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).