Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.George Lois, Damn Good Advice
When Leon Battista Alberti declared, “A man can do all things if he will,” he condensed the ideals of the Renaissance into the figure of the Renaissance Man—a person with knowledge of a wide range of subjects. Since then, knowledge has become very specialized and having the breadth of knowledge in the wide range of subjects embraced by Renaissance Men is impossible.
The Renaissance man still walks among us, but we now call him groups. A group can have a collective knowledge that far exceeds the knowledge of any individual.
Brainstorming, invented by advertising executive Alex Osborn, was designed to maximize effective and creative group problem-solving. Research on brainstorming initially failed to show an increase in the number and quality of ideas when compared to individuals working alone; but in the last two decades, research has revealed that brainstorming can be productive if the procedures guard against impediments that naturally occur like conversation being controlled by a limited number of individuals and shared data being disproportionately represented. When small groups of individuals attempt to collectively arrive at a solution through discussion, great solutions can be uncovered.
Yet, most companies don’t engage in a creative process because most of their prior “creative” meetings haven’t produced significant results. Nothing new happens, the same people come up with the same line of thinking, and the same ideas keep recurring. The solutions generated are mostly dull and uninventive. In the aftermath of these “brainstorming” sessions, everyone goes back to their desks and does what they’ve always done.
In this scenario, it’s no wonder most companies quickly abandon creative engagements. Considering the way these meetings are run, a lack of productivity is exactly what should happen. What most companies have isn’t a creative deficit. Instead, they have a process deficit.
By consistently returning to the default tendency of a group—a lack of productivity—these companies miss out on key insights that can lead to business growth.
So how do you get more creative productivity from your team? Promoting individual creativity is hard; inspiring a group of individuals to be creative together seems insurmountable. What follows is the result of our search for generating creativity in the workplace. It works brilliantly for us. It’s worked for our clients. We hope it serves you well.
The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.Carl Jung, Psychological Types
You’ve got an important problem to solve. The team is assembled. You hold your breath because you know the inherent challenges—like allowing the conversation to flow freely, not forcing a pre-existing idea on the group, and not getting stuck on one idea—that arise in bringing a team of unique individuals together. How do you structure your team to increase productivity and solve problems more effectively?
Although it seems obvious, it is best to construct the team around the problem. What special skills are required to complete the project? Think outside the immediate scope of the problem: What skills could be relevant that would constitute a non-standard approach? Don’t select people solely based upon position in the company. A person’s position doesn’t determine one’s desire or ability to effect important changes. If people are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than driving the company forward, they will only hinder the progress of a team dedicated to making changes. Find the people with the broadest applicable knowledge base and the strongest passion, and make the team leader the person with the broadest knowledge base over all areas of the project. Make sure the leader is able to lead without being controlling or demanding.
Environment plays a role in people’s ability to complete a project. The space should allow for efficient communication—proximity is power. Having to constantly travel long distances (even within a building) to get things done can hinder or even cut off essential communication. If your workspace is large, can you create a flexible, project-oriented workspace design to minimize travel distance between individuals that need to communicate directly on a regular basis?
If possible, the brainstorming or meeting space should take people out of their normal working environment. A change of scenery is very effective for breaking people out of their standard routines and for facilitating creativity.
Designing The Project
Setting The Stage
The first two meetings are guided brainstorming sessions. These meetings should be facilitated by the person in the leadership position. The goal of the leader is not to force communication in any direction, but to ensure everyone stays on track with the process and to set the open, nonjudgmental tone for the meetings.
The leader must make it clear that no one will be criticized for his or her ideas. The goal is to get as much feedback, ideation, and data out of the group as possible—not to discuss a specific solution. This method is contrary to the way most people approach group brainstorming. The goal is not to come into the meeting with an idea in mind and then try to win people over to your way of thinking; it’s not an essay contest or a debate. It is essential that the leader both makes this distinction clear and ensures that team members don’t stray from this behavior.
Although most people would assume an inverse relationship between quantity and quality (measured by usefulness and originality) of ideas, studies show there is a direct relationship: The more ideas you generate, the higher the quality of your final solution. The reason for this is that new ideas are really just combinations of other ideas.
In James Webb Young’s advertising classic A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young calls upon the observation of the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Creativity is really nothing more than changing something old into something new by creating new combinations that haven’t been used before.
The more ideas that get out there, the more combinations of ideas are possible. It’s why a higher quantity of ideas results in a high-quality solution. Encourage people to say whatever comes to mind within the confines of each segment of the meetings.
Session 1: Generating Ideas
The following meeting structure will help you set up a productive session:
Define the problem. This should be done before the meeting and brought to the meeting by the leader. The problem must be specific—the more specific the better. A clearly-defined problem and goal provide the necessary focus for the meeting. You should be able to answer the following questions when the meeting begins:
a. What is the problem?
b. What is the specific end goal? This should be measurable; defined by time, money or quantity.
c. When is the deadline?
d. What is the budget (if applicable)?
Lay out the facts. Spend time listing and recording any background research to create as much context as possible for the team. This can include data collected specifically for the project or data that is the result of the knowledge of the participants. This is not the place for opinions or inferences, just facts.
Create an environment of openness. Underlying beliefs and opinions that people don’t feel justified making openly—like personal, emotionally-based opinions—can cloud almost any discussion. A gut reaction that certain ideas are out of line with the company’s goals can also make someone hesitant, but that’s all right. There’s no need to provide support for someone’s feelings now; this part of brainstorming is the time for gut reactions. The sole purpose of the exercise is to allow the discussion to be carried out unimpeded by hidden motives or desires.
Look at the current situation. If the project is designed to re-examine and change a current situation, it’s time to look at what’s already in place. This step isn’t necessary if it is a brand new project that is not designed to replace an existing situation. However, if there is a current situation, first look at what’s going on now from a negative viewpoint: What’s wrong with it? If it worked before, why does it no longer work optimally? Be as specific as possible. Once you look at it negatively, consider it positively: What about this procedure or situation still works? Could it be tweaked to work without major changes? Does it need a major overhaul? If something needs to be changed, consider the characteristics of the current approach and preclude using solutions that stem from that approach in the discussions. Knowing what it shouldn’t be will help with understanding what it should be.
List new solutions. Based on current ways of doing things in the company, or procedures in the specific field, what solutions would effectively solve the problem? There’s no need to justify these solutions at this point; just get them out there. This also isn’t the time for wild solutions; instead, explore standard solutions that are not currently being employed.
End the session. After the solutions are listed, it is time to end the meeting. No conclusions should be reached. The ideal time for this first meeting is on a Friday. The mind has a way of coming up with ideas and solutions when the direct focus is not placed on the problem. Almost everyone has experienced a situation where, after failing to try forcing a solution, they took a break and suddenly a solution popped into their head. This step is sadly ignored in most decision-making processes. The best place for this step is after all the information has been gathered and looked at as described. During the weekend, everyone will be doing something unrelated to work, incubating their ideas without wasting valuable time during the week.
Session 2: Finding the Solution
The following steps for Session 2 will guide you to an optimal solution:
Start with a brain game. The best games are exercises that get people thinking critically about a problem in a new way. These exercises don’t have to relate to business—research shows that when the critical-thinking mindset is activated by any task, the mindset carries over to the next task to produce results.
See if anyone has any new solutions. Referring to the first session, see if anything came to anyone over the weekend that uses standard solutions.
Get people to give wild solutions. Have the participants use their imagination and dream up wild solutions to the problem. It doesn’t matter if they seem crazy at first—just get everything out there. Standard ideas from other disciplines that have never been applied to a problem like the one being tackled can be very useful.
Get everyone’s gut reaction to the options presented. There’s no need for any justification. This serves the same purpose as step three from the first session.
List the weaknesses. Go over each solution and have people come up with possible weaknesses of each approach.
List the strengths. Go over each solution again, this time listing their strengths.
Make a decision. By the time you get to this step, the solution will probably be obvious. If not, look at the solutions side-by-side. If consensus cannot be reached (and you have the resources), see if both solutions can be tested simultaneously for the next week by different people.
Articulate the decision as a concrete goal with a specific result. It is imperative that the goal is framed in terms of the specific desired result. A targeted result must be measurable including a definitive deadline. A result that says: “Design a new product packaging” doesn’t offer sufficient clarity and direction. Be as specific as possible.
Delegate responsibilities. Assign tasks to everyone present that makes full use of their skills. It helps to know who you’re working with. People may have skills you’re unfamiliar with that would benefit the project.
This process should create a clear solution. As everyone plays a role in determining the solution, each team member is more likely to be motivated to follow the project through to completion.
No matter who came up with the final solution, the project is the property of the group. Everyone is accountable for the project’s result. If anyone fails, everyone fails. This attitude creates a support system and encourages communication and responsibility.
Although it’s important to have group consensus, it’s equally important to focus on the contributions of the individual. Have specialists take leadership roles whenever possible. People with specialized knowledge are best equipped to run the related part of the project, allowing them to shine individually.
The leader should focus on maintaining the balance between the group project and individual expertise, ensuring that proper ideas and communication are being exchanged and making sure each person has what he or she needs from the group in order to do their best.
Weekly meetings should be scheduled to monitor progress. They don’t have to be long; they are simply to facilitate communication and follow-through (creating accountability), and to monitor the project’s progress. If something isn’t working—and chances are something won’t—identify it, and have the group brainstorm fixes. Repeat the process of listing standard fixes, then wild fixes, examining the weaknesses, then strengths, and finally determining a usable solution. This adaptive use of the process is something many companies miss and end up wasting time on something that could be solved quickly with the expertise of the whole group.
These weekly meetings also establish benchmarks that will keep people focused and motivated to produce. These times are a showcase for highly-motivated people as well—they will force themselves to accomplish as much as possible so they can contribute their individual talents with the group. This perspective is contagious: hard work propagates hard work.
Imagination and the creative impulse can transform problems into new solutions and opportunities. Creativity is a powerful force that we can access—when we start to have fun with a problem.
If you want to ignite your team’s creative energy, learn to see this process through. It’s easy to jump to the end and skip steps. We all have the urge to try to get the better ideas faster. But the creative process can’t be rushed. We must honor it.
If you can learn to foster an open environment and set up the optimal conditions for creativity to thrive with your group, the collective creative juices will begin to flow and transform your business.
Viola Spolin, co-founder of the improvisational style of theatre, taught children to play games to solve problems; playing stimulates the mind to create solutions. How can you play? If you are selling a book, what if you were forced to use the book as another object in an activity or discussion? What associations would arise? You can check out Spolin’s Theatre Games for the Classroom for exercises to jumpstart your mind for creativity.
Playing along will take you out of your comfort zone; that’s part of its power. If you’re having trouble playing along, try adopting the mindset of a child. Children are happiest when they are allowed to play. Children have always used their imagination to create something new.
More Points to Keep in Mind
Push people to listen to others when they are speaking. The single most important factor in producing ideas in a group brainstorm (that outweigh those produced by an equal number of individuals working independently) is the attention paid to other people’s ideas. Ideas propagate ideas, but only if people are paying attention.
Make sure there are no distractions. Turn off the cell phones. No one should leave the meeting when everyone else is working. Too much rambling and too many tangents create a background noise that has been shown to impede the generation of ideas.
Guard against heavy discussion among group members directed towards a solution; this is especially important early on. If some information dominates a discussion, the final solution often gets skewed toward this solution. It also makes it less likely that someone else will present unique information.
Be wary of anyone who is “the expert.” With difficult decision-making, there is a tendency for groups to come to a consensus that mirrors the solution suggested by “the expert,” but this doesn’t necessarily produce the best solution. Focus on the collective expertise of the group rather than the individual.
Delegate a set amount of time to each segment of the session. If sessions have no clear ending time, they tend to end up with ramblings. There’s no need for the same ideas to be stated more than once.
Be flexible: If it seems like more time is genuinely needed, spend more time on it.
Commit to this creative process to generate new, exciting solutions. Having fun with this process will lead to success.
Want to explore creativity further?
If you have any questions or if you’d like us to bring our creativity workshop to you, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BIG IDEA: Creativity doesn’t happen in a flash of insight; it’s the result of a lifetime of learning.
Most businesses isolate creativity to specific parts of the organization; they treat it as if only a chosen few can tap into the mystical force of creativity.
Part of this stems from a belief that only some departments can benefit from creative thinking. But, great businesses know that creative solutions can come from anywhere within the organization.
The other part is the result of the way we believe creativity happens: in a flash of insight that only happens to a chosen few.
The Feeling of Creativity
When you think of Isaac Newton, you have an image of him getting hit in the head with an apple and suddenly formulating the law of gravity.
When you think of Archimedes, you have the image of him jumping out of his bathtub and running naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting, “Eureka,” after he discovered the principle that now bears his name.
These popular stories are part of our collective consciousness because they illustrate how we believe creativity works, and because they illustrate how the creative act feels: it appears suddenly, as if from nowhere.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart famously described this feeling: “Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.”
But, Mozart never said that; it was from a letter forged by a biographer. In fact, Mozart felt very differently.
A Commitment to Lifelong Learning
These flashes of discovery appear to come from nowhere, but they are the end product of years of work.
Mozart, for real this time, described to a friend: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you … nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied many times.”
Even though the creative act may feel sudden, it is the result of the lifetime of work and learning that came before it.
Gordon Gould, the inventor of the laser, perhaps best captured this duality between the feeling of creativity and the cause of creativity: “In the middle of one Saturday night … the whole thing … suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser … that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks in there.”
The creative act is the result of years of study that culminate in a sudden, often unexplainable, moment of clarity.
Finding Those Eureka Moments
Learning results in a storage bank of ideas that can be linked in new combinations. When these links occur, it feels as if there is a sudden spark of insight, a eureka moment.
In the advertising classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young calls upon the observation of the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
Steve Jobs realized that this too: “Innovation is usually the result of connections of past experience. But if you have the same experiences as everybody else, you’re unlikely to look in a different direction.”
In fact, creativity isn’t a unique function; it is based on how we learn, or rather, how we can learn.
Creativity is a Form of Learning
Describing how learning works, the Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel said, “[Learning] is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.”
Learning occurs by an associative process. It is this same associative function that is responsible for the creative act: linking existing memories in new combinations to solve a problem in a new way.
Developing Creative Potential
The problem is, a lot of people don’t actively participate in the process of learning. A study by the Department for Education and Employment in the UK found that 26% of adults haven’t done any learning in the last 3 years, and 6% haven’t done any learning in the 10 years since they left school.
Creative acts are impossible unless the learning process is constantly exercised.
But, there’s a more deeply-rooted problem: the way people are taught to learn isn’t the type of learning that best fosters creativity. As the school reformer and creativity expert Ken Robinson describes, “The academic curriculum values two abilities above all others: a particular sort of critical analysis and short-term memory.”
People are taught subjects in isolation (since short-term recall is valued) rather than encouraged to see how they interconnect (which benefits long-term usefulness).
A 2-Step Prescription for Creativity
You can help maximize your creative potential by following two simple, but demanding, processes:
Never stop learning. Set time aside every day, or at least every week, to learn something new about a subject you already know or one you have an interest in.
Learn to actively associate. While you are learning, pull out a notebook and open it up so you have two pages. On the right page take notes about what you are reading (paraphrases, quotations); on the facing page take notes about how this relates to other things you know or think of, no matter how loosely.
Following these two simple practices will help spark your creativity and increase the chance of experiencing a flash of insight.
Breaking down silos can spark innovation in unexpected ways.
Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect
You’ve seen it before: team members thinking about themselves more than the team; Every man and woman for themselves; a business composed of silos rather than being a cohesive organization.
Silos create inefficiency, waste time, prevent the business from achieving its vision, and hinder innovation.
So, how can you help create a cohesive team?
Here are three ways to break down silos and rally your team to success.
1. Create a Unified Vision.
Create a vision for your team that ties into the brand’s overall vision. Ask your team members to be involved in this process. Inspire them to take ownership of the business. Don’t make it complicated: create a vision that team members are passionate about and where everyone buys into its success.
An inspiring vision that everyone buys into will transition people from a “me” mentality to an “us” mentality.
2. Motivate and Incentivize.
Successful leaders identify what motivates each of their team members–it will be different for different people. Incentivize accordingly.
Motivation encompasses a wide variety of tactics including shared interests, individual investment in growth, shared voice, and positive words of encouragement. Incentives and praise should be designed to eliminate the “it’s not my job” attitude and encourage input, teamwork, and productivity.
3. Collaborate and Create Using the Six Thinking Hats Method.
The best method we’ve found for facilitating collaboration is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. de Bono developed a simple and effective way to facilitate more collaboration and creativity during meetings by utilizing different perspectives.
Each hat represents a different perspective. Each team member wears each hat in turn. For example, “Okay, let’s put on our White Hats. Jim, you’re up first.”
Here’s a brief description of each hat:
White Hat: The neutral White Hat offers objective facts and figures and is used near the beginning of the meeting to establish relevant facts and information about the issue to be discussed.
Red Hat: The emotional and intuitive Red Hat is used to get people’s gut reactions to an idea or when you want the team to express their emotions freely.
Black Hat: The cautious Black Hat is used when you want to get the critical viewpoint of an idea or situation. The “devil’s advocate” hat helps decrease the chances of making a poor decision.
Yellow Hat: The sunny and positive Yellow Hat helps identify the value of ideas and plans. The Yellow Hat helps counterbalance the judgmental thinking of the Black Hat.
Green Hat: The creative Green Hat comes on when you want to generate fresh ideas and new directions. This is a very powerful hat that each player needs to wear.
Blue Hat: The organizing Blue Hat sets objectives, outlines the situation, and defines the problem at the beginning of the meeting and returns at the end to summarize and draw conclusions.
Remember, these six hats represent perspectives, not people or personalities. For this method to be used efficiently, each person in a meeting can and must be able to wear each hat in turn.
Breaking down silos is not an easy task for any organization but avoidance is detrimental.
A unified vision, the right motivation, and collaboration provides team members with a clear purpose and means of accomplishing the ultimate goal. There is nothing more powerful in any organization than having all employees pushing fiercely in the same direction.
In today’s cluttered and over-assorted market, the conversation in organizations often focuses on the importance of brand differentiation. The need to create or identify a position or particular area of emphasis that is different than what competitors currently offer customers. At face value, the idea of differentiation appears healthy and serves to foster crucial internal dialogue that can help shape and improve a company’s product or service.
But if you look deeper, the focus on differentiation as a driving discussion for a company or brand is flawed. The primary reason is that differentiation starts with a focus on what competitors are doing and not necessarily on what the customer wants, needs, or will value your brand. The goal is not to be different from a competitor to compete but to be more valuable to a customer than your competitor. But “differentiation analysis” often doesn’t lead you in that direction, it tends to focus around what you shouldn’t do because someone else is already doing it, versus helping you identify what you should do to win more customers.
I encourage you to stop overemphasizing what your competitors are doing and to start focusing on what you can do to make your brand more desirable than your competitors in the eyes of your target consumers. And sometimes that means doing exactly what they are doing, only better.
As a guide, here are three core areas that you can explore to drive brand desire with today’s consumers.
At the top of Maslow’s famous hierarchy sit Esteem and Self-Actualization. And never has the need for being “actualized” (even if in a superficial way) been more transparent. Thank you, Selfie-Nation. Consumers make hundreds of purchase decisions a year based on whether or not a product helps them “feel” more personally confident and/or more “esteemed” within their social circles. There are dozens of other dimensions that play into self-esteem that we don’t have time to go through here, but a simple google search will help you find them.
Brands can increase value and win amongst their competitive set by creating products/services that enhance the self-esteem of their customers better than their competitors. Of course, the key is doing the customer field work necessary to identify which dimension(s) you need to enhance to elevate your impact.
Brands like Nike focus on making you believe you are your best athlete through brand positioning/advertising, businesses like LVMH focus on creating a sense of prestige through exclusivity/quality/pricing with their brands, Apple focuses on making you feel relevant/on-trend through design aesthetics/frequent product enhancements, and Starbucks elevates your feelings of sophistication through the product experience.
Do you think any of the above brands are worried about being “different” from their competitors or do you think they are focused on building, strengthening, and maintaining their positions in the eyes of their customers?
Being useful is still one of the most straightforward and most direct ways for a brand or business to succeed. To understand the potential of this dimension you have to define “utility” in its correct terms and understand the dimensions of “utility” as they affect the consumers in your particular industry.
In retail, utility comes in the form of low prices, broad assortments, convenience, ease of shopping, friendly staff, and the list goes on. In the automobile industry (excluding the luxury segment which operates first on self-esteem, and secondarily on utility), it can be horsepower, towing capacity, safety, technology integration, and other options.
One of my favorite recent examples of winning on utility is Uber. Uber revolutionized the taxi and car service industry by creating an incredibly useful new product. Now some have argued that Uber won on the cool factor, which would be connected to Self Esteem. And don’t get me wrong, it’s cool, and it helped you look even cooler among your social circle if you were an early adopter, but that is not why it grew so fast. It exploded because scheduling a car service for about the same price you could pay while standing on the corner waving your hand like a maniac was better in every way. You were not cold in the winter, hot in the summer, wet in the rain, the cars were cleaner, the drivers were more helpful, and they showed up when you wanted them too. Now that is useful.
My point here is that if the Uber leadership team had started by saying, how can we be different than the competition. I don’t think they would have landed on the current product. Their solution was a customer first approach (i.e., they were starting with how do you make the customers experience better in every way, not different). Disruption almost always rises from being customer centric.
This last dimension of desire has evolved rapidly over the last decade or so. I believe, in part, due to social media and the shared experience, it creates for all of us. As well as because some visionary leaders felt that doing good could be an essential part of good business.
In this space, brands are focused on finding ideas and belief systems that a group of consumers rallies around. It could be social consciousness, environmental consciousness, or even an activity like running or yoga. Several brands have capitalized successfully on this dimension over the last decade. Think Toms shoes for social well-being, or Lululemon and their fanatically Yogi base that establish a brand that has become so much more, or Method cleaning products and the environmentally minded with whom they connected. Although this area is arguably related to self-esteem at some level, it is a significant enough sub-area that I feel it should be broken out. Also, I view the focus here as being less self-centered than brands built around self-esteem.
Importantly, we are seeing significant brands use this area very differently than their traditional self-esteem models to build strong brand connections. Think the Superbowl ad by Budweiser where they show their factories being converted to “canned water” plants. Or, Aerie’s stand on no-retouching as a way to connect with the Body Positivity minded young women or P&G’s support of the mothers of Olympic athletes.
I share these frameworks because they are the ones I have used as a guide over the last 20 years and across six leading brands to help build “desired” and not necessarily “differentiated” brands.
Always start with your customer and not your competitors. I know this is easier said than done. We love to talk about our competitors because they are so knowable. Everything they do is documented so clearly in the products they make, the marketing they produce, and often the financial statements they publish.
Customers, on the other hand, are often difficult to know, their lives are less public, and even when they are (thanks again social media), it requires significant effort to aggregate it into digestible information. And even when you can see how they have behaved at large, it is still hard to understand their internal motivations and drivers. But that is where the ideas are that will help you build something truly “desirable.”
Fight the hard fight; it will be worth it in the end.
Brian Beitler has led the marketing teams for several leading brands including Kohl’s, Bath & Body Works, Hot Wheels, David’s Bridal, and Lane Bryant, among others. He believes in pushing brands to think differently about how they engage and earn loyalty from their customers, and is driven by the belief that the key to success is listening to your customers personally and first hand, and then combining those personal insights with big data to innovate your brand strategy, products, experience, and marketing. He is currently Chairman of the Board for the Global Retail Marketing Association.
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet
Too often people jump to the answer before fully understanding the question.
I see this happen with companies often, especially in “brainstorming” meetings and customer interviews.
Most “brainstorming” meetings I attend look something like this: somebody presents a loosely defined goal, a few solutions are presented, the majority of the group jumps at one of the solutions early on, and then explores that solution. Not only isn’t this true brainstorming—brainstorming involves clearly defined problems and getting as many ideas out as possible without evaluation—it can never hope to produce a great solution: ill-defined problems lead to weak solutions.
A similar thing often happens when most people interview customers: after one or two interviews the interviewer or interviewers start to focus on an answer and the rest of the interviews skew towards providing support for the answer rather than focus on listening and exploration. The answer comes before the question is fully explored—and it often leads to something the company that hired the interviewer already knows.
This jumping to answers early on pervades many business decisions. And, it’s easy to understand why: humans are natural solution-seekers, it helps them better understand the world in order to increase survival potential—and looming deadlines don’t help. But, natural tendencies don’t always lead to the best results. Keep in mind the words of the philosopher Émile Chartier: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have.”1
Next time, instead of jumping to exploring or finalizing a solution, explore the problem and many potential options. The solution will be more effective.
I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.
Do you listen or do you just wait for your turn to talk?
When you listen, you have to be genuinely interested in what the other person is saying and be willing to let them change your mind. For most people, that’s not an easy state of mind nor is it something that naturally comes to them. It’s why it’s often referred to as active listening: it’s not a passive activity; it takes conscious effort to truly listen.
Listening is a valuable activity for both yourself and the person you’re listening to: it can help build your knowledge or let you see something from a different viewpoint; and, it lets the person you’re listening to know you care, listen to themselves, get something off their chest, and let them make way for new thoughts.
Listening is powerful.
Listening isn’t about outward behavior; it’s not about nodding or eye contact—although they will happen naturally—instead, it’s about being genuinely curious. It’s attitudinal, not behavioral.
I’ve sat in on many focus groups and customer interviews that were nowhere near as effective as they could have been because the interviewer was more focused on their questions than listening to the interviewees. As storytelling expert Annette Simmons comments, many people think asking questions equates to listening: “Some people are lousy listeners because they think that asking lots of questions is good listening. Asking lots of questions is a good way to destroy someone’s story-not to mention break the flow of introspection the storytelling might have begun.”1
And, you’ve all heard the stories about bosses that don’t listen; in fact, you’ve probably told them yourself.
Put simply, listening is about shutting up and paying attention.
One of the most effective ways I’ve found of training yourself to listen comes from when I studied Linklater Method—a voice-based acting training—in college: Once in a while when you’re talking with people, briefly pay attention to your breath; if you’re holding it, you’re focused on something else, likely what you’re about to say in response; you’re not in the moment, listening. As Kristen Linklater, the founder of the technique, says, “If you’re holding your breath in any way, you’re absent.” 2
Learn to listen. Few other activities will reward you as much as listening can.
“Every generation seeks the Holy Grail of instantaneous influence—in the information age we seek the sound bite that moves the masses—but it doesn’t exist. Human behavior is influenced over time, within a context, and by focusing primarily on how people feel.”
Anette Simmons, The Story Factor
Good companies place a strong focus on how customers perceive them. Great companies know they also have to understand how customers perceive themselves.
Look at any survey or attend any customer interview and you see a slew of questions that make the customer evaluate the company: How satisfied are you? When was the last time you made a purchase? How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or family member?
Sure, many of these surveys use some of the questions to create demographic and “psychographic” categories, But, these categories rarely reflect the way people view themselves and feel in the context of buying from the company. They’re abstract generalizations that can help figure out where to place advertising, but they ignore the emotional context of the real individuals actually buying from you.
If you don’t understand their hearts, you can’t win their hearts. And, if you can’t win their hearts, you can’t influence their buying decisions.
Next time you engage in collecting customer data rather than make the survey or interview all about you, also make it about them. You’ll learn valuable strategic information, and you’re likely to see your customers in a new light: as people rather than numbers. And, people are much easier to sell to than numbers.
Recently, I was consulting a CEO on strategic presentation skills, they tended to keep talking without stopping and needed some work to better connect with the people in the room. We talked about the importance of pausing during the presentation and asking a question to engage the audience. With this small adjustment, speaking became more impactful, and the message connected.
One of the best ways to achieve engagement is by using open-ended questions, questions that encourage your colleagues to share ideas and opinions, and by carefully listening to what they say you will kindle mutual respect.
Here are some of my favorite opened-ended questions:
What inspires you?
What is the most meaningful part of your job?
What do you value most in life?
Would you tell me more about ___?
What’s the most important priority for you with this?
Who benefits from your vision?
Try finding opportunities to ask questions and see how quickly you engage people when you listen to what they have to say.
Too many Chief Marketing Officers are trapped in “brand conversations” behind their desks, in conference rooms, or around the boardroom table, and it’s hurting their organization’s connection to the customer, the understanding of what’s happening with their brands, and the ideas necessary to drive growth.
I’ve spent nearly two decades as a Chief Marketer and found myself in similar situations time and again. There is an incredible amount of internal work that is required for any senior role. All of it necessary to keep the machine humming; there are strategy documents to review, creative concepts to approve, P&L’s to manage, new technology to explore, organizational structure and teams to develop, and, of course, internal & external relationships to nurture, among a thousand other things.
I do not dismiss or downplay the importance of the above. But I do worry that too often that work for crowds out what I think is one of the Chief Marketer’s most important roles—Having personal brand conversations with the customer. I mean personal, you and the customer face to face. I cannot underscore enough the importance of this because these conversations allow you to understand the customer in a way that cannot be attained through traditional research and analytic methods.
A Chief Marketer must be able to do more than articulate the demographics of a customer, the purchase life-cycle, media habits, or even cultural touchstones. While these are important, they will do little to help you truly understand why people love, hate or are indifferent to your brand, product, or service. And understanding “The Why” behind the connection is the critical factor to creating differentiation, brand affinity, and growth.
Barriers to entry have dropped in almost every industry, and the range of choice has grown exponentially over the last two decades. There are now over 49 brands of peanut butter, and that is before you include all the “private label” brands available at every grocery store. And the complexity only multiplies if you include all the variation of peanut butter within those brands.
So which brand or product should a customer choose and why, and why should they stay loyal when there is so much choice in every category. How do you create a brand connection and a point of difference in all of this clutter?
Simple…Understand “Why.” Why is the customer buying your brand of peanut butter and what are their deep underlying motivations? Are they complex or simple? Based on utility, image, nostalgia or something else? Are they practical or irrational? If you want to be able to move the dial and attract new customers, you have to get this right.
Look at a brand like Nike…why do they continue to win? I strongly believe it is because they have a strong brand position & purpose that connects directly with the most broadly shared “why” in their category. That shared “why” for their customers is the desire to perform at your best in whatever sport or athletic activity you are participating in. These are people who strive (or at least believe they strive) to be the best.
And boy do they understand that collective “why” and how to position against it. Projecting the image of being at the top of your game is in everything they do, from their product innovation to their advertising to their athletic sponsorships. Take soccer for instance, while Adidas may have won sponsorship of FIFA and the World Cup, the #1 soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, is sponsored by Nike. And this is true in nearly every sport. Nike has a way of finding the very best athlete and using them to remind us that the best athletes choose Nike.
So, the real question is how do you find the most powerful and collective “why” for your industry and brand. Well, you certainly don’t do it by reading sales or media reports from behind your desk or discussing it with your C-suite peers at the water cooler, or even waiting for it to show up in a customer insights report.
The work of finding the “why” is real anthropological work and it should be done up close and in person by the CMO, other members of the leadership team, and candidly by anyone who has an impact on what the customer experiences within your business. The great anthropologists of our time don’t delegate the work of studying their subjects to someone else; they are actively involved in the field work.
I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t hire someone to do deep ethnographies on your customers, but I am saying you should not rely solely on the work of someone else to help inform a decision about your brand position, product, or marketing.
You must get into the field and do some field work. And the truth, having authentic “brand conversations” with your customers is much easier than you might think. I have found that customer love to talk to executives about their products and services and they will open up more to you than to your focus group moderator. In fact, for 20 years I have come out from “behind the glass” at almost every single focus group, and often our most powerful insights have come from that last 10-15 minutes of conversations directly with the customer.
I and my teams have also spent hours in the store each month talking to and shopping with our customers, taking note of their behaviors, discussing their family and work, talking about the reasons they chose to walk in our store or why they decided to pick up that toaster or pair of jeans. The things we would hear at times would amaze us and prompt entirely new pieces of customer insight work and purchase analysis.
That work would help us compose a richer understanding of what was going on in our customer’s mind when she made a purchase or even a return. When she responded to or ignored a marketing communication, or when she passed a merchandising table on the sales floor. Or, when she skipped past pages on our mobile app.
To help you understand how real and powerful this has been over my career let me share a recent experience while I was serving as Chief Marketing Officer at Lane Bryant.
At Lane Bryant, we had a common challenge that many legacy brands face—Lane Bryant had been around since 1904 after all. Our customer base had aged, many younger potential customers didn’t perceive us as relevant, price promotion had become our primary marketing lever, our social connection with customers was soft, and the competition was rampant and growing in our Plus-size apparel category.
We needed to figure out how to reconnect with women and change the conversation about our brand. But how and where should we start?
Well, that is where “brand conversations” come into play. I had all the research a new CMO could want, years of tracking studies, historical purchases analyses, customer segmentation models, and more. The conclusions in all of these reports were solid and well supported. Some pointed to price—we were too expensive for a younger demographic. Some pointed to style—not enough women seemed to like our assortment. Others pointed to relevance—they felt the brand was fine, it was just for “their mom.”
But in all of this work, something was missing. Almost all of the reasons for love or indifference outlined in the research were rational: price, style, convenience, perceived age appropriateness of the brand. But love or hate of a brand isn’t purely rationale; it’s emotional. Sure, love is supported by tangible, rational qualities, but there is always something deeper more poignant below the surface. We wanted to know what that was. And we needed to know it “first hand.”
So we traveled our stores, lots of our stores, talking to women about the love of the brand. And the more women we met and the more conversations we had, the more these clear themes of “why” began to emerge. And a conversation that I had with Yonea in Dallas summed it all up.
Yonea was 35 and a ski shop manager. Yes, I know a ski shop in Dallas, but I guess even Texans need a place to buy skis for their winter adventures. Anyway, she made this statement when I asked her “why” she loved Lane Bryant. She simply said:
“Because when I cross the threshold of Lane Bryant, the “plus-size” drops and I’m just a woman.” She continued, “In this store, I am seen for whom I am and the fashion I love and not the size of my body.”
Yonea’s statement beautifully captured the sentiment of so many of the personal conversations we were having with women all over the country. Her “why,” their “why” was crystal clear: In our store, they were being seen and celebrated just like any other women in the world. And this feeling endeared them to us. So we started asking other prospective customers if they felt this way in the brand or store of their choice…some said yes, most said no. You see most department stores and even other “plus-size” specialty stores treated plus-size women as second-class citizens. In department stores, plus-size is often not even located near the other women’s apparel.
What was interesting though, is that when asked what they wanted to feel, these prospective customers all had the same answer. They wanted, as Shania Twain put it, to “Feel like a woman.” Not a plus-size woman.
Now I know this sounds so simple in retrospect, especially with all the progress we have made with body diversity in the last three years. But in 2014, this idea of seeing and celebrating “plus-size” women didn’t exist anywhere in culture. The world was still telling them to lose weight, not to love themselves. There wasn’t a single fashion magazine covering plus-size women with any real intent, and there certainly wasn’t a single fashion retailer or fashion brand featuring diverse bodies in advertising.
This powerful insight, found through up close and personal anthropological work, is what set us on a path to develop campaigns and partnerships that would change the national dialogue on body image and rejuvenate our century-old brand.
It gave way to the #ImNoAngel campaign with 15B+ earned social & media impressions; the #PlusIsCampaign with 6B+ earned social & media impressions, and #ThisBody campaign in partnership with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and Ashley Graham which would generate over 9B social & media impressions. There is so much more to the story, but for the sake of space. We will end with this.
Get out of the office and have some Brand Conversations with your customers and potential customers face to face, and you might just find the unlock that you’ve been searching for.
Brian Beitler has led the marketing teams for several leading brands including Kohl’s, Bath & Body Works, Hot Wheels, David’s Bridal, and Lane Bryant, among others. His success has been built on helping these brands build purposeful connections with their customers, capitalize on the digital and social revolution, and improve the effectiveness of their marketing investments. He believes in pushing brands to think differently about how they engage and earn loyalty from their customers, and is driven by the belief that the key to success is listening to your customers personally and first hand, and then combining those personal insights with big data to innovate your brand strategy, products, experience, and marketing.
He is currently Chairman of the Board for the Global Retail Marketing Association and served as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Lane Bryant & Catherines, the nation’s leading plus-size apparel retailers, until late 2017. He is a widely regarded industry speaker and has keynoted at some of the industry’s most noted events including the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, NRF’s Symposium, and the 4A’s Transformation event.
Big ideas, when they stick, can guide an organization to an extraordinary future. It helps you determine when to move and where. It provides a shared vision that creates cohesion within your organization, which can lead to superior execution over time.
To discover or refine your big idea, consider the following questions:
End Picture: What will your business look like when it’s done?
Passion: What does your organization love doing? What are your collective strengths (based on employee passion, past performance, and available resources)?
Leadership: What will your organization be a leader in? What are you committed to being the best in the world at?
Impact: Where can your enterprise have the most significant impact? Who are you committed to best serving?
As with any discovery process, be sure to start with a Beginner’s Mind. Pretend that you don’t know the answers.
Be receptive to any idea, even the most outrageous ones.
Stay curious my friends.
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