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Google Firestarters 22: The Power and Perils of ‘Fast’ in Planning

16.11.ONLY_FIRESTARTERS,-17TH-NOVEMBER-title-cropFor our 22nd planning Firestarters last Thursday we had two speakers that I've been wanting to have at Firestarters for longer than I care to remember. And they were on the same bill, speaking about a subject that could not be more apposite right now. We hear so much about real-time data, responsiveness, fast strategy, agility and organisational pace, so I really wanted to have two very different but complimentary angles on what 'fast' really means in planning, and that's what we got. 

First up we had the brilliant Adam Morgan who focused on the upside of fast as a constraint (or how we make 'fast' beautiful), building on his thinking in his book A Beautiful Constraint. He began with some context setting on why fast has become so important, quoting from a 2014 Harris Poll that found that 90% of respondents to that survey expected real-time customer service from brands and as many as 48% expect that services will be delivered before they order them. 'Uber’s children', said Adam, have different expectations, wanting everything at the speed of Prime. Speed is, increasingly, money. A tenth of a second delay in page load time on Amazon is equivalent to a 1% sales decline. Organisations are focused on doing more with less. But also the world’s burning platforms (climate, water) demand it. Greater agility from some brands has compressed innovation cycles, and speed has become a real call to arms, and yet is it really the silver bullet that it's perceived to be?


For example, people can perceive 'fast' as 'compromised. When Toyota introduced an offering in one of their flagship garages in the US to service your car six minutes they had to explain it and show it to customers in order to overcome their cynicism. Zuckerberg has famously changed his 'move fast and break things' mantra to the (not quite as catchy) 'move fast with a stable infrastructure'. Print media publications get caught out trying to anticipate the news and on occasion get it badly wrong (as a few did by putting Hilary Clinton on their cover on the eve of the election). Samsung's battery problems were rumoured to be the result of rushing production in order to beat Apple.

But in order to be strategically strong in the modern world, he said, we do need to be increasingly fluent in 'fast'. For the rest of the talk, Adam focused on how new approaches, mindset shifts, new strategies, and supporting enablers might open up new competitive and cultural benefits, both expected and unexpected. And there is enormous potential value in those unexpected benefits, as fast forces us out of what Dr. Caneel Joyce calls our 'anti-originality' bias:

So actually we need to think about fast not only in terms of how we can increase propulsion but how we can reduce drag within organisations. This might be through how we put teams together, how we commit, how we manage projects, how we make decisions.

16.11.ONLY_FIRESTARTERS,-17TH-NOVEMBER-morgan02For example Adam talked about setting an ambition that 'doesn't allow us to tweak slow', the empowerment that comes from focusing on a single metric, how we might start earlier and radically front-weight a process, work in parallel not linear, use automation in adept ways, use proxies or what we already have but repurposed, and deliver speed through rapid prototyping (refreshingly, this echoes many of the themes that I talk about in my upcoming book). This requires a mindset shift away from perfection, high risk consciousness, the desire to want to do everything ourselves and towards working within an ecosystem, a willingness to reframe contexts, and a 'good enough' approach. It was an inspiring a truly thought provoking talk.


We'd flown Martin Weigel in from Amsterdam for Firestarters and he didn't disappoint. Taking a different angle on fast, and building on the thinking set out in his post on kicking the ‘marketing crack’ habit, he expounding the dangers of short-termism in marketing and planning. He began by talking about how we live in impatient times, and how we’re naturally biased to favour short-term gain over long-term (what psychologists call ‘temporal discounting’). This happens not only at an individual level, but an organisational one. Whilst management is pre-occupied with what is happening over the next three months, McKinsey has shown that between 70 and 90 percent of a company’s value is related to cash flow which expected three or more years out. The tenure of CEOs is becoming ever-shorter (in 1995 it was just under ten years amongst the world’s largest corporations, in 2009 it was just six). 95% of S & P company profits are spent on share buy-backs and dividends according to Forbes. The average agency-client tenure has reduced to around 3 years. The average tenure of a football manager in the premier league is heading towards a single season. Half of video viewers stop waiting for a video to load after 10 seconds. News spreads around the world in seconds. In the words of Laurence Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock:

‘We’ve created a gambling culture in which we tune out everything except the most immediate outcomes’

The culprits here include human nature, the relentless (and reckless) pursuit of shareholder value, the speed at which our machines can operate (culture and capital move at the speed of our machines), and culture relocating to the present.

Yet these forces now run through our businesses making us a slave to, and enabler for, their agenda. We are increasingly addicted to the here and now (he used a definition of addiction from Dr. Chris Johnstone as: ‘a pathological attachment to something attractive in the short-term, but destructive over time’), chasing short-term vanity metrics that are light in value and meaning (easy to measure does not equal important, just as distribution does not equal value). The way in which advertising has been proven to work is that it does not pay back in the short-term, and yet we focus on marketing to people who are already convinced, chasing response rate (except response rate does not equal effect size just as demand fulfilment does not equal brand building). We award creative innovation and yet we don’t award building brands.


Recovery from this addiction (Dr. Chris Johnstone defines recovery as being about: 'looking where we’re going and choosing a path that can last') is about focusing on sustained, profitable brand building which is long-term by nature (and not a collection of short-tern effects or uplifts, as shown by the work of Binet and Field, but instead from rising base sales and rising pricing). Byron Sharp (in How Brands Grow) talked about how brands are about 'building memory structures', or what Judith Williamson called ‘empires of the mind’. So we need to break the bad habits of short-termism and remake a few key habits:

  1. Take the long view – this is competitive advantage. Alex Ferguson talked about building a club, not a team, Jeff Bezos talks about working to a seven year horizon rather than a three year horizon since there are few companies willing to do this.
  2. Think big – you can’t think long without a big idea. Laurence Freedman quote about strategy being the evolution of the big idea through changing circumstances (he illustrated this with some of their work on FIFA 16, brought together around the idea of ‘connection through competition’)
  3. Extract maximum value from your platform – add to and refresh existing memory structures, build new apps not new platforms (using the 30 year-old Nike ‘Just Do It’ platform as an example). And build a platform others want to develop for.

Martin finished by saying that his hope is that we get back to creating value rather than extracting it, that we build around the needs of people and not just shareholders, and that we start thinking bigger, longer and broader. It was a truly compelling take.


As always, Scriberia did an amazing job of visualising the talks, and you can see their visualisation in all it's glory here. My thanks to our amazing speakers, all those that came along, and of-course to Google for hosting. The next planning Firestarters will be in early 2017 so do look out for that.

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