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Systems, planning and punches to the face

Tyson: Plans change…

TL;DR: “dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy” is academic for “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has plans until they get hit.” In the odd process that popular quotations go through, it is often misquoted as “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Tyson also said: “When you see me smash somebody’s skull, you enjoy it.” And: “This country wasn’t built on moral fiber. This country was built on rape, slavery, murder, degradation and affiliation with crime.” Unsurprisingly, neither of those one-liners has made it to as many inspirational slides in keynote presentations and self-help seminars as the one about plans going awry.

Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist, who contributed a lot to the developing field of systems thinking, especially in her books Systems Thinking: A Primer and The Limits to Growth, the latter being an ur-text in the environmental movement. The quote below is of the principles Meadows proposes in her article “Dancing with Systems”, in Whole Earth (published in 2001, the year she died).

Donella Meadows: She saw systems

I couldn’t find any accounts of Mike Tyson, world champion boxer and quotable killer, meeting Donella Meadows, but they were thinking along similar lines.

“You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy. It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.”
– DH Meadows

There’s a lot going on there. I’m going to need to break it down and make some connections.

“…a dynamc, self-adjusting system…”

There are all kinds of systems. Once you understand them – throw in a working knowledge of network theory and ecology to speed you along – you see the whole world as systems, from the weather, the sun, the wildlife around us, to human cities, supply chains and less visible infrastructure. But I’m most interested in human social systems, and that’s what I’m talking about here. Partly because I lead – and what lead means in this context is a slippery concept – a group of humans in a company, and help leaders in other organisations do work in this area too.

All groups of humans are dynamic, self-adjusting systems. We lived in layers and interlocking lattices of human social networks. Someone does something, others respond then even more people feel the second and third order effects of those actions and make decisions and take actions as they perceive a new reality. Even with just a few people the connections and contexts people are working with and that are affecting each other makes the group a complex-adaptive system. Our brains probably evolved to be so big and capable because of the advantage that being able to live in and get things done with these social networks. There’s a perspective that says that high-order intelligence, language, art, culture and the whole shimmering wonder of humanity is a side-effect of our getting better at living in dynamic, self-adjusting systems.

…cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy.”

Planning is not a bad idea, unless you then pretend that what you have planned is the only way that things can play out. That’s the “unbending policy” that Meadows is talking about. A policy is another word for a plan. This is how we’re going to run things people, please read the paper and then do exactly what it says Or as close as you can…

A static policy is one that once the exhausted planners have agreed upon it, they will not change course. It has emerged in the plan as the answer, and fuck you if you don’t like that answer. This kind of plan, or attitude to plans is utterly pointless.

We’ve always known this. The two best quotes about plans are, of course Tyson (see above) and Moltke, the 19th Century military theorist who said “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Generalleutnant von Moltke, der neue Chef des Generalstabs, 1906.jpg
Moltke: A man with a necessarily short-lived plan.

The reason that we get “static, unbending” planning is that we are simple creatures who like to understand the world through stories, and once we have a good story we will do almost anything not to let go of it.

So there are plans that might as well be cosmic ordering mumbo-jumbo – universe, please grant me this order of things (and accept the burning of this budgeted amount of money as tribute to your might). There are plans that are fantasy – this is how things will be because I will them to be thus.

You can’t bend complexity to your will by pretending it is just complicated and imposing your will upon it via “levers”.

Complicated vs. Complex
A quick aside on this distinction, because it comes up a lot and I don’t think I’ve written one down before, although I’ve discussed the idea of tame and wicked problems (tame = complicated and wicked = complex). A process is complicated if you can, with sufficient analysis, accurately predict or control the outcome. If a process is complex you may be able to predict the outcome, but only after it has taken place. Connect 4 is complicated, chess is complex. Choosing which trains to get from London to Vienna is complicated, driving around the Arc de Triomphe is complex.

It’s a case of learning to see systems. Have a working model of your own organisation’s systems and then how it interacts with other systems. Start building and refining systems views. Don’t think of them as creating accurate maps, but as a way of exercising your ability to visualise systems. When I started reading about systems thinking I think I was hoping for a simple visual language and methodology for mapping systems. They don’t really exist. It’s useful to borrow from electrical systems, flow charts, and systems diagrams of all kinds, but ultimately you need to develop your own way of seeing them and explaining what you see to others.

No one of these systems views is going to show you the world as it is. They will give you other perspectives. Maybe you combine a few and try to triangulate the truth from their reference data. Whatever you do don’t pick a favourite, it means you are making yourself willfully blind to possibilities.

“…the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops…”

That annoying acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is useful in mass communications but useless when it comes to managing systems.

None of them are pointless exercises, as long as you don’t cling to them too tightly once the enemy has been sighted, once causes generate effects, once actions start to be taken.

The most useful kind of planning is going will do two things:

  1. Allows the planners to practice decision-making, responding, thinking about how they will measure and decide upon new courses of actions.
  2. Sees the things that are within their sphere of control and influence, usually the team or company they are working within, as a dynamic system and how that system might change if they need it to.

“…design learning into the management process.”

This is about cadence of feedback loops. Building in reflection to rhythms of decision-making and review. Simple things that need to be repeated to the point where you don’t think about them, where you know that they are going to happen. But it also means that when you are drawing a system, or being so precocious as to design a system, you need to acknowledge the bits in the flows and the loops where the system can improve itself. It’s not just results, data, metrics that flow back in those feedback loops, it’s learning. “Learning is a deliverable”, is a useful catchphrase we sometimes bandy around. When you’re innovating, experimenting or – more importantly, having the humility to realise that the best laid plans are questions, and the best executions may be ones that bring back answers you weren’t expecting. Think of every outward flow in a systems loops diagram as a question and everything that comes back as a provocation, facts and findings that demand nothing less than another, slightly better question.

Systems thinking, more generally

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning about systems thinking and applying some of what I have learned to both what we do at Brilliant Noise and how the company itself works as a system.

So I know that I know a little, but also that I may be standing at “the peak of Mount Stupid” on this field. Must. Tread. Carefully. Treat this post then, dear reader, as notes from a novice rather than an authoritative account on the topic. (An attempt to dress it up as such would make the sermon from Mount Stupid, I suppose.)

On the recommendation of our excellent team coach, David Webster, I read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Handbook, a brilliant and applicable collection of practices and ideas about systems thinking in the workplace.

I’m now working my way steadily through Systems Thinkers, a collection of articles and essays by people who have contributed to the field since the 50s, when it was known as cybernetics. It is edited and given a useful commentary by Karen Shipp and Magnus Ramage.

I imagine, if you come back here, you’ll hear more on the subject soon.

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Brand marketing: From media to capability 

The facades of empires always look most impressive just before they fall.

The same goes for industrial giants and even whole industries.

The Roman Empire didn’t disappear. Neither did the British. But the centre of power in the world shifted, first chaotically, confusingly and then all of a sudden when the fog of revolution cleared.

Newspapers haven’t disappeared. Record labels haven’t disappeared. But there was a storm of change, a half-decade or so of intense uncertainty in each industry as it was ravaged by digital disruption. And then… new power structures and new masters emerged.

Media companies won’t disappear either, but their place at the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

To Google and Facebook the advertising revenues, away from the media owners, at an expanding an inexorable rate. To automation and in-house teams and consultancies go the muscle and the influence once held by the media buying agencies.

Image result for scott galloway google and facebook advertising revenue chart

Image: Scott Galloway/L2Insights

The CMO’s closest advisor ten years ago, maybe even five, would have worked for a media agency. Now, it could be a chief digital officer, a management consultant, a creative technologist, even an author or similar species of seer.

The new order has yet to emerge, but the days of the media agency as the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

Little by little. Then all at once.

The levers that improve the fortunes of a brand – its awareness among target consumers, their proclivity for it at the right moment – are more complex now because consumers are changing their media habits and the way they find and buy things they want. The big lever you used to pull was called media.

Now, as things move faster and more unpredictably, brands want the tech and the know-how to be closer to home, something they can call on in the moment, without a day rate or delays. In-house.

What makes the difference in a global brand marketing organisation isn’t the ability to pull the trigger on media – it’s the capabilities to think and act at the speed of the digital consumer. Capability – from technical and data know-how to a digital mindset – more than media muscle alone, is what will set leading brands apart in the coming decade.

Marketing, then, is moving from media to capability as its focus.

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Brilliant Noise Public notebook

Connecting some dots around social, earned and satisfaction

Working through the connections between these things…

Oliver Blanchard says:

If you treat earned media like paid media long enough, you will teach it to act like paid media.

…This is connected with the idea we explored that editors should be in charge of paid digital media (or at least have control of their own budgets) m- treating paid like earned could be a lot more useful than the other way around.

…It’s another angle on what John Willshire discusses in his series of presentations on the idea of “fracking the social web“. The race for Likes and shares and and views leaves depleted culture and relationships in its wake.

Fracking The Social Web – 2014 from John V Willshire

…Andy Whitlock says in this deck that creating noise (chasing attention) isn’t always the best approach. Platforms and products are ways of creating long term value, long term relationships, he says.

We looked at social media’s role in digital services. You won’t believe what 5 things happened next! from Andy Whitlock

…This connects with why at Brilliant Noise we’ve talked more about earning advocacy than earning media, or even earning attention. The media’s not the point, the customer is… and they couldn’t give a fig for brands, most of the time.

Which also reminds me of an interesting Twitter conversation yesterday between Mat Morrison, Jon and Professor Byron about brands and satisfaction:

 

Hat tip to Anne McCrossan for pointing me to the Oliver Blanchard article.

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Pilot and scale?

Ember

An important part of the way we work at Brilliant Noise is “pilot and scale”. Find the best solution and then help grow it, spread its use.

Seems like common sense. Interesting, then, to read Johnnie Moore’s thoughts on an article about whether “scaling” is appropriate in some types of organisation, specifically NGOs involved in development.

A quote from Anna Young at the Young Foundation stands out:

… the concept of scaling has strong connotations of standardization. It has its origins in manufacturing, where the aim is to achieve economies of scale, by spreading fixed costs across more units of output. But in the messy social field, the potential for standardization is more limited. Here, concepts of reinvention and adaptation will be at least as important, if not more so, than standardization. Social outcomes are not products that can be easily made to formula and packaged. This is especially clear in the context of innovation in public services.

Could it also be the case for all kinds of organisations? Is this the kind issue that new “scaling” approaches like holacracy can avoid?

Certainly in a creative or ideas-based organisation, standardisation would be death. A successful project cannot be replicated, issued as a facsimile for all future challenges. Processes and principles and support systems can be, but using the “product” as a synonym for “service” is perhaps a symptom of a dangerous fantasy of standardising something of which you would never want a standard version.

Pilot and scale, prototyping and shipping – these are very useful ideas, but we should also consider their limits.

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Brilliant Noise in The Observer

photo (5)On Sunday Brilliant Noise was featured in a lovely article in The Observer about Brighton’s leading tech start-ups.

It was great to be featured, especially alongside friends like Storystream, Brandwatch, Project Fuse, 3DIFY, Crunch and Brilliant Noise non-exec, Arjo Ghosh (fittingly pictured seated above the throng, like a kind of start-up deity).

 

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Our new book for Nokia on teams and flow

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This week Brilliant Noise published the third of the books for Nokia’s Smarter Everyday B2B programme Teams That Flow.

I’m biased, but I think it’s really good – following in the vein of cool stuff about working in the connected age that we explored in Design Your Day and Mobile Mastery books.

As a collection, they are some of my favourite work that we’ve produced so far – with beautiful design from our friends at Endless. It’s practical, useful stuff – and we’ve had brilliant feedback from readers. It’s also frankly stuff that I find really interesting – one of those cases of merging a passion with work.ZZ3335C723

 

Image: One of the lovely illustrations for Teams That Flow. 

It’s free and you can download it as a PDF from Slideshare or take a look at the embedded Scribd thing below…

Teams That Flow – eBook from Nokia by Antony Mayfield

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Dan Wieden quotes to cheer small agencies

An AdAge article from a few months ago has a couple of bits of advice from Dan Wieden – founder of the formidable creative ad agency Wieden+Kennedy –  that make me feel a little brighter, a little bolder a little hungrier everytime I read them (like now at the beginning of a long busy day, at the end of a long, hectic week).

In fact I have them written on big yellow Post-its that migrate from desk to wall to my “brown box” (we have a hot-desk system at Brilliant Noise).

In a talk to the Ad Age Small Agency conference he reflected on the massive, rolling disruption of the media, marketing and business worlds there is massive opportunity for us upstarts…

Giant agencies are wobbling like drunkards… the rest of you should be sharpening your knives.

And…

Oh, how I wish this agency was… small once again. Oh how I wish we were you.

Thanks, Mr Wieden – very much appreciated.

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The best question you can ask: How fascinating! What can I learn from this?

As part of the Nokia Smarter Everyday program myself and some members of the Brilliant Noise team were lucky enough to sit in on a coaching session with the clever and inspirational Caroline Webb, founder of the McKinsey leadership practice and CEO Seven Shift Leadership. Caroline is an expert on emotional intelligence and applying cognitive science to our working days.

She described a technique she learned from conductor and author, Benjamin Zander. Every time he found himself in a stressful situation, he would stand up, raise his arms in the air and exclaim “How fascinating! What can I learn from this?”ZZ3590D6F3

Image: Benjamin Zander demonstrating his “how fascinating!” approach to failures (also useful in any stressful situation)… 

The reason that this is useful, Caroline says, is that the question/exclamation switches you from an “away state” – sense of threat, fight or flight, worry etc. – to a “toward state” (open, interested, curious, engaged).

Releasing yourself from fear you become more likely to solve a problem or at least find something useful and feel a little more in control of the situation. Stress levels drop, you smile and get on with the work with a clearer head.

I started using it straight away – it works every time. Also. everyone I have shared it with so far has said it works brilliantly for them. We’ve started to hear it in Brilliant Noise team meetings a lot too. It’s a nice thing to share. (Hence the blog post, I suppose…)

Try it for yourself – wherever possible with the action of standing up and throwing your hands in the air.

I’ve known for some time that you need to interrupt negative thoughts and look at them objectively to rob them of their power. It’s a part of mindfulness and is applied in cognitive behavioural therapy. Perhaps it is the charming quality of this “how fascinating” question and the physical cue helps that process, makes it easy to talk about and turn into a habit.

Situations I have applied this in so far have include mental blocks while writing against a deadline, being delayed on a journey, being admitted to an ER room in Canada, difficult meetings, frustrating conference logistics, and recently being periodically incapacitated by a kidney stone (the outcome of that visit to Canadian ER).

That last example of intermittent incapacitation by renal colic is a good example. I’m currently awaiting treatment and exist in a state somewhere between extreme pain and being fluffily useless due to the painkillers used to manage that pain.

It means that I have about two or three hours of quality brain time per day – and even then not 100%. Outside of that there is no chance of me writing an insightful post, outlining a plan or developing an interesting presentation for client.

With the help of caffeine I have no problem delivering presentations and can sometimes read, highlight and comment on articles. But there’s no chance of squeezing in 90 minutes of quality writing, or of developing a creative or strategic idea. That kind of cognitive heavy lifting is beyond my reach outside this two to three hour window (usually in the morning).

How fascinating. What can I learn from this?

By throwing up my hands and asking the apparently magic question I have managed to stop feeling sorry for myself and found a bright spot in this situation. Firstly I’m probably getting some much needed rest, but that’s by the by. The really interesting thing is I can only pick one project to make some significant progress with each day.

Much of the evidence from cognitive science and anecdotally from coaches suggests that this is always the case anyway – if you can get four hours of focused work (no not emails and meetings) then you’re doing really well. Yet somehow I usually will try to squeeze into or three major projects into any given day.

What I have learnt from the pain is what it is like to have the complete discipline of only doing one meaningful piece of work a day. It is therefore both focused and slightly liberating to be trapped in this condition.

As I say, try the trick yourself and let me know how you get on. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting zapped with ultrasound shockwaves which should get rid of the pain problem. Should be an interesting experience – wonder what I will learn from it…

: : Bonus link: At 6:40 in this video you can see Benjamin Zander describe the technique to a conference of headteachers – but do watch the whole thing if you have 14 minutes – he’s great…

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Over at BN: a bias for action and new colleagues

I wrote a post about “bias for action” over at the Brilliant Noise blog. It’s not that I’m particularly pleased with it, but I am enjoying the train-of-thought ride I describe in it…

A few strands of thought that have started to wind themselves around each other for me on this theme: how to grow a bias for action.

Three of the strands sound like definitive set of rules – but are more notes to myself (as I’m sure there are more to add):

  • Use UIHD….
  • Use active not passive language.
  • Build a prototype instead of a long presentation or proposal.

Read the rest over there, if that tickles your fancy…

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While I’m on the subject of Brilliant Noise, we recently welcomed a couple of fine new team members, Patrick Sansom and Ruth Oliver, while also bidding a sad farewell to Ross Breadmore who has moved to London. He made a big impression in a short time, that chap. He’s being replaced by a similarly brilliant, tall, cycling obsessive – more on him soon…

 

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Agency innovation, infographics and growth: Brilliant Noise posts and news

Over the last couple of weeks the blog at Brilliant Noise has really taken off – mainly because we’ve been joined by some talented bloggers with interesting things to say. Inspired by them I’ve also written a post I’m really pleased with!

There’s no elegant way to cross-post stuff here, so I’ll furnish you with some links to the posts – let me know what you think…

Can agencies innovate? by me…

Talking at Google Firestarters – an event for the agency planning community in London – last week, I was one a of a bunch of people briefed with provoking debate about agencies and innovation. Playing on the structure and sentiment of Netflix’s brilliant strategy (“…become HBO faster than HBO can become us”) I suggested that agencies needed to innovate their business models to…

”[…] become McKinsey faster than McKinsey can become us.”

 

This is pithy way of saying embrace disruptive innovation. Embrace it because the times are a-changing, because if you don’t do it, someone is going to come and do it for you. Disrupt your own business models, find new ones, think about how marketing services are going to change – and then become the change. Invent your future.

Pleading the case for bread and butter content by Lauren Pope

Speaking at the brightonSEO conference a week or two back, Lauren made a strong case for content marketing to prioritise content that is actually useful to customers…

By bread and butter, I mean static or evergreen content; the stuff that answers questions like who, what, where, when, why, how much, and helps users to accomplish the task they came to your website with in mind. Affordable, practical and sustaining – it should be the staple in your content diet.

 

If the content I’m talking about is bread and butter, then I think viral content is jelly beans: it’s tasty and gives you a sugar rush, but not healthy in the long-term. But despite this, I think bread and butter content is sometimes pushed to the edge of the plate at the moment, in favour of the more colourful and exciting project of trying to ‘go viral’.

It’s great when you’re straight(forward) – yeah! by Ross Breadmore

Ross picked up Lauren’s theme and expanded it to marketing strategy, pointing out a number of factors that keep marketers addicted to the spectacular, when customers are just looking for brands to do their job and keep their promises. For example “presentation-ism”:

Bread simply isn’t sexy. It’s not as appealing to stand at a conference and explain how you understood the needs of your average user and then redesigned the IA on your product pages accordingly, when you could be showing impressive download stats of a mobile app created with a spurious campaign in mind. Likewise when sending round the measurement report at the end of the quarter, would you rather tell stories of incremental shifts in customer satisfaction through a social customer service portal, or report a massive spike in ‘engagement’ caused by some zeitgeist-y activity and a chunk of paid advertising?

How to create a good infographic by Beth Granter 

On a very practical note, our data specialist, Beth gives a useful run-down on how to make an infographic that’s (a) actually an infographic and not an illustration and (b) engaging and useful. Especially useful if you’re not a data expert yourself, as it gives you some god hints on how to brief designers.

Meet the team… 

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Lastly, the Brilliant Noise team has been growing in recent months. I’ve put up some posts – but here’s some links…