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The critical importance of not knowing

The critical importance of not knowing

March 4, 2019   |   Design Thinking, Identity

Image credit: Blindfolded Girl by barnimages.com

The first review for the current run of my solo show came in a week ago, and it’s a problem for me.

I know, this is the Drake blog, not my personal one. Stick with me.

If you’ve read my work you know that both Drake and my personal work are built around storytelling. Drake is the storytelling I do for clients and their audience. My solo show is the current work I’m doing for my audience. In my mind, these are same process, different project.

Back to the review. It gushes. It’s so wildly positive I blushed. (Here’s a link if you want to see for yourself. Also a link to get tickets for my show, which runs through March 9, but enough about that.)

I know me. The problem with a good review is that it tricks you into believing that you know what you’re doing. Some of my most humbling moments – as a creative director, as a writer, as an actor – have come immediately after I was praised for my successes. My ego took over and I face planted.

Why does that happen?

I think the part of the problem may stem from knowing, although I don’t know that for certain. But I’d like to explore the idea that, the moment we believe we know what we’re doing, we forget the importance of not knowing, of listening to what those around us are saying, of having the humility necessary for discovery.

When as a company Drake decided to undergo our own strategic planning process, we brought someone in from the outside. When you’ve run a company for two decades, you can’t help but know how things work. But that’s also why companies get stuck. That knowing can get you set in your ways.

An outside person, someone who doesn’t know, can start conversations around the table. They may do that by asking questions so obvious you don’t think you need to answer them. You might think, I know how this works, I’ve done it for years. I might have thought that and said it out loud. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that.

Because when you’re pressed to answer those questions, you realize you have to think hard to come up with an answer, and that answer might just come from someone else at the table. You have to let that happen.

We do this for our clients as well, and from personal experience, it’s easier being the facilitator who comes in from the outside. We fill up the table with people who have a stake in the company or organization. We do a series of exercises based on improv, IDEO’s design thinking activities, and our own systems we’ve developed. The point is to break people away from their standard way of thinking, to challenge them to go deeper, and to uncover what is really important to them.

It’s an exercise in not knowing. That doesn’t mean the people at the table don’t know what they’re doing, or what the organization does. It means embracing that vulnerable space of not knowing where this is taking us so that we can discover something new.

In branding, this creates a direction that has grown organically from the organization, instead of one developed artificially and externally by an agency. There is ownership in this sort of creativity that makes brand a strategic component in achieving mission in a way that those people around the table become your front line. It becomes self-sustaining.

We’ve recently been working on a project (that I’ll profile in depth once we launch it) that has been as rewarding as any I’ve ever done because an entire group of people was willing to go there. To be humble. To make mistakes. To allow ideas to develop with patience and open minds and without knowing where we were going.

The results are authentic and audacious and so full of hope people literally lean into them during presentation. They are so infectious that even their most conservative and change-resistant board members have embraced them quickly.

That can happen when something develops organically. It’s so true to who they are, they see it and say, yes. This.

Even still, the most audacious thing they say, an idea you really want to believe even if it sounds impossible, leads one board member to say: I like it except for this. This isn’t possible. No one will buy this.

This board member is successful, has grown a smaller company into a very large one, and has been a generous and influential member of the community his entire adult life. He knows the area. He knows what makes for a successful business. And he knows deep down from a lifetime of experience, this won’t work.

But is it possible he’s missing something?

Let me get off track for a moment.

Image credit Mike MozartMy first ever experience with a knowing, calculated approach to success comes the summer in college I work for TGI Fridays. The chain was based on the original pub in New York City, opened as a singles bar so the owner could meet women. To do that, he opened this bar next to a building where 480 female flight attendants happened to live.

Somehow it becomes a wild success.

They expand and in 1983, Goldman Sachs takes them public. By the time I get there, they’ve developed a proven formula to recreate the fun atmosphere of a pub located next to a building with 480 flight attendants living in it. As part of my training, I’m giving a super-fun striped soccer shirt, I’m taught how to say things in a super-fun way from a script I’m told to memorize, and I’m allowed to pick three super-fun buttons to wear on my shirt that show the world my super-fun personality.

This is a tough area for me. Drake works in branding. I know the importance of a unified identity. I know how important consistency and staying on message are. And in Fridays’ defense, their wait staff is the brand’s front line. This is pure brand management.

Where I ran into a problem in this case was their positioning: We know what we’re doing, just do things our way.

What they didn’t know, however, was why this particular franchise was failing so badly. They didn’t know if it was the location. They didn’t know if it was the staff. All they knew was that the system they knew worked didn’t work here.

I didn’t know anything at 19, but I remember thinking this was the dumbest BS I’d ever heard, and I wasn’t the only one. I remember talking to people who worked there and listening to what they had to say. They had ideas. They had experience they brought with them to their jobs. They taught me a lot. But management didn’t want to listen to them because they didn’t want to vary the proven script that came from corporate.

But branding, Dean. Unified messaging.

Yes, branding. Branding guidelines should make it easier for your people to communicate, not make them feel like they have nothing to say. And if your brand is built on spontaneity like Fridays was, you might have to risk allowing your people to be genuinely spontaneous.

Problem is, you can’t know where that’s going. But in the case of Fridays, where it went was down. The stock tanked and the company went private. I’m not saying this is the reason. I don’t know that it is, but clearly our franchise wasn’t the only one encountering problems.

Which makes me think of Darwin’s finches. Why? I’m not sure I know yet, let’s find out.

Darwin's_finches_by_GouldThere are at least 13 species of finch in the Galapagos Islands, but they can be radically different from each other. To oversimplify it, this is because they have adapted to different food sources depending upon where on the islands they landed.

Their environment directly influenced their strategy, and they became stronger suited to those environments through specificity. Imagine if they’d resisted evolution to follow their proven system:
Dad Finch: We’re finches. We eat seeds. My dad ate seeds. His dad ate seeds. That’s how it’s always been and it’s proven model for success. Trust me, kid, I know what I’m talking about.

Son Finch: But dad, there are no seeds here. We haven’t seen a seed in weeks. And these green bugs look friggin delicious, should we try one?

Dad Finch: Only a freak would eat that, kid. Trust me, I know how the world works.

I’m 92 percent certain this happens if Goldman takes the Galapagos public.

Every environment is different. Every five years or so, you may have an entirely different staff, slightly different audience, different economic conditions. If you have multiple locations, you may have to do the work involved in adapting. You may have to embrace not knowing and just listen.

If you already know, you can’t adapt, and there is one-size-fits-all formula beyond persistence.

So when an idea grows organically out of an organization, when everyone around the table gets excited about pushing this idea as your identity, about taking that change on themselves, maybe we should listen to what they’re saying. Because it might be the start of one of those hard-to-create original successes.

The original Fridays was an organic phenomenon. Darwin’s finches were as well. But they aren’t a formula you can franchise, and neither are your past successes. So let them go. Forget what you know, go discover what you don’t, and always listen to what people have to say around the table. Then you’ll find your authenticity, your creativity, your audience, and that next success you’ll have to overcome.