Saturday, September 8, 2012

Too many marketers in the kitchen

I have been very busy at IBM preparing for the IBM Connections 4 announcement, and the upcoming September 13 announcements. Those preparations have involved A LOT of people, as you can imagine, for something this visible. On the marketing side too. A lot of effort, testing and retesting, both internal and external viewpoints, is used in developing what we would say and how we would say it. A lot of great minds coming together to turn a complex mix of technologies and organizational behavior trends into a simple message.

It's also been an interesting reminder that in all things there's an upside and downside. Just think of the collaborative process that goes into creating or modifying a website. You start by collecting information on user behavior or target audience behavior. You (or the team) look at the latest design trends. You think about the "art of the possible". And as you continue to refine the design, more and more people want to give their opinion about what works on the page and what doesn't. By the end of the process, it often comes down to what the most powerful people in the review process believe. If there are too many powerful people in that process, well then, beliefs turn into politics, and good design gets lost in the bid to placate competing constituencies.

I think it's the same with marketing messaging. One of my colleagues says "marketing messaging is probably the hardest thing you can do as a marketer". And I agree. It takes intuitive and analytical thinking to understand what the target audience BELIEVES they want, and what their behavior actually SAYS they need even if they don't know it or can't articulate it. To then collect and synthesize all that data. To map it back to the new offering. To solicit feedback and rework and rework again and again that human face to your offering: what it FEELS and SOUNDS and TASTES like.

But if you have a lot of powerful people as part of that review cycle, at some point the balance seems to tip towards political infighting and belief rather than a simple, powerful unity of vision. I think it was someone describing Steve Jobs' development process that said something about this over-collaboration trend. It's better to collect a lot of feedback and collaborate across broad constituencies earlier in the development cycle, as you gather ideas. But as you get closer to deliver, you continually narrow the participants until only a tiny core remain. I think that's because you lose the vision, or worse, you add on so many competing politics and priorities that the baggage is just too heavy. Everything becomes a swiss army knife. Or, because so many were involved in the process, too few are ultimately responsible for the result.

It's one thing to limit that field in smaller companies. It's a lot harder to to limit that field in larger companies, to say "no" to ever-increasingly numbers of (usually) well-meaning but distracting voices. I think it often comes down to having the protection of a strong-enough executive who can shield the core team from those competing forces.

Seth Godin often talks about "just ship it!" in what he calls the coming age of the artisan or sharing economy. Maybe one answer is use an immovable deadline to focus the mind and provide a good defense against those well-meaning but ultimately distracting voices.

What do you think? At what point do the scales tip? At what point does collaboration go from A Good Thing to Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen? How do you keep only the cooks you need?

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