Saturday, June 1, 2013

In Praise of Slowing Down

Prepared for the Canadian Marketing Association, May 2013.

I know how it is; after all, I’ve been working in the private sector since 1992. In the private sector, something is often ‘on fire’.  Sales are down, the release is delayed, the launch is a mess, employees are pissed off, customers are complaining.  And the chain of panic sets in. Except business fires aren’t really anything like real fires. We can’t stop, drop and roll ourselves out of it.
The Walt Disney Company has been in business since 1923. That’s a long time.  And so I feel it is relevant to refer to the words of a wise Imagineer as quoted in 2003’s The Imagineering Way:
“If you have five minutes to do a project, spend four minutes figuring out how to do it and one minute doing it.” 
Now in this day and age, there is complexity at every point in any path, and we know that execution and craft are critical so this is not to advocate shortchanging the implementation process, but the principle referenced in the quote above is important.
To find the real problem: The ‘real problem’ is rarely the one that seems to be staring us in the face. The real problem is often hidden just a little behind the scenes. Further, good problem definition captures the specifics, the nuance; it is not enough to say customers are unhappy and then to begin solving.  We need to understand ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ about their unhappiness, specifically, and only then can we begin thinking intelligently about how to solve for that.
To hear all the voices: To solve complex problems requires the input of many voices of expertise and imagination.  When we rush into action, we often forget to include some of the most important voices in the mix; we race to the leadership or to consultants trying to put out the fire fast and we risk forgetting that our most valuable learning (and ultimately the fastest path to the solution) might actually come from the customer care centre, or the technician in the field or the customer herself.
To let the solution stew*: “Don’t try to solve a problem too early…” “we need the stew to simmer.” This is another Imagineer piece of advice. We often salute the magical idea that appears in an instant, yet we forget the form and sophistication it takes on throughout the process of its development.  Sometimes the solution appears magically right away, maybe even often. But we must remember that the solution in the end is almost always an evolution of the seed of that solution that appeared in the beginning. Time is the secret ingredient that makes that growth and development happen.
* “Stew” = Language also used by a Disney Imagineer
Heidi McCulloch

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Personal is Political

In the wake of a senseless Friday in North America, a phrase repeats over and over in my head: The Personal is Political.  A phrase used decades ago to describe the beliefs guiding the women’s movement that “…personal problems are political problems”, that “there are no personal solutions at this time; there is only collective action for a collective solution.” (The Personal is Political, Carol Hanisch)

This is a powerful sentiment.  Freshly traumatized by the massacre of vulnerable children, still we try to tuck discussions of rights under a rug of “politicizing”.  We prefer to dismiss the event as “the actions of one person”, to push to uphold rationality. Need I say this so-called rationality is the ultimate in irrationality.

This event wasn’t about one person; it didn’t happen to just one person and it wasn’t the cause of just one person.  But it is deeply personal.

What happened on December 14, 2012 in the now permanently wounded Newtown, Connecticut, is emotional. It is appalling, horrific and painful, for families, for communities, for a nation, for many all over the world.

 It is deeply personal.

And, yes, it is deeply political.

We humans, we bleed with humanity.  And all that sadness and passion and love MUST now be poured into discussions about the ways we care for each individual and our collective of individuals, the terms under which our society is governed, the values that we determine reign supreme. Every day we must keep our horror and our passion alive.  Every day we must remember. We must discuss. And we must act.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Strategy for Today

Prepared for the Canadian Marketing Association, August 2012.

The role of Strategy is more important than ever.  Business is bigger and more complex than ever, competition is rampant, categories blur, communications can be chaotic, audiences are dispersed globally and most of our major systems are in states of major disruption.  In this environment, formal, diligent attention to Strategy is non-negotiable.
But ‘Strategy for Today’ is a different beast than it was even a decade ago.  While strategy has always had to be smart, in the last few years there has been a noticeable shift from a desire for lengthy, convoluted strategy, and strategic documents, to a request for concisely distilled strategy.
‘Strategy for Today’ must be smart, of course, but today, it must also be simple.  This is the biggest demand and requirement I have identified coming from all manner of clients in today’s market environment – that smart strategy be made simple. 
I have stated my belief that strategy is critical.  And it must be smart, obviously.  It must capture goals and objectives: organizational, of the business, and of specific discipline areas.  What are we trying to do?  What are the needs we understand intimately and will address? What is the vision that adheres us? What is our point of difference: our meaningful, compelling role to play in the market ecosystem?  Why is it credible? And then how do we convey it? To whom? When? How? In what manner?
To arrive at this understanding is not an easy process. To do it well means embracing complexity, understanding broadly and deeply the factors at play, distilling, shaping and setting direction. It means having a strong handle on the data, an intuitive visionary view to future possibility and the language and emotion to capture how it can be brought to life.  It is by no means an easy task.
But most importantly, when all is said and done, ‘Strategy for Today’ must wade through this complexity and be made simple.
‘Strategy for Today’ can not have the output of a 100-page, inked document, formalized, set in stone to be blindly adhered to. 
More and more, the demand and requirement is to capture the strategy in a phrase, in a page, in an image even.
Why? Because ‘Strategy for Today’ is a different beast, critically operating within a changed market environment.  ‘Strategy for Today’ must be able to be responsive, to evolve, and to be shared.   Which is why it is so important that it be made simple.
In my practice, this requirement of ‘Strategy for Today’ made simple has very tangible implications.  It means that when assigned a project, I go deep into understanding: researching, question-asking, collaborating, and ideating.  I share, review, consider, re-consider and solicit feedback on a continual basis.  And I make decisions, distill, shape and set direction.
But the process does not end there.  ‘Strategy for Today’ is not complete until it can be conveyed simply: in a 30-second elevator ride, in an at-a-glance strategy document, with the perfect representation of image and language.
Because it is with this ‘Strategy for Today’, smart AND simple, that organizations can actually respond to, evolve, share, and ultimately use strategy to guide them to success.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Collaboration: Part Two

Prepared for the Canadian Marketing Association, February 2012.
In On Collaboration: Part One, I introduced some personal perspectives on the concept of Collaboration.  And while I noted the infancy of our academic understanding of the concept, I mentioned my discovery of one journal article in particular that had captured my attention.
Authors Fiore, Rosen, Smith-Jentsch, Letsky & Warner (2010) wrote Toward an Understanding of Macrocognition in Teams: Predicting Processes in Complex Collaborative Contexts.  The authors of this article put some science around the murky concept of Collaboration. And they share some validated guidance for how to help make Collaboration happen productively.
They identify five keys to collaboration, keys which you might want to apply to your own collaborations:
Collaboration Key #1: Externalized Cognition
A fancy term, yes.  But externalized cognition simply refers to the degree that knowledge is made external beyond each individual within a team and hence shared amongst a team.  Examples of externalized cognition could be as simple as white-board mapping of thinking for other team members, or note-taking that then is shared amongst them. The degree with which this happens - that cognition is externalized - is a contributor to productive outcomes from collaboration. So, next time you are bringing a group together, be sure to fill that white board up with the fruits of the conversation. Take notes, and share them. Consider what ways you can bring physical form to the group's cognitive work.
Collaboration Key #2: Team Cognition
Team cognition occurs when the team has been able to establish individual roles for each member, so that unique skills can be applied to a problem in a coordinated way.  In outcome, the team comes to operate like an “information processing unit”. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is the way players on a football team play.  The quarterback calls the play, and is responsible to make the throw, while the defense-men work to clear the path for the forwards trying to make the catch and get across the line. The team players operate as a coordinated unit. When you build a team, are you conscious about bringing together a skill set of people, with individual and diverse strengths that together can form a unit? And is it clear that each 'player on the team' has a specific role to play as a part of that team?
Collaboration Key #3: Group Communication Orientation
The authors note that performance improves when group communication is clearly oriented to the task-at-hand.  You can all imagine the times when groups get sidelined by personal differences, opining, or even debating formatting of documents.  Improved team performance outcomes come from focusing group communication on the problem to be solved.  Even more specifically, improved outcomes come from a majority of time allotted to defining the problem at hand.  Poor outcomes resulted when groups spent time working on solutions before giving adequate attention to problem definition.  And perhaps counter-intuitively, spending time considering negative possible outcomes contributes to improved performance as well. The next time you pull a team together, remember this: ensure communication is focused on the task explicitly.  Carve off diligent time to consider the problem before any consideration is given to possible solutions.  And be proactive about considering all potential outcomes, including, importantly, the negative ones.
Collaboration Key #4: Collaborative Learning
A fourth key to collaboration is collaborative learning, which refers to how well groups “share, store and retrieve” learning.  This is quite straightforward to explain though not necessarily to achieve.  It requires an efficient means around which learning is shared and leveraged across the team. There are many collaboration tools: think Skype, Google Groups or Google Docs and of course the ever-reliable collaboration tool of face-to-face time. And do note that there is a difference between sharing data or information or documents and sharing ‘learning’. While data, information and documents matter, it is key is to facilitate the sharing, storing and retrieval of the group's learning. When putting together your next team, seek to define the collaboration tools and the face-to-face touch points that will serve the sharing, storing and retrieving of the group's learning.  And then use them diligently.
Collaboration Key #5: Knowledge Building
The final collaboration key is knowledge building. This is a more detailed idea that requires a deeper understanding of the differences between data vs. information vs. knowledge. Very briefly, data transforms into information when it becomes contextualized and information then becomes knowledge once connections are made between pieces of information. A key to successful collaboration is in the team's ability to achieve this process of Knowledge Building: to take data, transform it into information and then to transform that information into knowledge.  
My goal here was to provide some academic understanding about the science of collaboration in a way that you might be able to apply it to your immediate team-work activities. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Let's Make Communication Products

What might a “Communication Product” Be?

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been thinking about “communication products” lately. This is mainly because I’ve noticed a hyperbole of activity in marketplaces around the world: activity centered around “innovation” and activity directed towards making things.  Many of these things are tech-based products like mobile apps, and new digital platforms of myriad sorts.

And then I’ve noticed a second hyperbole of activity, around promoting these new products, promoting them for the purposes of securing funding to develop them, then promoting them once in beta mode to garner early iteration and promoting them once live for revenue.

So it seems that we have a proliferation of innovative things being made, and a consequent proliferation of promotion surrounding these things. And this is all contributing to the already unprecedentedly (new invented word) difficult current environment in which to stand out.

So we have “products”: made-things like an app, a digital e-commerce platform, a film, an album, being made… “things” that might well be of value to someone, be fun and compelling, be revenue generating positive contributions to the market system and the makers. But the airwaves are overwhelmed with promotional pathways.  Overwhelming on Twitter, Facebook, in radio spots and TV spots, in events, cross-promotions, and so on and so on.

And hence that thinking about I’ve been doing a lot of lately. What if we built more “communication products”?

So, what is this “communication product”?

 It’s an ingoing intention, by-design, whereby the communication of a product is completely and proactively, upfront, integrated into the development of said product. 

So where now we build and then we promote, with a “communication product”, these two activities come together, whereby the communication of the product is an essential part of the product itself: the “story” of the product is a fundamental component of the product itself.

A “communication product” would, by-design, in development, bridge a connection between the made-thing and its potential audience, creatively, meaningfully, in a compelling way.

How to get there? How to introduce this possibility into the development of made-things?

-       First answer what you make? Take a game; it may be a game, but is it a way to pass time? Is it a way to build cognitive skill? Is it a way to bond parents and kids? Is it a journey into the imagination? Is it a means for competition?
-       Second answer who you make it for? Is it for older women who might be lonely? Is it for intellectuals? Is it for dads and their daughters? Is it for creativity fanatics? Is it for competitive extremists?
-       Then think about the communication bridge? How can you integrate a communication bridge that conveys a story about passing time to older women who are lonely? How can you integrate a communication bridge that conveys a story about building cognitive skill to intellectuals? How can you integrate a communication bridge that conveys a story about parent-child bonding to dads and their daughters? How can you integrate a communication bridge that conveys a story about the imagination to creativity fanatics? How can you integrate a communication bridge that conveys a story about competition to competitive extremists?

And the key thing?  Think about this in development, by-design, not after the fact.  Make it an essential component of the building of the made-thing. 

In the possibility proposed, the made-thing takes on a broader meaning right from inception. The story is an essential part of the development.  So there’s no need for the build-then-promote strategy because the made-thing already has the pieces built into it for cultural salience; it already has the components that will stimulate story-telling. And the made-thing comes along as the principal rider. That’s how a made-thing becomes a “communication product”.

Is it feasible? Would it work? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Item #67: T.I.M.E. for a new C.

Today I am thinking about Co-Working.

Is it future or is it fad? This is the question I have considered myself and asked of others.  Let me boldly conclude that I do believe it is future. 5 constructs are shaping the emergence and the sustainable potential that co-working presents.  They come together to suggest that it is T.I.M.E. for a new C.

What makes it T.I.M.E. for a new C.

T: Technology proceeds at a warp speed pace to get better, stronger, faster, smaller, more affordable, and easier to use. Yesterday, the lease end inspection for my car took place in 20 minutes with the inspector’s car serving as his very equipped office.  He took photos, recorded data, did a diagnostic, loaded it all into a laptop, completed a data analysis, provided me with a lease end report including costs for multiple alternatives, printed me out a paper report and sent a version to me by email, all from the front seat of his car in less than 20 minutes.  That’s technology today; no office required.

I: Innovation rules.  It is the key to our future and the single most important dynamic driving the public sphere right now.  How will we re-imagine our broken systems and pave new paths for our economic system, our financial system, our global relations, our social systems, our consumer model, our politics and more? The expectation is that only through the embracing of innovative approaches and the audacious pursuit of innovative solutions can this be possible. Innovation tends to emerge from smaller pods of activity, where non-like meets non-like to produce something un-like ever before.  It is very questionable that the old organizations we have all been working in for the last fifty years can provide this environment.

M: Mobility is the mantra of the millennial generation, and increasingly of the masses.  Rampant air travel means many of us are able to be much more mobile than ever before.  The smartphone means we are only tethered to our pockets or our purses whereby powerful communication technology is merely at arm’s reach.  The world is figuratively and factually our oyster, and we are not only embracing the opportunity, but we are becoming very quickly accustomed to the ability to be mobile. To be detached and entirely attached at the same time is now an expectation and a need versus a desire or a want.

E: Entrepreneurialism is all the rage – it seems.  Steven Harper declared 2011 to be The Year of The Entrepreneur.  I think that was just recognition of what is rapidly becoming a commonplace job title.  Many of the dynamics discussed above are conspiring to make the conditions ripe for entrepreneurial activity.  The notion of exercising one’s creativity and vision in an act of enterprise is even more appealing given that the tools and the context is there to support the desire.  Technology is making it possible.  Governments are supporting the activity financially.  And the chief product of entrepreneurs – innovation – is in demand.  Entrepreneurs work different and they will need the spaces that can meet this need. 

For a new C.

The Old C: Is ‘the corporation’, the corporation as understood in traditional conceptual terms.  The place one goes in the morning and leaves at the end of the day.  The place where hierarchical systems of managers and workers are organized to plod through fairly repetitive orderly days.  The place where a paycheque is guaranteed and eyeglass purchases are covered. 

The New C: Is the collaborative workspace.  A place where entrepreneurial-minded people of multi-disciplinary interests convene. A place where inspiration, imagination and collaboration rule.  Where technology facilitates. Where mobility is championed.  A place where creativity is cultivated and innovation emerges.  A place of the future: the new office.

In the collaborative workspace. 
The office of the future.
Where we will work differently and, yes, work better.
That’s what I am thinking about today.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Item #66: Life After Social Media

I had the pleasure of spending four eye-opening days in Los Angeles last weekend.  It wasn’t the city that opened my eyes, though; it was the company.  I spent four days with seven other ladies, the least I’ve known for 15 years, and the most I’ve known for 35 years.  But that’s another, separate, and glorious, story.

These women rigidly extracted me from my days of face-in-a-computer, achieve-achieve-achieve planning, anxiety inducing presentations, and interpersonal collaboration challenges to remind me of the things that actually matter to the majority of the world.  I might have lost sight of that a little in the myopia of my day-to-day. 

But this is a post about Social Media, so what’s the relationship?

Social Media has dominated conversation, particularly amongst marketing, advertising and communications types for at least the last five years.  Zuckerberg paved the path with his arrival on the scene via Facebook, believe it or not less than ten years ago.  Since then, there’s been an animated fixation on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Path, Rdio, Spotify, and the lengthy list goes on.

Without question, there have been the monarchic players in the kingdom of social media, namely King Facebook, Queen Twitter, Prince LinkedIn, Lord Instagram and Duchess Pinterest, which arrived like Princess Diana with a flourish only recently.

But let’s pause and take the airplane perspective here for just a moment: who drives use, growth and success of these social media platforms?

Many social media platforms have thrived off the buzz created by media and niche users in the marketing, advertising and communications fields, but I contend that the future belongs to those platforms who can deliver impenetrable value to the mass of users – people like those seven women I mentioned earlier.

I have noticed a ghost-town-ization (Robert Scoble, 2012) of some social media of late. Twitter is much quieter.  In contrast, it seems Facebook is a little bit more active.  Pinterest took off like a lightening bolt, compeling the Martha Stewart inside millions of citizens to share loveliness.  LinkedIn retains a steady level of importance in its singularity as a valuable professional networking tool.  And Instagram, well, we can only pontificate, but without the acquisition by Facebook, Instagram probably would’ve run through the consumer adoption cycle in record time and landed in the history books along with MySpace. Can we call Path a success? Soundcloud? Google+? Foursquare? Debatable on all counts, I think.

So what’s with the ghost-town-ization of some social media; is it real? I think so, and I think it plays right back to the eye-opening four days I recently spent in Los Angeles.  What matters to the masses of people that social media needs to work for is their lives. The health and happiness of self and other loved ones, and the other essential part of the masses lives, their work. 

It seems to me that the ghost-town-ization of some social media is because people really just want to get back to life, life as characterized by Love and Work (Freud was right).

And so, as people tire from too many options and too little time, and just want to get back to life, only the social media platforms that recognize this and create a sustainable, distinct and useful place in these people’s lives will prevail.

The ONLY social media platform the seven women I was with peeked in on was Facebook, because it is there that they can check in on their ‘life’ with their loved ones.

LinkedIn has its place in the future as the most useful professional networking service, to help people be successful in that as-yet-irreplaceable part of life called Work.

Instagram has wisely been acquired and will now become a natural part of the already entrenched Facebook, to bring a new level of texture to getting back to life.

I fear Twitter is hitting a rough patch…that it needs to uncover its value in this reality of settling priorities.  It has never been the go-to-platform to connect with those you care about; again, that’s Facebook. It is at current quite simply trying to play too many diverse roles as: a) a location and means for information-sharing, largely professionally related, b) a channel for self-promotion, c) a weak social community, d) an entertainment channel, and e) a photo posting tool.  Some of those services have the opportunity for a distinct place in the part of life called Work; some are simply second-rate to Facebook.  So what can Twitter be in this world where people just want to get back to their lives of love and work?

I believe the ghost-town-ization is real, that people are exiting social media in time spent, and in investment level.  They are getting back to life, to love and to work.  Its role is moving from faddish growth to converged value.  The social media platforms that survive will need to define and deliver meaningful value in people’s lives, by either supporting that which they love or their work. And only a few will win.

Hopefully the title of this post wasn’t misunderstood. There is life after social media; it looks a whole lot like the life we’ve always known.