Momentum

The Operators series is for people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Written from experience. For founders and their leadership teams, plus those talented motivated people who are interested in the bigger picture.

The first post of Operators was Managing Chaos.

It was first intentionally because when you’re scaling a business managing chaos is just a fact of life. It is perhaps the defining experience and feeling of scaling. So you gotta manage it. That or basically die :shrug:

Fortunately, chaos has a friendlier twin: Momentum.

—–

Momentum

Remember when you were 17. OK, 16. (Ok, what 14? Wow… ) And you were walking towards the door of the nightclub. The club you really had to get into. You can hear the music. You can see a partial view into the club’s interior. You can smell adventure (lol). Eye contact with the bouncers. That burst of extra adrenaline. YA-ya-ya-YAAAA. Now pause right there: it was at this exact point I used to imagine I was walking through the door. No slowing. No subtle inertia. No pre-conceived rejection, unwittingly conveyed by subconscious cues of body language. A mental trick to our own adolescent brains – ‘I’m sailing through yes I am and that bouncer is gonna have to ask me to stop and and and I’m innnnnn’.

Momentum and a fake sense of confidence (or a fake ID) carried us through.

Just earlier in cold British sunshine this morning my younger boy – new to the game of rugby this year – catches the ball, runs at the opposition and just before contact, slows. In rugby you need to run through people. Or over them. Or if you’re clever, around them.  (Imagine American Football, less the body armor and the constant stops in play.) He’s caught, contained. That fraction of a second of hesitation was everything. A quick cue from a coach and in the next play he runs at and through the opposition. Legs pumping. No imagined slowing down. No trace of hesitance to allow the opposition to tackle. Momentum.

Sales people understand momentum. They sense for the heat and velocity of a deal, of a customer in-store, intuiting for that ‘propensity to buy’. Of course, great sales people don’t just feel it – they create it. One to one, asking questions that deliver a cascade of yeses. Or in the more sophisticated and subtle world of selling to groups of buyers in the enterprise, they build a groundswell amongst the prospects’ stakeholders. Through their orchestrated sales campaign they build positivity, an unfair bias and alignment across the boundaries of client-side functions and politics. And how to pace to it – when to go with the customer’s flow, when to speed it up. Momentum.

Momentum is magic in business. I really believe that.

It is waves of progress upon waves of progress. It’s ‘oh, and another (good) thing’. It’s rolling goddamn thunder. It is launch followed by client win followed by awards followed by big new hire followed by another client win. It’s you saying to the inside world of staff, investors, one another – that latter one of self-belief in the leadership is perhaps most important in some ways – and of course to the outside world: ‘hold on to your motherfucking hats, WE’RE WINNING, WE’RE MAKING THIS HAPPEN, AND EVEN MORE IS COMING’.

I reckon momentum is a big piece of the game in building a successful growth company. And as a CMO or a CEO especially, it’s one of the biggest opportunities you have. Even better, it’s free of charge. I certainly see it as one of the biggest things I can do to support a company.

How to create momentum

  1. Look for it
  2. Make the links explicit
  3. Timing is everything
  4. If you don’t hype, who will?

Let’s get to it.

1. Look for it

Momentum has to be real. To convince you and your team, let alone analysts or potential clients or investors. I mean, you can put some sizzle on it but people sense bullshit and hate vaporware and if you don’t know it and feel it nobody will.

So to create a sense of company momentum, you need to first spot the waves. Externally they might be things like:

  • New product announcements
  • BIG customer wins
  • Acquisitions
  • Funding announcements
  • New talent / leadership / board members
  • Partnerships
  • Big events
  • Awards and endorsements (but good ones, you guyz)
  • Major publicity
  • Real impressive results – sales growth, outcomes, revenues, data you’re willing to share and stand by and if necessary prove

Internally, you’ll know what big moments of success are. It will vary massively according to your circumstances.

So spot them. See them. Name them. Commit to them. And proceed to step 2.

2. Make the links explicit

This is important. Probably the most important and directly controllable lever you have in creating Momentum.

See not the one wave in isolation. Look back and figure out when your last ‘big announcement’ was. Look ahead and figure out when the next will be. If you can, the one after that too. Put the waves together into a sequence of positives in your head and then make these explicit to the people you’re communicating with.

What you’re aiming to do is help the company bounce a one-off success and ping pong it into another in the near-future to create the sense of a string of successes. Then you pull something else forward or new out of the bag, and now you have a 1-2-3 and yes! the flywheel of positive momentum is spinning.

Yours is the company on peoples’ lips, front of mind, the one with extra heat.

Develop the habit to always talk about momentum in series rather than one-off. Mention the multiple examples of mojo. One or two positive items is just unrelated good news. Three or four is undeniable momentum. So in your internal all-hands or in the press release, reference the previous big announcement – ‘coming off the back of our recent successful fundraise…’ / ‘following last week’s amazing news about BIG BRAND CLIENT signing up for 2 years…’. Help others see what you see. Let no positive milestone stand alone!

And if it helps and you’re happy to, preview what’s next ‘and with our [committed next big thing] just around the corner, even more good news is coming’. It feels good. And it’s real. And it’s momentum.

About that flywheel: it takes more effort to get started than it does to keep it whirring. Don’t let it slow. (Note to self: Will, remember this always, even though you know it, never forget it).

3. Timing is everything

Be smart about timing. If two good waves are about to crash at the same time, make sure that makes sense in your head – ‘could we pull them apart by just a few weeks?’.

Consider your most important trading periods – figure out how momentum can carry you into this with a surge of an unfair advantage over the competition. Get out the blocks before the rest of the pack. Do the unexpected!

Thoughtfully stage the waves. Whilst plenty of this is opportunistic, some of these you can gently steer or even orchestrated. Great strategy is about coherence. Wouldn’t it be cool if this good news could happen at the same time as the major industry event or landed just a week after we told the team about the good news on new hires.

And pay attention to the mood. Of your staff. Of your customers. Of the market. Let that be an input to this too. Not in some kind of bankrupt ‘we gotta get good news to them, desperately!’ way. Just as another input to your timing.

There’s no playbook for this stuff. It’s just putting a little bit of thought into it and trusting yourself because frankly anyone can do it. All I’m suggesting is that developing the habit of thinking about when you want the fair winds to blow will help you maximize the boost that they give you.

4. If you don’t hype, who will?

This one pisses me off.

There’s this idea that you should quietly earnestly build rather than hype the effort and care from your team, their hard fought victories, the sweet occasional relief of some things going well and great product being shipped. In this line of thinking, the logic goes that the world – perhaps internally, your leadership, your board, or externally an influential client group, or journalists and analysts covering your space – will take care of noticing your hard work and if you’re lucky, send the appropriate rewards, credit, publicity. In some circles, and you will sometimes strangely feel it amongst your own, there is this dismissive view of people promoting their hard work. Seriously, fuck that.

Don’t let others foibles and insecurities or your own internal critic get in the way of the whole team’s greater good.

Most of the time you’re more down on what you’re doing than your fans and happy customers are because you see what didn’t get shipped, what isn’t where you want it to be, yet. In the team environment, the people around you are occupied with their role, their work, chopping the wood and need a helpful reminder to step back and see their collective progress. They also will want that permission, that space and that validation from you as a leader or from someone that isn’t their doubtful second-guessing self.

Plus, if we’re honest here amongst friends, most of the time the broader market or public essentially don’t care. In the nicest possible way, they don’t have enough attention available to pay to you. If you’re not putting yourselves on the line and saying ‘THIS MATTERS. I ask of you your attention. I won’t waste it’ well, most people won’t bother.

So call out the positives, the big chunks of progress, and don’t hide them. Because if you don’t hype it, who will?

  1. Look for it
  2. Make the links explicit
  3. Timing is everything
  4. If you don’t hype, who will?

Momentum puts a multiplier on your growth. It creates inbound you can’t attribute – resumés, leads, invitations for coffees with investors, unexpected outreach from partners. It creates a glue in your team that you can’t buy – a feeling that they’re in a good place and on a winning team. It increases sales outcomes and accelerates them too, and decreases sales and marketing expenses. It quite fundamentally lifts the value of the business in boardrooms and on the street and the feeling of momentum makes working more fun.

And the best thing is it’s free.

I love momentum. 

Post #2 in The Operators Series. Feedback welcome ~ WM

Introducing The Operators Series with ‘Managing Chaos’

After 5 and half years as one of the leadership team scaling up Brandwatch I’ve learned lots more about growth, chaos, ambiguity, resilience, culture, business, people, hiring/firing, org design, marketing, sales, boards and investors and so on.

In that time, we’ve grown from 130 people to 550, 5x’d revenue, made 3 successful acquisitions, are completing 1 merger, have expanded globally and hit EBITDA profitability now with $100m in recurring revenues. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been involved in all of that.

And when it comes to scaling tech businesses like this, you can find a lot of very good stuff written by investors/VCs. (Maybe they’ve got more time than the rest of us :)). But there’s not much out there from operators, and when I mentioned to one of our previous board members that I was impressed with how smart a new investor seemed to be, this board member countered immediately with a wry smile: ‘Yes! He is very smart, Will! But he is not an operator… We are the operators. We make it happen. Don’t forget this’.

I haven’t forgotten that respect for the operator. So this series is for the Operators.

By operators, I mean people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Usually the CXO and VPs. The founders and their leadership teams, plus – importantly, to me – the many smart motivated people that you get in every decent high performing company who are relentlessly learning themselves and care about the bigger picture, even if they haven’t reached formal ‘leadership’ roles just yet.

These people are doing the work of growing companies on the inside.

I take a broader view than just a classical CMO perspective, mainly because in my tenure I’ve played a wider role than my title of CMO, secondly because I think that’s more interesting selfishly, and thirdly because it’s more applicable to more of you than a deeper by-CMO-for-CMOs viewpoint.

Managing Chaos

Everything is already exaggerated in a small company trying to grow at 50-100-150%+ a year.

You’re already trying to do something differently to how everyone currently does it. Growth creates constant challenges.

An experienced SaaS CFO we interviewed once used the metaphor of one of those shaped balloons for kids you get from street entertainers, at parties and theme parks – twisted into shape to resemble a poodle or a light sabre. This CFO pointed out that growing a SaaS company, you tend to find that any one time a particular part of the business will be squeezing and swelling out of sync with the others. Whether it’s new customers to be onboarded, new inbound leads from a territory that aren’t being followed up, sudden demands on systems capacity as new users stream into a successful launch, a ton of open requisitions that the recruiters and managers suddenly need to fill. And whilst you focus on solving that problem and squeeze improvements back into a manageable and potentially new shape, new problems swell and start to burst out elsewhere. POP!

It’s all interconnected.

Plus you’re a small ship sailing big seas, where the global environment is already characterized by VUCA – gotta love that Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, eh. A context that is further amplified when you have limited resources, no precedence or process, entrepreneurial leadership, and when everything by its nature is ‘the first time its been done’.

So fundamental to leading a growth company is managing chaos.

Managing chaos is not about avoiding it or eliminating it. You just can’t. In my experience, the chaos moves too fast. It is a rogue shapeshifting force and pops up in new places, manifested in new shapes. The causes of it are not just internal and therefore even controllable – they come from the outside, sometimes in waves or combinations that feel overwhelming, on top of the many crises you inevitably also create yourselves.

In crisis management circles the saying of hopeful British politicians and public relations practitioners is ‘today’s front page news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’. In growth companies too, yesterday’s crisis is a distant memory – and you’re often already on to the next one. (Sidenote: agency people know what this is like. Which is why I think agencies are a great hiring ground for startup/scaleup talent that’s got grit and resilience and know how to smile when the going gets, well, dramatic.).

So what can you do, apart from just get through it?

  1. Communicate
  2. Drive out ambiguity
  3. Harness what is useful
  4. Watch energy levels
  5. Find the wins

Let’s take them one at time.

  1. Communicate through chaos

The biggest mistakes I’ve been involved have absolutely been made worse by poor communication. Usually internally. And usually just not thinking to communicate, and with the best intentions, just ploughing forwards with the ‘bias for action’ that everyone loves to cultivate/hire for/role model around. But whilst this is mainly about internal communication, it is true for external comms in moments of crisis too.

With managing chaos, I’ve learned that the worse it is, the more I need to quickly and efficiently keep a cross-section of people informed about. I pick a group that I think represent the broad edges of the issue at hand. I look for functional and geographical representation. And I keep it fast, lean and – when things happen over a day or two – provide updates.

The reflex you want to create in yourself and others is simple: if the shit’s going down, start communicating as you also assess and start to fix the problems.

2. Drive out ambiguity

In times of chaos and challenge, ambiguity is not my friend.

Yes, we have to live with ambiguity in growth businesses – but where possible, when the pressure is on, we need to drive it out. The last two most stressful big announcements I worked on kept tipping over from one day to the next. It wasn’t possible for us to know when THE BIG THING was happening, but we knew it was 99% happening. That uncertainty was really hard. It kept us in a state of limbo – unable to trigger actions with other groups of people, shuffling calendars and priorities on a day to day basis, ripples of disruption that cascaded across teams and continents, our small group containing the pressure of what comes next, without the relief of ‘anddddddd GO!’. Nothing you can do in that situation.

But when I’m working in chaos, I’m consciously trying to find the ambiguities that CAN be controlled, that can be named, that can be defined and boxed in and closed off.

I chase them down, these grey areas. I hate them. I push for short, functional documents that are shared by the working group to force the definition and agreement of subjects. (Documenting things doesn’t seem particularly fashionable these days but I don’t give a shit. If we write it down, we understand it better and can agree/disagree more specifically). I get people together if they seem to be saying different things. I push as hard as I can for clarity and simplicity. The goal is to force out the unknowns. Define, eliminate, name what’s left. And if you do this too, it will massively help. It will reduce stress for the whole team, and as the knowns increase, the remaining unknowns feel and are much more manageable. The problem you’re trying to solve lifts out of the fog, while everything else falls away.

3. Harness what is useful

Like in judo, yes? The assailant comes at you. Big, ugly looking, hairy like me. You crouch, pull their sleeve closer towards you, tilt your hips, start to twist and oops, the big ugly assailant is in the air, rolling across your shoulders and – BLAMM – lying flat on their back. Cool, bro.

Crises and chaos have an energy about them. Harness it.

I’ve found chaotic times to be hugely positive learning experiences for me and people working with me. We’ve had developing team members take career-defining steps forward in their growth through painful projects and exhausting, high pressured phases in the company’s history. Time and pressure creates diamonds – cheesy yes. Also true.

So I try and if possible take moments when they arise to make sure the people working with me are seeing that. It helps them to see it as a growth experience as well as scary cool big assed thing to work on. It helps them to see more explicitly their learning as it happens. And it helps us recap, regroup and really bake in those learnings afterwards. ‘So what did you learn?’.

Secondly, these moments can also create strong internal impetus for change. Don’t waste that. Provoke the conversation that needed to happen. Propose the way to avoid this in future. Challenge the bullshit status quo.

And these moments of chaos and tribulation can also motivate your team in a David v Goliath way. Screw the competition. Fight the incumbent pressures and mindsets. Ship the product better, faster, shinier. Find a unique design solution to the seemingly ‘all is lost and we have no resources, no time and no hope’.

Harness what is useful.

4. Watch energy levels

As an operator and a leader, if you’re managing too much chaos too much of the time, you’re gonna feel its toll.

This is not a good or sustainable way to operate. The nice list above is the choice highlights amongst what is generally really hard work and not brilliantly good for you. The bad stuff – well that’s everything else. The stress of this is unhealthy. Me personally? I’m coming off the back of a serious rolling phase of managing different chaoses (is there actually a plural for chaos?) and it’s not been good for me. I need to reset. I can feel it in my energy levels, see it in my moods, other people are reporting it back to me, asking me if I’m OK (normally they don’t!). And I know my team and the people around me have been depleted too.

I gotta get my lifejacket on, and then after or if possible at the same time make sure they get theirs on too. Some mindfulness. Take some breaks. Connect with people outside. Sharing the problem. Exercising. Reading before bed. Simple healthy habits are what work for me.

So we need to notice that. We/I need to increase the check ins – ‘how you doing?’ is simple but good. ‘Please make sure you take the time back’ is not just fair and reasonable, it’s fucking important. Rest. Reset. Don’t let your people or your self burn out. I’ve learned through outdoor pursuits and through working under pressured that actually silence can be the worst sign. Look out for people quietly drowning, or those that have gone unusually quiet. It’s often not a good sign, and only costs a quick check-in to see if it’s quietly productive or silently sinking.

This modern business phrase you may have started hearing of ‘being athletes’ (lol), well at least let’s take something good from it: rest is a crucial and fundamental part of an athlete’s training program. And thankfully, we are living in a time where mental health is finally coming out of the shadows and margins and being bravely put center stage. Makes it easier to get on the table.

I believe one of life’s worthwhile pursuits and an essential part of a successful operator’s tool kit is locating and returning to the recuperating strategies that work for ones self. And encouraging and coaching those around them to find theirs too.

5. Find the wins

Finally and most obviously, sustain yourself and those around you by finding the wins. (My current team may laugh darkly at this one – they probably don’t think I do this enough/at all, but I do). Celebrate survival. The passing of a crisis. The growth in experience and new skills and capacities. A very wise lady I’ve occasionally worked with at Hyper Island recently said ‘life will never move this slowly again’, and she’s right, so we will might as well enjoy the chaos or at least the pauses in between!

There you have it. Some thoughts on Managing Chaos. And the first post in a weekly series for Operators. Feedback welcome.

~ WM

PS. On hitting publish on this, I’m reminded that part of my inspiration to do this was fellow Brandwatcher James Stanier’s wonderful The Engineering Manager. Thanks for the inspo to get writing again, James.

Always Go Upstream

I played rugby, which commentators like to say is a ‘collision sport’. As a result of those collisions I spent quite a bit of time with the physiotherapist. Working with physios, the most amazing realization – and many of you will have experienced this – is when you tell them confidently where the problem is.

‘Yes it hurts there, just under the left shoulder blade, when I twist like this’…’ah! YEP. That’s it’.

They start doing their thing. Tracing back.

‘What about this? Hmmm. And now, what about if you try to touch your toes? OK, and now lift your arm and twist to me – what about here?’.

And suddenly – KABLAMMO – they prod a completely different part of your body – sometimes literally your butt not your shoulder, or your inside foot and not your lower back – and you are rewarded with a completely unexpected electric shock of pain.

Physios call this ‘referred pain’. And in these sobering moments you learn a few things:

Firstly, you don’t know shit about your own body. Secondly, physios are not only professional sadists – the experienced ones call on thousands of hours of practice, such that their work can feel more like magic than medicine. Thirdly, the actual cause of your issue will very often be in a completely different part of your body than where you experience it.

Just like our bodies, our teams, organizations and societies are organic, and are interconnected, complex systems. And often I find that – quite understandably – in work our focus is on the symptom that is most obviously present. The customer enquiries left unprocessed and unloved. The high turnover in a particular role or team. The lack of verve in some marketing copy. The failure again to restock a particular product two days before it runs out.

And the takeaway that I find useful today is that most of the time we’re fixing downstream issues. Consequences of something else. The ‘referred pain’. Symptoms, not causes.

As leaders, our job is to always be going upstream.

Like physios, we need to track back. Call on instinct and experience. To trust the curiosity and intelligence of our teams and ourselves and ask why the things happened that led to the particular issue that has presented itself today.

Downstream we can make quick fixes. Band aid the problem. Temporarily alleviate the pain. But it won’t go away.

If we don’t really go and do the work on the root cause, our body, team, organization or society may well cleverly reroute around it, patch things up, do the best that it can. (I have a left knee that doesn’t bend fully, a right forearm that won’t grip totally, a wonky shoulder that leaves me with a stiff neck sometimes – I function, but old unfixed injuries hold me back). Things can still function. 

It’s upstream that we’ll actually solve it.

It’s upstream that we can really amplify our impact by locating and fixing the issue at its cause, once and for all. It’s upstream that we can fundamentally reroute how resources are allocated and directed to unlock the best performance. It’s upstream that taking the time to be calm, deliberate and bigger picture will pay 10x, 100x or often 1,000x back over the coming weeks and years. So leadership – for me – is all about going upstream.

A sidenote to finish.

There’s another benefit to always going upstream. It takes us to interesting places. We learn more. We’ll end up speaking to interesting people about bigger opportunities in areas that are often ‘outside’ of our direct scope. Whether we’re fixing problems in a company we’ve lived in for many years or being recruited somewhere new, when we ask ourselves and the people we’re working with ‘OK, and why is this happening and where does it start?’ we open up a much bigger horizon of opportunity for them and for us.  And that’s not only good, it’s how interesting explorations and big adventures begin.

Always go upstream.

My sounds of 2015

The year

Seen as a whole year I can’t but help snark at myself a little for how easy listening these Tunes are. It’s like a poppy electro love fest. But then I think about the classic music I play at home (and was played at my home growing up) – Motown, The Eagles, Hall & Oates, Barry White, Bob Marley. I am what I am, I suppose. But then when I look at my favorite Mixes there’s a bit more edge (OK, only a bit more).

Anyway, these are those favorite tunes I came across and spent time listening to in 2015. Not all of them were released in 2015 – I don’t really give a fuck about that.

The tunes

Hello by Erykah Badu – this is a beautiful track. I just love it. Andrew 3000, tick. Erykah waxing lyrical, tick. Catchy, sexy, lovely ❤

Blackbird (Live) by Jordan Rakei – cover of a Fat Freddy’s Drop tune, just a beautiful funky mellow tune. Recommended by Arthur at work.

Another Love by Tom Odell – another smooth, upbeat, slightly lovey-dovey tune. Catchy. I must be getting old 😉

The Less I Know The Better by Tame Impala. Gorgeous float-away psychedelia. And one of three or more tunes from the album that I could have chosen. Brings to mind my brother Louis, when he’s in his lets-go-mode-but-not-yet-raging-hedonist-point, doing his hilarious dancing. He introduced me to this. Thanks brother. Play it loud and accompany with bubbles. Also works with headphones and eyes shut.

Steal by Maribou State. No surprises. Sultry, a bit moodier, but on the theme of the year: female vocals spread over electronic.

Fantastic Man by William Onyeabor. Different, brilliant, bizarre, and insanely catchy. Whole album is worth checking out. Music that makes me smile. Via my brother I think.

Get Over It by Bucie. I feel a guilty about including this one, because it won’t stand the test of time. It’s just a nice easy tune. But I have listened to it a lot. Thanks Arwa.

I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) by Jamie XX. To be as talented as this guy. Wow. Anyway, this tune makes me want to be in London on a sunny day with a cold beer somewhere near a massive sound system.

Can I Get A… by Jay Z. Never been that big a fan tbh, and I’d never heard this until it came on at my gym and it was love at first listen. The louder you play it the better it gets. Yes. Nothing more to say.

F***in’ Problems by A$AP Rocky. What can you say. Probably my favorite hip hop tune of the last decade. Outstanding. Play it loud.

Grown Up by Danny Brown. Such a good vibe but an even better story. Head-nodding nostalgia. Brilliant lyrics. A-OK emoji.

Actin Crazy by Action Bronson – This whole album is good. I just love Action Bronson’s ridiculous exuberant lyrics. I originally got into Action via Ross who shared a video of him eating brisket; you must follow him on Instagram if only for his trademark #fuckthatsdelicious hashtag (he started out as a talented chef before going fulltime with music).

Mixes

Whereas my Spotify listening has got noticeably poppier, this year more of my listening on a day to day basis has been in Soundcloud and I’ve loved finding whole new worlds of music I love that I’d never explored. More harder, faster, better music for me to work and exercise to, these are some picks.

GORGON CITY, KIDNAP KID & MY NU LENG @ W Los Angeles My go-to mix of 2015 (annoyingly on YouTube). Outstanding, not too lightweight, proper momentum but somehow, for me, never tips into too dark or heavy. Like a Goldilocks’ porridge but sexier 🙂 And with specific points where I can dive in and get right into a decent flow for work (50 mins ish, 1:25 ish in particular). Thanks Prycie.

Magic Tape 43 with The Magician Good bouncy fun-times mix, and lots of these Magic Tapes are great but none of the others start with as good an opener as this one 🙂 “MY FRIEND HAS A SWIMMING POOL!” whump whump whump. About 60% of the Soundcloud likes I have I owe to GT – thanks maestro.

RAP RIDDIMS & R&B STYLEEE MIX One of 4 insanely good Krazy Kids Radio mixes (also check out: Producers Mix, Morning Coffee and OG FM Gold), but I had to pick one so I picked this one from Fran – a friend of ours – because it is FANTASTIC. Love the individual selections but love even more how they’re blended. Perfection.

Anjunadeep Edition 41 with James Grant Earlier this year I was training for a half-marathon (thwarted by an injury that persists – bah!) but this was a gorgeous to-run-to mix. Flowy, lovely, deep house. Now when I listen to it I can place the landmarks at key points – the power station up in Long Island City, back over the Puliaski Bridge to light industrial Greenpoint. Thanks to Tom Farrand for this one (I think).

Weekend Workout: Episode 124 with Felix Cartel Don’t amble into this one. Ready yourself. This is the mix I use for quick nasty workouts. It starts with a slightly ominous grimey industrial vibe and quickly ramps into the ultimate ‘throw yourself at the wall repeatedly like a deranged animal’ session. Perfect for anything that requires intensity and pain 🙂  No idea who this was – Ross maybe?

That’s it. I loved music in 2015.

Who We Are

Mentors. You’re supposed to have them, aren’t you? Very in vogue.

I don’t have any mentors at the moment. Nothing active. But it occurred to me last night that what I’ve got from people previously comes with me wherever I go.

People who’ve given me perspectives.

I think of them, the individuals, as I recall the nugget or the way of being or I wish they were on hand to just answer this one tricky problem with me.

(It’s an amazing gift that isn’t it? To have given people knowledge and ideas they carry with them wherever they go. The miracle of humans with our infectious tools and ideas).

Last night it was a guy called Ray Richards who came to mind as I sat on the roof watching the skyline waiting for a rain storm to come. I’d had a good thought about work and remembered a conversation between me, Tom and Ray and Ray had said ‘anyway, you’re always working – you guys don’t switch off’ in the context of us and anyone like us in that early stage, being entrepreneurial, of running a small new thing in a start up phase, of being people wanting to do something. And I remember feeling the relief that other people knew that was what it was like and that it was recognised.

As I waited for the rain (it sounds so zen, I’m going to keep saying it) my thoughts then went from that ‘always on’ thing that I see in the most driven people to what makes us good at our jobs.

What does make us good at our jobs?

I think it’s:
Who We Are – our character, what we’re about, what makes us tick
How We Are – how we interact with others, how we behave under pressure
What We Know – the actual stuff
..in that order.

I would rather be in a team of people with the best character, attitudes and behaviours than a team with the best expertise in their domain areas.

You can probably find countless examples to prove this. And countless more to disprove it (a heart surgeon operating on one of my kids – do I care how she is or who she is or do I just want to know that she’s the best in the world at this kind of procedure?). It’s just what I feel, what I’ve seen, what I think it all comes down to in the long run.

If that’s right, what about What We Know?

Of course it matters, is hugely influential. But maybe my hierarchy is because the context I’m thinking of is constantly evolving and we’re writing the playbooks as we go. There’s a body of knowledge to build on but every organisation, every market, every ecosystem is unique and changing.

In fact, I do think that’s it.

If the heart surgery needs to happen on my kid tomorrow, I’ll take the best surgeon in the world and forgive their bedside manner. But if we’re a team going on an adventure together, one that’s going to last years, that’s where my hierarchy fits.

So then what?

It’s about doing the work
Doing it
Learning
Changing
Being willing to admit when it’s gone wrong or we don’t know

They say it’s good to be vulnerable, but I know from personal experience that it can confuse and it can create doubts in others. But ultimately it’s what’s needed.

To finish the adventure we have to be able to adapt and learn. We have to be able to pull together. None of us really know what it will take. Even people who’ve done it before, because this time will be different. What we have to believe is that whatever it is, we’ll overcome it. And that’s about Who We Are.

Living in a data-drenched world

Is the world becoming more data-driven? Are people increasingly comfortable with using data to inform decisions? Or is it just a stick that we use when we want to, when it suits us?

I have occasionally re-told an anecdote I read somewhere, in an article about Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer, that when presented with facts about this or about that she will ask to see the data. And what she (apparently, as I’ve remembered it) says is ‘OK, well let’s look at the data. But if you don’t have any data then I guess we’ll have to go on opinions – and if we’re going on opinions, then we’ll go on mine…’.

I haven’t told that second- or third-hand story very well, but it’s really about how that particular leader seeks to create a data-driven approach to decision making and it sets the tone for what I wanted to explore – the rise of data in everyday life.

The company I work for, Brandwatch, is largely a data-driven business. The original core leadership team are all pretty left-brain –  very numerical, big fans of spreadsheets, use mathematical terms for non-mathematical matters. A good chunk of the people in the company are software developers and so often come from that same scientific background, and of course the business itself is in the business of data – we process and store hundreds of millions of pieces of data and we also carve, filter, distil and visualize them beautifully for clients. Everyone in the company to some degree worships at that same metaphorical altar.

Since joining the company and operating in the role I’m in, I have noticed how I have become more data-driven. I have become more sceptical of loose stats and easy assertions and in my own way I’ve found myself pursuing answers in numbers, enjoying locating shifts and patterns, being shocked and excited when confident gut instinct has been entirely 180 degrees in the wrong direction. And although I already was, I have become an even greater admirer of those that can divine real insights from data – there are one or two people and one or two teams in the company who especially stand out in this regard, and they are legendary, sought after and coveted, like mythological creatures (OK, not really – I’m getting over excited).

So I am wondering about this in broader life. Is this world where data is increasingly abundant and available changing how we live as individuals and in society?

Is it good to be data-driven?

Data-driven itself is an unusual phrase isn’t it? A couple of years ago I was swapping career histories with a guy who was also a therapist (as well as a consultant) about ‘being driven’ and he pointed out that whilst a popular turn of phrase, it does also powerfully suggest that the individual is driven rather than driving, and to explore what or who might actually be driving (I think his point was that it’s very often parents who are the drivers). Applying that same such language-driven logic to ‘data driven’ opens up a peculiar but interesting idea – that these people and organisations are being driven by the data rather than themselves. Is that right? Doesn’t sound right.

But it does make me think about the modern phenomenon of the risks that I and others have taken on bikes to beat public personal bests which, after all, are just tiny little data points. And of that desperate feeling when one returns triumphantly from some kind of physical endeavour to find that one had forgotten to start the GPS watch / running app / or whatever. Who was driving who? What if the little orange iPhone app is the brain and I’m just the meat that’s frantically mashing the pedals? 🙂

It also ties interestingly to things like Dan Pink’s work on motivation and the up and downsides of linking rewards to incentives, although I probably need to revisit those to position them correctly in this context.

Wearables and personal data

Even before Apple Watches the ecosystem smart phones, their many lifetracking apps and activity trackers like FitBit and Jawbone Up have been starting to give us interesting and sometimes powerful and influential insights into our own little worlds.

I wonder how that will increase over time, as the sensors multiply (heartrate, blood sugar, sweat/stress, whatever else is possible) and what that will do to everyday life.

How will personal data inform relationships (‘you said you weren’t going to eat anything bad today!’) beyond how it already has through things like location tracking and conversation storing, and not only in the family but also with doctors, authorities, insurers, employers? That whole question takes me to some interesting and dark places. It makes me also then think about Incognito windows in browsers. Who’s tracking who? Who does this data empower? (See also: VRM)

Data in society

If this broader trend towards using data to inform decision making is indeed happening, you’d imagine that science would be having a profound effect on things like religion, politics, education and on hot topics like climate change or drug rehabilitation. But aren’t all of these things continuing to be weirdly devoid of ‘what the data says’ and instead much more powerfully driven by ideology, history and norms?

I would love to believe that we are somehow progressing as a species because technology and the internet have enabled us to be better connected to the truth (whatever that means) but it really doesn’t feel like that’s happening. If anything it feels like the internet allows us to find and hangout with the atomized groups who feel and believe EXACTLY WHAT WE BELIEVE, thank you very much. 1 billion silo’d digital villages. That’s a sad idea. Is that how it is? And if it is, how can we change it?

I’m drowning over here

Finally, it feels like just as businesses are suffering from data overload and breathe a heavy sigh when presented with the topic (yet again) of Big Data, so too will individuals. Don’t you already find managing notifications on your phone slightly exhausting? So many little demands for attention, so addictive and habit-forming. Multiply that by your smartwatch and your Internet of Things enabled home thermostat and smartcar sensors. How will we keep up? This for me opens up a bajillion interesting opportunities around dashboards, information radiators, filtering and curating – and something about the DIKW pyramid (!).

I think I’ll finish with a quote from William Gibson’s latest book. Like so many Gibson one-liners, it nails something very present about our challenge, and our opportunity too:

“I feel hindered by a surfeit of information, oceanic to the point of meaningless” – Lowbeer, ‘The Peripheral’.

Google Firestarters NYC

Last week I went alone to the first Google Firestarters here in New York.

It was great. Really great.

If you haven’t come across the programme, it’s a format for Google to spend time with agency folk, in particular planners. Neil Perkin curates it, and he is a genuinely great curator. That particular gift combined with the Google brand means that you get a very good quality of people. And planners are cerebral, smart cookies working in a creative services environment, whose job it is to be very up to date and who work daily with translating lots of input into big ideas. Ben Malbon, Director for Creative Partnerships at Google, brought Neil and the Firestarters format over.

The topic was ‘the new agency OS’ – how do agencies need to be in order to thrive in this changed world.

The line up was outstanding:

  • Ian Fitzpatrick, CSO, Almighty
  • Johnny Vulkan, Founder, Anomaly
  • Noah Brier, Founder, Percolate
  • Spencer Baim, CSO, Vice Media
  • Sarah Watson, CSO, BBH

Over the course of the evening, a few things struck me:

1. This is the center of the world 😉

Of course, I would say that now that I live here.

But what a line up. I have followed Anomaly distantly for years and loved their hybrid model, their venturing. Percolate is very hot, a startup doing great things, so to hear from Noah was exciting. Vice is obviously interesting and significant, BBH provide some blue-blooded pedigree, and Almighty I confess I hadn’t heard of, but I really enjoyed Ian’s opener. It just felt like a superb proper proper event lineup. It was a privilege.

There is something of a counterpoint to that ‘centre of world-ness’ I suppose. 3 of the 5 speakers were British, which was kind of thrilling and embarrassing at the same time. Made by Many got namechecked 2 or 3 times and Clearleft, fellow Brightonians, were referenced once – mainly by Ian who was one of the Americans. So it was enlightening to me, and unexpected, to see the British influence at the heart of American agency-land.

2. Code as a metaphor or proxy for culture

Ian from Almighty introduced this idea that there are ‘big’ small agencies and ‘small’ big agencies, and in fact what we meant by this was a short-hand for their shared code, their accumulated history, their ‘this is the way we do things around here’ through assumptions and convictions.

He used that to talk about stripping back code, about hiring people from different backgrounds and other related ideas, but just that core nugget itself is interesting to me as someone helping to rapidly grow a software startup – given the challenges that creates around culture and given how tech-centric a big part of our team are.

3. The OS and the Apps

Sarah Watson had the most idea-sy approach and I warmed to that, particularly as she was last up. What she did was took this question of the new OS for agencies and differentiated between the OS itself – the platform – and the Apps.

Sarah’s point, I think, was that the OS is like the agency’s culture. And that efforts to evolve or combine agencies often concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the process and teams, and not on the OS. And they founder, because the OS is what fundamentally advances or holds back – this is the stuff that governs who is allowed to speak, what is prioritised, valued and rewarded.

Again, for me it wasn’t so much about how well the detail of the idea was landed, but the idea itself. It was good to be reminded of the different elements at play in systems, and to sophisticate an organisational metaphor that continues to gain in momentum.

4. Getting back to big ideas matters

As I walked the 10 mins from Brandwatch in Flatiron to Google in Chelsea, I realised how little of this I’d done – feeding my brain – since I’ve joined just over a year ago. Understandably, it’s been full on execution-mode from day one.

And being back in an environment where the sole focus was opening up and playing with ideas was rewarding. And useful.

I hadn’t realised it, but I needed that. I have work to do that could easily be dealt with in a hands-on, bit-by-bit, executional way. Thanks to these guys talking about the bigger picture themes and issues in their world, I’ve now been reminded that getting back to the core of a problem, back to the underlying big ideas, is vital.

Looking forward to the next one. Thanks to Neil for the invite and Google and speakers for a great evening.

Balance

Balance is interesting.

I watch my kids in the skatepark, and the older and younger kids and adults too. Flexing, swaying, tilting; it’s all about balance. There was an adult guy today, he had the basics but he just looked so stiff every time he came to land something. Too rigid to balance. And a tiny kid the day before – 4 maybe 5, seemed to be stuck to his board, so flexible were his joints. At times he would be lying horizontal after an attempt – like he was superglued to the skateboard. He was probably too flexible!

I see it at work too, in teams and in myself. Keeping balance in the priority list. Being balanced in ones reaction. In energy levels and health – burn outs before holidays, bounce restored at the return to work. Crashes at weekends. But also the bigger balancing act – rigour and process balanced with agility and instinct, risk and flair balanced with consensus and thought. And across functions – the interplay between marketing and sales, finance and HR, support and product. Planning vs execution. Most of this happens around us. We’re part of it but it’s part of something much bigger.

All of these things are in tension, are interconnected, pull at one another. Balance isn’t static, I don’t think it’s an achievable or even desirable state. It’s a promise, at best a momentary flicker in time. The plane is never on course, it’s just always nearly on course.

(Aside: probably the most incredible masters of balance I’ve seen have been working mothers. They’ll tell you what an exhausting never-ending pursuit ‘balance’ is).

My current challenge with balance is around short-term vs long-term. We usually take the long view in my team but it’s coming to the year end and I’m desperately keen for the team’s short-term results to give us the proud finish we deserve after the year of effort, growth and achievement. So there are I am, consciously and deliberately chucking balance out the window, and instead relentlessly chasing the short-term.

I’ve also seen balance in our company.

I’ve seen us sway and tilt, learning to land tricky new shifts. It’s just as hard as any other kind of balancing act. Sometimes the changes feel like sine waves – a rise in chaos and ambiguity, the smell of entrepreneurial cordite in the air, and then a counter-wave, a tranche of new process and accountability, as the company lurches back to a more sober state, for a while…

The thing is, we need it all. It’s all right. And it’s all about balance. About how much and when and where. Its about forever tweaking dials. It’s like cooking or conversation or music or – most of all – nature, of course. It’s the growth that follows a forest fire. The art that follows a recession.

I love all of this, I have to confess.
I love the dynamism. I love the lack of knowability. And the bloody challenge.

And as for what to do, I think this is the best advice I’ve found in recent times, from Gianpiero Petriglieri:

https://twitter.com/gpetriglieri/status/538371971009245184

Here’s to balance. Shout when you find it.

Shanghai

Haze
Concrete.
Taxi driver just undercut a police car at speed while switching lanes.
Racing along a suspended highway and slowly realising the grey modern megaliths of the city skyline have encircled us and suddenly we’re entrapped, caught right where they want us, in their metropolitan maw.

I’ve just come back from a wonderful, maybe even life-changing, 3 and a bit days in Shanghai. My first trip to China. I wrote those notes from the taxi, groggy, having just left the airport, nailing it down the Chinese highway.

And now looking back these are the themes I want to remember from the experience.

Innovation

I had approached with the naive arrogant assumptions of a Westerner used to being at the centre of the world. I expected big web properties, but just with different names. I expected a sweet, developing marketing and digital community, behind but finding its way. I expected to feel knowing and confident, superior even.

What I found was a digital and business landscape moving so rapidly that even though 15 or so local veterans we met and spoke to are struggling to keep up with, even with their resources, their knowledge, their inside relationships and on the ground. I felt inspired, dizzied, shaken and admiring.

It feels like there are major iterations to the digital topology every 6-12 months. ‘Weibo is dead!’ we were told over and again. ‘I go there now and again just to check what’s happening’ one of the guys we met told us. Right now the momentum is particularly with WeChat, a closed, timeline-driven social network owned by TenCent, Sina Weibo’s major competitor. Brands are struggling to figure out what to do and we found the Shanghai agencies and social data players equally perplexed.

This market has been moving much faster than the Western market has. And we were speaking with smart digital veterans – people from companies like Ogilvy, JWT, We Are Social, Porter Novelli, OMD, as well as local outfits like NIM Digital and CIC.

In fact, just as we’d got our head around WeChat being the platform where the action is happening, we were told that mobile app vertical communities feel like the next big thing.

Chatting about the local talent market we heard a phrase that resonated: ‘talent isn’t loyal – life is moving too fast here’. Kinda sums up the speed and spirit of Shanghai.

Exhilarating.

IMG_1770

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Difference

Other differences that stood out:

  • Not being able to access any of my most visited websites: Google, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Map, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (after a while I found I could through my phone but it was sketchy), Wikipedia – at one point I asked a colleague to cut and paste the Wikipedia entry for Shanghai into an email. Using Word again felt so quaint!
  • Smoking – everywhere smelt of cigarette smoke, people smoke profusely in the hotel bar, the restaurants, cars, whatever, wherever.
  • Volume – an animated conversation sounded to me like a shouting match. I quite like that.
  • Bamboo scaffolding – love it.
  • No tipping – that felt odd, coming from the USA. It’s not banned or anything, but it’s just not the custom.

IMG_1782

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarity

Whilst Shanghai bustles with the noisy car-horns and weaving scooters and speeding taxis, it also feels very distinct from the outright chaos of say Delhi or Bangkok.

A high percentage of the cars on the road are recognisable global brands – like 80%. And many were Audi, VW, Porsche, Mini, BMW. Quite a jolt, actually. Yes, that’s Shanghai – a wealthy bubble. But even so.

We walked to our first appointment on the second day, 35 minutes through a particularly smoggy morning. And what struck us as we did was how European it felt – like Barclona with wide boulevards lined with short Palm trees, neatly manicured gardens and small public parks with bamboo-shrouded paths and trimmed bushes. And the gawky sci-fi elevated walkway network high above the traffic had sweet, simple hanging plant boxes tracked along its edges.

The streets were cleaner than NYC, although there were patches of sewage-y smelling areas.

Perhaps its the European and international history of the place. Perhaps its the modern pace of innovation and concentration of wealth. But Shanghai doesn’t feel alien or altogether different. It feels like a place of fusion.

A real global city.

IMG_1801

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People

The Chinese people we met were open, smart, knowledgeable, interested, savvy. I expected smart but I didn’t expect the transparency, the humour and the generosity we experienced. Preconceptions. Stereotypes.

And in particular the generosity. Our colleague Xinglong was met at the airport but his best friend’s best friend – someone he’d never met before. This friend Edward then drove us around from appointment to appointment for the next two days in his fancy BMW. Utterly humble (he is a successful entrepreneur with a digital business in North America). We were told, ‘it’s the Chinese way’.

The people we met were great. Very impressive.

Shanghai. What a place.

IMG_1830