Suresh Dinakaran is Chief Storyteller at ISD Global, Dubai and Managing Editor, BrandKnew.
Suresh Dinakaran is Chief Storyteller at ISD Global, Dubai and Managing Editor, BrandKnew.
We have often heard about terms like ’ Be Limitless ‘ and ‘ Endless Possibilities ‘. These are bandied about in self help books, motivational speeches and even some business negotiations..” Considering the synergies that exist between our two organisations, there are endless possibilities that we can collaborate on “, is not very uncommon CEO speak. Well, (enough) said!
The reality on the ground is very different though. There is not much weightage accorded to the magic and energy of ‘ possibility ‘. And even less so in the case of what empowers possibility ie ‘ enrollment ‘. Often times we all are barking up the wrong tree. Consider that we look at this situation like if it were to be a quadrant with four concourses.
Concourse 1: High Possibility; High Enrollment: This is where most of our tribe is headed. Showing up, enrolling and putting in the hard yards, the emotional labour in the hope that at the end of it, they would realise what was envisaged as possible when they began. It’s indeed a very overcrowded space, fuelled in large doses by what we call the ‘ herd mentality ‘ and the supposed ‘ wisdom of the crowds ‘. Needless to say, the competition in this concourse is the highest.
Concourse 2: Low Possibility; High Enrollment: How to get into the Brazilian national football team ? Or any of the top NBA teams. Or getting admission into the IVY League Universities like Harvard, MIT etc. The odds are heavily stacked against the participants but the level of intensity and desire to get on board is at its highest which reflects in the insane number of enrollments for that special pie in the sky. In such cases, the existing eco system also keeps triggering and stimulating the hope and promise and thereby the corresponding spike in enrollment to get on board.
Concourse 3: Low Possibility; Low Enrollment: Yes there are such tribes..wanting to be lava surfers and ride the lava spitting out from the Mauna Loa (one of the world’s biggest volcanos) but there is neither a structure nor system in place to bring this to fruition. Little wonder such things see the lowest in terms of both possibility and enrollment.
Concourse 4: High Possibility; Low Enrollment: Strangely, this is the most under tapped area of the quadrant inspite of this being the area with the highest potential. It could be areas like being a social worker or a nurse or a music therapist. There is always a Minimum Viable Audience(MVA) and our enrollment can see that audience being connected to, engaged with, influenced and impacted.
What can we distill from this? Which is the Blue Ocean that is calling out to us? How much enrollment are we planning to put in to swim to where we want to be? Are we prepared to guts it out? Yes, the possibilities are out there. Enrollments are open. Apply now!
“It’s lonely at the top. 99% of people are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most competitive.”
Ironical isn’t it that we are knowingly ultra competitive when we are striving for mediocrity. And, ironically, the fiercest competition is for the second-class prizes. And we still don’t get it!
It’s a long never ending tirade. Justifications that are shallow, hollow and mere escapism. I am referring to the reasons why we endorse and end up doing mediocre work. Let’s look at the usual suspects..
The brief was lousy..
I hardly had any time..
The customer does not value quality..
We never get the right price..
It’s a one way street, we are always the one being short changed..
Does it really matter? As nobody ever notices..
You are always critical..
This market never appreciates high quality..
The management will never understand..
I have always done it this way..
My boss is a jerk..
I don’t want to fail..I rather play safe..
Half hearted, half baked, short cuts, excuses. Period. Nothing else. They are all sad facades, masking the real issue. The outcome where sub optimal emotional labour is committed will always reflect a huge gap between what could have been and what is.
If you’re not willing to fail, you guarantee you’ll stay average-at-best.
If you want to grow into an extraordinary version of yourself, you must be willing to fail — a lot.
“Stay in your lane.” Focus on you. Learn all you can. Experiment, fail, discover what works.
When you see the 25 to 70% off ad screaming from every second billboard in town for every second brand, that is when you come to realise the often heard ‘ herd mentality ‘. Find safety in numbers. Conform, adhere, comply, fit in, exist, survive, get along, pass by. By design, the quest for supreme mediocrity(read comfort food) is perennial and offers perpetual succour. Or so it seems considering the seriousness with which it is latched onto. And there is no letting go. And that, amongst a community of really bright minds who came into the profession with a clarion call to make their own little dents in the universe. And what are they managing to do- drive people away from the profession.
You have to decide to opt either for the wood or for the trees. Do you want to care enough to create something better? Introspect and the answer will be very close at hand.
Most people will stay in mediocrity.They’ll continue fighting with the majority for average, subpar prizes.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The road that leads to an incredibly exciting, fulfilling life is waiting for you. It’s free and open, and there are no crowds. And pay no heed to the ‘ wisdom of the crowds ‘ narrative- it’s just a more sophisticated coinage for finding solace in the average, the sub par, the mediocre.
You can either take a ‘ leap of faith ‘ or retire to a ‘ sleep of fate ‘. What got you here is not going to get you there. As Todd Henry so beautifully captured in his book ” Die Empty ‘- Unleash your best work every day. Practice the art of non-conformity! That’s what we preach and practice at ISD Global. And we get to do that every day. Gratitude!!
The 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard said that “It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning” . So true, isn’t it. Being comfortable in our existing biases and prejudices.
It’s the swanky decked to the hilt conference room of a major healthcare brand. Huddled are some really bright minds including the hospital CEO, medical experts, Architects, Project Consultants etc. The matter on the table is the design of the ICCU(Intensive Cardiac Care Unit) at their upcoming new hospital. Inevitably, the design blueprint presented did not depart too much from what has already been executed in multiple ICCUs across thousands of hospitals worldwide. Been there, done that. Enter the intrepid Customer Experience Manager, newly appointed at the hospital and what she suggested immediately managed to raise many eyebrows. ” How about borrowing some design thinking from the Formula 1 Pit stop ‘ as we look at building the new ICCU ? she suggested. One could hear a pin drop. In that room, was more than 200 years of insights and experience and all that was being the cold shoulder. The young lady went onto elaborate what her thoughts were. The Formula 1 Pit Stop is where critical decisions involving millions are taken in micro milli seconds that will affect many stakeholders, almost a life and death scenario. All she was suggesting was to borrow thinking from a completely heterogeneous industry that had nothing to do with healthcare. And to her credit, she won the day. The legacy thinking was punctured to arrive at a smarter solution that was equally if not more relevant to the cause at hand.
Similarly an airline check in counter can actually gain inspiration from observing a hotel front desk check in process. Or a bike supplies store seeking inspiration from beauty retail brand like Sephora to get more customers comfortable with buying and using bikes.
We define such thinking as ‘ analogous inspiration ‘ wherein you remain and in fact seek thinking and ideas from an industry completely unrelated to your own. Only to realise the unlocked value hidden therein.
Till about some years back, we connected ‘ subscriptions ‘ as something that the media industry especially newspapers and magazines used to ensure they have a loyal customer base. In the current context, we have vast tranche of products and services including cars(yes Volvo already implemented it in Sweden), Fashion, Airline tickets, OTT(Netflix, HBO, Amazon), Fintech, Furniture etc using that route to grow and more importantly retain customers.
It’s not that such ‘ break the mold ‘ thinking be restricted to organisations and brands alone. Shalane Flanagan is an American long-distance runner. She holds the American record times in the 3000 meters (indoor), 5000 m (indoor) and 15K road race. She won the bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics in the 10,000 m (since upgraded to silver). She also won the 2017 New York City Marathon. What is interesting to understand in her case is that by design she would train with her rivals– yes you read it right- her rivals. To her it was an opportunity to go beyond her own arc of biases and understanding and soaking in new approaches that otherwise she would not have been privy to.
The whole thought is to replace the context you are in and seek newer, untapped contexts as sources of inspiration. This is something that we try to practice regularly within ISD Global where I work. There are better stories outside the book you are reading. So, go ahead, turn the page!
It’s episode one of the cult classic Mad Men series and ad-man Don Draper in the climax reveals the campaign idea for Lucky Strike cigarettes ” It’s toasted “. A scene that captured attention and sparked the show’s runaway success. It’s toasted was also a real tagline for Lucky Strike cigarettes, adopted by the brand way back in 1917.
Those were the heady days of advertising– an eclectic mix of craziness, Machiavellian egos, cult personalities, big ideas, mind numbing creative campaigns, wild parties, rock and roll, high profit margins(15% commission days)….it goes on. Little wonder it was the industry that a lot of talent aspired to get into. Made for good conversation piece.
The times they have a changed. Advertising as an industry is no longer the flavour of the season when it comes to attracting top talent. This inspite of being a 560Billion US$ industry worldwide in 2019 and growing over 4% compared to the previous year with N America and Asia Pacific reflecting the maximum growth.
What could have happened especially over the last decade and a half? Let’s examine a few factors:
Clearly the advertising industry of the future(if it remains to be called that) and the talent that moves there will certainly not be a thing of the past. When change is the only constant, an industry remaining constant without change is not an attraction. As an US$560billion industry, it has enough muscle to bounce back(as long it does not rely on muscle memory). All the die harders(Bruce included) are willing and waiting!
We have seen, heard and experienced this before. A top down driven organisation. Where feedback and candour is discouraged, probably a non starter . Suggestions and inputs alien. Empowerment and trust non existent. In short, my way or …my way!
Which brings us to the concept and significance of psychological safety in the workplace. Let’s define what that is.
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career “. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.
Throwback to 2016 and Wells Fargo( then the world’s largest bank by market cap and the 3rd largest in the US). CEO John Stumpf’s mantra to employees was often “eight is great” ; meaning get eight Wells Fargo products into the hands of each customer. But this directive proved burdensome for bank employees as they struggled to meet demanding quotas and satisfy even more demanding managers. They began to cut corners and opened deposit accounts and credit cards for Wells customers – without their knowledge or permission.
After a LA Times investigation that uncovered the sham accounts and a lawsuit filed by the city of Los Angeles, Wells Fargo had to pay US$ 185 Million in fines to city regulators. Not to mention the serious drop in goodwill and reputation, a pre requisite for a financial services brand. Caused by: you guessed it, the absence of psychological safety in the work eco sphere.
Move onto another organisation. Pixar. What is common knowledge is that when it comes to films and movie production, there are far more misses than there are hits. Almost a 10: 1 ratio of misses to hits. In such an industry, for Pixar to have delivered 17 super blockbusters in a row, called for something extraordinary. At the fulcrum of it all was the culture. A culture that sought openness, persistent feedback, constructive criticism, a voice and relevance for all and a perennial hunger to excel. An environment where people felt trusted, safe, confident, believed. Ed Catmull(recently retired), CEO was a driving force in ensuring the right questions were asked all the time, facilitating an open conversational culture. (As an aside, I will urge you to read this HBR article on how departing leaders can pass along more than wisdom https://hbr.org/2019/04/how-departing-leaders-can-pass-along-their-wisdom-to-employees ).
It’s not as if that creating a ‘ psychological safety ‘ environment was the pre requisite for leading and growing successful organisations. As a counter to that, if one were to look at brands like Apple or Uber, none of what we mentioned in the case of Pixar above counted for much in these organisations. Their becoming uber successful was clearly a function of brilliant strategy and unabashed opportunism. But the jury is still out on whether these organisations can more of what we are propagating, making them even bigger, better, revered organisations.
It might be worthwhile talking briefly about Project Aristotle(a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts“) at Google which was initiated to understand the dynamics of effective teams, what topped the charts of the prognosis was ‘ psychological safety ‘ where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other, apart from factors like dependability, structure & clarity and meaning.
So, what can we do to discover the ‘ power within ‘? Simple. Take some of the examples from the likes of Pixar and Google shared above and look at implementing them. At ISD Global, where I work, this has been happening for quite a while and it is only going to get better. Over to you!
The X Factor might make you an ‘ ex not to be factored ‘.
Contradicting yes. Certainly so. How can expertise ever be a burden? It is what gets normally equated with leadership abilities and high performance. But when we look around, you will find instances where expertise comes across as unwanted baggage, thereby halting progress, impeding momentum.
Look around and you will scores of cases where expertise has been a trap for many an organisation and individuals alike. Kodak was at the frontier of imaging technology and photography and remained glued to the thought that things would remain the same.
” You press the button. We do the rest “, quoted George Eastman. Steve Sasson was the engineer at Kodak who invented the digital camera in 1975. US$ 10 billion in sales way back in 1981. However, Kodak failed to recognise the rise of digital photography, decline in analog camera sales and the rise in digital camera sales. Eventually, the brand filed for bankruptcy in 1992. The ‘ expertise trap ‘ played its part. The hunter became the hunted.
Let’s move onto Microsoft for a bit. When Apple introduced the iPhone(without the conventional Qwerty keypad), then CEO Steve Ballmer(steeped deep in PC and connected computing business), never gave it a chance. The legacy of expertise has played its part and things didn’t look too ‘ smart’ for Microsoft as iPhone made history. Windows had shut the door on a big opportunity as the Explorer stopped exploring.
And so goes the case with stalwart retail brands who stuck to the coat tails of merchandise, brick and mortar, store design and alterations to the marketing mix- erstwhile pillars of retail success till such time Amazon came in and broke the mould completely.
While expertise has several ticks in the box, it can also lead to individual thinking that is narrow( Why upset the applecart, we have always done it that way), resting on past laurels, ignoring the dynamics of the market place, the emergence of new thinking and technology( AI, the power of algorithms that replace rote tasks very easily) and behaviours that leave a gaping distance between colleagues and business partners, causing loss of confidence and trust. Over time the very expertise that led to our success can leave us feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and stuck.
Some examples that might trigger counter intuitive thinking is when ‘ experts ‘ realise the need of the hour and wake up to smell the coffee. Who would have thought that automobile technology, ones exemplified by brands like Mercedes, BMW and their ilk would ever get upended. And how. Till such time Tesla disrupted the space with a vengeance and driverless, autonomous technology hit the road and put them in a MUSK DO situation. Real soon, the established brands were investing their billions into the new self driving technology to keep up, send out a signal and get ready for their future. They didn’t hang on to the ‘ expert ‘ in the field narrative. They let the new rubber hit the road. Good for them.
Some warning signs that you may have fallen prey to the expertise trap:
Have you fallen into a creative rut?
Do you feel “old” and out of touch in your job?
Do others seem uncomfortable challenging your assumptions and ideas?
Are market developments beginning to take you by surprise?
These are just a few of the warning signs.
All hope is not lost. Rediscover the path to new thinking, new learning and growth. Embark on a new journey and as the Buddhists call it ‘ embrace a beginner’s mind ‘.
That’s why we are happy with our ethos at ISD Global where I work. Be hungry, be foolish. The more you know, the more you realise how much more there is to know. Changing for the better and bettering the change go hand in hand. And all the ‘ trappings ‘ be blown!
We are guilty of it. And fall prey to it as well. And in our perennial desire to conform, comply, adhere, fit in and all of that, ensure that we use the same lexicon that have become common place.
You don’t need to be talking about a mega merger or acquisition to throw the word ‘ synergy ‘ about loosely, only to be caught by an unsuspecting tribe of colleagues and business partners. Way back in the 1600’s when the word synergy first came to prominence, the meaning it meant to echo was ‘ human will meets divine grace ‘- that was an understandable intersection. Over time(and this is what happens to a lot of the ‘ jargon ‘ where the meaning gets changed or diluted), synergy seems to be a completely different animal. Leaving you wondering if you are in sync at all!
Lets perch tent on another jargon speak: ‘ Touch Base ‘. I am not sure if it is very evident that the coinage emanated from American Baseball, but that is the fact of the matter.In baseball, players must touch each of four bases in order to score a run. The prevailing hypothesis is that the phrase “touch base” is a reference to this sport. Touch base means to make contact with someone. Though the sport is nowhere close to being played outside the Americas, the jargon has transcended boundaries. And if you were to read between the lines, the phrase ‘ touch base ‘ would unravel suspicious interpretations. After all, we are at the height of the #MeToo movement. Now we will touch base on another phrase.
‘ Out of the box ‘. The game where connecting the nine dots using no more than 4 straight lines was the origin of this. And to do that you had to go out of the box, extend the line beyond the grid to make sure the connection happens. You couldn’t achieve it by being inside the box. It’s altogether another matter that the phrase itself has become so common place that routine and the mundane have also been crowned as ‘ out of the box ‘ and people are comfortably getting away with it. Another example of a jargon losing meaning or getting diluted in value over time.
Perhaps the flexibility and the fluidity of the English language inspires such lexicon. And over time(through imperialism and colonisation), English is the most used business language ( bidding au revoir to Latin and French).
And charity begins at home. In our meetings at ISD Global its very common to hear words like ‘ recalibrate ‘ ( yours truly is the guilty party here) and we are no way close to discussing anything about a vernier calliper or the way it measures.
There are other ‘ low hanging fruit ‘(yes that’s another one) in the basket among several others and we can leave it to the power of euphemisms and metaphors to play its part to get to be ‘ on the same page ‘ and then ‘ sing from the same hymn sheet ‘.
The linguist will never languish!
Visible not in the conventional sense of the term. Visible here means the value that can be derived by keeping your processes and efforts(emotional labour included) being made clear and visible to your customer universe. Seeing is believing the saying goes.
Imagine you are at your favourite restaurant. And ordered their to die for stake. 30 minutes (with nothing at stake and meaningless multiple up and down scrolling on the smartphone later), you see the restaurant attendant bring your order swinging in through the kitchen doors and sashaying to your table and placing it on your table. Voila! You are a sizzling hot stakeholder now.
Now, lets visit the same situation wherein once you have placed your order for your favourite stake, you get to see what is happening in the kitchen and the team of chefs and kitchen staff doing what they need to get your stake ready. You see the intensity, the passion, the precision, the effort and the collaborative energy that is being invested to get your order to the table. You recognise the emotional labour that has gone into the making and delivering of your order.
So what is the prognosis from the above two scenarios. In situation one, you the customer has no idea of what is happening behind the scenes. Your order comes in and there is almost a sense of deja vu- ” I expected this “. You are not according any additional value to the experience. On the contrary, the opaqueness of the experience, takes away the true potential value proposition.
What happens in situation two? As you see what is happening behind the scenes, the labour , the effort, the commitment that is going into your order being processed, subliminally you begin to value the experience far better. Respect for the brand grows. Not just that. In the context of the team that put the order together, they begin to take greater pride in what they are doing as their effort is being showcased to the end user and the chain reaction of getting better continues.
When CEO Teruo Yabe came aboard Tessei( the Facilities Management company that cleans Japan’s Bullet Trains), the perception of the company was at an all time low. The work was considered 3D: dirty, difficult, dangerous. Yabe wanted to change this into the 3K : it stands for “kansha,” “kangeki” and “kando” (gratitude, drama and strong impressions). How did he do it? Read on..
Firstly, he changed the colours of the workers uniforms from a pale blue to flaming red. Attract attention, yes! On any day, in Tokyo Central Station, a work unit clad in the red uniforms of Tessei Co line up with military precision. A bullet train on the Tohoku shinkansen pulls in, and the workers, at the given signal, step aboard and hastily go about their work. They have a total of 12 minutes(gap between train pulling in and departing) of which 5 minutes must be set aside for passengers disembarking. So, effectively time available to them is just 7 minutes to complete their tasks.
Normally (to quote the Shukan Post), two to three workers are assigned to a first-class car, as opposed to one to clean up a regular car. In addition to checking for items left behind on the overhead racks and seats, they must flip the 100 seat backs in each car to make them face the front of the train, and while doing this, they scan the aisles and floor for any refuse, a task generally performed in roughly one minute, 30 seconds.
They then proceed to wipe off the table tops in front of each seat and adjust the window blinds. If any of the white covers on seat backs appear begrimed, these are exchanged for clean ones.
At the two-minute warning, they turn their attention to emptying the waste receptacles between cars. They also team up with other staff, whose task is to tend to the lavatories and washrooms. After a final check of all assigned jobs on their list, they assemble outside on the platform and bow in unison toward the passengers awaiting boarding.
1000 seat train, 22 team members, 7 minutes turnaround. Visible : Very. The CNN Crew called it the ‘ 7 Minute Miracle ‘. Their efforts have even inspired a bestselling book, “Shinkansen osoji no tenshi-tachi” (Shinkansen’s cleanup angels) by Isao Endo (published by Asa Shuppan).
Now, lets move onto another brand that hopped onto the visibility bandwagaon. Domino’s Pizza. About 10 or so years ago, Domino’s decided that they will throw open to their customers an interface(Dominos Tracker) wherein they are able to track what is happening to their order right from order received, dough prepared, toppings gathered, gone inside the oven, packed and on the way to delivered. The image quotient for the brand skyrocketed. Not surprising that this has become case studies in many business schools.
As I write this, I am tempted to share what we should have done when at ISD Global(the Dubai based branding agency where I work) delivered the ExceLENS Awards for Photography( sponsored by Toshiba) a couple of weeks ago. Over 10 weeks, a talented, passionate, committed ISD Global team of more than 10 members(apart from a number of equally committed external partners) clocked really long hours to make the event a resounding success. Am trying to make a case for visibility which helps improve and transform experiences, outcomes and business objectives for all stakeholders.
Till the next, VISIBLY Yours!