Thursday, May 29, 2008

Analogy #181: Criticism Vs. Creation

Sometimes, I find it difficult to get customer service. It doesn’t always seem like the sales help want to volunteer the service. Therefore, I sometimes have to take actions into my own hands and create a reason for them to pay attention to me.

For example, one time I was at an airport and I couldn’t get a single airline employee to talk to me about a problem I was having. They kept walking away and hiding in an employee only room. Well, /I decided to react by going over to one of the locked doors leading to an airplane gate and started pushing numbers at random on the keypad on the door.

Well, suddenly one of those employees who had previously been running away from me started running towards me. Once I had their attention, I was able to explain to them my concern. (Note: I did this prior to 9/11. I’m not sure I would repeat that act in this new era.).

Other times, I have had trouble getting service in retail stores. I’ve found that if you get really, really close to their cash registers (perhaps even getting behind one and starting to randomly punch buttons), you can get some service rather quickly.

One time I was trying to purchase an automobile, but I couldn’t get the attention of any of the sales people. So after waiting about a half hour, I walked into the cubical area where salespeople’s desks were. I sat down behind one of the desks and started looking at all the paperwork on the desk. When I started doing that, it only took a few minutes before I got some attention from a salesperson.

So you see, if you cannot get people to volunteer to give you service, you can get them to quickly react to a problem. So create a problem and you can turn that into service.

As these examples illustrate, many sales people seem to have far more difficulty voluntarily creating service than in reacting to problems. Perhaps reacting to problems comes easier to them.
Strategic planning is often a creative process. One has to create business missions, goals, strategies, documents, power point presentations, and so on.
Many people struggle with starting the creative process. There may be a psychological block, or an inability to know where to begin. The people may be self-conscious about being associated with something “creative” and afraid that people will make fun of their creativity.
As a result, it may be as difficult to get a creative strategic project started as it is to get someone to start giving you service at a store. Therefore, use the trick I learned in the story…don’t ask them to create something new. Instead, give them a problem for them to solve. If you give them the right kind of problem, solving it will result in the creative outcome you were looking for in the first place.

The principle here is that, for most executives, it is easier to react to something than to create something. Therefore, instead of asking executives to do an unnatural act (e.g., creation), turn it into something like problem solving, which they tend to be good at and enjoy doing. We will now look at three ways to accomplish this, called “Butchering’” “Blathering,” and “Backing.”

1) Butchering
Although many people have trouble starting their own creation, they have no trouble criticizing the creation of someone else. Therefore, your job can be to roughly sketch out the creative part in advance—be it the business mission, the strategic intent, the targeted positioning, or whatever. Then let the crowds have at it and butcher away at what you came up with. It’s like art. Few people are good at creating it, but the great masses have no trouble criticizing it.

Don’t make it too polished. Then the crowd will feel like the content was thrust upon them. They want to feel like they had a say in its creation—they just don’t know how to create it. So rough out something that covers all of the key points which need to be addressed. Call it a rough draft. Then let the butchering begin.

People will gladly change words or phrases. Some of your word choices could spur on lively debates. In the end, the final content may bear little, if any, resemblance to the original document. But that’s okay, because in the end you got what you wanted—a creative document built by, owned by and agreed to by the group as a whole.

So don’t take it personally when your work is butchered. That was the whole idea. It was like me being a pest to get service at the store, airport and car dealer. My goal was not to be a pest, but to use that as a starting point to engage with the sales staff.

2) Blathering
Most executives I know love to hear the sound of their own voices. Getting them to talk is no problem. So take the key issues you want to be addressed in your creative strategic project and convert them into provocative questions. Then, shut up and let the group blather away in discussing the issues.

What comes out of the blathering discussion may not be very coherent or consistent. It can drift onto all sorts of adjacent topics. It will not be a polished piece of creativity. But that’s okay, because you will get a benefit from it. You’ll get the jargon the group is comfortable with, the consensus of how people feel about the issues, and a sense for how people link ideas together.

After the blathering session, you can take all of this raw material and sew it into a beautiful quilt. You take on the creative act of making sense out of the nonsense. You can create great mission statements or other strategic gems that have enough of their jargon in it that they feel they had a hand in writing it. You can prioritize things based on the priorities in the blathering.

In the end, it may not exactly mirror the discussion. Given that strategic choices must be made and more than one option was discussed, you will have to make the ultimate choices. But it will capture enough of the “feel” of the discussion that the group will buy into it as if it were their own.

This is similar to the concept I wrote in a prior blog about taking the minutes of a committee meeting (see"Minutes Last Forever”).

If necessary, after you write up the creative piece, you can subject it to the butchering process mentioned above.

3) Backing
A third approach is to give people the opportunity to vote. Provide some options and ask the group to pick one or to rank order the list. Executives are used to making these types of decisions, so it should come very naturally to them. Once the voting is in, you know what aspects the group is willing to back and which ones they would not choose to back.

Then, your job is to craft the creative document based on knowing what was backed as a priority. Once the votes are in, the decision is made, so the executives should have little difficulty accepting your creativity if it matches the way they voted.

Again, if you want, you can subject your creativity based on the voting to a butchering session.

The act of creativity can be very difficult for many, particularly the beginning part of starting the process. Therefore, instead of asking people to start creativity from a blank slate, start the process in a less threatening way. Use tools like blathering, butchering and backing to elicit opinions which can then be crafted into the final documents.

When you rely more on criticism than creativity from executives, you will feel the heat of the criticism. Don’t take it personally. It is part of the job. A dear friend of mine used to say that if you want to be successful as a strategist, you had better like pain.

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