Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thought Failureship

According to almost every e-mail newsletter and missive from professional service advisors stuffing my Outlook inbox, we are apparently in Unprecedented, Turbulent, Chaotic, Challenging, Troubled…and REDUNDANT, HYPERBOLIC, SHALLOW AND TRITE Times. Though these e-mails promise “thought leadership” which can guide us to success in the midst of economic disaster they attempt to lure us with words that are so oft repeated as to be completely hackneyed. I tune out. Boring and repetitive does not attract clients.

The March issue of Harvard Business Review features an article by marketer Geoffrey Moore and some colleagues who claim that the answer is “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers.” That is, don’t listen for pain points but instead get in your clients’ faces and point out enterprise-threatening pain points they don’t even realize they have yet. Rattle them into spending money with you! Counterintuitive thinking can help shake up a client or a market for the better. And, it takes courage and confidence...perhaps even cockiness. But, it really didn't take much guts or creativity for Moore to suggest it. What’s ironic about the HBR article by Moore is that this idea of “provocation marketing” which Moore holds forth as a new idea of his own making is actually an ancient one. It is Crazy Wisdom.

Crazy Wisdom has been employed by religious leaders, artists and philosophers for eons and for at least a century by modern business leaders from Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to Nolan Bushnell and Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Ted Turner. Author Tom Robbins calls it “the opposite of conventional wisdom. It is wisdom that deliberately swims against the current in order to avoid being swept along in the numbing wake of bourgeois compromise. Wisdom that flouts taboos in order to undermine their power.”

Creativity expert, Edward de Bono, coined the crazy wisdom concept of “PO” or a “Provocative Operation” in his 1969 book, The Mechanism of the Mind. Because the stuff that got you here (slow or no growth) may not be what you need to get you there (revenue resurgence), provocation matters. “Something that is obvious in hindsight may be invisible to foresight,” says de Bono. So, he recommends using provocative statements “to make things happen in our minds.” These “PO” statements range from the mild “What if…?” challenge to the current situation to bold statements that flip conventional, taken-for-granted assumptions upside down. Some of de Bono’s examples:

“Po, restaurants do not charge for food.” How would you create a profitable restaurant if this were the case?

“Po, cars have square wheels.” How would you design roads if this were the case?

What if you created some “Po” questions regarding your clients’ business or about your own practice area? Could you come up with some seriously new viewpoints? This approach requires you to know more about your clients’ business than you may now. How else could you find out what their hidden problems are? Po, you need to demonstrate in real-time your professional competence to clients before they hire you. Po, you need to ask questions that benefit the client, not you.

Remember the 1984 commercial by ad agency Chiat/Day which first introduced the Macintosh computer and firmly positioned Apple as the brand for non-conformist creative thinkers? They changed the market with provocation. Or before that, in 1959, when Doyle Dane Bernbach created the Think Small campaign for Volkswagen – unexpectedly shifting consumer thinking about small car size as a positive attribute. They changed the market through crazy wisdom.

OK, so some ad agencies which are “supposed to be” creative have employed provocative, crazy wisdom to their clients’ benefit. But can you think of many other professional services fields which have taken daring positions? I can’t. The bad news is that pursuing already-old thought leadership positions based on the theme of “unprecedented, chaotic, turbulent times” is neither unprecedented nor stimulating. Po…what if we viewed the economy as good news?

The real good news is that if you stand on your head, see things in reverse, provoke yourself, poke your clients in the belly, you may actually shake loose some additional client budget and some new business. This takes a level of client knowledge and creative problem solving skill which you and your team may have but have not used. It will stretch your brain. It takes chutzpah. Do you have the guts? Go on, I dare you.


Bob DeMers said...

This article is spot on. We live in such opportunistic times - which is evidently being missed by the masses. Instead of running around and cackling "the sky is falling", we could be saying "we are rising to meet the sky!". Thanks for your words of wisdom.
Bob DeMers

Janice Darling said...

I love this. When people ask me how I am doing in these "challenging, etc" times - I say that in times of change, what I do is even more valuable. While I wouldn't have wished it, this is GREAT for us! and what an opportunity for those clients who really use this to get a jump on the competition. Someone will come out ahead...

JP Farrell & Associates, Inc. said...

Great post, Andrew. You're absolutely right about hindsight. A great question for the consultant on the first day of an engagement is: "What is wrong with this picture?" One needs to ask that question early, before everything seems normal.