Failure to Innovate: A Deathblow for Sign Language Interpreting Agencies

May 24, 2012

How do sign language interpreting agencies survive and thrive in a market where opportunities abound for individual practitioners? Brandon Arthur emphasizes the need for, and understanding of, innovation as it applies to the agency-interpreter partnership.

Is it still an advantage for sign language interpreters to trade a higher hourly rate in exchange for the “benefits” of being represented by an agency? Particularly, given the world is chock-full of affordable DIY (do it yourself) business and connection tools.

While the answer to this question will differ from interpreter to interpreter, the value of this exchange of rate for representation is measured by the currency of convenience. Simply, does working with an agency make it easier for a sign language interpreter to do their work? If yes, good trade. If no, zippy.

Let’s get to the point.

If convenience is the primary factor for a sign language interpreter in determining whether a relationship with an agency is valuable or not, why aren’t agency owners and operators consumed with innovating convenience into their practices and business models? It would make good sense, no? Is it that they don’t care?

The truth? Implementing innovation is yeoman’s work.

There is a Difference

There is an important distinction between the acts of assembling practical, even clever, solutions to a problem and the act of implementing that solution. Assembling—easier. Implementing—harder.

Why is implementing harder? Humans.

3 Inhibitors of Agency Innovation

Unfortunately, it is people that make implementing new solutions to existing challenges difficult. Agency owners and operators—yes, they are people too—unintentionally get in their own way, and the forward progress of their agencies as a result of being trapped by three primary innovation inhibitors. 

Inhibitor One: Perfection is Attainable

All too often agency owners/operators fall victim to perfectionism. They become obsessed with a process or protocol being followed exactly right. In order for convenience innovation to occur and be implemented effectively, it is essential for agency owners and operators to acknowledge innovation is an iterative process.

Unfortunately, perfectionist tendencies frustrate innovation by suggesting that any iterative process of improvement falls short of the ideal and is therefore unworthy of the effort. This results in agency owners and operators stalling in their attempt to innovate.

It is essential that agency leadership get comfortable with the idea that it’s always a little messy in the middle.

Inhibitor Two: Denial of Marketplace Realities

Because the work to implement innovation is difficult, agency owners and operators sometimes deny the existence of changing marketplace realities. Conscious, or not, they do this in order to protect the status quo. A few of the marketplace realities that are currently being denied are:

1)    It is easier and cheaper than ever before to start and operate a small business. The Internet and subscription tools make it easy for sign language interpreters to establish a large virtual presence and compete for customers.

2)    Social networks empower sign language interpreters with access to vast amounts of instructional information and serve as gathering places to exchange knowledge, practices, and ideas—all of which make them formidable competitors.

3)    The weak economy is causing under-employment within the sign language interpreting industry, which makes starting a small, privateer business a strong employment option for sign language interpreters.

The denial of marketplace realities, regardless of what they are, challenges any need to depart from the status quo. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates the poo-pooing of any need to rethink how business is getting done. This is particularly true as it relates to creating additional value for the sign language interpreter.

Owners/operators with their heads in the sand are unable to lead (i.e. implement) from the front. Maybe a lesson from a sidewalk-executive is in order? 

Inhibitor Three: A Biased Perspective

Inhibitor three is the most difficult to overcome. Often it is the inaccurate perception of their own work that prevents agency owners/operators from implementing innovation. This biased perspective preoccupies managers with their historical intent of implementing systems and practices and prevents them from critically evaluating if that system truly delivers value for a sign language interpreter.

To overcome this bias, and implement successfully, agency owners and operators have to find the courage necessary to seek answers to hard questions. Questions like, what do interpreters really care about? Is what we are doing effective? What would it take for us to do [insert practice or process] better?

It takes a secure manager to check their bias and critically evaluate their practices. It takes a leader to do that and then successfully implement. 

Tips for Innovating Value

The good news is implementing innovative solutions successfully can be learned. To that end, agency owners/operators need to remember, there will be no proof that the iterative adjustments made will succeed. Innovating is a strategic choice to deliver a better experience. The following may prove helpful when choosing to innovate and working to implement those innovations.

1)    Create with the sign language interpreter in mind. Owners/operators need to take time to observe the behaviors of the interpreters engaging with their agency. Understanding social, professional, cultural and emotional drivers is key to improving their experience. Recognize that both the sign language interpreter and the business can win.

2)    Recognize limitations. When identifying process improvement opportunities, Owner/operators need to work within their agency’s ability to support the change. There is little worse than when an “innovation” makes a challenging process more cumbersome.

3)    Stop asking sign language interpreters what they want. Owners/operators need ask what concerns or bothers them about the business or its practices. Then watch where the interpreter experience suffers and fix it.

4)    Remember, there are no best practices. Because the competition conducts business in a certain way, doesn’t mean a “me too!” approach is in order. Think outside the box!

A Word of Advice

A suggestion to agency owners and operators, when pitching the rate trade for agency representation to a sign language interpreter, don’t position standards as value adds.

I believe sign language interpreters would agree that, online systems, training for CEUs, direct deposit, and reimbursement for professional dues/fees are operating standards, not differentiators.

In my mind, these are not reasons interpreters ultimately choose to align themselves with an agency.

In the End

Agencies who overcome the tangles of implementing innovations will successfully survive—even thrive. Others will find the blow of failing to innovate to be too much and will wither on the vine. At the end of the day, sign language interpreters vote with their feet. Limited number of interpreters, limited success. Yes, it is that simple.

Sign language interpreters are looking for industry entrepreneurs to introduce the next wave of innovation, even social disruption, within the sign language interpreting industry. Who’s going to be?

Sign language interpreters, what innovations would you like to see most within the agencies you work alongside?

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20 Comments on "Failure to Innovate: A Deathblow for Sign Language Interpreting Agencies"

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Berchele McManimon

Well said!

Sarah Schiffeler

Hi Brandon,
You said….”I believe sign language interpreters would agree that, online systems, training for CEUs, direct deposit, and reimbursement for professional dues/fees are operating standards, not differentiators.”

My question is this…why would an independent contractor choose to engage in behaviors with a referral agency that has employer/employee relationship written all over it? Those are benefits I might expect if I was a staff interpreter, not as someone who is a self-employed independent contractor who contracts work through the agency.

Am I missing a key element in your essay? I’d like to understand your view a bit clearer. Thank you!

Hi~ I had same thought…to maintain the independent contractor relationship, an interpreter typically does not have any of the benefits you would enjoy as an employee. The most basic is the opportunity to negotiate and work on contracting concerns as a group. Contract issues can be brought up to non-profit boards and agency staff individually by independent contractors, but approaching as an pool of dedicated interpreter working towards professionalism is rejected. Independently contracting interpreters are not provided any professional development support/funds, certification maintenance support for annual fees, “staff” meetings or networking supports, in-house trainings, bonuses, insurance coverage, retirement benefits or… Read more »
Where savvy interpreters voting with their feet is not a quick fix: when certain big spoken language agencies, that are encroaching on community agencies with more contact with the signing community, have EXCLUSIVE government contracts with big consumers like hospitals and courts… When a city or state hospital system, for example, suddenly awards their exclusive contract to a new agency that underbid, and interpreters will be paid much less, we interpreters can give up those assignments, but the hospital will certainly find less qualified interpreters to fill them. And the new exclusive contract may be for several years. Even if… Read more »

Money is usually the deciding factor in where interpreters choose to work, even when they insist that it isn’t. The problem is when terps don’t diversify their work portfolio and end up with all of their eggs in one basket, or when they compromise their ethics for a few bucks.

This is a great blog. Nice food for thought!

Aaron Brace
Thanks, Brandon! Can always count on you to stir the, uh… “pot”. I had the same query as Sarah about the kinds of perqs you listed sounding an awful lot like an employer/employee relationship. What I am longing for and have yet to experience is an agency that treats each incoming job with the mind of an interpreter. I want their intake people to ask the kinds of questions I would, or even to delight me with info I didn’t realize I wanted. Most intake staff aren’t interpreters, so I know that that’s a lot to ask, but I’ve yet… Read more »

Grin ;o) Ahhh…graduation season…standing on the platform in heels for a couple of hours interpreting for? an audience of hundreds (some wishing you would please move out of their photo taking zone) with speeches that are full of cultural insider references that aren’t particularly Deaf friendly to interpret.

Sarah Schiffeler
Aaron et al, Can we consider the the agency realizing their limitations, taking a smaller cut of their substantial overhead and paying us more to do our due diligence as independent contractors? Give the independent contractors the job contact info and let us take it from there. After all, we are the ones who really know what info is necessary to get to the job and be as prepared as possible for it. There is far too much dependence on agencies. It is to the agency’s advantage to foster a relationship that has an employer/employee slant to it. And for… Read more »
Dwight Godwin
Very interesting article/blog Brandon. I always like the comments section of these pieces just as much as the subject itself. I believe that Sarah has some very valid points (HI Sarah), and have long been an advocate that most Agencies truly do have an Employer/Employee relationship set up that flies in the face of IRS regulations and Federal law. But on to another point – You say, “4)Remember, there are no best practices. Because the competition conducts business in a certain way, doesn’t mean a “me too!” approach is in order. Think outside the box!” I will agree that thinking… Read more »

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