Posts Tagged ‘wicked problem’

The following quote has never been truer in marketing than now.

“The times are more powerful than our brains.” Pandolfo Petrucci to Niccolo Machiavelli (Kelly, 2006)

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.

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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.

In a general sense, problems can be defined as either well-defined or ill-defined. Well defined problems have clear objectives and just require the application of the appropriate tools to complete. With ill-defined problems both the goal and the means to get to the solution are not clear. A significant amount of work is required to get either the goal or the process defined in order to begin, but from that point on the problem can be solved.

A particularly nasty variant on the ill-defined problem is the wicked problem. In this case the goal can be very difficult to define, and may shift over time. Determining a stop point can be very difficult as questions can be continually asked and formulation can be a continual exercise. A different process may be required for each formulation and so the process may constantly adapt as well. And as a final kicker, the variable nature of the exercise will always provide a wide variety of possible solutions. (the source for a lot of the info here on wicked problems is a great book: Rowe, P.G (1987). Design Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT  Press.)

We have a bona-fide wicked problem to wrestle with in the marketing strategy world. I have a feeling it will be a cage match.