The Gap

by Ben Pujji


In late 2007 I asked my team, the online team at DNA, to share some of their opinions on challenges facing businesses with regards to digital. While a few of us were used to writing for a living, many weren't, so to keep help I came up with a simple brief: write about something we should all think more about, and keep it to 800 words.

Every single one of them was great. It was an awesome exercise in getting a group of people to step outside their day jobs to share their views. We had each of the '800 words' designed up as whitepapers, and shared them with each other, the rest of the business, and with our clients.

Going through some of my old files recently I found the 800 words that I had written to kick things off and I thought I'd share them here.

A lot has changed in digital since 2007, obviously, including the mainstream adoption of Agile, data maturity, and more recently Lean UX - but many of the core ideas in those were on my mind when I wrote 'The Gap'.

Ironically I am on the other side of the fence now, leading a team inside a big corporate, overhauling (among other things) a big, tired website. In many ways I am the target of my own writing from 2007.

The Gap

Originally written for DNA in 2007

Nothing’s ever perfect or completely finished online – there’s always room, and the opportunity, to improve. Unlike offline we don’t need to get everything perfect upfront, but we still waste time trying.

Creating an approach based on systematic, continual improvement is a luxury of online that we shouldn’t ignore – rather we should constantly look for ways to leverage. Establishing site goals are a good way to drive this.

Let’s say a website is clearly in need of an overhaul. It needs new content, functionality or input from within the business. We’ll spend a fortune planning the detail of what is missing, what the needs are and then carefully craft a solution. Thousands and weeks are spent debating content, design, technology, process etc, and when it’s all done, after all the cramming, boom, the changes go live ...

What are the chances the site couldn’t be improved somehow? At launch you really have no idea how it’s gonna roll – it’s the moment we’ve all been planning for, but what about when the stats come in (you’ve organised that right?), user feedback drops into the inbox, or when you ask users how they found it? Did sales change? Are conversions up? Is absolutely everything that could be improved all improved – is it completely, and totally ‘peaking’? No, of course not. It never is. You may have run out of time, interest, budget, or ideas, but chances are there’s still room to improve, not to mention that people’s needs also change over time.

The Gap between where your site is today, and where it ‘could be’, always exists. I call it: The Gap.

As your site improves, you’ll reduce The Gap, but it will always be there. Don’t panic, no matter how great your current ‘project’ there’s always room to improve. Silver bullet projects can only take you so far: acknowledging The Gap is the thing that fundamentally refocuses you on ongoing improvement, not the ‘fix-all’ initiatives we all too often embark on.

‘Projects’ are the fad-diets of the web management

We form habits from the way we work. If all we do is run big-bang projects, then over time we lose site of the (also) important little things, in time, you can’t see the little things anymore, that’s when they’re really dangerous. A project may improve ‘success’ post-launch – but how long will that last? Will The Gap keep getting smaller if nothing else happens? Will you just wait a while for another big saviour project to play catch-up on The Gap a few months from now? There’s more to being successful than only doing something big – every now and again (Tyson learned that the hard way).

Little things are important too, the things that would take 20 minutes each, and there’s no shortage of them waiting in the wings. The analytics, the quick website promo implemented on the back of an unexpected spike in traffic, etc. Sure these are just a couple of weeny things – but the point is if you train yourself and your team only to manage in sanctioned chunks, you are also teaching everyone that the other little non-project things aren’t important, before long, you can’t see them anymore, or start to forget how powerful they are.

Whose job is it to pick up the little things and get them sorted? Who’ll come to a review and say “Actually I didn’t do anything huge this period, there were a tonne of teeny things that were more effective overall”. I guarantee nobody hired to ‘manage big things’ ever would. Who should then?

This isn’t a rant about the value of the little things per se; but the need for a management mindset that isn’t scared to zoom out from a project mindset and consider the broader set of activities that make websites successful – big or small.

The ‘Gap Aware’ leader should let projects deliver the chunks (of improvement) but be sure to surround them with lots of ‘business as usual’ improvement activity. They’d implement a system whereby they’re totally aware of what’s improvable today, and what will be addressed later, and why. They won’t let one activity, or the focus on ‘big projects’ consume all their focus.

Without awareness of The Gap we’re all too likely to ruin project budgets and timelines trying to get things that little bit better... cause we know it won’t happen later. Offline that’s more normal, there you get one shot, once a year to improve the most you can.

Use The Gap concept to remind yourself that everything you do can, and should still be improved in future. Educate your clients or peers to understand that a constant improvement mindset is more effective and less risky than just a one-punch Tyson approach. What we do now needs to be great, but never perfect.

Can you see The Gap? What’s your strategy for closing it? 


We have no idea what's working...

by Ben Pujji


I hear this a lot. What I never hear, is 'We don't know what we're doing'.

The trouble is, they're pretty much the same thing. You run your business, run your marketing, build your products, tell the market this and that - and you carry on as though you know what you're doing.

But then when it comes time for the shake down to see which bits worked, and which bits didn't, it's easier to dodge it, more common to write bullshit bingo end of year, end of campaign or progress updates packed with waffle. The norm seems to be: "I know what I am doing, others don't get it, or need to get it, so I'll tell them what I need to tell them to get them to go away".

My suggestion is that we compartmentalise both our successes and failures. What bits are working, what bits are not. It sounds simple, but it's not happening. So much performance analysis is about arse cover, air cover, not actionable insight.

When 'whatever we're doing' seems to be working, we chalk it up as overall success. We're winning. Only when we're not winning, and our overall effort doesn't seem to be working, are we forced to compartmentalise. If we didn't our total effort would be deemed a failure.

The thing is, even when we're winning, not everything is winning. Even when we're not winning, we're not a complete failure.

As a strategist, my whole goal is to help you figure out where to play and how to win. I can't do that if I can't get into compartmentalisation. If we can't agree, or accept that 'something' might not be working, then how can we ever isolate which bit, and focus the right resource on improving it?

A tell-tale sign is when marketers and business people as individuals 'know' what needs to be done - but can't be seen to be addressing it, because they feel like if they highlight the area of weakness in order to address it, they'll be beaten up for admitting an area of weakness. Is it the individual, or the wider cultural norm that's the problem - or both? Every now and then someone says it like it is, and shows everyone else that the sky doesn't fall when you stick your neck out - most of the time. It turns out, you can know what you're doing - but not know what's working, as long as it's your plan to be open and host, continually hunting out areas to improve. Actually, that means you DO know what you're doing!

As a side note, this isn't about 'digital' being great (a potshot often thrown at digital specialists who maintain that since they measure everything that they must know what they're doing...). Digital marketers make one huge mistake. They think that data, analytics and measurement will tell them everything they need to know about their success or failure. Of course, outcome analysis usually just tells you what happened, not why - and only in that digital compartment. But the mistake is to think that by investigating that one compartment of their activity, it will help them change that thing. It invariably doesn't: unless all the compartments are up for review, then the energy and resources poured into each areas remain fixed. For digital marketers, that goes like this: everyone else is denying there is room to improve, you've identified some areas in your compartment, so you're told to sort it out with the resources currently assigned, because nothing else is broken (apparently). See the problem? The gains may be marginal.

So what can we do?

Until you, and your organisation buy into an optimisation culture, you're stuck. I am endlessly involved in building reporting dashboards, doing campaign analysis, product reviews, usability studies and all manner of informative review. But for those organisations who haven't fundamentally agreed to adopt a strategy of endless optimisation, all that rich insight is dead in the water, and often a waste of everyones' time.

Nobody who 'know's what they're doing' likes running interference against the culture of ill considered criticism, or likes operating under the radar in their job. Even if they do it, they're nowhere near as effective as they could be. And they know it. Making the small tweak to culture - and I believe it is - to get the CEO, board and leadership team on board with aggressive optimisation, will release the pent up optimism that already exists. It's a huge change of focus, but not one that is hugely difficult to make.

And then we can get busy looking at the BEST ways to review your activities and start dividing and conquering your goals. That's when your strategists and smart arses can help you really figure out where to play, and how to win - when you're able to do something about it.

What good is knowing what you're doing, if you don't know what's really working. Or if you know what's not working, what good is that if you're not able to use that insight to drive your business forward.

I been involved with some fearless, intelligent leaders, who've been too afraid to make this little change, even though they desperately wanted to. I've worked with, and for, some people who would never really claim they know what they were doing, who used that lack of supposed expertise to force a culture of honest discussion, unlocking true optimisation. I've also worked with some brilliant experts, who were smart enough to know that despite their skills, unless they created that culture of optimisation, their organisation wouldn't improve - because it's not all about them.

Good on you if you're the one tackling this in your company. We need more of you!

(And of course, I have plenty of ideas and experience in creating this change, if you think an outside view might help, look me up for coffee).


How to avoid lazy, magpie marketing

by Ben Pujji


Every day marketers and agencies get excited about their newest ideas and tactics. Having spent the better part of a decade agency-side, I've seen the relentless pursuit of 'new'. But why? Why is it that so many obsess and focus on the new and shiny all the time?

Most will claim that new things, being fresh, might yield some kind of first-mover advantage. Others clearly hope that being first to spot new things will earn them reputations as thought-leaders, innovators, trend-setters, or even the SPITR crown (Smartest Person In The Room). I think the pursuit of new is often just lazy, magpie marketing.

What really matters, is making a difference. If you're first, that's great, did you make a difference? If you're second, that's great, did you make a difference? If you're last, did you make a difference? That can be fine too. The first to do something new that, well, yawn, you did to been seen as innovative, which didn't really make a difference? Yeah, that's not awesome, sorry. The thing is, pursuing new things is just one part of healthy marketing - not the hero or the heart.

Forget new for a minute, have you looked at your overall portfolio of marketing activity and exterminated the activities which aren't working well, to create funds, headspace and momentum to focus on activities you think will make the most difference, in some cases, the new stuff?

Your resources, your focus and your time are finite. Unless a regular activity in your business, or agency, involves getting your knives out and looking for things to cut, as well as a healthy dose of looking for new ways to evolve or add to what you're doing, then you might just be holding yourself back. You might be the marketing equivalent of a fast-food junkie - a bit out of balance. Agencies are often the worst at this, try convincing your rock-star Executive Creative Director you're going to reduce the TV allocation to extend a successful [anything else].

If you can find ways to keep your marketing lean and focussed by continually evaluating, learning and refining, then you'll be able to give more attention to the things you think are most effective, and give them a better chance of success. You make more of a difference by shutting down distractions and inefficiency, but you also win by pouring more energy into the things you think will make the most difference. It's win-win.

I know that it can be easier and less hassle to chase after new things than to improve, or stop doing old things. Your stakeholders, your team, your agency, and in some cases customers, care deeply about old things. They might not be happy when you cruise in to shut them down or mix them up. The trick, though, is not to randomly chop one thing to make room for another, but to have some idea about what success looks like - and evaluate against that (sorry if that's telling you to suck eggs).

A simple model to help you focus is known as 'Champions & Challengers'. Champions are the activities you believe are most effective and efficient - that you have reason to believe are working well. Challengers are unproven new ideas and activities which you're testing to see if you can outperform your Champions. Anything that isn't a Champion or Challenger, is a Choker, and it gets cut.

How will you decide what's a Champion, Choker or Challenger? Evaluate each activity against your strategy and KPIs. Why not do that now - put each activity in your marketing plan on a post-it (or Trello) and classify them as Champions, Challengers, or Chokers. Trust me, it's liberating to find and exterminate your Chokers, and use the resources they tied up to chase your shiny new ideas, or grow your tried-and-true activities, guilt-free.

If you don't have a strategy or some sense of what indicates success to help you evaluate activities, then you should probably attend to that before you do anything else.

Call it being strategic, call it being organised, or call it being focussed. What really matters is finding a way to focus on making a difference, first and foremost. Looking for new shiny things is just fine, as part of a balanced marketing programme.

I used to love the bragging rights of being the guy to first send the link to that new app, or whatever, now I see those people, and that game, as a bit of a distraction.


Uncertainty in business

by Ben Pujji


Sorry, but uncertainty is no longer a ‘sometimes’ thing.

Businesses used to be faced with uncertainty every now and then. Or have just some parts of their business tackling, or reacting to uncertainty at any given time.

Managing uncertainty, was a sometimes thing. Business leaders were selected and incentivised to run mainly stable environments, to deliver steady, stable improvements. They were praised and rewarded for ‘dealing with’ uncertainty as and when it appeared, but often their success was measured by how we’ll they managed the downside – not for the upside they extracted. Uncertainty was about risk, not about opportunity.

Business Advisory from the big consulting firms are a good example. They can find the risks, help you mitigate them. They are a comforting presence in the face of uncertainty – if the measure of success is how well a business leader has managed the downside, those advisors are essential when the uncertainty is high.

Traditional PR is another. When the risk is realised, damage control is king. While the real issues get addressed, the focus turns to appearances – the court of public opinion. The business leader who understands that more damage can come from the perception of the issue than the issue itself, is quick to engage their traditional PR advisors to stem the damage.

But who is looking for the opportunities created by uncertainty?

Many business leaders are still trying to get things back to normal as quickly as they can, so they can return to what they’ve been hired for, stable, steady, consistent improvement.

They see the opportunities that come with uncertainty as more risky than the downside.

The market of suppliers, advisors, agencies, and specialist experts, who have grown up selling what their customers want (stability, consistency, predictability, comfort) are scrambling to evolve. But they too are protecting their today-business, and finding it hard to grow up, as well as facing the commercial reality of being unable to sell to clients who aren’t ready to evolve. It’s just as hard for those legacy businesses to evolve as it is for their clients.

The trouble is that uncertainty is no longer a sometimes thing, and the world isn’t standing still while you figure this out. That’s actually the point.

In the digital age, while some things stay the same, a lot changes, then changes again, then changes again. Business leaders need to quite literally divide the parts of their business which are long-range, and the parts of their business which are likely to change endlessly.

The skill, is then managing each differently, appropriately. A customer, is a long-term asset that you nurture, grow and deepen your relationship with. How those customers interact with you will constantly change, though. Your big technology, your brand positioning, your revenue sources, your staff, your process, your data, working out which ones are the long games, and which ones need to be constantly adapted, then having the foresight and skill to tackle each appropriately, will be one the defining skills of a modern business leader.

What’s your plan?

Do you agree? What’s your plan?

Having worked as an advisor to businesses under many guises, from the perspectives of technology, to design, communications and marketing, data and digital, I’ve had the opportunity to be there mining the upside of uncertainty for clients, as well as helping manage the downside. There are many business leaders reorganising their business to embrace constant change, but too many who are still surprised and unprepared.

I’m looking forward to helping more and more businesses adapt to and embrace the opportunities of constant-uncertainty, and look forward to seeing more businesses saying remarkable things like Apple did recently when Tim Cook mentioned “Eighty percent of our revenues are from products that didn’t exist 60 days ago”.

It’s been said by smarter people than I

Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception is another, more articulate take on this which I’m currently enjoying. It’s about the risks of setting your sights too low, not the age-old no-no of being seen to set them too high.

Mark Disomma’s post: Can you innovate too quickly provides another, thoughtful take on this area

And to hijack, paraphrase, remove the religious aspect of, and make relevant the cheesy but timeless Serenity prayer:

Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change,
The courage to change the things you can,
The wisdom to know the difference,
And the skill to know how.

P.s.

I’m mixing it up in 2013, and have resigned my job to continue relentlessly finding better ways of being more effective, more of the time, more enjoyably. I’m available for freelance consulting and contracting from the 15th of Feb, and embracing the change, I am just hoping to see how things go as the year progresses. Exciting times. Email me. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on LinkedIn. Call me on +64 21 432 099.