Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Ping-Pong Lesson

I spent a big part of the last two days assembling a ping-pong table we bought for Christmas. This is why I missed my regular Friday morning blog post timing. But now, having completed building the table, I recognized there was a real analogy between building it and to nearly all big projects we work on. I felt there was a lesson in there that was worth re-telling.

Upon dragging the 100+ pound box into the house, I opened it up and found at least 500 unconnected pieces that needed to be put together. The 40-page instruction booklet had hundreds of steps. It required some tools I did not have and some skills I was not adept at. Yikes. Talk about being overwhelmed – I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to do it. And my family didn’t think so, either. But they generally laugh at my do-it-yourself capabilities, anyway.

We’ve all faced projects that seemed overwhelming and nearly impossible at the outset. That had what seemed like millions of steps, lots of layers, and processes and skills we’ve never tried. So how do you get it done?

Start small. Initially, I focused on just getting through the first few steps.  I knew the overall process would take hours, so I started by committing a smaller amount of time to make some initial progress. This took me through the first few pages of the instructions, and allowed me to get a few sections done and start to gain a little confidence.

Build momentum. After a break, I came back and built off my initial success. I powered through a couple more sections of the instructions, duplicated it for the second side of the table, and began to really see it coming together.  This is a point in any project where you get very excited by possibilities and grow your ambitions to achieve greatness.

Savor successes. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments as you gather them. When I’d put together half of the table, it was possible to see what the finished product would look like. This gave me confidence I would be successful. And it also gave me something to show my less than supportive family as evidence of my capabilities. It was rewarding.

Take breaks. After having some success, it’s important to take a break. Breaks do a couple things. One, they help make sure you don’t get worn out and begin to function at less than 100% of your capacity.  And two, a break can help you think freshly about your project, your ideas and your goals. This allows you to return to work even more productively and successfully.

Push through. There were lots of distractions as I put the table together. And there were tons of things I would rather have been doing. But I didn’t allow myself to get distracted – I focused, especially towards the end, on finishing. This is true of any project.

And now, I’ve got a new ping-pong table to show for it. Happy holidays! And happy new year, y’all!


The Power of “What if?”

I wrote last week about the importance of asking questions – and the fact that often, questions are more important than answers.  As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.“ And there’s one type of question that’s more powerful than any other – the question that starts with “What if…?” “What if” questions are powerful because they can be a catalyst for creativity – by forcing people to face new scenarios, new possibilities and new assumptions.

1)   “What if?” questions spur creativity and innovation
“What if?” is the single-most important question to the creative process – it says you aren’t content with the status quo. Creativity and innovation are, by definition, about creating something that didn’t exist before. “What if” is a way of asking questions about things that haven’t happened or have never been put together before. “What if we sold books on the internet?”, “What if bourbon was flavored with honey”, “What if people could ‘time-share’ a car?”  “What if” gets people to imagine new worlds and new ways of doing things.

2)   They help build things.
There are two ways that asking “what if” helps build ideas. First, asking “what if?” demands response and engagement. It’s a thought-starter. If someone asks “what if” in a meeting, the other participants are forced (in a good way) to engage and build. Secondly, someone may ask “what if” after hearing someone else’s idea. It’s a good way to build on it, make connections to other thoughts and ideas and give the idea momentum and dynamism.

3)   They help identify problems before they occur
Asking “what if” is a tool for critical thinking – it opens the mind up to review and assess a myriad of possibilities and either avoid them or prepare for them. Anything that’s never been done before, from landing on the moon to launching a new ad campaign, needs to be assessed this way in order to be ready to take action if the “what if” scenarios take place.

4)   They force you to face (and, often, change) your assumptions
Because of the fact that these questions will often challenge the status quo, you may be forced to re-think your in-going hypotheses. But that’s a good thing. In fact, as Al Pittampalli said, “why bother going to a meeting if you’re not prepared to change your mind?” It’s a very good thing to face your own assumptions and be prepared to change your mind. In fact, every time you think “I’m right”, force yourself to think, “What if I’m wrong?” This, invariably, will lead to something better.

Never stop questioning. According to Naguib Mahfouz, “you can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.“ And add “what if?” to your question repertoire.

Let’s Hear It For Scrappiness

Everywhere you look you hear about the great “race for talent”. How the future will be won by who wins the “talent war”. Expertise, brilliance, dream candidates, the best and the brightest have all been written about.

Well it’s time to sing the praises of a greatly undervalued trait – scrappiness. Scrappiness is as responsible for success as any other characteristic. And yet no HR guru, no leadership maven or management expert seems to notice it, identify it, or search for these folks. Those who are gritty, persistent, resourceful. It’s an un-sung breed.

One thing scrappy has is desire. There’s nothing laid-back or “phoning it in” in scrappy. Scrappy wants to set the world on fire.

And there’s some magical kick-ass-ness that makes the scrappy truly heroes.

1) Scrappy gets sh*t done. The scrappy team makes things happen. It doesn’t wait for all the resources, all the debate, all the bureaucracy, all the knowledge. They simply achieve.  The scrappy team rolls up their sleeves and steps into any gap in team expertise or knowledge and fills it.

And on the scrappy team, everyone is a do-er. No one sits and waits for someone to tell them what to do. They’ve already got a 10-point list of next steps before anyone even speaks. At my last agency, my relatively small Porsche team produced more output than the rest of the agency combined. Everyone at the agency assumed we had dozens of account and creative people. Nope.

2) Scrappy punches above its weight. When you’ve got scrappy players, you can accomplish a lot more, with less. Two or three scrappy folks can go into a conference room and come out an hour or so later with a plan that would have taken a committee a month to develop.

And when you come in contact with the scrappy, it’s hard to know what level these folks are. They operate at the “whatever it takes” level, not the AE, AS, or AD level, for example.

3) Scrappy is fast. The world is moving so fast. But the old way of working – big teams, lots of levels and hierarchy, etc. – doesn’t facilitate fast solutions. But scrappy adapts to the need for fast.

And scrappy is tuned in, in real-time. Staying up to date, reading analytics, prepared with solutions, day-in and day-out. But that doesn’t mean that scrappy is working 24/7. Scrappy knows how to be efficient – and can go and be scrappy in their outside lives, as well.

4) Scrappy is self-reliant. Every day there’s another newly minted “expert” created to do some emergent, specialized task. Social media experts, earned media specialists, “listening czars”. But scrappy people don’t wait around until one of these experts is brought in to do something. They learn it and do it themselves. The scrappy team, together, becomes their own type of expert.

5) Scrappy is always in beta. The scrappy know it’s important to try things. To get real-world examples out to learn from. To test, trial and experiment. Perfection is the enemy of scrappy. And, as we know, there’s no such thing as perfection, anyway.

In sports, we always hear that the smaller, slower, less physically gifted (and usually white) athlete who performs above expectations is scrappy. That’s how scrappy gets a bad name. As if a person has to be scrappy because their talent level is low. But that’s simply not true. Anyone can be scrappy – Michael Jordan was scrappy, in fact. So go and find your scrappy heroes, and build a new dream team around them.

A Search for Questions: Re-learning the importance of asking questions

I don’t have to tell you that today’s marketing and advertising world is incredibly complex. And the pressure to perform and deliver positive results has never been higher. So it’s no surprise that everyone is looking for answers, answers, answers to their marketing problems. But to find those answers, it’s never been more important to ask good questions.

American Poet Nancy Willard said, “sometimes questions are more important than answers.” I’ll go further – just as the most important part of communication is listening, the most important parts of any answer are questions.  The word question comes from the Latin word quaerere, which means to seek – and isn’t that we all need to be doing?

Asking questions engages people and provokes thought. It stimulates ideas, rules out incorrect or outdated assumptions and gets you further towards understanding and ideation.  If you keep asking questions, you can keep finding better and better answers. For reference, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said, ‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’

We see this trait in kids. They are constantly asking questions to help them make sense of the world and develop their own opinions and ideas. Who hasn’t heard “why is the sky blue?”, “why can’t I pull the dog’s fur?”, “why do I have to go to bed now?” In fact, most of the articles and books on questions are about children and learning in childhood. Well here’s a question – why do we seem to think that asking questions stops being important in adulthood?

There are several reasons that people stop asking questions as adults.

They’re afraid: People don’t ask questions because they’re afraid they will look stupid, underprepared, inattentive. Or their questions will add uncertainty to the group. (This must be the reason most men refuse to ask for directions, even when they’re hopelessly lost.)

They’re lazy: It takes effort to ask questions. You have to be paying attention, be interested in digging deeper, and assume some responsibility for responding to answers. You have to be passionate enough to care about the information and the learning you might get from the question. For some, this requires way too much effort.

They’re dispassionate: These folks are happy with any answer. They’d prefer to check the box, get ‘er done, and move on, than actually aspire to a job well done, to results that shatter expectations, or to work that has never been done before.

They’re insecure: If you’re afraid of “shades of gray”, and prefer to cling to assumptions you already have, then you won’t want to ask questions. Questions can force re-assessment of your beliefs and leave you unsure of what you “know” and don’t know (see my earlier post about “remaining stupid”, and referencing “knowers” vs. “learners”).

Great leaders know, and are comfortable with the fact, they don’t have all the answers They know to never stop asking questions of themselves, their teams, their assumptions, and their output. Questions help leaders not only to engage and participate, but also help probe the thought processes of others, vs. just making assumptions about them based on actions.

Leaders and managers should spend more time thinking about, caring about and teaching good questioning skills to everyone. And questions should be central to all phases of project development – before, during and after. Before, to ensure there’s enough clarity and understanding of the problem you’re solving. What really is the problem? Who, what, where, when, how, why? Agree to objectives and goals before you even start to seek answers. But be willing to evolve as you learn. Continue to ask questions during the project development. Are we building a program to answer our core problem? Is this doing what we want it to? Should we question our assumptions? What else can/should we do? And after, continue to question. What did we learn? What did we do right and should carry to future projects? What went wrong and why? How do we try to avoid this in the future?

It’s almost as if you should maintain a form neoteny – an adult retention of a childlike trait – and continue to ask questions as a way to understand the world. As Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning”.

There’s No “I” in T-E-A-M: The Secrets To High-Performing Teams.

As we all know, business, especially the ad business, is a team sport. The best soloist in the world can’t win on his or her own. And the success of the business largely depends on how these teams function and work together, productively and successfully. People can always accomplish more together than as individuals – theoretically, at least.

But we’ve all worked on teams that performed poorly, inefficiently, or dysfunctionally. That felt hobbled, divided, erratic. Where the inter-relationships between team members created obstacles. When teams function like this, the amount of waste and disappointment they create is staggering. On the other hand, we have all likely worked on teams that felt like dream teams – smoothly, seamlessly generating ideas, developing output, making good things happen.

I’ve had a few memorable team experiences through the years like this. I call them “Jerry Maguire” teams, because of the “you complete me” feeling of them. One team member seems to bleed into the next, picking up where the other left off, almost finishing each other’s sentences. The different members can fill in for each other when another isn’t there. And titles are irrelevant or unnecessary. I remember a few new business pitches where the work was presented so collaboratively that the client wasn’t even sure our roles – which one is the copywriter? Are you the account guy? Who is the strategic planner? To me, this is a sign of great success.

So what makes teams function effectively? How can you drive this type of productivity and efficiency? These are the 5 characteristic of “Jerry Maguire” teams:

There are clear goals
It’s a given that a team needs clarity of purpose and measureable objectives. And every member needs to be dialed-in on and accountable to them, making sure all efforts are designed to achieve a successful delivery of them. When members have different views on success, or, worse, competing agendas, the train runs off the rails.

But I’ve found that there are also intangible goals that great teammates share – e.g. the goal of developing great work. The goal of constantly learning and improving. The goal of demanding the best out of yourselves. When these goals are shared, the sky’s the limit.

Equally important is that each team member similarly feels accountable to each other. Success is everyone’s success, and failure is everyone’s failure. It’s hard to measure, and harder still to teach, but individuals need to feel bound to their team and teammates and a part of something bigger than just “work” and themselves. Team members who don’t feel responsible to the others will undermine the commitment of rest of the team.

Size matters
Contrary to popular belief, bigger is not always better. And on teams, it’s usually the opposite that is the case. I once worked as a consultant on a new business pitch for a well-known agency on Madison Avenue. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that there were over 50 people in the briefing. Coordinating all those people throughout the process was impossible – so naturally, the pitch was fragmented, and less than successful.

Where innovation and creativity matter, small teams are the way to go. In fact, many companies are taking an almost “skunk works” approach to teams. Smaller is nimbler, faster and more agile – all critically important when it comes to today’s creativity.

Trust and respect
A necessary prerequisite for successful team functioning is mutual respect. Each team member must respect each other – their capabilities, responsibilities and views. Having mutual respect allows lots of positive things to happen. First, the team will put trust in each other – trust that each person will pull their weight, do the right thing, and their ideas and decisions will be driven by the greater good.

This then will lead all members to expect the best of each other, vs. expecting the worst, which so often can be the case. The power of this can’t be understated – it allows the team to focus on actual work and team goals, and not self-preservation or personal agendas.

“Always on” communications
It’s critical that teams have seamless communications – constantly sharing updates, news, follow-ups, etc. Any hiccup in this basic type of communication will slow down – or even break down – the flow of work. A good team will send communications to teammates as almost second-nature. There’s almost no chance of being out of the loop.

However, there’s another, more important aspect of good communication for these teams. There’s an expectation that partners will speak their minds and express their own viewpoints, freely and openly, without fear of being ridiculed. That being said, after a point is discussed or debated, the team will agree to move in one direction, united.

What are your experiences with teams? Have any other characteristics you can share?

The Inevitable Extinction of the A-hole

There was something I learned in college  in Psychology 101 that stuck with me. I read about a study that showed that, as a kid, having any nickname was better than having none. I found it hard to believe. Really? Being known as “Fatty” or “Doofus” was better than being known as Steve?

Well for years in the advertising industry, it had always seemed that being known as an “asshole” was also better for a person. No one seemed to be penalized for it. Not only was it acceptable, but also it seemed to earn a person more respect. There were the prima donna creatives, who threw things and cursed at people for expecting them to do their job. There were the know-it-all strategists, who treated everyone like idiots and as if they were doing you a favor working on your project. There were micro-managing leaders, who could never be satisfied and always assumed the worst of you. And the over-bearing, patronizing executives, who treated everyone like children. All these a-holes somehow got promoted, took on more important jobs and got paid more money. And no one thought anything of it.

And I’m not talking about demanding, tough, high-expectation types – everybody should be demanding and have high expectations. I’m talking about real assholes. And, I’m here to say that their days are numbered. Here’s why these assholes can’t succeed in the “new normal”.

1. There’s too much collaboration
The new way we work is way too collaborative and integrated to allow for the success of the a-hole. The digital revolution has us working in real time, across channels, with internal and external partners. Command and control is dead and “soloist” leaders can’t succeed – it’s now an ensemble performance that requires a talented maestro to bring the best out of lots of different people and different temperaments.

And those folks who stab others in the back, talk behind peoples’ backs, make fun of others? Those guys won’t get by in this new world either. It’s impossible to keep secrets – so ill intentions and sub rosa communications will always get aired.

2. Everyone needs to grab a shovel
Gone are the days where a senior leader doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Flat organizations, decreasing fees and tight margins have made teams smaller and less hierarchic. And the “always on” nature of the business demands that everyone be ready, willing and able to do anybody’s job, at any time.

3. Creative is no longer a department
Creativity has never been more important, but it no longer resides in the hands of a few special people wearing black and 3-day stubble. Creativity now is just as likely to come out of an analytics insight or a media idea as a print concept. So this drastically reduces the tolerance for bad creative department behavior. Plus, it’s also just as likely that the writer or art director will be working on designing an email template or writing search copy as a Super Bowl TV spot or a high impact print assignment shot in Tahiti. Try doing that with a chip on your shoulder.

4. Strategy is nothing more than a hypothesis
Strategy is obviously important – it’s the foundation for everything. However, it’s not the bailiwick of a person or a department. In fact, since everything is activated integratedly, strategy needs to be developed and approved jointly by those who will deliver the integrated program.

But more importantly, as the theory of stratecution stipulates, a strategy is just a hypothesis. And it’s just a starting point. It’s nothing without the combined strategic and creative execution and activation that will bring it to life.

5. Digital demands iteration
In the old way of working, a creative idea for TV or print was the execution. There was some evolution, naturally, but the work of execution was simply bringing it to reality. And that gave creative directors incredible power – because only they knew what the idea “really” was, and how to bring it to life.

But the new way of working in the digital world is all about iteration. Everyone learns as you go. A creative idea for a website or a display ad is a beginning – the team will iterate what it will do, how it will work, what to have the viewer do to interact with it, etc. It’s now an ensemble activity, with evolution, and sometimes revolution, a core part of the process. This gives the power to a much broader team – which can include technologists, user-experience specialists, media planners, in addition to the writer and art director.

6. You will be measured
In the old days, anyone could get away with saying the work was great. If it didn’t move product, drive leads, increase consideration, it wasn’t their fault. People could be self-proclaimed successes. But not anymore. We’re all only as good as our results.

So everyone needs to relish the opportunity to focus on measurement. To ensure all programs have mechanisms to track and to read results. And to be watching and attending to those results regularly, eager to adapt and optimize programs to improve their performance. This is hard for the old-school a-hole to accept.

Of course, this doesn’t mean failure isn’t accepted. But what you do with that failure, i.e. what learning you take to the remainder of the program and future efforts, is another form of measurement.

7. Talent needs empowerment
The A-hole executive was able to treat people poorly. Get as much work out of them as possible by controlling them with fear and politics. People were viewed as underlings who were replaceable – and small in comparison to the greatness of the executive.

The new focus of organizations has to be on empowering people – enabling them to accomplish more and be more successful. The move towards calling employees “talent” is a big step towards recognizing the respect and empowerment necessary. Treating people poorly doesn’t accomplish this.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to these dinosaurs becoming extinct. How about you? Have any stories you can share?

All You Need Is Hate

I normally write about things I love, care about or believe in. Today, I write about things I’m equally passionate about: things I hate. These are people and behaviors that drive me crazy – and kill teamwork, collaboration, productivity and success. And I believe hatred is ok – as long as you are also passionate about what you love and care about. See if you recognize some people in the list below!

I’ve talked about these folks in a prior post.  These are the “we’ve tried that before”, the “it’ll never work”, the “the client won’t buy it” people. The wind-out-of-the-sails people. The ones who never add to ideas, but instead sap energy, enthusiasm and forward progress out of them. Keep these folks off your teams or they will always underperform.

I honestly don’t know how these people do it. They look you in the face and tell you something they know is wrong. Lying comes in lots of flavors – sometimes people lie to avoid taking responsibility for something that went wrong, sometimes to discredit someone else, sometimes it’s to take credit for something they didn’t do. But every flavor is bad.

And the problem with liars is that, once you know they’re capable of lying to your face, you never know if you can believe them again. And in our business, with collaboration a must and teamwork and team communication demanding, working with liars breaks down team trust and effective communication.

There are no doubt times when everyone would prefer to do nothing instead of something, especially something difficult. But let’s face it – that’s not an option in business today. So when you come across people who actually DO choose to do nothing, it’s almost remarkable. You can’t even believe it. Does this person actually think this behavior is acceptable?

And laziness isn’t just doing nothing, it also can be manifest in the way someone does something. For example, just pushing paper, not adding value, not digging deeper into things. Working with those not eager, willing and able to pull their weight is a killer.

Very similar to the above are the “Easy-Way-Out-ers”. These are folks who do the least possible to get by – the “phoning it in” types. They hand you work that demands follow up, they provide information full of holes and without context, they don’t do any homework to add value to their work. And they don’t ask questions – e.g., are these the right objectives, does this fulfill our brief, could this be stronger? They simply pass-along the work, like hands in an assembly line. They want to be done with something fast, no muss, no fuss. But this doesn’t help anyone, least of all them.

Smugness isn’t just an ugly personality trait. It’s a symptom of some of the worst behaviors of leaders. First, it’s a symbol of the opposite of humility. This over-confidence and being overly pleased with oneself turns off partners and direct reports. Who wants to work with that?

Smugness is also a demonstration of the need for taking credit, for trumpeting one’s achievements, for a focus on “me” over “us”. This behavior will never lead to productive, effective teams. And, in the end, will result in failure for the smug one.

People who constantly talk about past efforts and successes
We all know them – in group meetings or brainstorm sessions, they always talk about what they did in the past on X campaign and with Y client in some loosely analogous situation. Of course analogous situations can be helpful springboards for new thinking. But when those analogous situations are used EVERY time, it becomes ridiculous – how could this same prior experience be helpful for every situation? In addition, as I’ve stated in the past, past experience actually can be a hindrance to creativity and innovation. First of all, it can put a mental box around thinking what’s possible, vs. a true exploration of “what if?”. But in addition, the “analogous” experience can be so different from the current that it could lead you astray to some irrelevant thinking.

The Vanilla
These are the people who give a good ice cream flavor a bad name. These people are the passion-less folks who “strike things off the to-do list” and “make things go-away”, instead of passionately doing their best with the ambition of doing great work. And this doesn’t mean always aiming for untouched territory and never-been-done before ideas. It means not taking pride in their work, no matter the context. Believe it or not, you can develop a passionate competitive report, a “flavorful” contact report, a great analytics recap. People need to have ambition and passion in all they do. Period. Or they should try doing something else.

People who don’t use their turn signals
Anyone who knows me even a little knows this is one of my giant pet peeves. But c’mon! There are lots of things that you are “supposed” to do, tasks that are required in order for society to function. Some of them are a pain in the ass – paying your taxes, shoveling the front walk, taking showers. But using your turn signal? This is not difficult. It takes zero effort. In fact, if you think about it, it’s kinda’ fun – one click, a blinking light, and then magically the light goes off by itself when you’ve completed your turn. But I find that more and more people are not using them. I view it as a sign of the downfall of humanity.

Similarly, there are team members and business partners who don’t communicate their intentions, don’t let you know what they plan on doing, don’t hold up their small responsibilities to the group. These seemingly small mis-communications and failures of conveying or living up to intentions can lead to big time sucks and screw-ups.

“Because it’s cool”
Don’t get me wrong, I like “cool” as much as the next guy. But never do anything because it’s cool. It should be cool because it’s right for the objective, it’s smart and creative, and will deliver the right solution to the problem. If ever you do something just to say you’ve done it, you’ll be wasting precious time and resources that you could be using to develop successful work.

So these are some of my hates and pet-peeves. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. What are your hates?

I Love a Good Flip-Flopper

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I had a friend at my house. My older brother did something nasty to the kid, as he commonly did back then, leaving my friend nearly frozen with rage. He pointed at my brother, apoplectic, shouting, “you, you, you,…”, putting great thought into what to call him that was bad enough to equal my brother’s actions. Finally, he said, “you… DOCTOR!”, summoning up the worst possible name he could think of.

Nowadays, the worst name you can call someone is “Flip-Flopper”. The term isn’t new (apparently Ford called Carter one, and Mike Dukakis called Dick Gephard one), but it seems to have really picked up steam. Mitt Romney is the current politician with a “flip-flop” problem.  John Kerry had an epic flip-flop problem – it probably cost him the election in 2004. But why is it so bad? Being a “flip-flopper” suggests you lack conviction – and making you appear weak, effete, untrustworthy.  Americans have become maniacal about demanding 100% steadfast, unwavering devotion to any idea. It’s a singular American image – standing up for what you believe is right, even against great adversity, like John Wayne, the men at Iwo Jima, Charlie Sheen. Others may go with the flow, take the easy route, bend to opposition. But not those devoted, steadfast few, the non-Flip-floppers.

But the truth is that flip-flopping can be a good thing. It can demonstrate a number of extremely positive attributes and behaviors. Are you willing to flip-flop?

1)      It shows you’re willing to say the magic words “I don’t know”
Like I’ve said before, certainty and surety are fine in a black-and-white world, but what world is black-and-white? If you allow yourself to be uncertain, then you can question freely – yourself, your assumptions and the way you’ve always done things. And you can’t imagine how empowering it is to a team for a leader to allow for the fact that he doesn’t know everything.

2)      You are able to admit you were wrong
I don’t care how smart you are, you can’t always right. It’s important to be open to being wrong, to making mistakes, to changing your mind. In fact, you can learn more from your mistakes and failures than your successes.

3)      It demonstrates thinking
Most issues are complicated and complex. No matter how well you’ve thought through the topic, there’s likely more you don’t know or haven’t seen. So changing your mind could be driven by learning – by hearing additional information, and then deciding differently. There are many who don’t seem to believe it (or at least don’t demonstrate that they’re in favor of it), but thinking is good. If thinking causes one to reach a different conclusion than he reached before, it’s a good thing in my book.

4)      You recognize the importance of context
Context plays an important part of our decision-making. There are times a decision one way may makes sense, and other times it won’t. Romney’s support of a woman’s right to choose while Governor of Massachusetts made sense – his electorate supported it. His flip-flop against it now is due to a change in his context and his following his own, personal beliefs. The same can be true in business – as contexts change, a decision may need to, also.

5)      You believe in empirical evidence (even when it’s contrary to your in-going assumptions and beliefs)
Blind faith may work in religion, but it doesn’t work in politics or business. Belief is fine, as well – but belief is essentially an untested hypothesis. Learning, experience and data should help mold your beliefs – and if it causes a change in your views, then good for you. It’s like turning the steering wheel if you’re driving towards a cliff – if the evidence indicates the direction you are going is wrong, I suggest turning.

6)      You recognize that things change
One thing that will never change is the fact that things always change. And with the accelerating pace of technology, things are changing faster than ever. A decision made today could be affected by tomorrow’s new normal. Remember it’s not weak to address change with new, and changed approaches. In fact, it takes even more strength.

7)      It shows a respect for nimbleness
Due to the increasing pace of change, there’s a demand for greater flexibility and nimbleness. People, organizations, even entire industries are being forced to adapt, evolve and make wholesale changes to address the new realities. Staying steadfast to an out-moded model isn’t showing conviction, it’s showing ignorance.

So from now on, investigate further what’s making a flip-flopper flip-flop. It might be something you respect.

Ballmer vs. Bezos?

Conservatism vs. Progressivism? Protection of what we were and are vs.  Creation a something new? Looking backward vs. Looking ahead? No, I’m not talking about the dramatic polarization of American politics. I’m speaking of a duality of leadership and corporate culture. And there is perhaps no more instructive a comparison than Steve Ballmer vs. Jeff Bezos (thanks to Adam Hartung of Forbes for this helpful comparison).

For more than 10 years, Ballmer has defended what Microsoft has and is, and has consistently promised that Microsoft will remain relevant and its products, dominant. All this in the face of gigantic shifts in computer usage and evolving devices, which confound Microsoft’s PC-based strength. On the other hand, Bezos has consistently focused on the future, on what’s possible, in defining his brand and his business. Amazon has grown into segments and across devices, driven by Mr. Bezos’ focus on the future. It’s brought Amazon, and its investors, significant growth over the past 10 years, the same time period that Ballmer and Microsoft have stagnated.

Let’s define this a bit further and make it more relevant. “Ballmer” type leaders and cultures are inherently conservative – they fight change. The look backwards at what got them where they are today, vs. looking ahead and asking where can they go. They “manage” what’s been given or achieved already, vs. “leading” development of what doesn’t exist yet and making it possible. And a key aspect of these “Ballmer” companies is they rely on their current experience and expertise to dictate what they do. In fact, you often hear the statement, “that’s not how it’s done around here” at these types of companies – which is, according to a post by Jason Heller in MediaPost, the most debilitating phrase and mindset that exists against progress, creativity and innovation.

Several have written recently of the negative aspects of experience as an inhibitor of creativity and innovation, including the book “The Innovation Killer”, by Cynthia Barton Rabe. They posit that experience and expertise, which tend to be viewed positively by nearly everyone, can actually hurt innovation and development of creative ideas.  That what we “know” puts limits on what we can imagine.  Rabe talks about a “paradox of expertise”, where a deep knowledge of what exists makes it harder to see “what if”.

The digital shift in Advertising and Marketing demands more of a progressive, Bezos-like approach, and less of a reliance on what we know and have already experienced. There is so much new every day, so much uncertainty and unknown, so much to learn. And today’s “norm” is tomorrow’s “out-moded” – so one has to be open to new approaches, new answers, and new ways. So how can one be more Bezos-like?

  1. Inspire Audacity
    This is a recommendation from Steve Farber (a former partner of Tom Peters, one of my current Stratecution heroes) on how to become a “radical and profound leader”.  It involves a disregard for normal constraints, thinking and acting “outside the box,” and inspiring people to set big goals and do something really significant.
  2. Know what you don’t know
    Be open about what you don’t know, vs. always relying on what you do. Certainty and surety are fine in a black-and-white world, but advertising never was, and surely isn’t today. If you’re not certain, then you can question freely – yourself, your assumptions and the way you’ve always done things. But don’t confuse not being certain with tentativeness or fear. Once you make a decision, swing for the fences.
  3. Let “process” be a means to an end, not an end in itself
    Process formality and executional excellence are very important. But never let them be more important than the work or ideas themselves – remember, without these, there’s no need to even HAVE a process. Allow yourself some room to bend process in the service of developing great ideas, or, better yet, develop a bendable, more flexible process.
  4. Add some “fresh thinkers” to your development teams
    Most teams are made up of people with expertise and experience with specific Clients and on particular types of programs. So it’s natural for them to develop a view of the limits of what’s possible, as well as a “right way” to do things. So include a team member whose role is to think of all possibilities, not just those that have worked in the past. Rabe calls these folks zero-gravity thinkers”: “innovators who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.’
  5. Embrace mistakes
    If you’re forging new ground, then you’re likely going to make a few mis-steps. Encourage it, and allow for it in your schedules. However, be ruthless in your demand for learning from these mistakes – and how to avoid them in the future.

What are some examples of the leaders you work with? What type of leader do you want to be? How do you maintain a progressive viewpoint?

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