for today's aspiring creative and technical tradespeople. Even many enterprise level organizations (Facebook, Google, Microsoft's Garage, CocaCola, etc.) have seen the emerging trend of entrepreneurship, and have preemptively begun crafting an intrapreneurial framework within their organizations (if not honoring this startup spirit since day one).

These intrapreneurial firms truly recognize the pain points that this invaluable workforce has faced, and in response have implemented autonomous innovation processes, cross departmental/organizational collaboration, transparency in operation, and most importantly a free and flexible work environment that mimics the empowering culture of startups.

In an effort to stand out to prospective hires, many agencies and organizations have taken a band-aid approach to the problem, amping up compensation packages and promoting cultural eccentricities. However, very few firms have truly transformed in a way that meaningfully addresses the emergence of a more entrepreneurially minded workforce.

Traditional organizations provide a framework that goes against the grain of innovation, fostering competition amongst co-workers, operating in extreme secrecy, treating the creative process as an assembly line, isolating project contributors in silos, and generally promoting an atmosphere of unreasonable accountability for "performance" in a space that comes with an overwhelming amount of moving parts and uncertainties.

More than anything, innovation cannot happen when there are steep repercussions for risk taking. True innovation is inherently risky by definition, however tolerance for failure in traditional settings is extremely low. This provokes most workers to either learn to do things formulaically (stifling innovation), work excessive hours without compensation, or end up in a place of extreme negativity about their employer or industry.

Anyone who's spent a length of time in the agency or in-house circuit will have felt these pains at some point (if not repeatedly throughout their career). The worst part, is the seemingly universal consensus that this dysfunction just comes with the territory, and very few individuals actually have tried to change the model. If you're an agency head that can't seem to hire or retain good people, take a long hard look at the environment you're cultivating. Is it truly conducive to innovation, or is it simply hollow rhetoric? How does it stack up to the values of the startup community? Where are your employees going after they leave?

If you're trapped in a traditional firm, maybe it's time to consider a different path. Thousands are already migrating to a more entrepreneurial environment, be it as cofounders in startup firms or joining innovation departments within larger intrapreneurial corporations. If nothing else, the lessons learned in this space will be eye opening, and hopefully provide a more sustainable framework for businesses everywhere. The renaissance for innovation is happening now - what side of the equation will you find yourself in?

Mike is a Seattle based branding professional and entrepreneur with over a decade's experience stewarding successful brands across the physical, digital, and beyond. Currently, Mike is the Creative Director at Startup Weekend. You can follow him on Twitter @mikemates.

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