Time to think

The pause between this post and my previous was unexpected, but inevitable given the circumstances. My first two weeks at Essential have been fantastic – involvement in several interesting and diverse projects, and a night out that the K-box may still be recovering from.

My arrival coincided with a particularly busy period of debriefs and pitches. In theory, a nice problem to have but priorities need to be set and resources assigned accordingly.

Businesses should be flexible to adapt when these situations arise, but they should be atypical and not the norm (at Essential, it is not the norm). Organisations shouldn’t overstretch themselves. Short-term revenue gains can be quickly counteracted by a lack of focus, quality and staff morale.

Quite rightly, we regularly talk about a work-life balance being crucial to successful and stable careers and businesses. Each person has their own unique balance – whether sixty hours of work a week or four. But I believe a third dimension should be added to the equation.

Thinking time.

We should be talking about a work-thought-life balance. Thought is the commonality between our work and life personas, and time should be scheduled to improve the quality of both.

Everyone needs breaks. Whether it is stepping back to think more strategically, or searching for outside inspiration to crack a problem, we can all identify multiple benefits of pausing for thought. It could be taking a walk, it could be reading a book, it could be taking a bath to wait for that eureka moment, it could be going to a baseball game as Jon Steel did. Our subconscious can continue to work on the issue, while our conscious mind diverts to not only rest but also to absorb new stimuli.

This is important in all industries (Google giving engineers 20% personal time has led to some enormous successes), but it is absolutely crucial in creative and knowledge industries. Even in research, there is rarely an objective truth easily uncovered, and so time needs to be spent formulating the best approach at each stage of the process.

I am now making a more concerted effort to build in thinking time into both work and life spheres. For me, blogging comes under thinking time. I mull over thoughts and then try to formalise them into a coherent message. This post, for instance, is a synthesis of thoughts jotted onto post-it notes over the past week and additional thoughts that emanated as I deciphered a theme.

I could have punctuated the aforementioned gap between blog posts by quickly writing up one of those thoughts scribbled onto a post-it note. But I chose not to. I don’t post for the sake of it. I write to improve my understanding of matters –  an incremental process that is boosted by the thoughts and posts from others whom I read and interact with.

It is a question of quality vs quantity. Unlike Twitter’s temporary ambiance, I view my blog as a permanent (WordPress permitting) record of my output. I aim to create an evolving, but ultimately a coherent and consistent, body of connected thoughts, ideas and statements – both my own and those of others I intersect with.

I hope my blog achieves this – I don’t want to undersell myself, even with something that could be called a hobby. When I visit someone else’s blog for the first time, I read their previous five posts to see if it is something worth subscribing to. It doesn’t matter if those posts were written in the last 5 hours or 5 months; it is the quality I care about.

A sidenote of interest to me is also the journey one undertakes when they discover a new blog. I see two primary routes – search and social.

A high quantity of posts will influence Google juice and deliver visitors from search. But a high quality of posts that people value leads to social recommendations; attracting people through overlapping spheres of influence. Fred Wilson has noted that he is getting more referrals from social media than Google – I put that down to the consistently high quality of his blog as much as the increasing influence of our online networks.

Furthermore, a recommendation is also more likely to lead to a deeper contact. Search is transactional – I find my answer and move on. Links and retweets are relationship builders. The latter is definitely more valuable.

Anyway, that was quite a large digression. But I’ve finally arrived at the underlying theme linking together my disparate points and post-it notes.

Commoditisation.

By taking our time, by taking a step back, by seeking advice and inspiration, we bring more thought to the process. We ponder, we ruminate, we deliberate, we mull, we muse, we meditate, we even brainstorm and thought-shower.

My contention is that a situation where work-thought-life are in equilibrium will lead to a higher quality of response. Quality is what we should aspire to in order to make ourselves distinctive and unique.

Whether it is research, strategy, marketing, music or blogging, we shouldn’t commoditise our outputs.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharmasphere/

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Links – 8th March 2009

My recommendations for the past week include:

  • Paul Graham on why he thinks social media has contributed to the death of TV. He makes some good points on the social nature of TV, but I disagree that synchronicity will fade away. TV will continue to prompt watercooler chat around shared experiences. If the watercooler is the workplace, then a show only needs to be viewed the previous evening – not necessarily at the same time. But if the watercooler is Facebook or Twitter, then synchronicity and real-time feedback still matter.
  • Al Ries writes that consumers only love brands once they know them. In a competitive market, familiarity can be a barrier to switching
  • Jeremiah Owyang proposes that companies should look to the social web for opt-in consumer information, which would remove the need for registration forms
  • And I’ve been adding some great Slideshare presentations to my favourites

sk

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New job; Possibly a new blog

On Monday I will be taking up a new role as a Quantitative Research Manager at Essential Research.

This is an exciting opportunity for me to work on some extremely interesting projects (some of the clients they work with are on the website) in areas of media and technology that fascinate me.

Yesterday was my last day at ITV. I had a great 16 months there, learning a lot from some great people. While it is sad to say goodbye, I’m really looking forward to starting in my new role.

This move shouldn’t substantially change the content of this blog. Although I’m moving from a position where my research was for external use to one where data will be proprietary and confidential, I’ve tended to repeat the insights of others rather than talk in detail about what I’m currently working on. So that won’t change…

What may change is the location of this blog. After some advice from Katy, I’ve bought a domain name and am about to purchase hosting. I’m a bit reticent about moving right now, as I’ve recently been fortunate to attract some new readers and inbound links. Once things settle, I’ll looking into porting things over and resetting my Google juice to zero.

In the meantime, thanks for reading.

sk

The Art of Innovation

To commemorate David Kelley (co-founder of IDEO) being awarded the Edison Achievement Award for his “pioneering contributions to the design of breakthrough products, services, and experiences for consumers, as well as his development of an innovative culture that has broad impact”, Fast Company have published a series of articles on the man and his company.

They are well worth reading, particularly the interview with him.

As the article states, IDEO aren’t designers but design thinkers. They use a tested and trusted methodology to redesign customer experience; not only in terms of the product but also in terms of the culture of the companies they work with. By transforming the business environment, the changes are made more sustainable in the long term. This is because the process never completes – there is always room for improvements and new prototypes.

Kelley says that “I can give our methodology away because I know we can come up with a better idea tomorrow.”

The Art of Innovation by Tom KelleyAnd indeed, it has been given away. His brother Tom Kelley published The Art of Innovation: Success through Innovation the IDEO way in 2002.

I’ve read it. And I would recommend that you do to. Below is an outline of the IDEO method, but to appreciate the nuance and to be truly inspired you really do need to read the book.

The core methodology has five steps.

Step 1: Understand the market, client, technology and perceived constraints

Ethnography is now a word overused and misused. But IDEO were pioneers of the anthropological approach and that it has now been so widely adopted speaks volumes. Of course, doing it properly is easier said than done.

Step 2: Observe real people in real-life situations to see what makes them tick

We are all now familiar with the problems of rationalised attitudes or behaviours. But again, IDEO recognised this before many. They believe observation gets to the root of the problem quicker. Small observations lead to small improvements, but over time these build into an impressive body of change. The key to observation is empathy – the observer must strive to infer the motivations and emotions of the participant.

Step 3: Visualise new concepts and the customers that would use them

This is really the power of the brainstorm. Kelley believes brainstorming should be taken seriously, and that there are ways to make them work more effectively. He finds that sixty minutes is the optimum length but within this, there should be a sharp focus. Not all ideas need to be written down but those that are should be numbered, allowing people to build and jump upon them. Although brainstorms shouldn’t be taken too seriously, they should also not be too meritocratic or too hierarchical. Everyone has ideas worth espousing, whether they are an expert or the boss or not, but it doesn’t mean that the group should go around in circles getting the opinions of everyone.

Step 4: Evaluate and refine prototypes in a series of quick iterations

Kelley refers to prototyping as a state of mind. It doesn’t matter if you have failures – you fail often to success sooner and you can often fall forwards. However, there is a balance. Fresh approaches work and rule breakers can change processes, but there needs to be a careful evaluation. Going too far “out of the box” can be counter-productive.

Step 5: Implement the new concept for commercialisation

Concepts should tell stories and make a human connection. Working with verbs and not nouns helps this. Kelley advocates a T-shirt test to ensure that new experiences or designs aren’t complex or difficult – the concept should boil down to a slogan that will fit on a t-shirt. Interestingly, he says that the best designers focus on the parts that are used the most e.g. the Play button on a DVD remote control.

However, these five steps only work because of the way IDEO is structured. Within the company, they cherish two factors above all – people and space.

Kelley says that lone geniuses are myths; you need a good team, and a mixed team, to succeed. He finds that characters build companies – his typology of characters includes visionaries, troubleshooters, iconoclasts, pulse takers, craftsmen, technologists, entrepreneurs and cross-dressers. This team should be dedicated, time-pushed, non-hierarchical, respectful of diversity, open and empowered. The dynamics are vital – camaraderie should be established, achievement celebrated and, importantly, a company shouldn’t be afraid of spending money to build morale.

His seven tips for cross-pollination include:

  • Subscribe and surf as much as possible
  • Play film director
  • Hold an open house to spread best disciplines
  • Inspire advocates
  • Hire outsiders
  • Change hats
  • Cross-train

IDEO look to establish “neighbourhoods” to facilitate team dynamics, and this concept of community and space is integral to fostering innovation. He advocates a blend of openness and privacy, with people having complete autonomy to personalise their space. To quote Kelley, “space is often the least considered, most overlooked tool in innovation toolbox”.

Ultimately, practice makes perfect. But the top tips to take away include:

  • Watch customers and non-customers – especially enthusiasts
  • Play with physical workplace to send positive body language to employees and visitors
  • Think verbs not nouns in products and services to create wonderful experiences
  • Break rules and fail forward so that change is part of culture
  • Stay human and scale organisational element so room for teams to emerge and thrive
  • Build bridges – between departments, to customers and to future

A follow-up book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, has also been published (the website with an overview is here), but for an outlay of less than two pints of lager, I really do recommend reading this book.

sk

Links – 1st March 2009

Firstly, thanks to everyone that read, tweeted and commented upon my previous post on “Research vs Planning”. It’s dispersal backs up Ana Andjelic’s point on how word of mouth spreads through random spikes within overlapping spheres, and not through concentric circles of influence.

Reading material from the past week to consider include:

  • Noah Brier muses on ratings systems, and how we each have our own idiosyncratic interpretations of them
  • Are some brands, products and companies unsinkable? No matter how inferior or dated, they will carry on indefinitely? This look at Wimpy fast food “restaurants” would suggest that it is possible. Incidentally, I live 10 minutes away from a Wimpy and despite a nostalgic desire to visit for a lime milkshake, I haven’t yet managed it.
  • A Business Insider post contains Videojug’s ideas on why web adverts should be more like TV commercials. Essentially, they argue moving away from the print notion of wallpaper ads to a TV notion of interruptive ads. This goes against the “engagement vs interruption” advocates, but that school of thought, in my opinion, is a slightly Utopian mindset that won’t scale to the entire marketplace.
  • On a related theme, an Advertising Age blog wonders whether it is time to forget measurement in digital campaigns. A slightly misleading title, as it really refers to DR metrics, but a thoughtful post on how the internet has changed over the past 15 years, yet measurement hasn’t.
  • And finally, a couple of interviews worth reading – Robin Wright in the Guardian, and James Murdoch in More Intelligent Life

sk

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