Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Powers of Observation

When our family goes to a restaurant, occasionally we will play a game called “Powers of Observation.” Everyone at the table gets a couple minutes to look around them, soaking in the details of their surroundings. The trick is, you don’t know what you’re looking for, or what may potentially be important to know.

After the time is up, each person in turn asks questions of the group: How many people in the restaurant are wearing hats? What color is the menu on the wall behind the counter? What is the name of the store across the street? It’s a good way to keep occupied while waiting for the food to arrive. It also points out the importance of paying attention.

Children offer parents the luxury of a distinctly different point of view. Whether it’s colored by a fertile imagination or a relative proximity to the ground, kids open our eyes to new ways of seeing and thinking. Similarly, when traveling, we see things with a fresh perspective.

As I’m currently into the second week of a long-planned and lengthy sabbatical, it’s occurred to me how valuable that fresh perspective can be for any person or organization. What are we missing simply because we’ve become accustomed to our surroundings?

Is it possible to simulate the sensation of being a newcomer – to look at old things with new eyes? When I’m not traveling, these are a few of the techniques I use:

Look in new places
When you’re immersed in a problem, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision. As a designer, I don’t seek ideas by looking at other designs. I let my eyes and my subconscious go to work for me – either by physically changing locations or paging through an unrelated book or magazine. With some preparation, the human brain is remarkably good at making new connections.

Word association
In any business, it’s important to be asking the right questions. But what happens if the same old answers are no longer working? For years I’ve broken down that pesky question into a few key words, then done a simple word association exercise with each one. The key is to quiet the self-editor – that little voice inside your head that delights in telling you an answer doesn’t fit or it’s silly or wrong.

With practice, each word leads to another and another in rapid succession – the faster the better. When your page is full, circle a few of the most promising words. Additionally, circle the ones that seem to make no sense at all. Upon deeper reflection, it’s often these words that lead to the freshest ideas.

Just ask
Has our customer changed? Is our website intuitive? Do these pants make me look fat? Often, we either don’t know (or don’t want to know) answers that can have a major impact on our decisions. Research seems like such an imposing, time-consuming and expensive word, but heading blindly down the same old path has its own costs.

Cultivate a personal advisory board. Friends and colleagues can provide invaluable perspective. Launching quick online surveys is another way to expand your knowledge. Or, you can always hire a consultant to lead your team to new insights.

Details matter in any business pursuit, but it’s easy to let our attention wander. That’s when it’s time to recapture the powers of observation that lead to discovery. As the Japanese poet Bashō once noted: Nothing is worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes.

Mining Your Blind Spots

I was recently asked for guidance from a communications professional whose new boss wanted a report on their advertising’s return on investment (ROI). Panic ensued.

I can understand the panic, as it sounds a little like a Dilbert comic strip after the pointy-haired boss has returned from a conference with a new buzzword. This is not meant to deny the importance of spending ad dollars wisely, or tracking the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, but trying to construct a meaningful ROI report retroactively is folly.

What can be measured?
Everything. Anything. Just because it’s difficult to find meaningful numbers to attach to an enterprise doesn’t mean people won’t keep trying. Data allows us to rationalize our actions. And it’s widely accepted that reason is more reliable than emotion or feelings. But is it?

Conventional wisdom
Across the corporate and non-profit landscape, quality improvement efforts are stuck in the factory mentality of the Industrial Age. If only things are well-measured, the thinking goes, we’ll produce better widgets, graduates or advertising.

Our brains are wired to overestimate the likelihood that our future will look a lot like our past. This influences everything we do, placing great importance on data – essentially, history quantified. Unfortunately, our high tech world’s rapid pace of change virtually guarantees that the future we imagine is an illusion.

Learning to anticipate
Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend, consistently outfoxed bigger and faster competition by passing to spots where a teammate was going to be. How did he always seem to magically be one step ahead of everyone else?

Undoubtedly, through hours of practice on his backyard ice rink, he acquired lots of data. But many players practice a lot. It may be precisely because of Gretzky’s disadvantages that he discovered an unexpected competitive advantage. He could sense, or feel, the play developing, and learned to see risks worth taking.

Risk aversion is human nature, but it blinds us to opportunities as well as threats. In marketing your organization, common assumptions about what the future holds (influenced by those ROI reports) create an artificially narrow set of choices.

To expand your vision, you need to recognize and resist the herd mentality. In your market, or with your audience, what is least likely to happen? Learning to see into your blind spots – exploring unexpected territory – allows you to anticipate the opportunities that others miss.

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It Takes All Types

Unless you’re a hermit – and analytics indicate they’re not big fans of the blog – chances are you work with others to conceive and implement your organization’s marketing. Adapting to workplace dynamics and navigating a complex media environment makes it difficult to gain traction in a typically busy day.

As a public service, I present a field guide of the most common types of workers. This completely unscientific study is meant to increase understanding of your colleagues while pointing the way toward more productive behavior.

Short Order Cooks are really good at getting things done, and consequently valuable team members. They are prone to keeping their heads down, and can miss the big picture. Often so overloaded that they have little incentive, time, or authority to act on original ideas or insights. They are guided by short-term, tactical thinking.

Hobbyists are generally competent, but not outstanding in any particular area – a jack-of-all-trades. They like to help, but can be easily distracted. This lack of focus spurs them to seek activities that “sound like fun,” whether or not the task falls within their actual job description. Without strong direction, they can become busybodies.

Backseat Drivers have excellent hindsight vision. They seek more autonomy or the ability to take charge. Happiest when giving advice and opinions, even in areas where they have little experience. If disengaged, they can become toxic snipers or naysayers. May be a frustrated Short Order Cook.

Blowhards never let the facts get in the way of a strongly held belief. They have a tendency to speak loudly, act decisively, and step on others’ toes. Naturally gravitate to big picture thinking, with little patience for details. When in a leadership role, they tend to be more interested in exercising authority than unearthing innovation.

Connectors are adept at integrating information and team members to solve problems. They make natural collaborators, and are good at getting to the heart of the matter. If introverted, they may need encouragement to share their ideas and move to action. Connectors are key players in any work environment.

Whether it’s cobbling together a project team, attracting funding partners, or shaping disparate bits of information into a clear direction, the skill of “connecting the dots” is increasingly valuable and necessary. But can this trait be taught or facilitated? The future of your marketing efforts depends on it.

Every type of worker has something to contribute. The key to a happier and more productive workplace is establishing a culture that is open to ideas, and a structure that gives team members the responsibility and support necessary to perform.

Is your work environment plagued with impenetrable silos? Have you witnessed other types of workers in their native environment? Share your stories.

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Favorite Links: July 2010

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

The Art of Non-Conformity
by Chris Guillebeau

@Issue: The Online Journal of Business and Design
by Corporate Design Foundation

Web Teams Need Constant Feedback
by Gerry McGovern

Everything You Know Is Wrong

There are a few unwritten rules in marketing, including: people don’t read, social media is a game changer, and the more data the better. But what happens when best practices aren’t?

For every adage, there’s a counter-intuitive example that proves the folly of following absolutes. The death of reading, it turns out, is greatly exaggerated. According to researchers at the University of California in San Diego, people are reading nearly three times as much as they did 30 years ago. And how does it change your marketing efforts if the hottest social network of 2009 isn’t as social as expected? With only 27% of its users actively participating, Twitter is becoming more of a news feed than a social network.

Homogeneous thinking

The propensity to follow conventional wisdom is understandable. Entire businesses are built on “the wisdom of crowds.” (See Netflix and Pandora, among others.) Without question, using good data and the experience of others to guide decision-making is safer and more efficient than reinventing the wheel. It eliminates the big mistake. But it also eliminates the transcendent.

Because few people trust their intuition or instincts as much as their data, a lot of marketing efforts tend to look and sound alike. Unfortunately, original ideas aren’t the result of number crunching or focus groups. As Henry Ford noted, regarding the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

It takes courage to be unconventional.

When we encounter bold ideas, we’re inevitably drawn to their audacity, often nodding reverently: “I wish I’d thought of that!”

The Flip has been the best-selling camcorder on Amazon.com since the day of its debut, capturing about 13% of the market. Yet no market research suggested an unmet need for a virtually featureless video camera.

When is a risky choice a good idea? When it works, of course! In the most recent Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints’ onsides kick to start the second half was widely credited with turning the game in their favor.

More marketing failures are the result of trying to please everybody than going against the grain.

Innovation comes from asking the right questions

I only know one graphic designer joke: Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

Without exploring what is possible – and even what may seem impossible – no one generates new ideas. The more you question the status quo, the more often you try something new or different, the more likely your ideas will break new ground.

In an undifferentiated marketplace with a multitude of pretty good choices, falling back on conventional wisdom just won’t cut it any more. Or as your mom might say: “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”

Related content:

Are Metrics Blinding our Perception?

Social Media Sins

Too Much Data Leads to Not Enough Belief

The Art of Non-Conformity