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2 posts from May 2013

05/29/2013 “I’m Not Creative”

At a recent corporate training I held, one of the participants blurted out “I’m not creative. I can’t do this.” Actually, she said that no one in her division ever asked her to be creative and it made her feel uncomfortable.

It was a shocking statement, but not surprising.

Let me give some context: The training was primarily to educate employees and vendors about certain company policies and best practices. I mixed in a number of design thinking exercises to make the training more hands-on and collaborative. The last part was key, since the policies would work best when people from different silos worked together.

The last exercise allowed people to take some leaps, to improvise and innovate, to create. It was loose enough to allow lots of leeway, but focused enough to provide direction. The last exercise built on the previous exercises in a consequential way.

The person in question was, in my mind, creative in her own right. She had asked good questions during the training. She dealt with people, often difficult people, all day, so she had to be adept at crooked paths. She did admit she liked to organize things, a creative talent to be sure. 

But to label herself as a non-creative person because no one at her job asked her to do so is a sad statement. It’s a sad statement about her state of mind and a sad statement about her enterprise group. What’s most disappointing is that I don’t think this as uncommon as it sounds. 

People in business are busy getting things done. Usually they are busy doing the things other people tell them to do. The Tellers want things done quickly. They want them done in the ways they’re used to, rather than done in the ways that will have the most impact. That last part is critical: that’s where the creativity comes in.

When we’re so busy doing, we don’t have the license or time to be creative. There is no constant culture of innovation, failure and insight. After all, those things could reflect badly on you at review time.

The problem isn’t that the woman doesn’t feel valued for her ideas. The problem is that her managers have created or accepted that culture. They’re the ones who need re-programming. And their bosses, and their bosses.

Not being creative reinforces a safe status quo. Since most businesses would rather have predictability than constant innovation, they don’t see a problem with this. It’s only when things get tough that they realize they’re too late to change. Then things get ugly. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of this ugliness. Unfortunately, the ones who suffer the most are people like this woman who’s never been asked to be creative. So when she looks for a new job, she won’t find many like her old one.

Corporate America, even Small Business America, needs a mental reset. Competition sucks, but it is, after all, a cornerstone of the very capitalist model we’ve all embraced. Not being creative is not an option for the future.

05/09/2013 Can Marketers Really Change?

Recently I’ve been struck by two simultaneous trends that at first glance seem diametrically opposed to each other, but may have more in common than you may think.

On the one hand, marketing departments are still having difficulty changing and transitioning from old practices of broadcast marketing to social businesses. Yes, many marketers have embraced social media tools and channels yet they continue to treat these as broadcast channels. In that sense, they find it hard to transition out of their old marketing habits and become more nimble and customer focused. It’s odd, in some sense, that so many very smart people have so much trouble changing. Or maybe I should say changing their marketing departments and organizations.

Change is a scary thing for most people and most brands. If you make a change and it doesn’t quite work out, your job or position may suffer. At the same time many marketing people have expressed to me their desire to change and their confusion as to what to do.

On the other hand, I’m witnessing a number of new people jumping into jobs in marketing departments who can’t wait to change things. Unfortunately many of these new people’s desire for change doesn’t stem from wanting to shift an organization but rather to put their mark on existing tactics.

This reminds me of the evolutionary strategy of male lions: kill all of your competitors’ cubs before you mate with a female lion.


New marketing people have a tendency to want to erase or undo their predecessors’ work in order to show their evolutionary value. Unfortunately this often entails doing the same type of work, just with a different spin or a different color. Coming in and fundamentally changing an operation is hard; just ask former J.C. Penney’s CEO Ron Johnson (who didn’t do organizational change well at all).

Change, especially in a digital world by traditionally oriented marketers, is a frightening proposition. It gets worse when marketers try something new and flashy, only to have it fail miserably, an occurrence more common than one thinks. This raises the distrust level of anything new and increases the resistance toward new initiatives.

For marketers who know in their guts that they need to change and are held back by fear of the unknown, here are a few steps to consider when jumping into the digital or social worlds:

  1. Do your homework – Remember: You are not alone. You are not the first marketer to try something. Make sure you do your research about brands that have done what you’d like to do. Pay attention to what has succeeded and what has failed. Pick a few small lessons from each and extrapolate to your own brand.
  2. Figure out the “Why” – “Everyone else does it” is not a good reason for doing something, even if we are herd animals. Why should your brand start a digital or social initiative? Ask the question: In the long term, how will this benefit my customers and ultimately our brand?  A good discussion about “Why” will stop a lot of poorly thought out initiatives.
  3. Start small and grow – Big initiatives are exciting. They take time and resources. They also have greater risk of failure. Instead, start modestly and follow your strategy. That will allow you to learn as you go. Small also means that failures along the way aren’t that important. They turn into actionable intelligence instead. If you can make failure your ally, your boss will give you more space.
  4. Connect with real people – Your customers are not an audience; they’re real people. Build your small digital/social experiments with real people in mind and make sure you are using these initiatives to connect with them through the digital channels. This human connection will give you more actionable intelligence and give your internal stories value.
  5. Educate and inform – Internal communication is important when you want to try a change. Tell stories and keep telling them. Successes and ruts keep people interested and allow you to keep changing. Make sure to keep the stories on a human level.
  6. Don’t pay attention to the shiny – Let the crows gather shiny objects. Your initiatives should have a longer perspective. That means that apparent quick fixes, like flashy contests or “new” social channels should take a back seat, unless you find a strategic use for them.

None of this will transform your marketing department or brand overnight. That’s not the point. Instead you will be building a culture that will accept change, even if it doesn’t always embrace it. It will make the “new” feel less risky. I’d like to hope it would make you happier and more successful in your job, too. 

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