Lots of consultants fail precisely because they have all the answers. But in unstable, changing environments, you need creativity: better questions. Because good questions support forward-looking leadership.
If curiosity is a self-indulgent, unbusinesslike pursuit, why is it so popular these days? Maybe because we’re realizing it’s fueling some pretty efficient strategies.
You might be picturing curious people as soft, undirected and undisciplined. They’re time-wasters who probably enjoyed their time in literature class a little too much, discussing things that don’t matter. But that’s not the curiosity we’re talking about.
Curiosity Focuses on a Goal
When curiosity is most effective, it’s asking questions about a business goal. In my field, curious people ask questions about the marketing goal, even deconstructing the marketing goal so they can understand how the company makes decisions. Additionally, understanding why the market does what it does and profiling competing brands to find patterns.
Process Disciplines Curiosity
Great strategists apply curiosity by using a process. Some build a SWOT, 5-Forces or 4P’s/4C’s analysis, using those frameworks to inventory and organize their research. Those inventories inform the research they do from here on out. Oh yeah, and those analysis tools go through at least 3 revisions before the work is done.
Rigorous Research Enables Curiosity
Additionally, they don’t just ask questions when it’s fun, but they stick with it, knowing that the process always produces actionable results that give a strategic advantage. This sometimes looks like an additional 3 interviews or 5 more hours of reading user forums to gather more insight.
Curiosity Asks Questions You Don’t Care About…Until You Do
Strategic curiosity can seem to ask irrelevant questions or questions that are too simple. Strategists are used to taking chances by asking questions that help them understand the real situation (behind all the assumptions). The best strategists have a way of asking questions that make us realize we don’t know the answer (even to simple questions like “Who’s our audience?”).
And by demanding a higher level of specificity, they help us to make decisions that are strategically helpful, rather than vague and slippery.
Best of All, Curiosity Feeds Strategy
Strategy shows you the most direct route to the best result. But it can’t work without the right insights. To put it another way: strategy uses systems thinking to make sense of insights; curiosity delivers the insights.
By studying the differences between us and our competitors—by showing curiosity for hidden, but high-leverage differences—we can become brutally efficient in advertising and brand decisions.
When solving a problem, lots of people are taught research (by itself, an uninsightful process for problem-finding) and problem solving. But the missing piece is the “thinking” part. And that needs to happen regularly from beginning to end in order to understand the system: how the parts work together. And that’s why I love the CIA’s Phoenix Checklist.
Research without thinking only takes us obvious places. We don’t see connections, because we don’t look for them; instead, we’re only seeing connections from others’ research and opinions. We’re only seeing what presents itself, as the the data lead us down rabbit trails. In the end, we’re left with no insights about the problem we’re solving, but only a catalog of facts that are pretty obvious to both ourselves and everyone else.
Brainstorming without understanding leads to poorly fitting solutions. Without the ability to see the problem at a logical, systems-level is like asking a three-year-old why my truck is backfiring. He doesn’t even begin to understand combustion, so why would he know about this particular situation?
The the Phoenix Checklist asks us to look at the problem from different angles, essentially creating multiple thought experiments for us to use to logical and systematically navigate the problem, giving us a much fuller understanding. And with a fuller understanding of the problem comes more energy spent on highly relevant solutions.
Usually, strategy and leadership failures point back to 4 things: failure to think, failure to discover, failure to decide and failure to negotiate. Want to learn to lead strategically? Read on to discover the three most common leadership failures and what to do about them.
Leaders Forget to Think
Many companies use best practices like a crutch, moving through situations without stopping to think about the system. In other words, what are the basic building blocks of our situation? If we can think conceptually, we can see reality more clearly. But we have to be able to stop, turn off email, say no to distractions and think. If you need to be convinced, check out this article.
Leaders Fail to Discover
It’s easy to find data to protect you from taking the blame, but the best leaders aren’t looking for excuses; they’re looking for forward movement. ROI is very helpful, but it’s backward-looking; it can’t tell you what’s ahead as well as qualitative research and the leader’s strategic creativity in connecting the dots.
Leaders Fail to Decide
Great leaders decide and define. They don’t show up with part of the data and ask others to make the decision for them. And then they take responsibility for the decision.
Leaders Fail to Negotiate
Once the leader decides the problem and the strategic direction, he/she presents it to his team and allows them to critique, inquire and improve. The leader needs to have a strong enough philosophy of the problem/opportunity to entertain objections and make sense of them.
The solution isn’t straightforward, but starts with a few things.
Find solitude and make it your mission to sit for an hour and a half every week with a blank piece of paper (or several). On that piece of paper, write the topics and major categories you’re trying to address. Then, think about the problems from a concept level. In other words, don’t say “if only so-and-so would file TPS reports,” but say “how do we deal with the TPS reports problem?” This allows you to reframe problems so you can solve them. Remember, all you need is a 1/4″ hole, not necessarily a 1/4″ drill bit.
Accelerate Discovery with a Working Hypothesis
Discovery may be even easier than we think. We’re taught in school that there’s one right way to conduct research (some version of “learn everything you can about the topic,” which is a very uninteresting, unorganized, bottom-up process, leading to time wasted), but I say create your own hypothesis and ask questions until you find a convincing answer. This could be getting sources from the trade press, industry experts, hiring a research firm or conducting your own qualitative research (interviews or focus groups). The key is this: get curious and get good at proving or disproving.
Decision can create discomfort. But since we can’t get away from it, let’s reframe it. We never make wrong decisions, but we could always improve. So have a bias toward decision. This take practice.
One more thing about decision…it’s almost impossible to have decision clarity when you don’t have a clear goal and strategy. So maybe go back to the strategy drawing board before you try to make a tough decision. It could make it easier.
Negotiation is a Productivity Multiplier
Negotiation is the easy part, as long as you’re cool bringing people in and listening to what they have to say. Here’s the beauty of negotiating: when they have a say and get passionate about a point of view, they’re now engaged. And engagement is always a productivity force multiplier. So make people feel heard and involve them often. It’s not your job to be right all the time; it’s your job to make people around you effective. If you can do that, you can negotiate projects to be more on-strategy.
This advice is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes an ever-increasing amount of security in the leader and a desire to grow.
Agree or disagree with anything in this piece or want help? Let me know.
Innovation through division creates productive tension in your team that allows creativity to spring to life. But in order to do this, you have to know a few things.
All Talent isn’t the Same
You have innovators and adapters on your team that both do different things. The innovators try to find a different solution, while adapters try to find one that’s better.
Usually, the innovator will create a revolutionary product, while the adapter makes small improvements on the existing product. But the innovator does this with more trial and error. Also, there’s no guarantee she’ll come up with something new.
What this means
Adapters are better at pulling us to the predetermined finish line.
Innovators are better at ignoring speed and focusing on quality instead.
Why it works
In advertising, you have an account executive, who’s usually an adapter. She’s more concerned with getting things done and preserving the client relationship. But the creative staff that works for her client is made up of innovators. Those innovators are looking past best practices, and often aren’t trying to please the client, but rather trying to please the client’s customers.
Did you catch that? The account executive is trying to serve the client, which makes the client feel heard and creates the ambassadorial relationship. The creatives are interested in making the client’s customers understand them. And this tension creates brilliant results.
How it Looks
If you want to know what it looks like when a client has full control over their creative, just watch the low-cost commercials on TV. Notice the number of times the owners’ family members are in the spot. Or how the message is spread across quality, service and price, without really differentiating. Or how the brand talks about themselves more than they talk about their customers. This is what it looks like when everyone in the agency is trying to please the client.
To get great results, you want strategy that’s based in research, that helps drive the creatives to understand that one thing a customer needs to hear—that one thing that’ll get them to buy. And then they tell that story, and don’t ever talk about price.
How to use it
So now, in your business, product development could be led by innovators who are interested in defining the problem really well. Those definitions then inform your practical innovators (engineers, writers and designers) who will then execute a solution with the customer in mind.
Adapters become the project managers, the HR folks, administrators and otherwise people who are a little better, faster, stronger, etc. These are the people who make the innovation work in society.
So when you’re planning how you’ll operate, and how you’ll staff, put some time into thinking about what you’re asking people to do. Are you asking them to innovate or to adapt? And if you’re having problem with staff planning or writing the job description, look me up, and I’ll lend you a hand.