While I’ve helped design solutions for hundreds (thousands?) of client problems, all of them fascinating, unique and inspirational, the challenge that inspires me most is inside Undercurrent. And it’s a challenge shared by most organizations: offering customers a unique and special product or service that helps them be more awesome. My hunch is that we do that by focusing on the few elements that truly help us make magic.
A few weeks back a client asked me over dinner, “What’s next for Undercurrent?” The question inevitably led to a discussion of why we come to work in the morning, why Undercurrent is what it is, and what we want to be when we grow up. And interestingly enough, nearly five years in (also, holy crap, I’ve been here almost three years!), the answer remains very similar to how I think we would have answered it when the company started.
All we really want to do is solve big, previously unsolved problems, in partnership with brands and people that we care about and believe in. If we do that well enough, everything else will be easy. How to do it well, if your business is solving problems, is a problem that requires a killer system – what follows gives an insight into what that system looks like.
Before we proceed it is worth holding onto these few assumptions: that there are no truly novel ways to solve complex problems; that everyone in the problem-solving business is using fundamentally similar methods; that while inputs, outputs and levels of operation may differ, recommendations look similar regardless of the source.
If you believe in all of that, then divergence in the strategy business is not in the process, but in the things that make a process magical. In my estimation, there are two ways to make magic: with people and with the things people use. This post looks at how to make magic with people. (A follow-up will look at how to make magic with the things people use.)
THE FIRST STEP TO PEOPLE MAGIC: CAPABILITY
My approach to developing capability in people is based on three things I’ve encountered, from three different fields. The elements in bold below are the ingredients for my magic potion:
- You need a lot of experience to have great taste, as radio icon and media mogul Ira Glass teaches us.
- Basketball writer Henry Abbott notes the importance of experience when he points out that playing time – time on the court, doing the things, and working it out while covered in sweat – is like oxygen for young NBA players.
- And as designer Khoi Vinh tells us, a little bit of self delusion goes a long way.
Great Taste, Less Filler
The most important thing people can have in the strategic world is great taste. That might seem crazy, but there are a lot of things wrapped up in “taste” that make it interesting. If, in the recommendation business, you are known for having great taste, that means you have deep empathy for people, that you can quickly select transformative insights out of a pool of research, and that the directions you can imagine and articulate make sense for the world they’re entering. These are all good things.
All we really want to do is solve big, previously unsolved problems, in partnership with brands and people that we care about and believe in.
Unfortunately great taste is very rare, very hard to come by, and only comes from time spent with subject material.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Taste accumulates at an exponential rate, a bit like a black hole sucking in more mass per second as it grows in size. Anna Wintour’s ability to improve her taste in fashion is exponentially greater than mine. Aaron’s ability to decipher inputs from a client are exponentially more refined than mine. And every time Aaron or Anna consume more information, even if it’s the same information I consume, they get better at their craft than I do.
Further, as someone moves up the chain at a place like Undercurrent, they get exposed to a greater number and range of inputs, further compounding the growth of their mental resources and increasing their “taste multiplier” as they interact with more projects around the organization.
So, if taste accrues with time, and does so more aggressively with every new, additional input, it’s important to get started with that process as quickly as possible.
Nobody Puts Baby on the Bench
For NBA players, playing time is like air. Players that get to play become good players. Players that don’t get to play, don’t. Simple enough. Sure, players bring different levels of talent to the game, but if they get the opportunity to acquire valuable experience (the kind that can only be gained by playing, not just through training to improve skills and abilities), they’ll reach their maximum capability much sooner. Here’s Henry Abbott himself on the topic:
“One of the best things one can possibly do to help a rookie’s career is to bless him with the confidence of a supportive coaching staff and minutes to get used to the NBA game – and very few players get that. Just a week ago an elite player development coach told me that every single player in the NBA can play, and it’s really just a matter of opportunities and coaching and the team.
[Private coach to the stars] David Thorpe has been making similar points for years. He talks all the time about ‘the royal jelly.’ Literally, that’s what worker bees feed a chosen baby bee to make her the queen. But it’s also, says Thorpe, what coaches and others can feed players to help them achieve their potential. A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Throughout his career, Thorpe has been accused of hyping up his players up and giving them big heads, to which he replies, jokingly, ‘guilty!’ Thorpe is convinced that ‘the royal jelly’ can and has fundamentally changed the careers of countless players. The gold standard of helping a player evolve, he says, starts with playing time.”
Providing new, smart, talented, confident strategists with “playing time” in the form of opportunities to create, present, and put in motion strategy at the highest level, is the quickest way to making them effective members of the Undercurrent team. As a manager, I try as hard as possible to act like a coach in situations where I can, even though my instinct may be to get in the game myself and play.
This contrasts dramatically with the average experience of an assistant account executive, junior planner, or art director at an ad agency. At my first job, for example, I spent most of my time filing away billing reports and packing boxes of sales materials to be shipped to a trade show. It was only by stealing moments with the digital wizards at the shop that I was able to learn more about how the internet worked (Thanks, Rich!).
The lesson, boiled down, is: to make sure your good people get better over time, and earn great taste through experience, give your new talent playing time and room to breathe. New smarties shouldn’t be worried about making mistakes, they should be worried about making their pitch for Client X’s CMO as slick as possible.
Of course, this works best if you have great talent coming in, and fascinating problems for them to work on right away. It does Jeremy Lin no good to break ankles in the D-League; he only begets Linsanity when he’s playing against the best in the world.
Irrational Self-Confidence Makes Perfect Sense
Being confident goes a long way in any field.
In the strategy world, where we recommend wholly new courses of action for massive companies, potentially impacting the lives of thousands, confidence is a requirement. And when it comes to deducing the qualities necessary for a smart, creative human to become a strategist, confidence ranks highly. It’s what impels people to get started, it’s what pushes people to dive into work that’s otherwise foreign and uncomfortable, it’s what gives recommendations weight.
“Nothing happens until something moves.” – Albert Einstein
Further, it’s what helps people have lives that are full of different kinds of experience. What becomes very clear when interviewing many younger would-be strategists is that while they’ve had a couple years of experience, they’ve had a couple years of the same experience. A year pushing creative briefs for one or two clients – even if they’re marquis clients – doesn’t come close to a year spent on the inside of five unsexy clients, while blogging like you mean it and helping your friend’s mom launch a site for her small business.
But the taste-from-space-and-freedom system doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t work for people without an entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn’t work for people who don’t want to stray into the uncomfortable territory of “I don’t know how to do that.” And it certainly doesn’t work if the strategists you have on board aren’t razor-sharp. But it mostly doesn’t work if the people on board are afraid of failure and as such never get started gaining experience and building their taste library.
My example from the outside, here, is very brief. And it’s related to Ira Glass’ example above. To paraphrase Khoi Vinh, a little bit of self-delusion goes a long way. A couple years back, I had the pleasure of seeing Khoi talk about his career at Tina Eisenberg’s Creative Mornings. It was a great talk, full of early-career anecdotes and examples of his worst work from his career.
And the key point was that you have to believe you have what it takes, that you have the right answer. Khoi referenced some amazing source material: Right Said Fred and their lone hit, “I’m Too Sexy.” He noted – quite humorously – that Right Said Fred really believed in the message they were delivering to the world, believed it to be the expression of their creativity.
And if they can make that work, if they can take that song to the top of the US charts, why can’t you, strategist, change the world with a recommendation?
Here’s to getting started.