24 Hours of Strategy: A mixtape of sorts

Starting tonight, I’m embarking on a writing project/”mixtape” entitled 24 hours of strategy.

It’s precisely what it sounds like. For 24 hours, I’ll release a strategy-related post every hour. The topics will be all over the map, reflecting on things I’ve been contemplating from my work, travels and conversations with strategists from around the world.

The idea is to get people thinking about big ideas, the ways we do our work and how we can improve processes, the design of organizations and tactics. So much of the conventional wisdom is focused on high-impact organizations that have resources, talent and the right mix of leadership and savvy.

There’s a whole bundle of firms, organizations and entities that exist and haven’t figure out what many of us seem to think we know. And that’s a problem. As a consultant, you might figure that it’s a good thing. After all, more work for us, right? Unfortunately, it results in low morale and talent that suffer because people aren’t given the tools they need.

I’ve been in a variety of roles over the years and have felt much of the frustration people feel about the state of digital. It can be hard to articulate the problems when you don’t have the vocabulary, tools & frameworks to initiate change even from your spot in the organizational chart.

The information exists, it’s just a matter of dredging it up and exploring how we can pick the pieces that can best help us do our jobs better. So after doing this for an entire day, maybe there will be something useful to come out of it.

#24hoursofstrategy is mostly a gimmick to force me to write. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, because sometimes when you blog or write publicly you can get too caught up in wondering how people are going to receive what you’re doing. I certainly hope something I write resonates, but the truth is, just having accomplished the output is going to be a triumph for me.

Feel free to follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #24hrsofstrategy or you can tweet me @ronbronson. All of the posts will be posted on Medium, but I’ll also link them here afterwards.

Why I claimed the St. Louis Rams defunct Twitter account (before it was suspended)

Yesterday afternoon around 4, I was hanging out working on a website. I took a brief break to look at Twitter when I saw someone post the new Rams switch from St. Louis to Los Angeles. My first thought, being a uniform nerd was “I wonder if they’re going to change their colors,” so I went looking to see and typed “Rams” into Google. That was it.

The first thing I saw beneath the top results were their twitter handle which had not cached changes. You can’t see it now, because they’ve asked google to remove Twitter because their old name still comes up.

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Once I saw the team hadn’t backed up their old Twitter handle (@StLouisRams) when they switched to their new one (@RamsNFL), I wondered if the old one was available. My only thought was “maybe some fan group would want it,” since the team probably had no interest in keeping it.

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Mentions streamed like crazy for a while — and still are — because people hadn’t gotten the memo that the team changed names. Especially since the now Los Angeles Rams weren’t able to convince the actual person with the name LaraMS on Twitter since it’s her name.

Maybe an hour into the experiment, Twitter put the suspension hammer on the account. Which is fine. It’s just a silly story that gives me material for a future presentation.

So what was the point, you troublemaker?

Not fame, that’s for sure.

Here’s the deal. This is really a story in thinking about your users.

Think of your twitter profile like a phone number with a forwarding number.

Whoever ran marketing point for the social media team probably had their people under a fast turnaround to get the new website up announcing the official name of the team and to switch the twitter accounts were literally the last thing on anyone’s mind, I bet. Even the Fox story that quotes me indicates my belief, “they just forgot. There’s no real precedent for this sort of thing,” because it’s not like we had Twitter when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in the 50s.

Most companies realize their old customers want to know where their new location is. In the case in the Rams, you’re leaving behind an entire fan base and keeping the old account to say “please follow us at @RamsNFL” might seem unnecessarily cruel and yet, it’s precisely what they needed to do.

People are still looking for them and tweeting at the old handle. That happens and will eventually stop, but the 15 extra seconds it’d have taken to do that would’ve saved the team a modest amount of embarrassment and directed new traffic to their account.

Also, if I hadn’t done there were actual fans of the team who were going to do it if I hadn’t beaten them to it.

“UX stopped being about people and started being about rounded rectangles and parallax animations” – Golden Krishna, The Best interface is no interface

The user become an ancillary part of the equation in so many of our design decisions. Whether it’s deciding how to deliver content or how we disseminate information, too much the argument is focused on a notion of duping people’s eyeballs to our content, rather than engaging their interest.

We need to create holistic customer journeys that establish and maintain loyalty. Brand loyalty is that niggling thing that your parents and grandparents demonstrated by buying the same kind of toothpaste for forty years or going to the same accountant until they died. These days, with companies sprouting and dying in short one-act plays, it’s harder to achieve that kind of relationship, especially for new-economy tools and platforms.

The sooner we think of the customer as a partner, rather than an adversary, the better our decision-making across silos will be.

The suspension is a bigger issue in ownership of accounts.

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You don’t own your social media presence. I’ve managed social media for brands (mostly universities) and one of the things you realize quickly is that investing too much of your brand equity and lead generation in a platform that doesn’t belong to you, is a very dangerous precedent.

In higher education, I remember that it was not long ago many institutions were horrifically reluctant to use tools like Facebook and certainly not Twitter. Now? You have presentations that litter conferences on the best uses of Snapchat, institutions have these platforms as integral part of their communication, marketing & recruitment strategies.

If your account is blocked, you have very little recourse unless you’re a huge advertiser with the platform. Even if you are, if you’re not a major brand, good luck finding an ordinary person who can talk to you about your problem. Is there another scenario where companies spend millions on a service where they have no control over the product they’re receiving?

The Congressional hubub over the design of the Stolen app that came and went last weekend was overblown and yet, abuse is not okay. That was a design problem that was squashed because people have become to think of their profiles as an extension of themselves (or their brands.)

In a heartbeat, your entire business model and strategy built around a platform could be laid to waste without a second notice. It’s a very risky way to work, but we’re not talking about it enough.

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In retrospect, was the 30 minutes or so between when I did this and the time it was suspended worth the trouble? Probably. I had no designs on it being anything other than a solid story. It surpassed my expectations in that regard.

I’ll think about this topic a bit more and intend to make it part of a broader presentation later this year about social media. There’s a lot to learn not so much about this specific story, but the broader implications of how brands treat customers and the UX strategy of platforms.

On hiring: Puzzle pieces & how to fit them

Puzzle

The discovery problem that Silicon Valley — and tech hiring in general has — relates to an issue of finding the right pieces.

Right now, the methodology goes something like this. Somebody stumbles upon a good idea that gains traction. Hell, maybe it’s a bad idea that gets traction and succeeds. Investors like the gold rush flood in seeking to see if that market bears anymore gold or whether they need to seek out a new mountain. Sometimes, they find more gold. Other times, you have to go elsewhere.

Jigsaw puzzles are fine if you like doing them. Depending on how big, they can be a challenge. What happens when you’re about to complete a puzzle and you’re missing a piece? What do you do? Search for it? How long do you search before you give up? Even if you complete the puzzle, what is your next task? Either get a new puzzle to complete or dismantle the one you’ve put together and start again.

I think of tech hiring in a similar way.

We’re really comfortable putting together puzzles that are challenges, so long as all of the pieces are in the box where we need them.

Solving your culture problem

Organizations like to manufacture excitement because they don’t trust their own people to create it organically. We feel like we need to create events to bring people together without thinking about how people are already talking in the cubicles, in meetings and through their natural work together. In big organizations, all huge interactions do is create tension and anxiety. It’s akin to a musical chairs exercise where the favorites always have a seat at the table and the unfavorables are always scrambling to find one, jam their seat that the table and sit there awkwardly, hoping that someone will talk to them and that they can be part of the conversation too.

The myths of meritocracy

The One True Pairing of hiring.

“No one goes to the Golden Corral buffet to stuff themselves with lettuce and quinoa.”
Ty Tashiro, The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love

In fan-fiction circles, OTP is the ‘one true pairing‘. It’s your favorite characters that you think ought to be together. It’s apparent from job descriptions that companies think they’re going to find their own OTP.

Look, it’s important to communicate your culture and what makes your company stand out. The hottest job seekers can choose where they want to go and you’re trying to find them, so you want to use rhetoric that attracts them. But a quick scan of job descriptions

make a difference in an exciting industry; if you like the idea of developing clean, lean solutions to tackle problems that have never been solved before; if you love to learn, have a passion for your work, and enjoy being part of a small, family-oriented environment…help small businesses inspire the world to experience life-changing adventures…

Our people are technically exceptional, but more importantly – built to the core to wow our clients and coworkers as to how helpful we can be. If this is the sort of culture you look for in an organization we want you as a part of our team.

Are you a Mobile UX Superstar who wants to be on the ground floor of a startup focused on social change? If so, read on…

The OTP problem isn’t confined only to jobs. These days, it seems like everybody wants to be the VP of their own startup that simultaneously make them rich while enable them not to feel bad about it through a social mission or talking about how their work will “change the world.” I’ve advised people who only want to work at “the best” companies and find themselves shocked when those companies aren’t interested. We’re often focused on becoming, rather than being.

There is no perfect company. There are no perfect candidates. Keeping your expectations checked is a good way to avoid disappointment and yet, you have to start somewhere. Companies often do, as do people. It just seems there are better ways for us to match without feeling like we’re settling.

 

The Fallacy of Data Meritocracy

So hiring is hard. No revelation there, but how do we fix it? We can rely on data, right? Not if that means taking people’s ability to value what the firm needs out of the process.

In his provocative book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evegeny Morozov has a chapter on algorithmic gatekeeping. There’s a theory in both hiring and college admissions that we can use algorithms to make decisions better than humans do.

“Being objective is hard work; it doesn’t just happen naturally once all the important work has been delegated to the algorithms.”

For decades, the highest level of college football relied on human polls of media members & coaches to select a national champion. Not surprisingly, this process came fraught with biases that often created mixed results — or several national champions — due to split opinions. A few years ago, they allowed computer rankings to be mixed with human polling. This created better results, but required tweaks every year to achieve a semblance of approval and ultimately scrapped in favor of a playoff that was decided by a panel of humans and no computers.

Having a pulse on the organization enables us to monitor what makes sense and what doesn’t. Paper applications, results and test scores might be an entry point to filtering candidates, but there are people arguing for entirely different methods to review candidates like this NYTimes op-ed from a UPenn professor explaining the assessment center method.

Hiring in flyover country

 

Flyover country startups have an additional challenge that their partners on the coasts lack. That’s in addition to finding a critical mass of talent, they have to compete with far more ‘desirable’ places to live to get people to settle in. They often pay less, but will tell you “how much cheaper it is to live,” and when you find the right cultural fits, using family as a draw, it can work.

I run across people for years who don’t fit the prototype. Maybe they didn’t graduate from the “right” schools,” perhaps they had families early and got into the tech game late. Whatever their reason, our processes are broken because they assume there’s an ideal candidate that fits a certain methodology and if we can just crack that code, we’ll find good people.

Whether our biases are geographic, we’re all too reliant on referrals. We want our friends, our colleagues or whoever else inhabits our circles to tell us who we should choose. These blinders cost us millions each year, because we’re failing to identify the right people and spend lots of money targeting the wrong candidates, hiring them and in the event we get lucky, paying them to leave us when they’ve reached their apex.

 

For years, I’ve been assembling teams for startups and even launched a conference based on the idea that so many off-the-beaten path places I’d go had these micro-communities surrounding their startup cultures, but nothing in the way of cohesiveness because people want to be in charge of their own destinies.

Making your puzzle work

Finding the right mix of a team is difficult work. Especially trying to move outside of your comfort zone or network to fill a team is a challenge. It’s still a worthwhile task that can have dividends on your bottom line.

1. Go beyond referrals in your immediate network.
It’s tempting to let people in your own world influence who you work with. After all, if we’re going to stake our work on somebody, we need to know they’re the goods. While this is useful, it assumes your company can’t benefit from outside perspectives well beyond the people you know. Be willing to give people a real shot at breaking through.

2. Test your own culture.
Let your people conduct the interviews. Watch them and see how they react. Do they speak the values of your firm without being coached? Is the way they approach the process consistent with how you’d do it? If not, why? The best ways to understand what people have learned is involving them in game-changing decisions involving outsiders and seeing how they perform. It’ll tell you more about your company than hiring a six-pack of management consultants.

3. Tear up your job descriptions.
Rather than hire for a specific role with lots of bullets of what you need, pair back the content and see what types of replies you get. Too often, we get caught up in envisioning an OTP that must exist for our firm, because the world is large and lots of people want jobs. The reality is, hiring is like dating and finding the right person is a mix of science with a heavy dose of luck. You have no idea who might apply under these conditions.

Show Your Work

You probably have a job like I did. Maybe you’re even an intern. Whatever. Anyway, you have some job and you’re doing whatever they’re asking of you. Some days, that’s writing some stuff. Other days, maybe it’s design and code. Regardless, you’re always doing something.

Here’s the problem. When you work at the intersection of tech and you’re doing work that nobody else around you understands, it becomes necessary to develop a shorthand for communicating with laymen.

At the risk of burying the lede, you need to start showing your work. Document what you’re doing, because nobody will ever tell you to do it at work. It’s easy to get really good at your job by simply knowing what you know, melding your processes with whatever your organization requires. It’s tempting when you’re a lone ranger to eschew with formal processes, because “people aren’t going to it anyway.”

The reason is easy. It’s the reason people laugh watching The IT Crowd or the stereotype of the cranky, know-it-all tech person exists. Having started my career as an IT guy, I knew the trope well. When I switched to the web, I was adamant about making the work accessible to people. Frankly, this applies whether your job is making artisanal french fries or doing UX. Most jobs have a language, but unlike working on your car or the plumbing getting stuck, there’s not a real need to engage in the language of the web everyday. It’s not until something breaks or needs to be fixed, that you need to start understanding what your “web person” is talking about.

Most of the people reading this on Medium somewhere probably don’t identify with this. If you’ve got some great job at some bleeding-edge startup in some semi-hip city off the continental shelf, you’re not dealing with the things ordinary people do everyday. The ones who are too busy to tweet; with bosses skeptical of social media and wondering why everything on the web takes so long to actually make.

Everyone has some kind of process. Documenting what you’re doing, even if it’s just for you, is a good way to signpost throughout your process. If you’re about to embark on an effort you’ve never performed before — a web redesign, user research, content audit — take the time to do some research about what other people have done before you get started. Do a search for other people’s frameworks, adapt them and move on. It’s tempting when you’re a lone wolf in an organization to feel like you need to know everything. There’s no one around to tell you otherwise. In fact, it probably feels like people actually do expect you to know everything because in their minds “that’s what we hired you for.”

Part of being a subject matter expert is understanding how to learn. Having a documented process, more than anything, gives you a chance to look back years later at what you did and helps you improve your methods. It took me years to realize how critical it was to document mental models and other tools that I used consistently on projects both large and small throughout my career thus far. I have some tools I used a lot, but the process of actually keeping track of my own progress came fairly late for me.

You can start today.