Friday, February 26, 2016

magic, monkeys, moggies and management gurus

There’s a clip in an episode of illusionist Derren Brown’s TV show in which he predicts he can flip a coin 10 times in a row and it will come up heads every time.

He proceeds to do exactly this, flipping the coin into a bowl 10 times and it comes up heads every time, just as predicted.

Magic, right? Or at least some sort of quantum entanglement.

The truth is less mysterious; he flipped the coin for about ten hours straight until he produced the sequence he wanted. His team then edited out all the failed flips and presented only that successful sequence.

Similarly, you’ll be familiar with the famous thought experiment that describes how an infinite number of monkeys bashing on typewriters for long enough, will result in one of them eventually writing a novel.

But what are the chances our monkey author would bash out a follow-up?

Or another monkey would come up with anything?

How about the many popular videos on YouTube that feature cats?

Is this evidence that featuring cats in your video makes it more likely that it will be successful?

Perhaps the success of some cat videos is simply proportionate to the huge number of cat videos that are out there in the first place, the vast majority of which receive little or no views at all, bar their proud owners.

In the coin-flipping skit, monkeys who produce nothing, and the mountain of unwatched cat videos that are forgotten, we only see the survivors.

The same survivorship bias is prevalent in marketing departments and agencies every day. For instance, it’s common for marketers and agencies to get distracted by the high response rates and dramatic ROI that appear to result from certain marketing activities.

Discounts and price promotions are just one salient example. While they can contribute to short-term sales boosts, they tend to be taken up by consumers who are already brand buyers, and are therefore detrimental to profitability.

Survivorship bias is the error of looking only at features that winners appear to have in common, and assuming they’re the only reasons why things are successful.

Management guru Tom Peters studied several companies enjoying successful periods and published a book – In Search of Excellence – outlining a success formula based on those things that the companies appeared to have in common.

However, many of the organisations highlighted by Peters then found themselves having difficulties within a few years, while employing virtually the same strategies that had made them successful.

Perhaps the book would have been more appropriately titled In Search of Halo Effects.

One does not have to look far on the interwebs to find studies that appear to show how a single factor, such as company culture, customer focus or a company’s commitment to social responsibility, lead to high performance.

It could just as easily be argued that it’s because companies are high performing that they subsequently benefit from better culture, or are able to contribute to social responsibility activities.

More recently Richard Shotton and Aiden O’Callaghan from ZO in the UK published a splendid report debunking the idea that brand ‘purpose’ is a driver of success as popularised by the Jim Stengel book ‘Grow’.

It turns out that spectacularly failing brands like Nokia and Kodak were just as ideal-driven as the successful brands Stengel chose to feature in Grow.

But those examples didn’t fit the story.

And we prefer the story, if we are honest.

Sometimes this means turning fact into fiction, even for business book authors.

As our favourite literary Darwinist, Jonathan Gottschall, points out in The Storytelling Animal.

'When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.'
It turns out that many of the things that we commonly believe to be contributions to company performance are in fact attributions.

We’re mistaking outcomes for inputs.

Skill is a factor, but so is luck. Skill allows you to make punts that are a bit more informed, but it’s no guarantee of success.

Success is, for the most part, the result of decisions made under conditions of uncertainty, and always shaped in part by factors outside our control.

As Daniel Kahneman famously noted, 'A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight.'

Business theorist Phil Rosenzweig unpacks much of this flawed logic prevalent in contemporary business thinking, in his book The Halo Effect.

“Business is full of mysteries, but none greater than this: What really works?”

In finding out what works, Rosenzweig advises that we should be mindful of dazzling halo effects from apparent winners, and examine the failures a bit more closely.

What can we learn from magic, monkeys, moggies and management gurus?

Firstly, all strategies involve managing risk and uncertainty.

Execution is also uncertain. What works well for one situation may not be effective for another, however similar.

Randomness plays a greater role in success (and failure) than we like to admit and bad outcomes don’t always mean that mistakes were made.

(Likewise, successful outcomes don’t necessarily mean that we made brilliant decisions.)

Successful strategy, then, is skillfully interacting with chance.

It could be that successful strategy emerges simply because some people are better at interacting with chance and bad strategy comes from the failure to take chance opportunities by confusing outcomes with inputs and being too easily distracted by halo effects.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

some product! carri on storytelling.

You may know the semi-legendary rant by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in which he splendidly calls BS on ‘storytelling’.

Speaking at a Canadian design festival in 2014, Sagmeister attacked the current vogue in the communications industry for describing our work as that of storytellers.

'Now everybody’s a storyteller,' he says.

‘Recently I read an interview with someone who designs roller coasters and he referred to himself as a ‘storyteller.’ No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer!’

He continues ‘There is this fallacy out there. I don’t think I fell for it, but somehow maybe unconsciously I did, you know... I’ve seen a number of films so I must be able to make a film’.

People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make feature films don’t see themselves as storytellers. It’s all the people who are not storytellers suddenly now want to be storytellers.’

I’m not sure if Sagmeister expands on this in any of the 22 books he has published.

All this is pretty funny, but is it fair?

Given the prevalence of inane drivel spouted in the name of brand storytelling on the interwebs is hard not to side with Stefan.

Where to begin?

In the early chapters of his fantastic book ‘The Storytelling Animal' author and literary Darwinist Jonathan Gottschall makes this observation:

'The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.'

Why might the mind be wired for storytelling?

"We are an insatiably curious species’ says the sociobiologist, EO Wilson '…provided the subjects are our personal selves and people we know or would like to know'

So it would also appear that we are born to gossip. (Albeit within narrow parameters.)

Indeed, the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar agrees, calling gossip ‘an instrument of social order and cohesion’ - akin to the grooming behaviour common among our cousins in the larger primate world.

Primate grooming is not so much about hygiene, although that is a nice by-product. Grooming is essentially a substitute for language.

It creates bonds, establishes social status and influences other primates.

Dunbar and other evolutionary psychologists suggest that humans developed language specifically to serve the same social purposes.

(Grooming was simply not practical for early humans. Given their large social groups - around 150 or so - grooming one another would have been an impossible time-suck for our hunter gatherer ancestors.)

Language evolved, as it was a more practical and useful way of keeping up to date with friends and family, and obtaining social information about others in the group.

Particularly information about whom one should trust.

This explains – at least in part - why all of us 21st century humans are still pretty preoccupied with gossip and stories about other peoples behavior and reputation.

Reputation became important in this sense because – as a rule of thumb – it made more survival sense to be more generous toward others who were also reputable.

I often afford a wry smile at the call from some corners of the marketing world for ‘authentic brand stories’.

This is something of an oxymoron given that it is in the nature of stories to feed our social instincts for gossip only cherry picking the most dramatic and salient parts in recounting events.

The behavioural scientist Daniel Nettle echoes EO Wilson:

‘Conversations are only interesting to the extent that you know about the individuals involved and your social world is bound into theirs…

Given that dramatic characters are mostly strangers to us, then, the conversation will have to be unusually interesting to hold our attention. That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.’

He goes on to argue that we don’t watch films about people going shopping; we watch films about people going shopping who are having an affair with an ex-lover.

Similarly, a book about some old geezer who goes fishing is not that interesting.

But a story about an old man who goes fishing off the coast of Cuba and ends up in an epic existential battle with a giant pointy nosed fish while contemplating his own mortality is more compelling.

To Sagmeister’s earlier point, everyone is a storyteller to some degree – inasmuch as this innate allergy to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence requires it in order that we tell our own story to ourselves.

Among communications professionals perhaps that the ability to create evocative brand stories probably depends on a couple of key skills - not necessarily available to all and the reason why great creative minds are so valuable.

The first– and this is planner territory for the most part - is the ability to observe and interpret the hidden parts of everyday life (aka insight), then ensure that the drama is an intensified version of these concerns.

Secondly, is the creative’s ability to work within our cognitive limitations and make things simple yet still contain enough neuro-juice to get noticed.

(This is not to infer that people are stupid, rather that we have a lot more important things to occupy our minds with than brand stories - simplicity is paramount.)

I think it was Dave Trott who coined the idea that any idiot can take a simple idea and make it complicated. It takes a lot more skill to make the complicated simple.

The great stories – and therefore the great brand stories – always reflect the great universal themes of life.

Evolutionary study has produced a universal picture of the human mind that can be mapped and reflected in all human activity.

From the ice age to the dole-age there is but one concern. Ok, more like five.

Surviving, finding mates, being a parent, being part of a group and being the hero who triumphs in the face of adversity.

Brand storytellers should relax. Perhaps not try so hard.

Storytellingit seems, is less something that is done to us, and more something we are super skilled in doing to ourselves.

Our innate ability to confabulate and fill in the gaps - often extensive - with plausability,  and preserve some sort of narrative continuity based on the merest scraps of information is nothing short of a marvel.

So, carri on storytelling.

Gottschall agrees:
'The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.'

(And even in a perfect world, where everyone was equal.
I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel).

Sunday, February 14, 2016


During his last year in office, Winston Churchill was in attendance an official ceremony.

A few rows behind him two backbench MP’s were gossiping. "There’s Churchill. They say he is getting senile. They say it’s time he stepped down and let someone younger run things." And so on.

At a break in proceedings, Churchill turned to the two men and said, "Gentlemen, they also say he is deaf"