In an increasingly competitive marketplace and in the midst of a bad economy, it’s no secret that businesses need to constantly maintain a strong competitive advantage and come up with fresh ideas to keep (and gain) consumers. Jump Associates, a growth strategy firm that started in California back in 1998, offers a highly-innovative model: hire them, and they’ll work with your companies to come up with fresh ideas to solve “highly ambiguous problems.” Their employees, a hybrid mix of people who all share an innovative mind and an impressive ability to think outside the box (and an exceptionally high usage of post-its), spend their days ideating and creating forward-thinking ways for businesses to (re)invent themselves. Among their list of impressive clients? Target, HP, GE, and NBC. I met up with Lauren Pollak and Bruce King-Shey, the two relationship leads for the company’s recent New York office, to discuss the necessity of a business like Jump in today’s culture as well as their hard work to produce a space that will foster creativity.
I’m interested to hear how both of you initially got involved with Jump Associates.
Lauren: I originally thought that I wanted to pursue a career in astrophysics, more specifically to conduct theoretical research around black holes. I ultimately didn’t go in that direction, but then of course had all this guilt about being a woman dropping out of the hard sciences. I spent a little bit of time going into the nonprofit sector, where I designed programs to bring women and underrepresented minorities into the space sciences.
While we were helping people and I enjoyed that, I wanted another career direction. Fortuitously, Jump was hiring — this is even before we had an office in New York. It sounded interesting and had a nice philosophical alignment with my convictions: the way we develop strategies with clients is not only a way to get revenue streams, but also a way to make a positive social impact. I am now running the New York office as relationship lead, where I represent our clients internally, provide guidance, and coach our teams.
Bruce: I, too, am a relationship lead at Jump: I give guidance to project teams and strategic advice to clients throughout their changing business situations. Before coming to Jump I was developing my hybrid background with a lot of different experiences. I was an environmental consultant, I studied engineering, I was a freelance writer, I went to art school for industrial design, I worked as a management consultant at Booz Allen… It was a sigh of relief when I discovered Jump and saw that being able to pull together a wide variety of passions was celebrated.
Why is a company like Jump necessary now? Are there societal and economic trends making it more relevant?
Lauren: There are macro-trends enabling our services to be successful now, as opposed to twenty or thirty years ago. Our clients often realize that they’ve built a set infrastructure that delivers a certain type of product or service. And for a long time, they could continue to be successful simply through the incremental expansion of that business: whether by producing more, expanding the geographical reach of the product, or having more efficient manufacturing. Milking that existing system has run its course, and many companies are facing an existential threat.
Do you have a specific example in mind?
Lauren: Sure. Say I’m a furniture company, and I always thought that I was a manufacturer but now all the work is done in China. Or I’m HP and I make money off printer ink… but we’re now in a digital world. Firms are having to rethink their role in the marketplace.
Can you give us a glimpse at a case study?
Lauren: I mentioned HP just now, and that would be a great example. The company came across a significant existential problem: there is a lack of demand for printers as the world is going digital. What could the company do beyond printers? They realized that they needed to get into software and use design as a competitive advantage, but they had no idea how. We helped them identify new businesses that capitalize on their existing assets and generate new sources of revenue.
Bruce: Along with HP, our team created a new set of tools to nurture and measure design and innovation in the company, increasing the line of sight from the supply chain, to design investment to business goals.
Bruce, what qualifies your employees to solve all of these ambiguous issues?
Bruce: That’s a great question. All Jumpsters are hybrid thinkers. We’re not simply working in multi-disciplinary teams — with one ethnographer, a business person, a designer… — but with a team of multi-disciplinary people, who have multi-disciplinary brains and can connect and blend a lot of different fields and ways of thinking. We need the designer who can come up with the concept and then can develop the business model behind it, and vice-versa. That’s what we mean by hybrid thinkers.
Jump offers three distinctive services: creating, reinventing, and building. How exactly do you go about organizing around these different goals?
Bruce: Within Jump, we don’t necessarily make those distinctions. When we talk to clients, it’s about understanding what they need and the issues that they face. The ground on which we sit is constantly shifting, as the issues our clients face are always evolving. As trusted advisors, we need to fully understand the unique conditions of our client’s situation, knowing full well that strategic advice can only be given with a strong relationship. As opposed to most other consultants, we tend not to productize our services or offer a canned set of solutions to client situations. Our responsibility is often to broaden the client’s perspective and leverage their own strengths as a company for sustained growth.
Lauren, how do you measure success at Jump?
Lauren: We measure our success by seeing how our strategy has generated profits for our clients. If they’ve had growth over the short and the long-term, that’s success. Depending on the nature of the engagement and the industry, you might get results immediately or further down the road. For example, the automotive industry has multi-year lead times, but a media company like NBC can implement project recommendations right away. We also measure success internally: how strong was the content, how satisfied was the client, to what extent did we build new ideas and intellectual property for Jump, did we use our cultural tools, did we have a team dynamic in the way we would expect…
It seems like consumers more than ever care about company culture. What do you think is the main reason behind this trend?
Lauren: We see that a lot among Gen-Y folks. Everyone is fighting for ways to reach that younger crowd. The shift we’re experiencing in consumer culture is the need to buy products and services from a company that reflects their own values. Harley-Davidson is a great example of a firm that lives its message. Our work with Harley-Davidson has helped them build communities and connect with them: through Pools, Webs, and Hubs, we’ve helped them develop new tools to expand Harley rider engagement.
Now that you’re setting up the New York office, what has been your plan to establish a winning culture within Jump? Your firm is pretty famous for its highly innovative spaces.
Bruce: Our space and project rooms are built around the idea of fostering collaboration. Project rooms are filled with post-its, idea half-sheets, secondary research data, competitive products, frameworks, revenue models, photos of ethnographic interviews, because you never know when you’ll make the connection between something you talked about last week to a drawing or a current event. We have different rooms with different feels, like a Zen room for those who want a calmer workspace, as well as other places that offer a more bustling environment. The different spaces allow Jumpsters to have the right environment to think about problems in new ways and make insightful connections.
Lauren: We do see our corporate culture as a strategic advantage for us, and finalizing our space has been an arduous process. There has been a lot of theory on this, going back to Edward Hall’s anthropological work in the 1960s. He studied how the space you are in impacts your productivity, the way you treat each other, even how much you tell the truth.
Wait… it actually impacts your level of honesty?
Lauren: Yes! For example, people in places with high ceilings will tend to act formally, while low ceilings will do the opposite. It’s a fascinating field called Proxemics.
How much of your budget goes into purchasing post-its?
Lauren: [laughs] I imagine that it’s a lot of digits!
Bruce: We use different colors because we can assign colors different meanings. For example, if we’re interviewing eight people, each person will be a different color when we debrief and take notes. Or in a client meeting when we are discussing project success and challenges, we’ll have the green post-it mean “success” and the red post-it mean “challenge.”
Lauren: It’s quick, fast, visual…
You guys are getting defensive about this!
Lauren: [laughs] Your question points to something interesting, though. It’s easy to think that since we’re a cutting-edge company, we need to use technology. However, the power of face-to-face interaction and collaboration is the most important because that’s how we’re all evolved to process information as human beings. It’s a myth to believe that having a meeting with one person in Tokyo and the other in New York is just as effective as having those two people in the same room.
What’s next for Jump? Are there any specific goals for the next few years?
Bruce: We are focused on sustainable growth for ourselves as well. Lots of companies grow really big and can’t sustain that momentum. Even though we’re scaling up, we’re doing so steadily and carefully. Culture is extremely important at Jump, so we’re careful about how we bring people into the company. Right now, since the New York office is still growing, new Jumpsters spend significant time in our California office to really understand what Jump culture is all about.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Lauren: I love that question. You have an interesting readership who might be familiar with a lot of different innovative spaces, and we’re always looking for examples of forward-thinking retail environments. Same goes for smart alternative ways of thinking about business planning and revenue models.
Bruce: At Jump, we are constantly feeding our heads. Being new to New York, I’d like to ask the readers if there is a place I should go, something I should go do, an event I should experience, or a store I should go visit that will make me feel closer to my new home city. I’d love the advice.