In May 2008 I attended a fantastic conference at the Art Center College of Design called Serious Play. It was an inspirational experience that changed the way I think about design, play and business. It happens every two years and I am so looking forward to the 2010 version. Several videos of the speakers are on TED thanks to an agreement between the two organizations. Here are some of my favourites.
It is good to be back.
I would love see more people smash the barriers to convention and reason. When I say madness I in now way want to disparage or mock the individuals that suffer with mental illness. This is about taking risks, breaking conventions, disrupting assumptions, and playing in territories that no-one else has.
Is the benefit of design thinking the ability to apply the process to a business problem, or is it the license for a slightly off the wall perspective that actually contributes to success?
The definition of madness that I think is so applicable to this discipline is ‘unrestrained excitement’ and the idea of craziness – being rash or foolish. I also think in terms of being tangential or taking odd leaps of thought.
What if we surrounded ourselves with people that had a habit of saying “You’re crazy” because the ideas that were being created were really pushing the edge.
Is there a way to instill the essence of madness into the culture of an organization. Is there a way to be comfortable with seemingly contradictory concepts, or to be able to believe in the impossible, or to see what others do not.
A little madness is being able to imagine the unknown, to find inspiration for a marketing experience in the midst of a piece of modern art. What does the art say to you? What does the art express about the human condition? How did it move you? I think the entire Tate collection should be required viewing by any new strategist. When I think about the siloed state of education and the lack of exposure people have to wildly variant stimuli it really saddens me.
Of course, in our business environment we do need to have a way to control the madness to deliver a solution. Can it be harnessed? In the face of a wicked problem is it foolish to try and be defined? Or is it better to be wildly irrational with the hope that the outlying ideas will be the winners? Can we even hope to understand the market we deliver in? Is it arrogant to believe that we can understand something driven by the subconscious minds of other humans?
If you settle in a rut, you are unable to move out of the way if something is coming at you head on. If you are back and forth on the road, you can always find the open space.
The following quote has never been truer in marketing than now.
Marketing strategists attempt to exist in the future. Generally the very near term future (a few quarters out), but the future nonetheless. When strategies are presented, they are usually presented as if this is the only approach to take, which smacks of a presumed ability to predict that future. It is a conceit that the brain can somehow get a grip on the times.
A quote I heard years ago went something like ‘Show me someone that claims they can predict the future and I will show you a liar’. Accurately predicting what will happen two or three quarters out is just as difficult as predicting what will happen tomorrow. It is all a best guess.
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” Oliver Wendell Holmes (Kelly, 2006)
Marketing strategists try to own the idea that they can deliver that ‘simplicity this side of complexity’ in how they develop ideas for the client. The world is orderly and proper. The results of the focus groups point to a particular direction. A quick scan of the market has created this USP. Everyone aspires to that ‘single-minded idea’.
The continual hammering of the K.I.S.S dogma has created an allergy to openly complex and vague but actionable ideas. The desire to translate a program into ROI prior to pulling the budget trigger requires that assumptions be baked into the calculation.
Is it apparent that it has sprung from an attempt to bring a certain comfort to brand managers that are required to show that the program they have paid for will have a return on the organizations investment. But is the rush to prove the possibility of success limiting the chances of actually achieving it?
In preparing that guess, how much discipline has gone into the exploration of that strategy? Do they take the time to explore as many options as possible before landing on the preferred choice? Can we bring more knowledge from the methodologies used in futurism to explore more options and to put those options in front of the client?
Imagine if for every program that was planned it was required to create three to four alternate scenarios. These scenarios would be presented to the client and would be the basis for collaborative program planning. Multiple scenarios would be covered by the smart allocation of tactics that would have multiple roles and failure options built in from the beginning. The program would be able to handle several scenarios – not perfectly of course, but with a high percentage of coverage.
Marketing strategists would be responsible for a much better understanding of the present and of the variables they are beholden to. They would have to develop an ability to look into concepts that are much more nuanced than data. Being able to hold seemingly contradictory statements in the mind without seeking ‘black or white’ resolution would be a necessary skill. Observation and synthesis of seemingly disparate information is critical to parse the current landscape.
“How can you see, most clearly, the environment in which your actions will take place, and how those actions will fit with (or stand against) the prevailing forces, trends, attitudes and influences?” (Schwartz, 1996)
Facing a marketing landscape that is much more powerful than our combined minds, perhaps we need to move away from the pursuit of the rational and of the ‘single-minded-idea’. We need to apply the concepts of foresight and defend fuzziness in the face of the hegemony of data. We need to move towards holding multiple program concepts in an active state through a solid foundation of controlled futurism.
“All the notions we thought solid, all the values of civilized life, all that made for stability in international relations, all that made for regularity in the economy…in a word, all that tended happily to limit the uncertainty of the morrow, all that gave nations and individuals some confidence in the morrow… all this seems badly compromised. I have consulted all the augurs I could find of every species, and I have heard only vague words, contradictory prophesies, curiously feeble assurances. Never has humanity combined so much power with so much disorder, so much anxiety with so many playthings, so much knowledge with so much uncertainty.” Paul Valery (Schwartz, 1996)
Kelly, E. (2006). Powerful Times: Rising to the Challenge of Our Uncertain World. Wharton School Publishing: New Jersey.
Schwartz, P. (1996). The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. Currency Doubleday: New York.
The new world of marketing stragtegy needs to be driven by clear headed realism. We preach to our clients at length about credibility, transparency and honesty when relating with consumers. We should follow our own advice.
New ideas are my drug of choice. I consume them constantly. I can’t imagine life without learning something new – or being forced to think differently about something. The world is full of great thinkers and thanks to the net it is easier than ever follow the ones you know and to discover new people.
When I wrote about consilience, I wanted to share a belief about knowledge that is close to my heart. I believe it is critical for everybody to learn from as many different knowledge spaces as they can. Modern life requires the ability to synthesize and learn from seemingly disparate topics.
In the spirit of #followfriday I want to share a list of a few of the people I have followed through the years. They are in no particular order – they are simply big thinkers that have enriched my life with what they have created.
Jaron Lanier – Made me think differently. And wildly.
Richard Feynman – For his curiosity and passion.
Who are your big thinkers?