Archive for the ‘Meta operations’ Category

A recent exchange I had with @chrisfinley was a comment on a post by Joshua Porter about the conflicted state some designers get into when they are confronted with the concept that they are changing behaviour. It does sound manipulative and could strain the moral fiber of people who are sensitive to questions of free will, but the fact is that we as marketers do need to advantageously affect behaviour if we are to be successful. But is behaviour the right term?

Perhaps behaviour has picked up a certain patina thanks to the work of B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists. In simplistic terms his theory was that behaviour was conditioned through environmental inputs and that consequently this behaviour could be controlled through an increase in positive or negative stimuli. The subject’s thoughts were considered in the behaviour, but there was a heavy focus on the receipt of the conditioning. The thought of pushing buttons (or applying electrical shocks) to manipulate the marketing target in a calculated manner is not an appealing idea to someone with dualist leanings. Perhaps UX designers that recoil from the idea of changing behaviour have a propensity to believe in a separation between the brain and the mind. That is best left for another post.

Despite the patina, the term behaviour may be too simplistic to accurately represent the complexity inherent in the interaction someone has with a marketing touchpoint. I am currently reading a great book that explores the relationship between technology and technique. I would like to explore the idea that rather than influence behaviour we are trying to influence technique.

“If we define technology as a modification of the environment, then we must recognize the complementary principle of technique: how the modification is used in performance.” (Tenner, 2003)

All communications through touchpoints are brokered by a technology. That technology requires a learned technique to be able to engage, interact and pull meaning from the touchpoint. It is pointless to create a thirty second spot if the target can’t operate the remote control. This base level of technique is the cost of entry for a member of society to participate in the channel.

If the technology being deployed is a widget, website, tool, appliance or other product that directly engages with the target then we as experience designers should be considering how we support the target in adopting or creating a new technique to use it. These techniques are personal and meaningful and support adoption of the product. A technique may encompass many behaviours – many that we may not be able to capture in research and testing. Rather than focusing on a simple set of behaviours, we should consider them in aggregate as a technique and devise our design methods accordingly.

Technique also has room to allow for the application of free will by humanizing the target. A positively engaged target will engage in the variety of behaviours inherent in a technique on their own accord. The idea of technique also allows for an evolution of that technique based on the input of the user. A behaviour may be too narrow to allow for variations that still ensure the same goal.

“The interaction of inventors…with participants…allows technology and technique to produce striking results envisioned by neither…” (Tenner, 2003)

Technology and technique are not static but are engaged in a constant evolutionary dance. We should embrace that complexity, temper our desire to reduce interaction to behaviours, and focus on creating marketing that supports the creation of identity through technique.

“When we use simple devices to move, position, extend, or protect our bodies, our techniques change both objects and bodies. And by adopting devices we do more. We change our social selves. In other species, natural selection and social selection shape the appearance of the animal. In humanity, technology helps shape identity.” (Tenner, 2003)

Tenner, E. (2003). Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. Vintage Books: New York.

Is there a minimalist approach to marketing, a stripped down version that relies on adaptation, variation, evolution, and a bare framework upon which the consumer builds the experience? Further to my post on incomplete design, I wonder if we can pare back the industry process baggage known as branding and be better positioned for success.

During a recent conversation about experience design with a former coworker, we discussed whether we are really designing the experience or really designing a series of hooks upon which a consumer can generate their own experience. In another conversation the idea came up that branding is like a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ and has become more bloated and self-perpetuating while it becomes increasingly disconnected from consumers.

Several tweets struck a chord with me on this subject about a week ago. One of the people I follow (@mpwsmith) was at the #MEIC presentation by Brady Gilchrist. The tweets were vivid but one was very compelling “Think mercenary – get lean and kill.” It speaks to the idea of lean and efficient marketing. No heavyweight branding activity because an incredible amount of time is wasted on that activity which has little relative value. If the brand is created in the mind of the consumer based on their experience, is it a conceit to believe we can directly influence that construct with a large and complicated concept?

No doubt the branding purists are rolling their eyes at reading this. The concept of branding is gospel. The work required to develop it has become just as entrenched. Taking clients through the process is a given.

This self-propagating attitude is what George Stalk in his book Hardball calls a compromise:

…is a limitation on customer choice made by the industry…When such compromises are endemic to an industry, customers don’t even see them as compromises. They accept them as “the way the industry works.”

I suggest we break a compromise.

I think we should look at it this way: a great deal more budget should be spent on research, on the problem formulation; in essence the discovery phase. Much less time should be spent on the brand planning, development and ‘big idea’.

More time should be spent on determining adaptation responses, supporting variation, tracking evolution and dynamically measuring to create a constant feedback loop. More time should also be spent to architect the experience flow with the correct hooks.

Less time would be spent on gold plating an idea before sending it to market.

Rather than planning for success, the planning approach would be about planning the ‘fail plan’, how the program will cope with failure and with change. It would set rules for supporting the graceful degradation of the touchpoints rather than the build of the brand message.

I am not suggesting we do branding in completely, nor am I discounting the value of creative and having an ‘idea’ around which to structure the conversation. I think we just need to continue to question the compromises we force on our clients and our consumers and rethink our approaches. We also need to question how we manage a brand out in the market and do less building and more brokering.

UPDATE: A post on MarketingVox about a survey where a majority of CMOs feel that traditional branding is broken.

An overwhelming majority (87%) of US CMOs and marketing managers believe branding initiatives need to be more flexible today than in the past.

Evolution rocks. I am currently working on a project that is adapting to the needs of the community on the fly. Direct feedback from the highly engaged members of the community results in real-time changes to the experience. It is fascinating to watch.

This brings me to a thought space that I have been exploring recently. By redefining failure, adaptation, response, and planning, can you create a new planning and design philosophy that aims for structured incompleteness as a starting point?

I can see the thinking behind this being a combo of lean management, agile methodologies, incomplete design theory, and whole lotta guts. It means building that framework around which the community creates the next version. It means prototype, test and learn. This is happening in the case of Twitter, sites that are in constant Beta, and sites that crowdsource design, but is there a documented repeatable way to approach it? I know there are people out there doing it.

A large part of this exploration is to determine the attributes or characteristics of the type of individual that would excel in dealing with the wicked problem we face. The ability to grasp the whole picture at once is critical to being able to face the challenge. And not just grasp the problem, but understand the interrelationships between each of the components in a marketing experience. With so many moving parts, so many balls in the air, keeping a sense of where they are at any given time is a critical skill.

The definition of situation awareness allows us to break the skill into three parts:

“…is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” (Wikipedia, 2009)

Looking at the first part, you can understand that in an air combat context the pilot needs to have the ability to find and track other aircraft in the immediate airspace around him/her. Non-aircraft objects (like the side of a mountain) are also tracked and kept in a mental ‘holding pattern’. It is not until one of the objects exits the theater in some way that the pilot can let it go.

In a fractured marketing landscape the marketing strategist is also required to keep many, many environmental elements in mind as they work towards the resolution of a clients problem. Each channel, the targets, the messaging, the client, the creative, the market, the culture…and so on. The strategist must be able to quickly pick out the salient points.

In the second part, the pilot has to make a quick assessment as to the meaning of the object – is it a threat, how is it operating, what are my options. Being able to grasp the meaning of the object and act on it quickly is the key to success. The pilot must intelligently ignore the irrelevant and focus on that which requires quick resolution.

In the face of the information overload that we currently face, it has never been more important to be able to separate the signal from the noise. Grasping the meaning of a change in consumer behaviour, the appearance of a new trend, the market actions of competitors and so on is critical to achieving success. The key is to also be able to translate that understanding into action that will result in meaningful results.

The third part is about knowing what will happen next. Based on flight path or other signals, a pilot can predict the future state of another aircraft and start preparing the right course of action. Experience leads to a deeper understanding of the possible options and the reactions start to become tacit.

We are all trying to be futurists in what we do. For example, we plan programs based on predictive models or set target conversion rates based on customer behaviour. Planning is really just building a scenario and then acting on it. Research, brainstorming, discovery are all inputs into a scenario – of varying degrees of fidelity. This scenario is then acted upon when the program is produced and delivered.

Those of us that live and breathe in the digital space already exhibit the type of behaviour that builds this skill. Following a large number of people on Twitter demands a certain constant awareness of where others are and what they are engaged in. This has been called social proprioception. I would posit that in a marketing strategy skill context it is better to look at it as situation awareness.

Preparations are underway for the next great discussion about the state of marketing strategy. After a slightly-more-than-two-week hiatus to digest the thinking from the last session it is time to spin up the brains again. This time around, the session will be focused on exploring several themes that were distilled from the raw notes of the first session.

As with the last event, I am really looking forward to engaging in some great debate with some phenomenal minds. I highly recommend you follow those that are on Twitter: @douglasreid @markraheja @passitalong @michele_perras @b_co @johnnygagne. The others are not on Twitter yet, but should be soon. This thinking springs from their great minds and the series of events would not be possible without them.

In the continuing spirit of openness, here is some of the summary that was distilled from the raw notes of the last session. Note: it is still mental raw material and there are several more themes to come.
1. Problem formulation
–    Agencies have limited ways to formulate the problem
–    The relationship between uncertainty, fear and risk
–    We need to define failure differently

2. Canvas change
–    Disappearance of the blank canvas that traditional agencies have depended on
–    We now have a dynamic canvas
–    Channels are outpacing the agencies that are meant to feed them
–    Marketed at vs with
–    In a conversation
–    Engagement = journey thinking

3. Agency model
–    Trad agencies have limited ability to adapt or understand big ideas
–    Is there a way to educate the agencies?
–    Digital teams are leapfrogging traditional creative teams
–    Traditional teams are pushing back on digital
–    When there is a problem, they want to circle the wagons – don’t have a plan
–    A lack of integration with the trad agencies
–    Too many layers of bureaucracy
–    Too much short term thinking
Need to be:
–    Open – tech, engagement, process
–    Embrace – systems thinking and humanity
–    Legitimize experimentation
–    Outcome oriented
–    Proper reward systems

4. Strategist profile

What is it about digital that makes the role so strong
–    The platform and agile thinking
–    A sense of engagement and a journey
–    A better ability to adapt
–    Respect for the person you are communicating with, knowing who you are communicating with
–    Who is the story teller? Online, there is a storyteller
–    Identity needs to be severed from the tools of trade
–    Pure play digital works
–    Is it more about repertoire vs the channel you are in?
–    The transdisciplinarian
–    They live with flux, the ground does not stand still
–    Experimental, committed to take a chance
–    To overcome that which is seen as risk
–    What roles are good at orchestrating chaos?

–    skills to adapt
–    ability to frame problems
–    embracing irrationality
–    focus on outcomes
–    defines failure differently
–    more agnosticism at a low levels in an org

In software testing there are two approaches to designing the test cases that ensure the proper functioning of the system. With black box testing, the internal workings of the system are not known and the test cases focus on the proper outputs based on the inputs. How the outputs were created is not important – it is assumed the system works if the outputs are correct. In white box testing the internal workings of the system are clearly understood and the test cases are built based on an understanding of the code structure.

Let’s call a bluff. How many times have you been dealing with an agency or a team and their cards are played so close to their chest that you have very little insight into their process or thinking. What happens behind the curtain is proprietary. What happens behind the curtain is mysterious. What is behind the curtain is a black box. They outline the inputs required and after a period of time the output is returned.

I suggest we call that bluff and get rid of black boxes. We need to get over the arrogance that allows a team/agency to say “You can’t understand how we do what we do” or “We don’t want you to know how we do what we do”. The absence of transparency hinders our ability to find the common platforms that allow us to work together.

We need a white box revolution. We need people/teams/agencies everywhere to open up their methodologies to the world. We need to give clients and the industry visibility into how we get to the great thinking that they are paying for.  We need to allow objective testing of our process based on an understanding of the internal workings of our teams/agencies.

Unfortunately, this is anathema to how many agencies currently do business. There is this ‘magic’ to the strategic/creative process that is unquantifiable or not observable.   Ideas are generated away from the spotlight by teams that operate on insight. Transparency and measurability are said to constrain the creative process.

In the end though it is all about the fees being supported by the ‘dark art’ process it takes to generate the product. The fear is that visibility into the process would reduce the value of the exercise because it would bring subjective interpretation into the picture.  Fees or timelines could be questioned.

A black box allows for inefficiency, kludges, ‘wizard of oz’ situations, hidden costs, and a multitude of hacks or workarounds that help an agency get to the end goal. So if these musty closets were aired out, I am sure the cleaning crew would be called in within minutes. The safety of the opaque space would be gone and all the ugliness would be right out for everyone to see. Which is a good thing.

Creating a white box culture takes courage, agility, humility, and an openness to failure. It requires confidence and belief in the integrity of your process. It requires collaboration and the desire to learn and work with others. It requires a commitment to change and evolve with the market and with the demands of our customers.

In other words, it is exactly the time of mindset we need to be in to be able to tackle the wicked problem we face.

We need to consider the challenge of paradox.

“The entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic very different from the linear logic by which we live in all other spheres of life.” (Luttwak, 2001)

In his excellent book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Edward N. Luttwak is talking about military strategy and the potentially beneficial behaviour of choosing the least ‘logical’ or inefficient approach to defeating one’s enemy. As I read the book, I realized that a similar paradoxical logic is also one of the factors contributing to the wicked problem we face in marketing.

Traditional marketing planning or strategy assumes a rational logic to the behaviour of individuals within a target group. That assumption is further supported by the use of research results to predict the response to a strategy or tactic. The conceit is that if we can figure out the right attributes of our target or figure out the behaviours of our target that are of highest value, then the plan to trigger the appropriate response is a nearly linear ‘if this then that’. But as we struggle with our challenge, it is becoming clear that the underlying logic of marketing is more and more paradoxical. In trying to control as much as we do, are we setting ourselves up for more failure because it is a Sisyphean goal?

Additionally, as we plan, we try to cover as many bases as possible. When there were limited options for reaching consumers, coordination would have been simpler and outcomes easier to manage. Now that there are so many variables at play, trying to keep a hand on every lever and a finger on every pulse may be impossible.

“…although each separate element in its conduct can be quite simple for a well trained force…the totality of those simple things can become enormously complicated when there is a live enemy opposite, who is reacting to undo everything being attempted, with his own mind and his own strength.” (Luttwak, 2001)

The current mind of the consumer actively works to unwind the efforts of marketers. The increasing level of skepticism, doubt, mistrust, self-knowledge, and sophistication works contrary to the marketer’s goal of finding a clear space to generate a consensual hallucination. While marketers try hard to simplify and fit the consumer into a persona or a segment model, the consumers become increasingly complex and difficult to classify.

We need to accept that the landscape is too complex and that we need to act differently than we currently do. We should consider that in the face of this complex monster we need to have a preference for the seemingly inefficient course of action. Taking the time to gold plate a brand or create an intricate ‘big idea’ may be the wrong approach. Perhaps there is a skeletal framework or a lattice structure that can be just enough for the consumers to build their world around. In paradoxical logic, the less articulated a program is may actually make it better.

Luttwak, E.N. (2001). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

At a recent talk by Jane Fulton Suri I saw several ideas that clearly stated some of the thinking we need to include to wrestle this problem to the ground. But one really stood out as one of the most important. We should all be asking ourselves the following:

What skills, methods and values are common across all disciplines?

It seems reasonable, and almost common sense. But what I liked about it was the inclusion of values in the equation. All too often any exercise that attempts to do what we need to do focuses the majority of its effort on skills and methods. The human element expressed through values is often too unquantifiable for process minded individuals to want to tackle.

We need to stop looking at it from a task, skill or “this is our sandbox” mentality. Communicating common values can create bridges in understanding and can ease the pain of changing a frame of reference. Common values transcend process, role, title, agency, and frame the goal in terms of “What does this mean to me?”.

This week a group of smart people from different disciplines but united by the fact they play a role in the strategic process will be getting together to discuss the challenge laid out in the first post. The conversation will play out over some great food and wine at one of the best restos on Queen East. I am sure there will be some spirited debate as every person attending is not a wallflower when it comes to this topic.

To set up the conversation my co-conspirators (@passitalong and @markraheja ) and I drafted a problem statement and a rough discussion guide. It is not meant to be strict, but more of a guide (and I love tangential conversations as well – they tend to lead to the best thinking). The problem statement is also meant to focus the greater mandate and is under constant evolution. To understand why, see the wicked problem post below.

I firmly believe that to make any headway with this challenge everything must be open – it really goes without saying in this day and age. Here is the guide I sent to the participants :

Problem Statement:

The convergence of Strategy, Planning and Design under the term ‘Marketing Strategy’ in the current fractured market has led to challenging situations where the sum of all efforts is less than the parts.
Confusion and inefficiency/ineffectiveness results from a lack of clarity around how disciplines should work together, what they have in common, and what they are required to create.  Disciplines are being forced to redefine how they impact and bring value to the problems our clients increasingly face. In many ways disciplines have become partially incomplete or are now irrelevant.

There is a need to rationalize this convergence; to come to a shared understanding of how the roles, tools, methods and even language, of these disciplines, must evolve.
This understanding needs to be based on three fundamental platforms:

1. The industry requires a ‘unity of knowledge’

2. We need to be more ‘meta’ in our execution

3. We need to be able to truly deliver in a transmedia manner

Discussion objective:

To validate the problem statement and to discuss ideas that stem from it. Ultimately, the results of this discussion will be shared with the group and will form the foundation for a larger event.

[Delicious food]

Welcome, review of problem statement and objectives
Personal Intros – thoughts on the challenge
Discussion Topic 1: How do we achieve a ‘unity of knowledge’?
Discussion Topic 2: What is the new model for teams/agencies?
Discussion Topic 3: How do we deliver in a fractured landscape?

(Thanks to one of the participants for the great phrase “concerned practitioners”. So, so right.)

This blog is about change. It is about the need for a new way of thinking and working in the discipline I am in – marketing strategy.

The hypothesis is that Marketing Strategy is in a fractured state right now and that it is deeply in need of a renaissance. With the current marketing landscape and the number of different disciplines/roles/processes engaged in defining strategy across so may channels the community needs to rally and begin to look at our challenges and opportunities together.

The thinking has three fundamental platforms: 1. The discipline requires a ‘unity of knowledge’; that currently there are too many silos and a better interdisciplinary approach is the only way to tackle the future, 2. That we need to be more meta; we need to be better at creating an objective approach to our targets and also to redefine the way that agencies engage with each other – a new model and vernacular is required, and 3. We need to be able to truly deliver in a transmedia style; using each channel to its strengths and proper role within the holistic narrative.

I hope to use this blog to share my thinking and to point to great thinking from others. I believe that knowledge should be shared and that the process of change should be open and transparent.

I will also be posting to Twitter on a much more frequent basis. You can search for it under #newstrat or follow me @cuthbertsteel.