“Marketing is all about tapping into human insight,” said VW’s CMO Tim Mahoney when asked by Forbes to explain how his company had succeeded in making its brand the fastest-growing car company in the US. I think it’s telling that he brought it back to insight. Ah, insight, elusive friend. Everyone talks about you. Few actually know you.
I’ve worked in the “Insights” business for more than two decades now. I give presentations to people who have “insights” right in their job titles if not their job description. I have clients who require that there be an “insight” on very brief they make. And I would have to say that those “insights” often really do merit their quotemarks.
Have you noticed how many briefs are full of drumrolls about the importance of this project and its high priority to the C-Suite? That contain several words about the brand that you’ve seen before on many other briefs? These words often include “sociable,” “approachable,” “authentic” and “open-minded.” The insight itself is usually just something to rationalize the thrust of the brief using pseudo-psychological language. “Influential consumers are looking for more authentic experiences and respond well to brands that are approachable and open-minded.”
But, as I think Tim Mahoney implicitly observes, if you want great results, you need great creativity. And there’s no great creativity without great insight. Creativity is nothing more than the ability to see that which doesn’t exist yet – along with the ability to express it.
And when we say that someone is “insightful,” what do we mean by that? That they see below the surface. That they grasp the essential quality of things. That they apprehend reality intuitively. In other words, that they are creative.
If you ask the C-Suite in most big companies if they would like more of these fine qualities in their own people, they will invariably say, “yes, absolutely.” If you ask them why they don’t already have more of it, you will get fairly vague answers like, “there’s too much bureaucracy, too many committees.”
There are four things that contribute to corporate life being so often antithetical to creativity and insight.
1) The confusion of professionalism with lack of empathy.
Did you know that you are 400% more likely to encounter a psychopath in the C-Suite of a corporation than you are on the streets of any randomly chosen city?
Such are the findings of Dr. Robert Hare, professor of experimental psychology at the University of British Columbia, inventor of the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) and an advisor to the FBI on serial killers.
The defining characteristic of a psychopath is high self-regard combined with little or no capacity for empathy. Intelligent psychopaths can discern your emotions quite skillfully but they remain unaffected by them. Are you in pain? They could care less. What matters is how they’re going to get what they want.
The modern corporation is all about succeeding at objectives and offering valuable rewards to those who can bring them about. It frowns on people who lack emotional self-control and favors instead a cool, detached “let’s weigh all the variables” style of decision making. The energetic psychopath can walk into this environment and do quite well for himself. And he often does.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, only 1% of the general population are genuine psychopaths and therefore only 4% of the C-Suite is genuinely psychopathic.
But the influence of the psychopathic personality extends far and wide. The willingness to fire lifelong employees to save some bucks, the stiff smiles in the hallways, the pervasive fear, the cluelessness about cultural change, all of these are the distinctive signs of an organization bereft of empathy. And who else but a psychopath would foster a marketing vocabulary in which prospective customers are referred to as targets – whose motivations are studied behind the cool anonymity of a one-way mirror. Such activities pass as part of the “insights” the corporation is charged with getting.
Corporations, by contrast, prefer to discuss that which can be measured – and nothing is more measurable than a surface. They live quarter to quarter. And they vastly prefer linear and logical to empathetic and intuitive. The same thing that makes them effective as cash generators also erodes their ability to be genuinely insightful.
Best practices: start asking your top people how much time they’ve spent with consumers last month (focus groups don’t count).
2) The catastrophic effects of success
Corporations also must struggle with the crippling effects of past successes that made them a corporation in the first place.
Great success isolates you and fosters an insidious narcissism. Do not underestimate the threat this poses to your company’s culture. As Andreas Kluth wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “success imprisons its owner.”
The key is to understand that success itself is something you need to break free of. Think of Paul Newman and his line of consumer packaged goods, Newman’s Own, that he created after a dazzlingly successful acting career. He triumphed against the catastrophe of his own success.
Contrast Paul Newman with Eastman Kodak Company whose account I worked in the late Eighties. The handwriting was already on the wall that the future belonged to digital – no one in fact had done more on a scientific level to pave the way for digital imaging than Kodak. It was a flush, rich company with huge margins and an awesome brand. But the “yellow bloods,” the old timers in Kodak’s sales and marketing were drunk on the company’s success and split film and digital, never realizing that they needed to destabilize what they had in order to get what they wanted.
Best practice: start using the phrase “the catastrophe of success” and see what kind of conversations it can provoke.
3) The fear of death
Those who work for corporations are drawn to them because they seek refuge from uncertainty. Unconsciously, on a deep level, they seek some protection against the inevitability of death.
And what happens when we go to do something creative? It often creates unconscious revulsion. This effect was studied by a team of psychological scientists at the University of Pennsylvannia. Their study showed that activating the creative centers of the brain also triggers associations of the unknown and the uncertain. And that produces a sharp sense of anxiety. We smilingly tell ourselves and our fellow team members: “Let’s get creative!” But deep, down inside, we often don’t like it.
Ever been at an exploratory creative session when a senior manager asks, “tell me again why are we doing this? What’s the process? Who has a map?” Subtext: “I dislike this because I don’t know in advance what the outcome is.”
Most corporations are sitting on goldmines of creative ideas they have rejected. The ideas persist in the memory of the people who still work there like unrealized dreams. But the ideas can’t be brought back to life because they were ritually killed and thereby conferred a symbolic immortality on all involved.
Best practice: stop looking for brand new ideas and start asking why your company has already rejected so many.
4) The fetish of overwork and over analysis
When people come back from vacation, rather than enjoying their new-found serenity and freshness of spirit, they inevitably pay the piper by slogging through a hillside of emails demanding responses and within a few hours are once again mentally exhausted.
Working in a corporation is a social experience of fundamentally belonging: sharing in the system of speech and dress codes, using agreed-upon ironic statements and, of course, strictly observing unwritten taboos.
Being overworked is one of the easiest ways of signaling your belonging. But read Jonah Lehrer’s round up of the latest studies in neuroscience that make this a fact: you are better able to recognize a good idea if you are well-rested and in a positive mood.
Then there’s the “deep dive” which often means surrounding a simple question with so much data, that everyone involved feels free from any vulnerability to being criticized for not having “done their homework.” But as Prof. Gerd Gigerenzeri said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, “fast and frugal” questions help us arrive at reliable answers far better than complicated decision trees. As Peter Drucker once observed, exhaustive corporate fact gathering is often in fact an elaborate attempt to hide from the truth.
Best Practice: Start encouraging people to get lots of sleep. Stop fetishizing overwork and its evil twin, over-analysis.
Here are four things corporate leaders need to do to foster a more insightful and creative culture.
1) Go to the Empathy Gym
It’s fashionable now to talk about being an empathetic company – and it is often treated as something you can learn. But remember: empathy is not a cognitive skill. It’s a perceptual ability that can only be strengthened by action and by a humble attitude. You want to make progress? Volunteer. Go to the homeless shelter, the soup kitchen, the hospital, anywhere you have no choice but to be of service to people who need it.
And isn’t it good to know that while corporate life provides favorable breeding grounds for the psychopath, humility and modesty do in fact get noticed and bring favor? Baylor University studied hundreds of employees in different companies and different states. When they compared standard psychological evaluations with supervisors’ performance reviews, they found a direct link between humility and modesty and superior job performance. And Anne Kreamer has written in the Harvard Business Review about studies showing that voracious readers of fiction tend to cultivate their empathy and advance in their organizations faster. You want your people to be good at pattern recognition, right? Well, another study has shown that simply reading a short story before completing a pattern recognition test boosts your score. Enough said?
Best Practices: 1) Volunteer and don’t publicize it. 2) Read novels voraciously.
2) Be humble enough to recognize your gift for creativity
True humility is recognizing our gifts precisely for what they are, thinking neither too high nor too low of them. You and I - we each have the capacity to be creative. If you ask Ideo’s CEO David Kelley, we can indeed all do it, it’s just that somewhere around fourth grade, we lost that belief in ourselves. Find it again and you can do pretty much anything.
The first way to awaken it in yourself? Find out the facts. The second thing? Come up with a solution and make a prototype right away. Now test it. And make another one. Stop looking for big ideas, as David McMamara recommends, and start looking for really small ideas, the kind that you can move on – right now.
Best practice: Don’t make a powerpoint about your new idea. Make a prototype and get it in the hands of consumers. Think of it as a small idea – at first.
3) Do something curious today – and make sure you screen potential hires for their curiosity.
Sophie von Stumm at the University of Edinburgh has led a large scale study of the personality traits of students who are high performers. Of course, successful students are conscientious and hard working. Less obvious, though, is the importance of the personality trait of curiosity.
Curious students are more apt at learning. And the same applies to employees.
“A curious person who likes to read books, travel the world, and go to museums may also enjoy and engage in learning new tasks on the job. It’s easy to hire someone who has the done the job before and hence, knows how to work the role,” von Stumm says. “But it’s far more interesting to identify those people who have the greatest potential for development, i.e. the curious ones.”
“Associational thinking” is one of the hallmarks of the innovative person, reports Innosight’s Scott Anthony and one of the most powerful ways to grow it is to deliberately make yourself uncomfortable by trying new things and going to places you’ve never been before. And what makes it easier to confront all that uncomfortability? Curiosity.
Best Practice: Banish the dismissive phrase, “So what?” Try saying something more like “That’s interesting – I wonder what it could mean for our business.”
4) Cultivate your inner depth.
The Golden Rule is a terribly simple idea and when it is put into practice, it changes everything. It is simple and it is deep. The obsession with KPIs and their accompanying relentless measurement of surface reality stymies depth and simplicity both.
The nature of insight itself is depth: seeing below the surface. How you can possibly hope to be insightful if you’re not going deep, letting things accumulate and reorganize in your creative unconscious?
Corporate culture often treats leadership development as a cognitive task and mindfulness and inner life go neglected. Polly LaBarre has written eloquently about this in Harvard Business Review. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a religious practice – it’s a habit of mind that consists in keeping the attention patiently focused on a quality you’re trying to develop or a problem you’re trying to solve. It is the opposite of the hard-charging, confrontational dialogue that is considered “dynamic” at many corporations and is in fact nothing more than a fearful skating across the surface of things.
Best Practice: Be patient with thoughtful silence. Have large parts of your day free of the mobile device and the pinging of emails.
Best Practices Round Up
- Start asking your top people how much time they’ve spent with consumers last month (focus groups don’t count).
- Start using the phrase “the catastrophe of success” and see what kind of conversations it can provoke.
- Stop looking for brand new ideas and start asking why your company has already rejected so many.
- Start encouraging your people to get lots of sleep. Stop fetishizing overwork and its evil twin, over-analysis.
- Volunteer - and don’t publicize it.
- Read novels voraciously.
- Less powerpoints, more prototypes.
- Banish the dismissive phrase, “So what?” Try saying something more like “That’s interesting – I wonder what it could mean for our business.”
- Be patient with thoughtful silence. Have large parts of your day free of the mobile device and the pinging of emails.