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

Meet the Team: Julie Monson

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Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the third in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

Julie Monson is a market researcher and strategic planner with more than 25 years of experience guiding the development of communication strategies, brand positioning, and message development for agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. From candid qualitative chats to rigorous quantitative inquiries, she tackle assignments that help teams understand what makes their users tick. Inevitably, these insights inspire intelligent strategies, grow businesses, and solve thorny problems.

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Photo of Julie MonsonI think most careers don’t neatly fit into the imaginations of young minds. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I can still picture my 7th grade paper on this subject – decorated to the hilt with colorful fabric swatches given my aspiration was Interior Design. There was something about playing with art and color that fascinated me. I think my teen-aged self figured I could dabble in the creative even though I couldn’t actually draw or paint well at all.

What did you study in college?

I attended a liberal arts college the first two years, and loved my psych, sociology, philosophy, and religion classes the most. But I was pretty sure I wanted a well-rounded business degree rather than the heavy-handed economics program being served up – so I made a move to the Carlson School to wrap up the final two years of undergrad. It wasn’t until the final quarter of my senior year that I took a class in marketing research – and finally had a glimpse of the work I wanted to pursue.

And what was your first job after graduation?

My first job after graduation was really a cobbled-together series of internships on the research vendor side. Ultimately, those experiences set me up well for the entry-level consumer insights role I landed, and loved, at Land O’Lakes.

How did those experiences point you toward what you’re doing now?

Midstream, I didn’t realize I was heading toward a freelance consulting role. I went from vendor to corporate to ad agency, which isn’t a typical path. But regardless of the framework, I was always responsible for bringing target audience insights to bear on business decision-making. Experiencing the role from each of those unique vantage points, in turn, made it easier than I ever imagined to relate to the various clients I would serve as a consultant – because I had walked in many of their shoes.

Was there an “aha” moment when you thought “This is what I want to do!”

When I was an agency account planner, I had toddlers and a spouse who traveled as extensively as I did, and I figured there had to be a better way to do meaningful work and still keep all the balls in the air. The ‘aha’ was realizing it was actually possible. It made me feel like somehow I’d beat the system.

On top of that, consumer insights is a blast. I’m forever having interesting conversations with ordinary and extraordinary humans, about ordinary and extraordinary stuff. Honestly, it’s the stuff that life is made of.

What do like best about working independently?

It’s not just how and when I work, though admittedly that’s a pretty nice perk. Working independently gives me the freedom to dig deep for answers, take tangents where it makes sense, examine what I really believe and come to my own conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong – collaborating always brings energy and perspective to the work I do, and I relish the opportunity to learn from smart people whenever I can. But the thing I most value about working independently is taking a deep breath and rising to the challenge when there’s no one else to turn to. It’s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s affirming, all at once.

From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?

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My goal is to coax out simple human truths as naturally as I can – so job one is to gain participants’ trust. Some of that comes through experience and skill, but being empathetic, curious, and genuinely interested in what participants offer leads to meaningful insights for clients.

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How about from the perspective of a research participant?

Participants tell me all the time that they’re surprised how much fun they’ve had. At the heart of it, people want to matter, and it starts with being heard and understood. They spark to someone who really listens, and cares enough to find out what’s in their heads and hearts – and why.

What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?

It might be that if you’re doing it well, it looks like a walk in the park. It’s just conversation, right? Below the surface, a great facilitator is marching double-time to make discovery feel so natural for participants that they’re not aware there’s a jam-packed agenda, and a prescribed time in which to address the client’s needs.

How has the pandemic changed how you do your job?

The most obvious change is the way the pandemic accelerated research technologies that were already in place. Online interviews and focus groups have been around for years – but many facilitators, myself included, believe there’s no replacement for the in-person dynamic to really build rapport.

We all did enough Zoom happy hours in 2020 to know that socially, online is just not the same. But consumers are used to it now, and obviously it’s pretty convenient to conduct sessions across time zones and geographies.

Do you think those changes will remain when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror?

No question, remote research methodologies are here to stay, for cost and efficiency reasons – which matters a lot. But many clients say that what’s missing is the level of team collaboration and focus they felt when on-site or in context with participants. Some clients say that things feel less personal and less real from a distance.

The pendulum will swing back some, and we’ll surely be doing more in-person work in the future. The good news is that for organizations who never considered it previously, online research was effectively legitimized through the pandemic, and technologies were improved to meet demand. Online will remain a fantastic option, even as ethnographic, in-context, and facility-based work are buoyed by the recovery.

How May people contact you?

[email protected]  |  651-247-6888  |  LinkedIn

Stop Planning

Photo of a businessman staring at a complex mazeA new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen

The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?

Nonlinear truths
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.

Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.

Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.

Hybrid thinking
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.

Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”

By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.

Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:

  • Empathy for the end user   Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.

After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.

  • Multiple perspectives  Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.

  •  Trial and error  We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”

Moving forward
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.

To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.

Related content:
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)     
Building Strategic Capacity by Design