Whatever happened to thinking?

A few years back I met with a client to discuss the set up of a vital and highly demanding strategic research project for one of the world’s biggest brands.  I was under huge pressure to complete the project in an unrealistic timescale, so I asked the client what was more important to him: to do the project right, or to do it fast.  His answer? “Both.”

Doubtless, he not only thought he was being smart, he also thought he was being realistic.  There was I, the researcher in my ivory tower, removed from the harsh realities of business, making a naive and self-indulgent plea for ‘quality’ in the face of the irresistible pressure of ‘reality’.

I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.  This is only one of myriad examples of the determination to avoid thinking that is increasing prevalent in the world of marketing.  It’s an issue that’s not confined to marketing, of course, but part of a wider social-cultural malaise, in which we see the distrust of intellect, the worship of action over contemplation, the pressure on thinking time that has grown within our ‘always on’ society.

The overwhelming need in today’s business culture is to do things – and to be seen to be doing things.  Thinking is best done on your own or, at most, with maybe one or two colleagues, with time, away from the hurly-burly.  But, if no-one can see you thinking, how will it help your career?

Modern business culture ignores the reality of how good decisions are made, be they technical, strategic or creative.  There is an increasing body of evidence that gives weight to the un-fashionable view that good decisions take time: time to gather the evidence; analyse the scenario; accurately identify the issue; define relevant objectives; evaluate the relative merits of potential options; and, not least, simply to have ideas.  The greatest ideas happen in the space between things, often when you are not even thinking about them.  There is a developing body of business theory that suggests companies need to find ways to create space for people to think, because otherwise it just doesn’t happen – but we’re not yet seeing this in much business practice.

When I ran a business, and now as a freelance consultant, I was always been very clear about the need to create time to reflect.  It’s part of the reason why I fight for time to write debriefs: I usually ‘finish’ debriefs at least a day before they have to be presented, so that I can reflect on my ideas: interrogate them, and allow new connections and implications to formulate in my sub-conscious, in time for them to go into the final debrief and make it better.

However, my belief is that resistance to thinking is less a specific disinclination than a symptom of a deeper problem, in marketing as it is in the wider world: remarkably few people know how to think.  The fundamental thinking skills required to analyse scenarios, create effective plans and make good decisions are surprisingly rare, even at a senior level in business.  People don’t think properly because they haven’t been taught how to or ever been required to do so.  Not only are thinking skills not part of business training in most organisations, they are not taught in most universities, let alone in the school system.

As time passes, and the ‘doers’ rise up the ranks, there’s no-one to lead by example – to advocate thought, to show that thinking works, to teach their staff how to think.  The problem manifests itself at many levels, not only in an inability to think, but in many cases in a failure even to recognise that a situation would benefit from thought.  At its worst, people not only lack these skills, they distrust them in others.

There is an irony here: while ‘action’ is the dominant imperative, most people in business aren’t really ‘doing’ anyway.  They generate plenty of heat and light, but do very little, let alone think.  Let’s be clear: meetings are not doing, let alone thinking.  How many decisions do you see made in meetings?  How far is the thinking about an issue positively progressed in the meetings you attend?

If research is to make a valuable contribution to the development of marketing, it has to be planned to explore relevant hypotheses, generated against an insightful analysis of the business issues.  In recent years I have persuaded several clients to postpone research projects because the thinking required as an essential precursor to effective research has simply not been done.  In each case, I have found myself telling marketing people that what they need is not to carry out research, but to do some more thinking.

Sadly, research is all too often used as a substitute for thought: don’t know what to do? Ask the consumer.  This is a good recipe for bad research.  It’s not consumers’ job, to do the thinking for the brand team.  A brand team shouldn’t need research to work out that they don’t really have a genuine positioning or creative idea, that the ideas they have come up with are dull, derivative or not comprehensible, or that they simply bear no resemblance to the brief.  More fundamentally, it shouldn’t take the researcher to point out that the business issue has not been accurately defined or that the brief does not address itself to the business issues.  The brand team shouldn’t need research or researchers to tell them any of these things; they just need to think.

I pushed back on these projects because the issues the marketing team was looking for research to address could be worked out without spending money on research; or, if research could help, it could only do so if we had some genuine hypotheses to explore that responded to the relevant business issues.

If marketing teams aren’t doing this stuff, what exactly are they doing?  When did thinking cease to be part of the job description?

Fortunately, more often than not, I end up the beneficiary of this approach – and I have the grateful emails to prove it: “Your input has been invaluable”.  Challenging the need for research may cost me in the short term, when the planned project is pulled in favour of going back and doing some thinking.  But it has never ceased to pay in the long run, with clients coming back repeatedly, exactly because they value the thinking an outsider can bring to the table and that their own business culture makes extremely difficult.

As Winston Churchill said: “We have no money, we shall have to think”.   He’d have made a great Marketing Director.

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