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The Talk Bubble is About to Pop, Part 1

Yesterday, Mark (who is building sandcastles on the beach with his family and finally reading that Buckminster Fuller biography I loaned him in 2006) and I were chatting over the phone and got to talking about the value of implementation to what we do and how we are positioned in the market. There is a tension between implementation and strategy when it comes to positioning: with the implementation being almost to the point of commoditization, differentiating your service in terms of a strong point of view and focus on richly researched planning is essential. But without following through with implementing that planning, I’m not sure how to maintain whatever perception of value you may have built. Reflecting upon how the market has been squeezed so significantly over the past couple of years, forcing people to question what they are truly getting, I remarked, “Yeah, the talk bubble is about to pop.”

I do think this is a pretty big deal. So this will be one of two posts on the subject—one written by me, the other by Mark. We’re sensing some significant movement in the web marketing space, an frustrated impatience with the hype and the talk and a growing demand for sensible action. Earlier this month, Gadi Amit wrote an impassioned article for Fast Company along these lines. I’d recommend reading the entire thing (keep reading for some insightful points around the double standard we “high-mindedly” hold between gadgets and food), but here’s a piece that cuts straight to the point:

“We grew accustomed to deferring the hard work of delivering real, tangible products to someone else, usually across the ocean. We grew complacent, convincing ourselves that white-collar derivatives of such actionable, tangible creations is just as good and even better–we Strategize, Manage, Research, Innovate and Market! Yet when it comes to delivering the finished products, we opt out, assuming that none of “that stuff’ has any value or merit.”

Another example comes from designer Frank Chimero, someone who has impressed me with not only his talent but also his thoughtfulness. He writes:

“Lots of writing being done with predictions. Very little being done to test those predictions. My frustration with punditry & futurism (my own included) is that the hypotheses very rarely get tested because the comments are from a spectator point of view. I realize there is an insatiable hunger for predictions, but we need more players. We’ve the tools to try things out, but we’re lacking things to point to as specimens. The pencil can’t hover above the page forever.”

Needless to say, I agree with both of them that we’ve hastily given away the method and practice by which we should be refining our thinking, and that there’s something in our short attention spans that causes us to want to focus our present thinking on the “future” but not remember or care about those thoughts when the future actually comes around.

Internal Logic ≠ External Efficacy

Imagine you and a small group of people are dropped in the center of a labyrinth in the middle of the night. You are tasked with coming up with a plan of escape. You spend the next day immersed in discussion, inspection, consideration and reflection on past your labyrinthian experience, before finalizing your strategy. You even write it down neatly with a very nice diagram of the labyrinth as you see it, and hand it over to your trapped companions, wishing them good luck just as the sun is setting again. As you’re airlifted out after dark, you’re confident that your new friends will be out in no time, of course crediting your ingenious plan. But what if the labyrinth you sensed was only a small portion of a much larger, more complex labyrinth? It wouldn’t take long for the group to conclude that your plan failed.

The real world is like that. We often devise plans—after all, we’re opinionated idea-people—that don’t hold up to the true complexity of the situation. Of course, we don’t know that until we’ve tried them. When they fail, we adjust and try again in light of the latest data we have. It’s common sense: planning leads to doing, which leads to better planning, which leads to better doing, which leads to…you get the point.

Even the Brilliant are Wrong Sometimes

I think the idea that internally consistent logic does not guarantee efficacy is pretty plain. But there is another pitfall that tends to inflate the talk bubble that I’d like to dismantle. This one has to do with the personality-driven style that much of our industry’s “strategy” is propped up by. To explain this, a historical example…

In 1650, a German scholar named Athanasius Kircher began publishing texts deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was a widely-known and respected academic of his day, and his in-depth study of the Egyptian alphabet groundbreaking. Kircher assumed that hieroglyphs were pictures illustrating complex meanings, rather than symbols representing sounds. Upon this assumption, he built an extraordinarily complex system of interpretation that had a very consistent internal logic about it. He even extended this system to back up theories suggesting that ancient Egyptian was the spoken language of Adam and Eve—one of many historical-consolidations he felt were warranted from his studies. A spread from one of his texts, which is on display at the British Museum, is pictured below:

When it came to Egyptology, Kircher was “the man.” In fact, it wasn’t until the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone over 150 years later that his interpretation was proven to be completely wrong. The Rosetta Stone conveniently included three versions of the same decree issued on behalf of Ptolemy V on the same stone—one in Egyptian hieroglyphs, one in Egyptian demotic, and one in Greek. Scholars existing mastery of ancient Greek became the key to finally understanding the hieroglyphs. Unfortunately for Kircher’s legacy, the new understanding of this language dismantled his. It’s not as if he was right for a century and a half. He was always wrong. But the discovery that his theory failed in explanatory power and scope came only when the inner system was placed in the context of the outer one—when hieroglyphs were chiseled right on top of Greek.

This “big personality” model is so common, I probably don’t have to belabor the point much. You’ve probably already thought of a contemporary example, so I don’t need to name names, either. The talk bubble we have now has been inflated by celebrity and charisma—a lot of hot air—but it’s the needle of data that will pop it. With a growing focus on sophisticated measurment techniques in our industry, not to mention increased scrutiny over impractical expenses, “big” strategy is being tested, and rightly so. The more iterative we make our strategy to action cycle, the more we can learn from our errors (there will be errors), correct them, and keep on moving forward.

Sharing the Risk

When you commit to implementing your own strategy, you earn the trust of your client by sharing the risk. Remember our thought experiment about the labyrinth? The “expert” delivered a plan but didn’t take action on it, while the “client” was left behind to go it alone. I can imagine the confusion, fear, and even anger among them as they wandered their way through what quickly became a larger problem than they’d been prepared for. And what about the “expert?” Next time he’s hired to solve a similar problem, he’ll probably prescribe a similar solution based upon the false assumption that it was effective. Had he stuck around, he would have learned something, though it probably wouldn’t have been pleasant. How many lame labyrinth solutions will this expert deliver before people wise up?

Trust is so essential to the work we do. While it’s possible glean some trust by inspiring your client, you’re more likely to strengthen it—really earn it—by persevering with them and delivering results.

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