Fair Exchange: Thinking vs doing
by Erna George (@) My coach told me about research by the University of Chicago that shows a belief that ‘busyness’ is a sign of success and hard work. How did this happen? How could people continue to believe this, as an outcome is not enhanced or even determined by busyness? Yet I’ve also noticed how true it is.
I’ve watched people across various businesses fill their day with meetings or generating documents or reports to show purpose. I’ve noticed how little of the big stuff is hitting the road and how many average promotions and presentations are the output. Have all busy people ever stopped to think, “What if I am busy with the wrong ‘this’? That even in this busy world, where it feels like the expectation is to reflect motion and action, if I am not moving the dial that it is all for nought?”
How did the growth-hurdle drop? When did just getting things done become the benchmark? Delivering a me-too promotion or strategy, even if it’s done, is not good enough and I am dismayed by the non-thinking behaviour of ticking off lists, rather than creating work that impacts and influences — work with power and distinct presence.
Thinking takes time! This should not be new news but the problem with thinking is that the resulting output is hard to measure at the end of the first few hours. Unlike plugging in numbers and generating a share graph or typing into a PowerPoint presentation, you cannot see the output after an hour or two. What you may have is a set of observations to add to the foundation of your strategy.
Can you feel the panic? “OMG, how will I explain what I have been doing? What will I do without the [crutch and] tangibility of a thing [presentation, brief etc]?” Thinking requires considering multiple areas, wading through context/observations/trends/market challenges, and it may feel overwhelming without any immediate reward. There is seldom instant gratification. So, guess what? It’s hard to do and hard to persist with. For many, thinking time is not a comfortable space; you struggle, need patience and often have nothing to show at the end of the day. It’s is like having children, and here I refer to gestation and not the labour. Human gestation is nine months for a reason — many cells, traits and more are ‘grown’ into the most-amazing working body that will live for years. In the same way, a strategy comes from a mass of options, opportunities and information.
It takes days and even weeks as you tread down a path, only to find it yields little and you need to find another viable route. You must focus on identifying the right sources, asking the relevant questions and collecting fresh thinking, and you must accept it will feel overwhelming. The “Aha!”s will only become apparent when you can see patterns and, to see and validate patterns, you need various sources but, at the end, is a strong, well-articulated and enduring idea.
Getting into thinking mode takes practice and time. It usually takes about 25 minutes to find flow. Take that time to get and spend time there, no matter how tough it is. This is where it’s vital to pay attention to Simon Sinek’s point of view of being ‘addicted’ to technology. Avoid the distractions of email and social media. Even multitasking, or the interruptions of a co-worker needing something quick, may be destructive to thinking flow. To focus is critical for effective thinking and, therefore, the environment and managing distractions are all components that need to be managed.
Once you find the flow, the thinking may begin. While it’s not easy, I promise that, the more you exercise the thinking “muscle”, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll build this to the point where, when you want to enter thinking mode, finding flow becomes second-nature. Consider finding the right space and ensure you practice often enough to make thinking more habitual.
At the end of days or weeks, the most interesting thing (yet often dissatisfying for many), if your thinking was clear, focused and to the brief, is that you can tell the story of your blood, sweat and tears on maybe 10–20 slides. Can you sense the anxiety? The sweat breaks over brows and the heart thuds that bit faster. “How can I prove my worth and show the output is great with only a few slides?”
Good thinking yields simple and not complex strategic outputs. Great companies have been run on one-page strategies. Strategies that are straightforward make rolling them throughout the organisation a possibility. You need to change your frame of reference. This rhetoric that more must be more and show that you have done more means nothing in the long run. If your outputs and insights drive action that grow the category and your brand by double digit growth, will anyone question your one-pager? If everyone can understand and believe in the insights or conclusions, that’s a win. Great implementation of strategy is often what makes the difference — not that you delivered an idea over a well-formatted, 100-slide presentation.
Lastly, while I am a believer that you shouldn’t ask your teams to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself, if everyone is doing the thinking to steer brand growth, who is implementing and getting the thinking landed in market? Thinking guides the ship while many help to keep it ahead of the storms (the competition) — keeping your brand ahead of the trend wave.
Marketing managers should be spending at least 70–80% of their time to identify the insights and strategies to get ahead of the curve. Doing may feel less-demanding much of the time, especially if it’s something that you have done many times in the past. It’s easy to fall back into habitual tasks and the tangibility of the output may feel rewarding and comforting — don’t be lulled into short-term busyness; thinking on the bigger issues and resolving these will make the real difference and will lead to fewer yet bolder and bigger ideas.
Getting thinking is not easy but all good things come to those who persevere (a little twist on an age-old adage) so remember:
- Being busy is not an indication of success and hard work rests in thinking that will create impact
- Thinking requires time, space and practice to master
- Good thinking speaks for itself and yields simple yet powerful insights and outputs, not reams of paper or slides with layers of justification
Here’s to fewer, bigger and bolder actions from great thinking.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.