Saturday, September 1, 2012

The strategic business value of boring.



Mike Lynch cartoon, November 2010 Harvard Business Review


Is business today akin to a Grateful Dead concert? It often feels like it to me. It's a loose affair, full of unbound improvisation and lots of hoping for the best. Sometimes you get something inspiring, often you get aimless noodling. I'm not the first to make the Dead/business comparison. There are at least two books dedicated to it, Marketing Lessons I Learned from the Grateful Dead and Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead. And in some ways, right on man. Jam on.

But I've never been a hippie. At heart I'm a suit guy. Maybe my shirt's got a lavender hue, but I'm still buttoned-down, at least for an advertising guy. And I see value in that. I've started reading Peter Drucker's Management: Tasks, Responsibilities  Practices. Despite living up to the title's dryness sometimes, it's absolutely relevant and innovative--just in a reserved, controlled, non-Deadhead kind of way.

So when can boring provide strategic business value?

When it ensures that ADHD isn't confused with agility.
Creative folks are bored with advertising campaigns before they even hit the streets. An ADHD bunch to begin with, they've heard all about the campaign a million times, thought about it a billion more. One more time and they'll vomit. So right around the time they call mom to tell her to watch the first TV spot, they're dying for fresh turf.

My strategy life has shown that this isn't merely a creative thing. Right now, one of our clients is rolling out a strategy in a unified, strong way--just in time for it to face the chopping block. It's just not getting the results the company's leadership wants. From their perspective, the core strategic idea has been around for a year or more, so totally old hat. But in reality, it has reached few of its customers, or even its internal audience.

Yet the leadership is clamoring for a shiny new strategy, and very well may get one in the name of agility. But almost always, an executed strategy has more value than a PowerPoint strategy. Even poor results can mean valuable information for course correction. Refining may seem boring compared to reinventing, but is often a better place to start.

When it makes you think inside a box.
Creatives say they want freedom to do whatever, to head whichever damn direction the muses are singing today. The truth is more complicated. The best work is often done within limits. The Mastercard "Priceless" campaign--which, I'm proud to say, is from the agency I work for--is a fantastic example. No matter the ad, the rhetorical framework is always the same. In reality, it's just very creative fill-in-the-blanks.

Strategy is all about creating boxes--hopefully fairly roomy, interesting, built-to-last boxes that provide both form and inspiration to campaigns, websites, products, programs, and organizations. It might be boring to live inside a box for years, but also potentially very lucrative.

When it can keep an organization on course during stormy times.
We're batted about by waves these days, from massive breakers changing the landscape to choppy surf disrupting daily work. And with all the shifts, alterations, and randomness in my digital work for oft-fickle technology clients, I sometimes find myself dazed and confused. I don't think I'm alone.

A firm bearing enables one to stay on course despite the stormy times. It might seem better, easier, more fun to go with the flow and run with the wind. Yes, sometimes this is a wise choice, but steady as we go is often the more profitable choice long-term. Steady might not be a Deadhead-friendly word, but it's a yawner that certainly should remain in our business vocabulary.

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Per usual, I'm merely another drone in the hive following the latest buzz. There's an NBER study extolling middle managers, Susan Cain's oft-watched TED talk on the power of introversion, even Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership, an HBR blog post by Joel Stein. But hey, being on the cutting edge is for exciting people.


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