The Full-Stack Employee

Full-stack

Chris Messina (who invented the Twitter Hashtag) wrote a post last week describing what he called the ‘Full Stack Employee’. This is, says Chris, the type of employee that has a powerful combination of skills, are adept at navigating the rapidly evolving and shifting technological landscape, and ‘make intuitive decisions amidst information-abundance, where sparse facts mingle loosely with data-drenched opinions’.

Whilst not necessarily having deep vertical expertise in more than one domain, such employees have an intuitive understanding of the value of design and UX, engineering and algorithms, but also narrative and storytelling, and can work with simple prototypes to develop learning. They are able to dynamically deal with shifting priorities and expectations and prioritise well. But they also have a strong curiosity, an appetite for new ideas, best practices, and also a desire to be more productive and happy in their work. It is this curiosity and desire to stay on top of developments in their own industry and others that separates them out.

Polymath

In ‘How Google Works’ Eric Schmidt describes the people that can have the biggest potential impact in a business - so-called 'Smart Creatives' are the product folk who combine a triumvirate of skills around technical knowledge, business expertise and creativity: 'when you put today's technology tools in their hands and give them lots of freedom’, he says, ‘they can do amazing things, amazingly fast'.

Lord knows with 'Smart Creatives', 'T-shaped' and 'Pi-shaped' people, and now 'Full-Stack Employees', we're not short of monikers to describe people who may have strong vertical expertise, but also have lateral empathy, knowledge and attributes that mean they can work well in rapidly changing, ambiguous environments.

But the point remains a good one. As Chris Messina says, the conventional seams between disciplines are becoming ever more blurred, the set of skills necessary to succeed are broader and more nebulous than they’ve been before, and so being a polymath has real value to businesses. It may sound like a big ask to accommodate so many attributes in one person, but it is increasingly employees like this that make the difference within and for organisations, and as Chris says:

‘the nature of work is changing, and the highest value employees are those who can handle ambiguity and synthesizing enormous amounts of information into strategically useful tactics.’

Nobody's saying that those with deep, vertical expertise have little value - an organisation needs many different types of people to thrive after all.  But I like this idea a lot, not least because I have always found it hard to categorise my own skills and knowledge or even career focus into a neat box labelled with a job title. 

Photo Credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML


Two Great Quotes on Strategy

This from Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (via @amayfield):

"The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organisations often don't have one. And because they don't expect you to have one either. A good strategy has coherence, coordinating actions, policies and resources so as to accomplish an important end. Many organisations, most of the time, don't have this. Instead, they have multiple goals and initiatives that symbolise progress but no coherent approach to accomplishing that progress, other than 'spend more and try harder'."

...and this, from Russell's extract from an interview with Roger Martin which also makes a good point about not confusing planning with strategy:

"The very essence of strategy is explicit, purposeful choice. Strategy is saying explicitly, proactively: 'We're going to do these things and not those things for these reasons.' The problem with a lot of strategies is that they are full of non-choices. Probably most of us have read more than a few so-called strategies that say something like, "Our strategy is to be customer centric." But is that really a choice?"

Martin goes on to say that you only really know that you've made a real strategic choice if you can 'say the opposite of what that choice is, and it's not stupid'. And how, in a similar vein to the first quote, developing strategy so often becomes 'an exercise in agglomerating initiatives, assigning responsibilities without a coherent set of choices that help bind them', meaning that most strategic plans are more accurately described as 'budgets with prose'.

So true.


Organisational Structures from Scratch

Starting-line

Ashley Freidlein, CEO and Co-Founder of Econsultancy wrote a recent post on the Econsultancy blog as a first take answer to the question: 'With a blank sheet, what organisational structure would you choose for marketing and digital?'. It's an interesting question, and the answer he came up with incorporated a structure that brought improved customer focus to the organisation, and integrated marketing and digital to a far greater extent with other other customer facing and support functions and roles.

I think that there are some big questions around how we design our organisations in response to the ever changing environment in which we find ourselves, and so I built on Ashley's post with a response of my own which you can read here. As you'll hopefully see, asking ourselves what it would look like if we started with a blank sheet leads to some interesting possibilities, but also the question of whether it isn't time to have a more challenging debate about how we structure organisations (particularly functions like marketing, customer experience and digital) for a digitally-empowered world. I'm interested to know what you think.


Google Firestarters 15: How To Think Differently About Advertising - The Event

Google-Firestarters-15

Monday saw the interested and interesting of UK planning come together for our 15th Google Firestarters event. Our sole speaker on the evening was planning legend Paul Feldwick, who talked about his controversial new book The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. Paul spent 30 years as an Account Planner at BMP and DDB Worldwide so knows a thing or two about planning and advertising and it was this quote from the book that set the context for the debate:

'Our ability to decide clearly where we want to go in the future, I now believe, depends first of all on our understanding of where we and our predecessors have already been.'

A number of Firestarters events have been quite forward-facing in outlook, so it's no bad thing that on this occasion we were thinking about the relevance of what we (should) have already learned about how advertising works. Yet it can seem on occasion that this historical context is too often ignored.

Paul began by talking about the three main kinds of story that the ad industry tells itself about its own past:

  • The enlightenment narrative: 'The past was primitive, but now we are enlightened'
  • The golden age narrative: 'The best years of the advertising industry were in the past'
  • The year zero narrative: 'The world has changed and the old rules no longer apply'

The enlightenment narrative has been popular because it makes things appear simpler than they are, but today's 'enlightenment' language is set to become tomorrow's obsolete 'mumbo-jumbo', and to a large extent this has now been replaced by the year zero talk which acknowledges more the impact of external forces for change. The golden age narrative, says Paul, is fundamentally unhelpful and disempowering, functioning so that ad people can demonstrate to themselves that they have excellent taste and know what they'd like to be producing for their clients whilst acknowledging that they're not, and putting the blame for that elsewhere. The external forces that are behind the year zero narrative are typically seen to be the changing nature of the consumer, and technological change. Paul's point about this prevalent view is that there are many aspects of consumer behaviour that actually haven't changed, and that we will only be able to respond adequately to the continuing rapid pace of change if we understand the basic principles of how people are influenced by publicity.

Anatomy-of-humbug

Paul went on to describe how the concepts that we take to be self-evident now, and the language that we commonly use (including words like impact, recall, proposition, attention, reason why, messaging) which support and reinforce these narratives are rooted in a historical context that may come with associated baggage from a particular world view. He categorised six main ways of understanding advertising theory - advertising as:

Salesman - theories that coalesce around themes of rational persuasion

Seduction - in many ways a parallel to advertising as salesman, but less about the rational and more about the power of emotional connection, the subconscious mind, imagery

Salience - generating fame for a product or brand

Social connections - advertising as a means of creating or maintaining relationships

Spin - advertising theories more akin to the world of PR

Showmanship - or showbiz

The ebb and flow of these theories has characterised advertising practice, and its historical context, but there is no right way, no singular view on the world that should win out. Instead:

“It’s only when we realise that none of these theories, models or metaphors represents absolute truth, but is one of many ‘ways of seeing’, that we can make use of any of them as a source of inspiration rather than be confined by it.”

And it is in that ability to understand advertising theory through metaphor, and hold and apply multiple metaphors in our minds at once, that we might be free to create the best work for our clients. Paul's talk was at one and the same time astute, controversial, informed and insightful. The subjects touched on by the questions and debate that followed ranged from the power balance between functions in agencies (who may be more aligned to certain theories about how advertising works) to the briefing process and the separation between planning and creative. Which all made for a great event.

So my thanks to Google for hosting, to Paul for such great provocation, and all those that came. There's a Storify of the conversation around the event which is worth taking a look at, and as always we had the brilliant Sciberia who did a great visualisation of the talk which you can see in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in June so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.

Google-Firestarters-visualisation

Image courtesy


Why Small Teams Work

Small-teams-big-impact

(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)

'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel

There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention. 

I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.

As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:

“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”

Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:

“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."

Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.

It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.

Image courtesy