Marketers are known as the “creative ones.” They always come up with tag lines and quirky campaigns. However, creativity doesn’t always mean innovation, especially if that helps the business move forward.
Innovation doesn’t need a pitch deck. Organizations have been discussing the need to be innovative since the end of World War II when technological innovation was seen as the catalyst for economic growth.
Every executive has been told to be “more innovative” or to foster an “innovative environment.” We understand why, but how do we know if our organization is being truly innovative? Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is famous for the expression, “I know it when I see it,” which describes his threshold test for obscenity. But marketing teams cannot wait until they see innovation.
The best place to look for innovation is in the quality of decisions. Everything a marketing team does can be broken down into decisions, which are the building blocks of innovation.
Here are three ways to look for innovative decisions within your marketing team.
1. Where are your ideas coming from?
Some marketing teams haven’t been able to shake off their military-style leadership, where all decisions are made at the top and then trickle to the frontline workers. As you can imagine, the top-down approach doesn’t leave much room for innovation unless you’re led by Midas, who turns everything into gold.
The sources for most marketing ideas are the completely wrong ones. Too many teams look at their competitors, Linkedin or random conference presentations. They take what everyone else is doing and try to emulate them.
As soon as TikTok became popular, many marketing teams jumped on board without considering if this made sense for their customers. Why would you want to be the 1,000th company making short videos about shoes?
Instead, you should focus on better sources for ideas, such as your customers, the people in your team (especially the most junior ones) and non-business fields. Your customers are still one of the best sources for new ideas. The problem is that their answers aren’t usually sexy.
TV shows like “Undercover Boss” remind us that frontline workers may have some of the best ideas. After all, they are the ones who spend the majority of their time with customers. A doorman at a hotel has a better sense of what is working than an executive who might not even live nearby.
Encouraging ideas from anyone in the marketing team doesn’t mean that they have to be implemented. All ideas should be vetted through an objective framework. There are plenty of options, but I personally like the 3 Os, which stands for Outcomes, Options and Obstacles.
Innovative marketing should involve surveying the company for ideas, which are then evaluated based on criteria such as strategic alignment, potential, risk and any other factors relevant to the specific decision.
If all your ideas come from the same people, your decisions will always have the same outcomes.
2. The magic of decision speed
The speed at which decisions are made matters greatly. Markets are moving more rapidly today than in the past. We could debate the reasons — social media, connectivity and so forth — but what matters is that decisions need to be made quicker.
Perfect decisions are never possible, but today, we need “good enough” decisions. When the pandemic hit, travel restrictions hurt Disney Parks. Yet, in 2021, they had raised profit by 20% with 17% fewer visitors than in pre-pandemic years. Disney accomplished this feat by introducing an app (Genie+), changing their ideal customer and removing free perks — working through all the decisions at a fantastic pace.
Starbucks is another example. The “third place” concept imported by Howard Schultz from Milan is dead. Starbucks recognized the future of drive-throughs — and walk-throughs — and is retooling stores.
Innovation often stems from a good idea implemented rapidly. Starbucks could have waited until all the research was done but likely would have lost market share to competitors.
That’s why innovative marketing teams need a new metric, decision speed, to capture how long it takes to make critical decisions. When an organization starts tracking this metric, they are often surprised by how slow they are. Innovation cannot thrive if decisions are made slowly. By the time you decide, the market has moved on.
3. Forget about the HPO
The third area to look for innovative decisions is focusing on the HPO’s weight. I’m not talking about British brown sauce. HPO stands for highest-paid opinion.
I noticed a quirk in decision-making. The highest-paid person in a room commands attention. If they provide an opinion, it is often treated as fact. Decisions are then biased toward the HPO. HPOs often don’t realize their power, but the outcome is the same.
Innovation requires a certain meritocracy to avoid groupthink. Half of my work with organizations simply provides fresh air to members’ ideas. I then help them challenge their own thinking. Here are my three favorite techniques:
As you collect ideas, arguments and comments, do it blindly. You can set up an anonymous form where individuals can enter their ideas or find ways to strip their names from them. A team can then look at all the information without being biased by individuals’ organizational status.
This technique often adds a layer of administration, so I only recommend it for the most important decisions.
The Catholic Church appoints a devil’s advocate during the canonization (sainthood) process who argues against the candidate. This can be quite effective at uncovering holes in reasoning.
You can assign individuals to take different positions in a decision to see if they can poke holes in it. Randomizing this role ensures that everyone gets a chance to voice their concerns. We are not talking about heated debates here. We simply want to hear any potential issues before making a decision.
The best executives have informally found thinking partners to bounce ideas off. Making this a more formal process helps them have someone who can challenge them while understanding the biases they might fall into.
A good thinking partner knows your preferences and can challenge you respectfully. They are typically at the same level within the organization, though usually in a different function.
Regardless of your technique, an innovative marketing team is debating decisions and working together to find the best solution. If none of this is happening, there’s a high chance you’re simply making the same decision repeatedly.
Embracing true innovation
One of my favorite quotes is from William Gibson, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”
Innovation is often about trying to find the existing future. Your marketing team is full of innovative ideas, any of which could help the business grow. Your goal is to uncover those ideas and allow them to influence important decisions.
The future will arrive, one decision at a time. Are you making the right ones?
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.