It was obvious before the pandemic. Companies spent less and less time and effort at the micro level, trying to sort out what's desirable for people. I've heard it from strategists and from qualitative researchers: a mandate to figure how to capture and manage attention quickly.
Understanding, like relationships, take time and commitment to build. But technology moves at a faster pace, enveloping everyone into its speed and growth potential. Hence the widening gap between the things we must choose to do and those we leave on the cutting floor.
It's taken a global pandemic to realize that we don't know what we don't know. In fact, the people who know the most themselves don't know enough with any sense of certainty. Distributed networks all over the world are helping people stay safe and informed better than official channels.
Why is that? Because complexity plus chaos change the game. We had complexity before, of course, even though companies tried to manage for ordered systems. To keep some form of control. Technology had already changed the trajectory of, well, change, making it difficult for creatures like humans to think exponentially.
But with the additional complication of accidental chaos brought about by the crisis the degree of uncertainty has become very high. Hence why the people selling certainty right now are doing so well in getting attention.
Your results may vary
When is efficiency actually detrimental to brand health? You're correct if you're thinking that it could be catastrophic when context changes. Checklists fail outside of their context. They fail when you implement.
In early January, when I naively thought the new SARS emerging in China was like the previous SARS and could be contained, I purchased a ticket to go see my mom for her birthday in late May-early June. British Airways sold me the ticket, but I bought it through American Express. Good thing I did.
When in early March it became obvious that Italy had a problem, I started worrying about my upcoming trip. Due to the uncertainty of the developing situation, however, I did nothing. At the time, BA was offering a voucher, and I didn't know that I would be able to use it within a year if the trip had to be canceled. So I waited.
In April, it had become obvious that the trip was not going to happen. When borders close, one takes a hint. Many airlines were refunding tickets. BA was still holding onto the voucher option. Even when the U.S. government communicated that they were going to fine airlines that did not provide reimbursements.
I reached out to American Express, my travel agent. They told me to wait a few days. I waited and monitored the BA website, no change. After more than one week, I was able to get the refund through American Express. It should not be that hard!
Yet, even with potential sanctions looming, BA had canceled the London-Bologna portion of my trip with no refund and was sticking to its policy. Eventually, the entire flight was canceled and reimbursed.
However, a few days later, I got this message:
It's true, I've been a member of the Executive Club, Silver Status. It's not that easy to get, you've got to spend quite a bit, especially if you don't travel as much for work anymore. Last year I traveled to Italy three times (the status expires every year) to see family and work on a side project. I earned the points. Still, I do feel like a guinea pig on a spinning wheel. One-way loyalty sounds like bribery to me.
But it gets worse. I have no idea when I'll be able to fly again. Because borders are closed, I care about my mother's health, I have no easy access to reliable testing, and neither does she. We have no idea how flight processes will change… and if we'll still feel like flying when so much is up in the air.
Here's the clincher, though. When I got that automated message from the BA Executive Club email system, I cried. Because it reminded me not of how stupid efficiency is in companies that try to save human effort by automating as much as possible. I cried because it reminded me of the widening gap between my desire to see my mother and reality. I can't go.
Take that emotional wake in association with your brand. BA has demonstrated three levels of insensitivity to my needs as a loyal customer with a considerable lifetime value: 1./ giving me just one option, voucher, for as long as possible; 2./ not doing the right thing, i.e. more options, until forced; 3./ not reorganizing marketing processes around the emergency.
Dear companies, I understand why it's prudent to take a look at marketing budgets when the market contracts. But please, please don't be foolish. Every impression counts. Operations is marketing. Contracts are marketing. Privacy language is marketing. The messages on your website are marketing.
Hence why your results may vary.
What you should do instead
Let's get very real. This is simple, but not easy to pull off. That's why leaders get paid the big bucks. To, hopefully, know the difference between what operating system to adopt when.
So the first question is are you operating in an ordered, complex, or chaotic system? This is actually another good case when you can pick two, just like fast, good, and cheap. I get it, there are tensions to manage: shareholder primacy, stakeholders soundbites, lives are at stake. Could the “pick two” paradigm hold here?
Let's hold onto that question as long as possible so we can find a better answer while we work through the problem. With decision-making, it's useful to understand when decisions need to be made. Timing is everything. Or maybe everything is time. Don't fly blind. Making decisions based on old information is like flying blind.
I've taken some notes from the 90-minute session on complexity that addresses covid-19 challenges to add to my own experience. Every company right now is trying to hold onto previous investments (loss aversion is very human), and figure out what's next, to find a path forward, fast.
Seminars promising answers via trends are selling like hot cakes. Some are interesting, some could be useful. But as a leader, you have the responsibility to provide direction to your company, not a generic company in a generic industry.
How do you know what's going on with your customers/market?
- distribute situational assessment—more ears on the ground. Ironically, that's what a good social media employee policy ten years ago would give you today. If ten years ago you had put in place a mechanism for all employees to listen for trends, ideas, market forces using social (and yes, even help out with customers issues) via personal channels, you'd now have an amazing network of skilled and trusted people you could rely on. Lacking that, hopefully you put in place smart working at your company years ago. Your people also know your business, or they should. Net/net: Companies that have ready access to distributed networks based on relationships of trust right now have an advantage. They can learn more, faster.
- disintermediate (raw) data—you want to get your hands on as much raw data as possible. This means hearing out the 17 percent of people who don't fit your idea of customer or partner. That's the missing data, by the way. Companies rarely get their hands on it. Because the propensity is usually to focus on the low hanging fruit. Innovation is a special project, if it exists at all, not a way of operating. This is the reason why some company people, maybe even some people in your company, decided to join Not Everyday Life. They get that it's important to access raw data, their marketing budget was cut. They joined as individuals, but they'll help their company, or try to if company leaders will listen, of that I'm sure. I was one of those people when I worked in corporate. It's a very lonely place. Net/net: Leaders, find those people in your companies and talk to them.
- embrace granularity and redundancy—when your automated systems are failing the emotional test with customers, you see the importance of people, a redundancy. The people who are taking initiative and have been helping your company through their private social media channels and email accounts are not lone wolves. In fact, quite the opposite. That's how they survived through the frustrating experience of executives rarely listening to them, if ever. They are part of small, informal groups inside your company. Small, distributed groups can coordinate much faster than larger groups, especially in times of chaos/emergency. Because they likely know how to get stuff done when the processes break or make no sense. They're used to going around the bureaucracy to get things done, because they care about customers more that the system does. Net/net: If you're lucky and these people survived inside your company, they're your lifeline.
Coronavirus doesn't care about your company. It has no body, nor mind. Hence, it's not even an enemy. It survives by mutating in human bodies. Its mechanism to spread is to inhabit the same human bodies companies seem to want to eliminate.
When we don't know what the (real) problems are until much later, we need to capture intelligence in a radically different way. This means operating at several layers at the same time.
But execution looks very different from the example I provided from British Airways. Their three levels are not a good example. That way of operating lacks imagination, and imagination is an actual cognitive process in your brain. It helps you put things together, in a way you cannot do logically.
Distributed cognition is a way to gain different perspectives fast. Use it and you have at least a chance to increase diversity of input in your decision-making. Do try this at home. Results may vary.
I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm.