That is a terrible idea

thumbs down

Ideas are subjective things. They provoke emotions. Love or hate, usually.

If it’s a maybe then it’s probably not good enough. You really want ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

I like to think that my ideas are great. But some of them are terrible. Those are usually the best ones. It’s subjective, you see. Keep up.

Working in ideas is a strange pastime, but you have to remember that although daring people have hired you, they can become less risk-positive when presenting the results to their boss or to their board.

You can sit and laugh and enthuse about that great, daring idea. But they may phone you afterwards, saying ‘I think we should go with plan B’. It’s hardly an unusual occurrence.

For this reason, my initial consultations on ideas with a new client usually consist of two days of work and one page (or so) of ideas.

It could also result in me calling or emailing before deadline with a time sensitive yes/no idea for them to make a call on. Something that is reactive, but which needs working on and getting out there today. It’s usually a result of my mind working overtimes on ideas for them while reading the papers or listening to the news on the radio.

This work that needs a quick call is often the best/worst. Again, depending upon your opinion.

But it is certainly the sort of work that is most likely to get a reaction from the world at large. I’ve had ideas at lunchtime that were global headlines by teatime. But I have also heard no a lot of times.

We’ll never know how those ideas would have flown. But you can be pretty sure that at least one would have got someone fired. Maybe it could have been you…

 

Please don’t hire me, I don’t give a damn for your mission

worship passion image

Many start-up bosses don’t understand how the world works. How many? A LOT.

As a consultant, I see this all the time. Newly-minted CEOs (or their head of HR) will issue a tender or get in touch with a blurb about their business and what they need. Somewhere up near the top will be the desire for someone who is ‘passionate about our mission’, or words to that effect.

That is usually the point where the conversation ends for me. I could send an email back saying ‘I don’t give a damn about your mission’, but that would just be rude. I just spot the problem and move on. Anyway, I am very polite.

So, what is the problem?

I am sure that this says as much about me as it does about them. After all, it is great that a business owner is passionate about what they do. But expecting that of employees seems odd to me. To expect it of outside consultants or contractors just seems delusional. I’m certainly passionate about what I do, my ideas and my business.

Yes, I’ll think about ideas for your business in the bath or over dinner, but that will stop when the next client comes along and our contract is over. I won’t shed a tear when we part and my job is done. I find an enforced passion for the company to be slightly creepy, like an over-enthused greeter at the entrance of a toy store.

Can’t you even fake some passion for money?

Well, if I was desperate for a ‘proper job’ then maybe I could (and possibly even have in the distant past)  fake some passion. But the last thing that a business needs from an ideas man or thinker, or even a creative employee, is a whole lot of yes.

It is my job to examine current thinking and sometimes tear it apart. I am saying ‘this is missing’ or suggesting improvements. I have to possess the gall to question the CEO’s very vision and push them on towards something better.

I do this well and, for this reason, get on very well with the most Alpha of alpha male bosses (females too, but the gruffest alphas tend to be male). The ones who are sure of themselves. They seem to enjoy this slightly odd guy with a whole load of ideas telling them off. I couldn’t do that with someone who expected me to show passion for their baby.

So, if you want passion, go to Tinder. If you want someone to say ‘yes’ to your ideas, buy a parrot. Just don’t confuse an enthusiasm for your business with an ability to make it better.

 

 

How PR works in politics

The big political story this week has been the possibility of the ‘end of austerity’. This is being posited by the media as ‘stirrings’ against Theresa May. But I would posit it is anything but. So much so that I cannot believe a media-savvy, erm, media has missed the story and bitten the hook. For me, it is pure PR.

Since Sunday, the likes of Heidi Allen MP and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have been touring the political chat shows, radio news shows and journalist’s favourite meeting spots to espouse their views on austerity, but only in two limited areas. These are the wages of some public employees, notably nurses, and education, notably the funding formula for schools. There has been no outward criticism of Theresa May and no notable criticism coming the other way.

The reason for this? Well, I’d say it is part of a complex, reactive PR strategy with multiple stages. Most of which you never really see.

Chain links

Let me explain.

I’ve been involved in the ideas stages and execution of PR campaigns like this in the past. They can bypass a problem or create news from next to nothing, if executed correctly. But they are complex and rely on a chain of events.

So, for example, I was involved in one campaign where a video was made and released with the express intention of creating a public reaction, which would necessitate a government reaction, which would allow the client to respond, which would then make a news story. Still with me? No? Well, that is kind of the idea. You don’t see the working out, only the results.

So, here we have an unpopular and, dare I say it, unstable government in need of some love from the electorate. They’ve finally worked out that populism does rely on popularity and public mood. So, they need to pay the nurses and other NHS staff (though probably not tax office admin staff or Job Centre Plus employees, as they don’t garner the same levels of support) and get some money to schools, where parents are organising against them.

Problem. None of this was in the manifesto. For Theresa May to simply announce it goes against the spirit of what the nation voted for and also gives opponents another u-turn to pin on her.

So, what she needs to do is send some whispers out about softening the government (never her) stance. Enter Allen, Johnson and anyone else willing to spend the day eating croissants in green rooms and drinking bad coffee in return for a merit badge and pat on the head later on.

Importantly, this also introduces the idea that to give the nurses etc a pay rise in line with inflation will denote an end to austerity. This creates a positive narrative and makes us all feel good. It may even get us spending. The economy needs it.

Stage two has been to involve Philip Hammond, (intentionally or not on his part) first as target and then as someone acknowledging that it may be time to ‘end austerity’. This may sound far-fetched or conspiratorial, but believe me it isn’t.

The next stages may be similar, with feed and counter-feed to the media, so that we eventually believe that Theresa May has always been behind ending austerity and loves paying nurses what they are worth. In short, we have always been at war with Eastasia. Watch this space.

 

 

I am an ideological extremist

I was not a good kid at school. I was annoying. I asked questions. But not the ones you are supposed to.

I wanted to know how history spoke to now, why only one opinion was being presented and how much my teacher was being paid.

This led to lots of detentions.

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The form for these was to write an essay, which was usually a pointless piece of writing about your own behaviour and its consequences. Little did I know that these 45-minute writing exercises would prove to be great practice for how I work in ideas now.

My essays (which teachers usually dramatically tore up without reading) were usually extreme ‘what if?’ monologues, where my refusal to toe the line now would eventually end up with my own homelessness and, ultimately, my death.

I would bring in events of the time, unlikely scenarios and political discourse to lead the narrative to my ultimate demise. I died in that gutter many times.

Unknown to me at the time (and horribly unappreciated by my teachers!), I was learning to think out ideas to their extreme conclusion. The conclusion reached was logical, but the process that led there was not. I travelled various routes to the mortuary, with many twists and turns along the way. But each step followed on from the last, each consequence was initiated by an action.

This is precisely how I test and stress test my own ideas to this day. Having ideas for a living is close to madness and the results can certainly border on the unhinged. Hundreds of ideas banging around inside your skull will do that. I live in fear of being judged for the scrawlings in my notebooks. I’m not sure I’d be let out again.

But idea creation necessarily means exploring the extremes of your brain. You certainly don’t put everything in the brief you deliver to the client. But you do have to throw in some of the more extreme ideas in case they like them. To be honest, after a while you may even lose track of just what extreme is. Okay, okay, so kidnapping a rival CEO is extreme. Who knew?

People who have great and unusual ideas cannot be bounded by social mores or what has gone before in their thinking. They have to mostly colour outside the lines. Sure, you’ll get some good ideas from 9-5 thinking. But for things that stand out you’ll need an ideological extremist.

Stress testing ideas to the extreme

Political debate can be frustrating. Just when you think the representative of your ‘side’ has landed a knockout blow you see the opposing leader (or patsy) come back with something reasonable, well executed and stress-relieving. Before you have time to examine the answer, things have moved on.

Prime Minister's Questions, Theresa May

This is no mistake or coincidence. Each side will have rehearsed the potential questions and their own responses time and time again, whether for Prime Minister’s Questions or a TV debate. This is why the only time you see politicians truly rattled is when a journalist or a member of the public throws them a complete curve ball. An ‘I was there, actually’, a ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. Refusing to accept the rehearsed answer works too, but even that may have been rehearsed beforehand.

Debate of this kind is often compared to chess and that is a great analogy. The best players think dozens of moves ahead, mentally playing out different scenarios or unusual moves and able to adapt to each one. It is truly obvious when you see a politician who has been too busy, stressed, tired or lazy to stress test their ideas. It often makes the headlines or sets social media alight.

But, so often, this rigorous process is not carried out when thinking about ideas within business or organisations. Rehearsing and stress testing ideas and their consequences is a service that I offer for businesses, but it is also something that I do with ideas that I have for clients, whether they are charities, companies or individuals. I often have ideas that rely on a second trigger to work (such as in a media campaign – creating a scenario that thrives on response), could cause controversy or could play out in a number of ways.

Stress testing is a game of chess

So I am there at my mental chess board, exploring the outcomes. I want to know if I have thought of something that will get a client on the front pages or simply crash their share price. They do too.

When I am commissioned to come up with a broad set of ideas for a client, I do just that. As broad as they come. From ideas that will please your grandmother to ideas that will make her hair stand on end. One to frighten the horses for every one that pats the finance manager gently on the head. You can guess which ones undergo more stress testing.

This testing is sometimes best done within the proposal document itself, or in front of the client. Showing your workings can often make them more daring and emboldened to try something new. Some may even choose the ideas that rely on the reaction of others to work. They’re a calculated gamble. But even the favourite at Ascot loses every now and again.