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The Honesty Risk. Take It.

Honesty isn't easy. But it is critical. Take the risk.




Honesty in business is a risky business. One person’s honesty is another’s put-down or self-delusion. One person’s attempt to signal honesty by starting a sentence with “Honestly” is another’s signal of incoming manipulation. One person’s good-willed attempt to provide an answer to something she doesn’t know is another’s outright lie.

Honestly, we need to talk about honesty.

Having spent almost four years in America in agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, Big Spaceship, and Leo Burnett, I’ve come to realize that certain parts of me don’t always work here.

Starting meetings with comedy, trying to discuss real business problems, talking about strategy and ideas without using marketing speak, being more deferential to ideas than hierarchies, and impatience with large groups, unnecessary meetings, and slow-moving swirls have proved weak points. They are my style of honesty.

My first year here was frustrating. I expected to come straight from the airport the day I arrived and help make amazing things happen. Instead, I was in meetings with flotillas of people to discuss simple things, I was in client meetings where most effort seemed to go into consensus and discussing how well the meeting was going, I saw way too much deference to senior people and senior people’s inclination to repeat soundbites to avoid real interaction. It felt like a power-business movie from the 1980s – shoulder pads optional.

And then I had a moment at a Mets baseball game. I didn’t know why there were coaches on first and third base so I asked a colleague: “They tell the players whether to run or not.” I didn’t get it. Professionals needed help from middle-aged coaches to make the only decision they needed to make after they’d hit the ball? And then I thought to basketball where a coach can interrupt the game and, well, coach. And to the NFL, where a coach is master-strategist with not one team but two at his disposal (offensive and defensive teams).

“Back home”, I romanced myself, “we just pick up a ball and run at someone.”

I tried to connect the dots. The pattern seemed simple – senior people injecting themselves into the decisions of highly trained professionals. Micromanagement writ large.

But why did it exist?

Was it the residue of factory assembly lines, infatuation with specialization, or perhaps military influence that led to this dynamic? The pattern resembled what I saw in business and it didn’t seem like a pattern that sought honesty.

After a while, I realized how ignorant I was. America is different.

First, the stakes are higher. The year I came, you needed a job to have health care. The scale of companies here is massive. Internships in cities like New York are difficult to work through unless your family can afford it. Many people start life in relative poverty; many others start working life with large college debts. The media incessantly yearns for singular business heroes and villains. And, if you believe Alain de Botton’s “Status Anxiety”, the individualistic pursuit of more is a defining trait. All of this dumps more pressure on the individual to succeed, and honesty is often a risky accomplice.

Second, honesty is not one-size-fits-all. The country is set on conservative foundations. The education system is incredible for the few but recruiters to whom I’ve spoken also cite the SAT as a problem for creative industries as it deals in right answers, absolute truths. America is sort of a country but, really, it’s a bunch of towns sort of connected by roads. Huge companies exist in small cities; they are all different. There’s a culture of management by announcement (Zen and The Art of Management, Richard T Pascale) plus a media and political emphasis on dualistic (either-or) arguments.

Besides, who said honesty was an inalienable right in the first place?

It’s not a right. It’s a risk. But it’s a risk worth taking if you work with ideas.

If you hide your thoughts or your team’s thoughts behind job titles, vague language, long presentations, misdirection, and meeting affectations, you simply create a swirl of nothing. And if you work with an agency and do this, a lack of constructive honesty throws noise into the system as your agency people get frustrated by your signals and try to second-guess you and probably beat up on each other… just a little.

How Do You Like Your Honesty?

Your honesty is not someone else’s honesty. Where you come from will shape your style of honesty and whether you use it at all.

Wherever you work, you need to conform enough or you’ll get rejected. Understanding the types of cultures at play in your company is key. Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones in various collaborations (Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, an article and a book plus the article What Holds The Modern Company Together?) provide great insights into human interactions in business. This diagram will help:

Meanwhile, The Stuff Americans Are Made Of by Joshua Hammond and James Morrison paints a picture of seven key driving forces in American culture:

  1. Winging it (also known as improvisation)

  2. An infatuation with what’s new

  3. An insistence on choice

  4. The pursuit of impossible dreams

  5. An obsession with big and more

  6. An impatience with time

  7. An acceptance of mistakes

Then there’s the bias you bring to all encounters. Hofstede’s Power-Distance Index (summarized in this PDF and explained on Wikipedia) identifies countries’ attitudes towards the distribution of inequality by examining attitudes towards uncertainty, individualism, gender roles, long-term-ed-ness, and indulgence. The lower the number the less inclined the country is to hierarchy. Australia scores 36 out of 100, USA 40, France 68, Mexico 81, and China 80.

Richard D. Lewis describes various countries’ approaches to negotiation in “When Cultures Collide.” The British approach is “don’t rock the boat”, the American style is “do business as soon as possible”, Australians are loose and frank, the Chinese negotiate behind the scenes, and the South Koreans deal in “elastic truths”. Diagrams are here.

All of this suggests that while you might yearn for an honest conversation, it might not happen the way you’d like it to, if at all. Understanding your style of honesty and the styles you’re interacting with can alleviate some of the frustration.

Can We At Least Take The Honesty Risk With These Three Things?

To deal with different strands and timings of honesty, one of my crutches is the clear definition of a handful of key concepts. Other than the word “idea” (see How To Explain An Idea – A Mega Post), these three are the most worthy of collective honesty.

1. Problem

Why do we have a problem with the word “problem”?

Positive psychology is magic. Rather than contemplating dysfunction, the people in the field study happiness and fulfillment. Optimism – you might have heard of it – is also pretty good. But you can identify as an optimist and revel in positivity and not flinch when you hear the word “problem”.

If you start your project with a clearly defined problem you’ll likely get better ideas. Scrap that. If you start with a provocative problem, you’ll get more people wanting to solve it and ruminating on it and get better ideas.

Research has shown that while the best salespeople used to sell solutions to problems, they now find and sell the problems (The New Sales Playbook – Harvard Business Review). Problem-finding is the new problem-solving. See patterns that others don’t.

Famed designer Bob Gill implores designers to not just design stuff but to revel in finding the problem behind a brief and spending the clear majority of time wearing it and getting intimate with it before trying to solve it.

The holder of 183 patents and head of research at General Motors for twenty-seven years Charles Kettering has this quote people quote to each other all the time: “A problem well-stated is half-solved.” Quote it to someone.

In an interview I did with CEO of the Dollar Shave Club Michael Dubin, he said: “You don’t have to call it a problem, but when you do it’s a more active indictment of a situation compared to calling it a need that you’re meeting.”

“More active”.

The first thing I ever worked on was branded content for Levi’s Australia in 1998. Levi’s had a clear problem: young people weren’t wearing Levi’s because their parents wore them. Simple. Now, the solution involved a retail and product overhaul but also involved communications – arthouse cinema-type advertising (an esoteric campaign called “Original Sin” with a middle-aged man “watching” a younger woman) and music content online. Their communications solution didn’t reveal the problem but we knew what it was.

Compare that approach to what GAP is now doing. Their “Dress Normal” campaign is simply taking the brand’s problem and owning it. I love a brand that uses its problems to advantage but this campaign is yet to work because “normal people don’t want to be normal”, in which case I offer the alternative idea “There’s nothing middle about America”.

With research in hand, set yourself a goal of writing twenty problem statements. Keep them emotionally honest, in plain English, succinct, and add a dash of provocation.

Problems stoke ideas. Don’t run from them; relish them. They aren’t depressing. They create adrenaline. They give focus. They get action.

“We don’t have a problem, we just need to sell more” is like an adult holding at bay a kid with an outstretched arm in a play-fight, it’s like wearing hockey gear in a pillow fight, it’s a mental whoopee cushion. And it’s usually a dishonest and unimaginative response to problem-hunting and can signal a relationship that will struggle to get traction because someone – or an entire company – isn’t comfortable with truth.

2. Insight

Insights are confessions. They are deeply human so they are at once vulnerable and defiant.

They make people wince and grin and giggle and gasp. They cause mental afterglows.

Insights are unspoken human truths. They are patterns others don’t see. They hold tension. They draw on data but they are mostly intuition. They don’t hide from us, we hide from them.

Insights are revelations – things that make complete sense after we hear them, or after we hear them expressed better than how we’ve expressed them. Having researched what articles get shared the most on the New York Times’s website, Jonah Berger found that we share content that reveals something awe-inspiring about us or the world around us. Patterns. Patterns that help us to better understand or express ourselves.

Insights are the currency of comedians, writers, and poets. It’s why I believe the best books on strategy are books on writing. Watch stand-up comedy if you want to practice and then keep a log of unexpected things you notice as you go about your days. Just pay attention and be honest with yourself.

Insights are not vague. They are not theory. They are not intellectual. They are not jargon. They’re factual but they aren’t basic facts. They are hard to write with a committee.

For instance, have you ever noticed how little cape-grabbing happens in superhero movie fights? Or how the world treats dads who wear babies so generously (it’s unfair, I know)? Or how libraries house a whole underworld of quiet eccentricity? Or how sometimes you eat string fries like you’re eating your way through a cobweb?

Dove’s Sketches campaign is an obvious campaign to point to. The pattern it revealed – women often see themselves as less beautiful than others see them. Dove put the insight on show like GAP is doing with normal.

Usually, an insight tends to shed new light on a problem statement and leads to an unexpected solution. Sometimes, it is the problem statement. Either way, honesty is a critical bedfellow.

3. Purpose

People have written a lot about purpose. Try Daniel Pink’s Drive and John Kay’s Obliquity for a short-course.

What’s captivated the business world is the research that shows that businesses with purpose outperform businesses that exist purely to “maximize shareholder value”. They do so because they can attract better talent, talent that wants to get its teeth into solving problems (there it is, again) and achieve meaning.

A purpose answers the question: How do we serve humanity?

Patagonia wants to get people outside so they’ll take better care of the environment. Google wants to organize the world’s information. But a purpose does not have to be lofty – AXE wants to help guys in the mating game.

Purpose is not corporate social responsibility (CSR), a thing some department does. A real purpose compels an entire business. A compelling purpose is a much better guide for decision-making than a brand essence (R.I.P.).

The problem with many purpose statements is all the bleh. Many draw from the same one-page corporate dictionary that writes the mission statements in lobbies around business parks everywhere.

Don’t do this. Take a stand for words – good words – when you write your purpose. They are born from beliefs and insights and reek of honesty.

In all honesty

In all honesty, it’s difficult to use all your honesty all the time. Adjusting to your environment, timing your run, and deciding what’s worth honesty in the first place are key to success. But a clear grasp of concepts such as problem, insight, and purpose can help you guide collectives less comfortable with a little honest provocation to less expected thinking.

I haven’t published anything here since 2012. I hope honesty still works. Internet me @markpollard and let me know.

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