Muzeable Thinking

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Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 347: Skills for the Modern Age 2 – Exploitation

Posted by on Jul 24th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 10 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

Imagination recap – jump to next sub-head if read it!

Recently I wrote about IMAGINATION – not ‘vision’ or ‘creativity’ but the ability to imagine how new things might actually create opportunity or impact (even change) for the business. I concluded that it was all too often a leadership gap, not least because it seems even woollier than creativity in a corporate world that values psychotic levels of certainty and ruthless decisiveness. It’s a world that values DOING more than THINKING and THINKING more than IMAGINING. Mulling is lost somewhere on the shared server and deep reflection is kept in a bag, in a box and most people don’t even know of its existence anymore. A corporate unicorn.


Imagination – at least superficially – appears brave and high risk versus structured analysis and ‘planning’. I would counter that given a world of complexity and uncertainty the more traditional and dare I say it parochial planning and future forecasting approaches we have grown up with only give the impression of being less fraught with challenge and doubt. Blindfolding yourself and sticking a pin on the tail of donkey is still a lottery even when you have a carefully crafted ’92-step process’ designed for the task. Further I was describing ‘corporate imagination’ and that can legitimately call on, and use, data as an input. Einstein imagined, but usually not in a data vacuum.


The key difference between creativity and imagination is that creativity is primarily an executional enabler or improvement tool – you can ‘buy it in’ or nurture it below the leadership level – CEOs don’t absolutely have to be creative – they just have to recognise and value it. Imagination is a creator, enabler and driver of strategy and growth understanding and it has to live in the C-Suite, the hot-seat even!


In search of ‘clean’ exploitation!

Today, I want to touch on another core competence essential for our difficult times – ruthless exploitation!


The ability to make the most of a short term or one off opportunity when it presents itself. The key point is in the stories we tell ourselves – knowing, better still totally acknowledging, that it might be a brief moment of lucky circumstance – a chance to fill your boots – is the success factor; the point of salience.  NB in no way is this a plea for unethical or poor behaviour. This is ‘nice’ or what I call – ‘clean’ exploitation!


A confession of mediocrity!

Let’s back up a bit. In our business lives we have probably all had one of those opportunities where the moons align and you get on a roll. As gamblers say – it’s best not to over-analyse a streak, but… my best example was as a Marketing Director in a year where one of my big competitors acquired another of my big competitors. As they merged, lost people, lost focus and lost continuity… we had one of our best years in living memory. Much to my shame… I just went with it and took too much credit. It was my great team [partly true], the plan, the ads, the digital activity etc. To be fair the team did do a good job, but the results went beyond that. Honestly, hands up if you’ve been there too?


Why is it important to own up and tell it how it is? On two levels, one is deeply strategic, one less so.


Strategically. Growth is a febrile difficult to understand thingamajig. Perhaps creating it is akin to the task of herding cats. Sustainable growth has added bells on – herding cats along the Oregon Trail! So if you aren’t brutally honest about the conditions of its occasional arrival what chance have you got of repeating or sustaining it? Understanding ‘why’ is a key to getting your GROWTH MECHANICS™ in place. This means you have discount any one-offs from your strategic thinking. The mindset must be that if you can’t repeat it [or something like it] then it ain’t going to be part of any STRATEGY or GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that matters. Period.

On a more tactical level [and quite properly] we try to repeat stuff that works [remember you’ve sold everyone the idea that you did a great job when the ball fortuitously bounced your way!], So because some of this stuff mainly or only worked because of the lucky circumstances of your situation [merging competitors, whatever.] you are likely to hard wire mediocrity into your next 2 or 3 years of executional planning. The received wisdom – the legend in your own lunchtime, the Emperor’s new clothes moment – will be defended and abused to deliver different and inferior results. Sadly, my observation is that sometimes this is just about internal PR and personal career management.


The So What!

So whichever way you look at it – strategically or executionally – it is likely you are not doing right by the business.


If you totally acknowledge the moment and make it’s exploitation into a public ‘thing’ – a project mindset – then I would argue you will:

  • Get better results in the short term – because you give yourself permission to be ruthlessly tactical – exploitative
  • Build better long term morale and better behaviours – truth is deeply cleansing and the career BS will lessen.
  • Not create short or mid-term residual plans/activities/effects that are not beneficial to real aim of sustainable long term growth.


I know most of you would say you are already good at exploiting opportunities when they come your way and you might well be. But… this is about making exploitation a core STRATEGIC COMPETENCE and hard wiring it into analysis and thinking. Yes, we need to be able to play what’s in front of us in the current époque, but the new skill is having a really deep understanding of the context; the GROWTH MECHANICS™ of your market [this requires deep, reflective, strategic thinking] so that when EXPLOITATION is on offer you can act fast without damaging your long term growth through a random zig. Then, you need to know when the exploitation opportunity is over so you can get back to core.


Example – Apple and the billion dollar self-delusion?

It isn’t always about the small stuff either. I would – perhaps naïvely – suggest that even Apple have fallen foul of mixing up an [brilliant] exploitation opportunity  with a market position. The i-Phone was a truly gargantuan innovation breakthrough – whilst RIM slept… they created it and slotted it into the infrastructure of their greatest innovation – the i-Tunes Store business model and trail-blazed a new, premium category. But, despite the great innovation [which is clearly strategic] there was – if you did your analysis properly – a window of exploitation opportunity that went alongside it.
Only a naïve fool would have hard wired the initial hegemony into the business/growth plan with quite such confidence. The disruption would inevitably create a new category and a brutal, intensively competitive environment. Apple just had a few years start – their exploitation window. Apple is Apple, it’s why it’s so brilliant. But it is also polarising, arrogant, not quite mainstream and believes far too much of its own press. So, my view is that they didn’t really look at the future GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ honestly or brutally enough. Some of their current problems of overly-ambitious i-Phone forecasts vs current product/market realities are founded on this mis-analysis of their real situation.


An exploitation mind-set would have tempered this – if they had fessed up and said… this is a breakthrough for our business, but the next few years must be treated as a gravy train of exploitation whilst the competitors catch up and the category achieves some state of balance… I would argue that they might not be flapping around looking for sales numbers that might not be there; waiting a little too desperately for a killer innovation; watching Verizon etc. worrying about i-Phone purchasing commitments – all of which which might impact future margins etc. It would have created a GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that would have delivered cohesion vs the current frenetic Q-by-Q rollercoaster ride. This difference between reality and self-deception is a key component of any long term strategy that will work!


So this remains short enough for a blog not an article I’ll stop there. I’d wanted to mention Games Workshop and Lord of the Rings… which is my best e.g. of hard wiring one-off exploitative growth into the plan… it always ends in a dip. But more importantly deflects even the best strategy/thinking into a potentially lucrative back street that turns into a cul-de-sac!

Next time: Skills for the Modern Age 3. The love of ambiguity.

Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 269: Skills for the modern age 1 – the IMAGINATION

Posted by on May 31st, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 9 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

The next few outpourings from my young [ha!]and restless heart will explore a small number of  ‘competencies’ that I think are modern age GROWTH ESSENTIALS. Our observation is that these skills are rather lacking, or at least all too rare, in business. First… IMAGINATION.

Start point: What most companies and leaders really lack is not the creativity to generate ideas, but:

  • The [commercial] imagination to work out which disruptions will [or could] matter to their longer term growth agenda in the face of intense complexity.
  • The [commercial] imagination to picture how to actually make the change happen within the realities of the current organisation i.e. change it without destroying it.

For years there has been much talk (often very passionately delivered) about the ‘creativity’ gap in big corporations. We need more and better ideas, so let’s employ more creative people – mavericks even – we can train and encourage them; empower them to be more creative as part of the day job then things will soon change around here. Whether it’s a bad idea or it’s been badly executed it doesn’t seem to have worked very consistently?

Then, some of the rhetoric – and let’s face it most business writing is founded on pithy rhetoric trying to make the shades of grey [muddy brown?] appear as black and white – moved to other failings. Or at least other failings were added to explain the febrile nature of success. First among equals was the notion that it was not the paucity or quality of the ideas that was holding us back, but our collective inability to execute consistently, quickly and effectively. Execute, execute, execute was a new mantra, let strategy take care of itself and just do it!

Now we have a new generation of [mainly digital] champions telling us to miss out planning and carefully crafted innovation and just punt stuff out into the ether and develop it as we go. Speed trumps all of the above. The world is too complex and changing too fast to allow us to chart our journey in the old style with any confidence of success.

Actually, it’s all true. Or not. Or probably in part, depending on the situation. Our view – which is based on long experience and not extensive data [yet], we admit – is that there are group of other behaviours and challenges at heart of the problem that contribute to the success or failure of all of the above approaches. The first is worthy of real analysis and consideration – the corporate  IMAGINATION. It is this, or a consistent lack of it, that holds back leadership and businesses from winning more often. Imagination is not the same as creativity. It is also not an attribute that gets much nurturing, because in more junior roles it can actually hold your thrusting career back at a point when it’s best to just to be a ‘good soldier’ and get on with stuff.

Sir Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything  talks about this, making a point perhaps intended at the expense of ‘imagination’, but my point is that it explains that IMAGINATION is like strategy… creativity is like execution:

‘Imagination is not the same as creativity.  Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level [gap]. Imagination can be entirely internal.  You could be imaginative all day long without anyone noticing [gap]. To be creative you actually have to do something. You can think of creativity as applied imagination.’

A dictionary definition expands this:

  1. The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: “a vivid  imagination”.
  2. The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.

So, if creativity is a doing word… imagination is its foundation and driving force. It is more than a vision, it is a reflective and flexible approach that can and should be applied to every new thought or opportunity we find. Leadership is more about the latter than the former – it should make sure we are ‘doing’ the right things – then get other people to ‘do it’.

Much strong tea and conversation later we concluded that there is rarely a lack of ideas in most serious big companies. Their best execs might not be left field mavericks, but they know their businesses and anyway they are not stupid so they employ people like us to supplement and support them if they want an IV injection of sparky thinking. True they are often better/best at linear ideas, the improvement not the breakthrough, but great [big] ideas and thoughts pass across their collective desks on a regular basis.
The execution criticism is also true. More often when you sift through the ashes of failure you find the germ of an idea or strategy that ‘could’ have worked and has been dragged down by poor delivery or because it is the ‘wrong’ idea for that organisation to deliver. Our mantra – useful useable used – is a key state of mind in fighting this. Strategic thinking is often useful, sometimes – shock – it is even useable, but is it actually used [and embedded] in anger at the sharp end? Rarely.

That said, the failure to execute is often a strategic issue. The ideas are the wrong ideas for that company or leadership has not embedded the strategy in the far reaches of the corporate body just the shiny HQ building. This leads to the existence of local agendas that are disconnected and/or working diligently from a set of competing objectives and metrics that haven’t been sufficiently re calibrated against the new approach. Sales departments often end up here, being beaten up on short term sales or driving volume which makes them prioritise the old, easy stuff over the new harder sell. Or with a crack-head relationship with promotion that ultimately prevents retailers taking the new stuff seriously or rapidly devaluing it – so smothering it at birth. All of this requires IMAGINATION and IMAGINATIVE approaches to overcome the fundamental, entrenched or infrastructural barriers to success.

We see bridging the imagination gap as one piece in this growth jigsaw – not a panacea or another fundamentalist input. It can be a key input to help companies and leadership to more effectively contextualise their future success and the ideas that might get them there into a framework that allows an increase in intelligent risk and the speed with which we can exploit opportunities.

Imagination links to the execution gap because one of the main issues with change or disruptive thinking is our ability to plan the unknown. Imagination is the skill we need to paint a plausible view of the future we can move towards – levels of complexity mean it cannot be a rigid plan. This is key, because the more credible this picture is the better our chance of success. It is not like corporate vision in the corporate leadership sense. It is not a ‘destination’ but a way to help business see how specific concepts or ideas can be realised/how they would actually work – despite or within what the organisation is today or in the near term. It scopes out real changes to the modus operandi versus making ‘change’ into a ‘project’ or end in itself. It actually doesn’t want too much creative input… it should be rigorous and pragmatic.

This is scary as it usually involves imagining a world in which we’ll be uncomfortable, or even obsolete! Only the very best managers we’ve met or worked with do this naturally! It involves considering convergence, technology and adjacencies that are currently seen are irrelevant or marginal to the current world view. None of this is pure play creativity – the ‘idea’ is probably – even if half-baked – on the table already. It’s about the ability to see:  a) how it might work (THE CONTEXT) and b) how WE might be best able to do it (THE NATURE of the CHANGE). Both these will start to shape our strategy AND the execution plan. Not enough ideas are ‘killed off’ due to an understanding of the nature of the change e.g. we aren’t the right people to do this or because we haven’t  envisaged the reality with enough imagination.

Examples abound… Blockbuster and Netflix, Music/Book/DVD retailers and Online in all cases there were points where IMAGINATION would have mattered. This is not about crystal ball gazing… we’re not talking about being able to see the future. In all these cases there were points of change where IF the incumbents had acted and changed their model whilst they still had brand strength and scale, some might have found a future. Future examples abound; big Pharma’s tortoise like move from transactional product marketing towards service/big data/CRM + effective product solutions; the need to see the specific ways your supply chain will be about more than ‘operational excellence’ and increasingly a key driver of reputation and difference [Fairtrade, CSR, audit etc.]; the imagination to understand that your current business model is going to change, die even, the only variable being when.

So, leaders need to cultivate their imagination. It is their ability to see the kernel of the idea or disruption, the technology or the imminent change that will drive the better results we all seek. It will enable them to zig whilst the category zags. Given that the data demonstrates that 90% of businesses are at the very best doing ‘OK’ then it’s clear that we need to zig, because following the category will deliver at best, only ‘OK’ results.

We see IMAGINATION as a missing component in many organisations. They are locked into a view of their business and how it works. [Note e.g.s above.] Innovation is held back not by a paucity of ideas but by the inability to see how to make them reality – to give execution half a chance of succeeding. NB a honed imagination does not remove the need for strategy, having the imagination to see how things might work and actually building the framework to deliver them are different things. But, the imagination will shape and influence your strategic priorities and the growth agenda. Future planning is also not the same thing… imagination sits outside of a project plan.

Great leaders DO this naturally. Most of us try to manage or project plan or research our way around its lack. This is not enough and is a linear ‘project managed’ road to disappointment. Cultivate an imagination. Ask different questions in different ways. Incorporate different stimuli into your approach. Create some rules of thumb for imagining the future world and where you – and the idea on the table – will fit into it. Think about how other people would do it – not just your head to head competitors, but the potential new kids on the block and adjacencies. We all do this sometimes… but our experience of big blue chips is that ‘sometimes’ ain’t very often. It isn’t part of the core.

The worry is that whilst you might be able to train people to be more creative can you train people to be more imaginative?  Hope so, or if not we need to  develop better approaches [FOR HEAVENS SAKE NOT MORE *^?*ing TOOLS, THEY WON’T EVER BE FLEXIBLE ENOUGH!!!!] or ways of looking at the world to support  leaders and companies to make the leaps of imagination – without mortgaging the core of the business – that will ultimately drive more sustainable growth. Perhaps it is as much a ‘mind-set’ as a ‘skill’? In which case it is perhaps as much about acknowledging the gap and forcing ourselves to challenge our own status quo… RECOMMENDATION: have a small imagination focused project on the go at all times to keep yourselves honest and uncomfortable!

As with all things there are as many questions as answers!! But we see IMAGINATION and its conscious development as one small key to a growth led future. Next we will be discussing another rare, uncomfortable, modern age business essential… EXPLOITATION.

Why consumer healthcare is NEVER, EVER, EVER going to be quite like FMCG…

Posted by on Apr 8th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 8 posted by Tim Brooks 8th April 2013

A very brief bit of Muzeable Thinking discussing why healthcare marketing needs to think differently sometimes. This requires deeper and more difficult thinking… which is why we avoid it sometimes. It also owes an underlying nod to some of the excellent work on behavioural economics. We will no doubt return to this in more detail in the future.

  • Brands/businesses often assume that if they can develop a great concept/claim and some ‘good’ advertising or marketing that they will be successful… obviously, these things are critical, but sometimes they are the right answers to the wrong questions.
    • Often in healthcare – where categories tend to have low penetration, minimal levels of consumer engagement [except at the actual point of ‘suffering’] and often intermittent or occasional need then the real challenge is about changing or creating new consumer behaviour[s], not ‘selling’ something i.e. the thing you have to sell!
    • This is hard! It is different from finding new persuasive communications or innovation aimed at building a ‘better mousetrap.’ Both of these will help, but they will not unlock the category unless you change the prevailing behaviours.
    • This is fundamentally about human nature and is at the heart of the often brilliant contribution made to marketing by behavioural economics…
    • We learned this reality through making mistakes and repeated acts of naivety. This has changed our approach. We no longer just focus on finding category/brand insight, but in understanding the REALITY of behaviour and adjacent behaviours and what really needs to change so we can win.
    • Obvious, but truth is we see more evidence of healthcare companies trying to bend their world to fit the current FMCG brand and marketing models rather than trying to really build a more specific model to match their specific needs. We passionately believe that the FMCG approach will never quite work in healthcare.
    • Too often when you talk to consumers about innovation or messaging consumers will give positive feedback on concepts [making you believe we have a ‘winner’] and then post launch they don’t actually change their behaviours or actually buy your shiny new offering. Or at least, rarely more than once! This is true of much NPD, but especially pertinent in health, because what most consumers actually want is an impossible to provide magic bullet that allows them to keep old behaviours in place. Their positive response to the ideas is genuine, but usually delusional!
    • Who would not respond positively to a concept that explains & educates and then delivers a benefit that will enhance or help you or your family’s health and well-being, Who would not imagine that they would embrace this sensible behavior  – e.g. weight loss concepts. The challenge; the art is to better define the barriers to penetration – these will usually work above and beyond the CATEGORY RHETORIC [which, as we are always saying, you need to understand too] – before locking down concepts…  THIS IS WHY WELLNESS IS EVERWHERE, HOLISTIC & DIFFICULT.
    • Our long experience in consumer healthcare makes us believe that most FMCG research approaches, innovation approaches and brand development inputs… will only deliver half the required truth. We have to go broader [into life, as the context] and more specifically [into the reality of the change we are asking for] in order to deliver stuff that sticks. Even then expect it to be a long haul.
    • To put it another way FMCG does many things brilliantly and one of its core skills is to reduce the category to a value added ‘transaction’ – a benefit in a box. The ability of great brands and innovation to own and then deliver against and improve on this promise makes it a repeatable transaction… one we can still be loyal too. We can’t think of many healthcare situations that consumers REALLY see as transactional – a headache perhaps… but even that is part of a continuum [i.e. it has a cause related to other behaviours]. The benefit in the box is only ever PART of the need.
    • So, let’s get beyond the attitudinal and understanding questions and explore the reality behind the consumers lives and behaviours. This way we can deliver more than just a product message, an innovation concept or me-too claims we can deliver a framework for behavioural, and then, category change.
    • We bet that if you do this it will:
    1. quickly become a longer term sell/relationship approach
    2. involve defining innovation BEYOND the product in a box and involving service and soft stuff.

Referencing our blog of a few weeks back [07/12/12]  it might well require healthcare brands to be Aggregator Brands.



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