Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Perception - The battle that cannot be fought.

I'm not much of a gamer - however I have played quite a bit of Prince of Persia. The interesting level in the game was the one where the Prince meets his mirror image - they are equally matched and fight each other to a standstill. Only when our Prince withdraws and sheaths his sword - does his alter ego merge with him ; and he moves on. This is an exact parallel to the perception battle.
Most of us think inside out. "I do all these things - therefore I must be doing a good job." Things change when you start thinking outside in - "If I could not see all these things being done, would I still think I do a good job ?".
Big Difference !
As producers we are exposed to all we do. As consumers, we are exposed to only the things that cut through the noise. Here lies the mystery of perception. Very few things are good enough to cut through the noise - therefore, only uniqueness builds perception. If what you do is benchmarked, best practiced and extremely thoroughly thought through - you have probably already failed. This is difficult to swallow.
Therefore, when we are presented with research and feedback that shows we have made no impact on the consumer - we promptly move into denial. To the consumer we are irrelevant, but we refuse to believe this and attack the research, question the sampling and find numerous intelligent and analytical excuses. We have joined the battle of perception - and the more we fight the more we lose.
Suppose for a minute we were to accept. What relief !!! Now we can actually do something about it. What should we do now ? The best option is to think through customer scenarios using an experience walk through model. A team member of mine recently created a framework which I thought was exceptional in doing precisely this.
1. Describe the experience stage : Broadly any marketing activity would generate experience stages for the intended consumer. These would typically bucketise into initial connect, awareness, interest, engagement, participation and closure. While these would be the buckets, thought needs to be applied in generating the right experience stage description.
2. Decide Messaging for each stage : When we interact with the consumer at each of the stage, we need to develop clarity in the messaging available to us for that stage. If a stage has no message, it will not have any noise cut through - and therefore should be dropped. If enough stages have no message, the whole activity should be dropped.
3. Create the implementation mechanism for each stage : Typically the experience will be provided by an artefact created by us. This could be a website, a demo zone, a promotion et al. Without an implementation mechanism, the experience degenerates into a communication exercise - typically without a call for action. This hurts the most at the engagement and participation stages of the experience walk through.
4. Communication Vehicle : For the consumer to actually have an experience, there has to be a communication vehicle - whether an Ad, a direct mailer, a telephone call or any other. Typically, such vehicles will add to both cost as well as noise. The more frugal we are in allocating vehicles to a stage - the better the probability of impact.
5. Desired Response : This is the final and most important variable. Without this you cannot focus or measure. Typically, each experience stage should have a unique call for action - and that should be the desired response. As an example, if you run a webinar - the desired response at the interest stage should be registration.
Now that this exercise is done - the job is well begun. Now you can start the question stage.
Question 1 : Is my messaging uniquely designed to generate the desired response ? If No - revisit, pare, change etc so that it is.
Question 2 : Will my implementation mechanism create a unique experience ? This is where benchmarking becomes key.
Question 3 : Is my communication vehicle the best suited given the message ? A message in the high fashion zone renders poorly in standard newsprint. Problematically, communication vehicles have large impact on unconscious perception - how many times have you disregarded a premium brand because the brochure was printed on poor quality paper ?
Question 4 : Is every element tuned to - and only tuned to - generating the desired response ? Anything which does not pass this, is additional cost with no incremental perception value.
Question 5 : Will my desired response move the consumer effortlessly to the next experience stage ? If not, the experience will become disjointed.
Question 6 : If I forget who I am - and try this whole thing on myself (a good trick, change brand name for this) ; what would my perception be ? Would I say "Awesome" - or "Dont hassle me".
This is an indicative (and not exhaustive) list of questions. The point is - sit down with the complete map of experience stages and keep questioning, probing, asking unconnected people - till you find that you are convinced. Being sceptical before is better than being defensive after.
This thinking can be applied from the smallest campaign to the largest. By and large - it is best applied in the following situation.
I've got the research. My brand perception sucks. Lets go back to the drawing board and start again.
You realise the advantage above - you at least have the humility to ask the questions. And you have at least built the knowledge to design the experience stages. I can tell you thats a lot more than you will have in a new exercise.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern." - William Blake.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Leadership - the art of self redundancy

Knowledge is power - right ?
A colleague asked me this question today (in different words). "Krishnan - I have spent years picking up these skills. What happens to the time I spent if others learn it easily ?". One question which immediately throws the spotlight on the leaders role in teaching.
The wikipedia entry for leadership has an interesting spin - "One of the differentiating factors between Management and Leadership is the ability or even necessity to inspire." I disagree - In my opinion there can be no management without leadership - lets look at why this is so.
In professional lives there are two kinds of roles - clerical and managerial. A clerical role (whether blue or white collar) involves the diligent execution of a repetitive task ad nauseum. These are the roles technology / any form of optimisation threatens - witness the rise of the Union. A Managerial role by definition therefore has to do with unanticipated, higher risk, "grey zone" tasks - requiring specific skill development and the application of intellect. Assuming most human beings are born with largely similar intellectual capability - the role adopted depends on choice. Why do we choose one over the other ?
To me - roles requiring the application of intellect are "scaleable" roles. The individual grows as they perform this. Such roles would typically be chosen due to an individual's desire for scaleability - in designation, function and remuneration. As a consequence, managerial roles are played by people who desire to move on and grow. But hang on a minute !! - was'nt this role being played by an individual precisely because they had developed specific skills and intellectual capability. In which case - how will the organisation allow the individual to scale ?
Which brings me back to the interconnectedness between Management and Leadership. The two go hand in hand. A Manager's aspirations cannot be met if he does not become a leader. So what does being a leader entail ?
Purely from the self interest of the manager - the key leadership trait required is the ability to replicate skill and knowledge in the team the manager leads. This has two implications - recruiting the kind of people who can absorb this, and training and mentoring to bring them upto speed. Lets take these issues individually.
Recruiting - I always look for scaleable people by default. There are 5 things I see in such people which set them apart. They are passionate about things they have already done (easy to check). They have already demonstrated the acquisition of some unique knowledge and skill (however small) in what they have done in the past. They have a clear point of view of what they wish to do in my organisation (though this may be wrong - its about having it, not about being right). They are direct and do not obfuscate - what they do not know they say they do not know; because they are strengthened by the other things they do know. Finally, they ask questions - of the interviewer, during the interview. A questioning mind is a scaleable mind.
Training and Mentoring - I think you need to do this at three levels. First - as a leader, share your own unique skills and knowledge. Do not just share - drill it into the teams head. They need to be as good as you. Second - focus significantly on the individual's strengths and have extremely high expectations from it. While on one hand communicating your abilities - demand and keep demanding new abilities from the team member. Third - drive the individual to self learn / think on their weakness. Our weaknesses are usually best sorted through self intervention. This is also where training / talent transformation programmes from the organisation itself become important - with the individual exercising the choice to participate and attend. Allow this freedom.
Voila ! - Not only are you replaced. It's with a better model.