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James Bond, the lack of imagination from big consultancies and why poets will change our future more than politicians.

I don’t know about you but a rather nice way to spend a very large number of consecutive evenings at home, that I’ve now lost count of, has been to watch every James Bond movie. Timothy Dalton was the best, and if you’d like to debate with me, I’m very happy to hear your argument, but I won’t be swayed.

Anyway, by the time I got to SPECTRE, there was a line that made me want to write something.

“You see, they failed to comprehend the crucial fact that a terrible event can lead to something wonderful.”

— Ernst Stavro Blofeld

This might be a little insensitive, but it’s also often true. There is nothing like a good crisis to stimulate innovation and change. Or put another way, times like these are a management consultant’s wet dream for a whole new opportunity to prey on the uncertainty of what might happen next.

Truth is though, we’ve all got a few decent hunches, some interesting as well as a few questionable opinions … plus there’s the professional services firms rapidly trying to whack these into a 2x2. On top of what was in the script for Christoph Waltz’s character in one of the better Bond movies, the other thing that made me want to write this was a big consultancy white paper about what the future could look like. It was the dullest, most unimaginative perspective on what comes next I could imagine. I won’t mention which firm was responsible for it, but their logo is green and their name begins with a D.


Anyway, I’ll get to the point.

We are now discovering a world of previously impossible things.

Today we are at a moment in time where many are still scrambling to try and figure this thing out (governments, corporations, individuals etc.) and in doing so, previously impossible things are starting to happen.

We are now actually considering the relevance and potential of universal basic income when for much of the past we were told it was a crackpot ideas and anyone with such a thought was clearly not to be trusted. We were told there was no magic money tree to fund improvements to public services, fix broken infrastructure and austerity was the new reality. In many countries the thought of large scale regulatory change was out of the question, you may as well piss in the wind.

And yet, look how pretty much every national government as intervened with measures that just months previously would have been dismissed as fantasy.

For years and years the establishment prevented even small changes, saying the regulatory change required was impossible, now suddenly everything is on the table. Simple things like digitally being able to sign and witness a will or laws regarding the online sale / home delivery of alcohol suddenly just happened, because there is now a crisis, it doesn’t look good to be standing in the way.

Are you ready to say goodbye to the incumbent culture of ‘no, but…’?

The media has exhausted the use of the term unprecedented in recent weeks, but it’s worthy.

Writing this from the perspective of someone who makes their living trying to help big companies that are by design meant to maximize profit and minimize risk, so much time is effectively wasted trying to justify the new thing by pointing at trends or precedents to make (mostly) senior people feel comfortable making a decision that might not in the first instance appear to max the profit or mitigate the risk.

But really great ideas normally don’t have much of a precedent to go off of, because they’re just fucking good things we haven’t done before. One of my old colleagues (who admittedly used to drive me mental, I think he knows this) relentlessly pushed workshop groups to use ‘yes, and’ — again no names here but it was this guy (simon jakobsson) — but this is gonna be important fo the future, We need to imagine what we can do, not find excuses to not do it based on the rationale of the past … and that means looking in new places for ideas.

Idea-led innovation is back in fashion.

In the early days of ‘innovation’ being a business thing, the innovation thinking normally came from their slightly weird looking white men with rimless spectacles at the advertising agency. They took a brief from the client, went to a dark room, did some big thinking, drank a decent amount of booze on the expense account and many weeks later had a big idea. This was good. It was probably incredible fun, I was still in school at the time and more interested in playing football with my mates … but I digress.

The problem with this was that very rarely did they have a great idea for their clients, don’t get me wrong, sometimes they really nailed it. But often they had a mega idea, the client had no clue what pills they’d been taking in that dark room and they weren’t very impressed thank you very much, and other times the idea was a bit shit because they’d just been getting pissed for weeks on end without going out into the real world

So then somebody changed the game, it was probably IDEO but with most consultancies and agencies reluctant to let the truth get in the way of a good story they could have stolen it from someone else. Anyway, before too long everyone was doing this ‘design thinking’, ‘human centered design’, ‘double diamond’, ‘Discover, Design, Deliver’ type thing that was fast, sprinty, collaborative and put the customer at the front of everything.

It was pretty good too! Lots of big problems were found, loads of post it notes were used, they (I should say ‘we’ as by this time I had a job a cocky little shit of an innovation consultant — and I still can’t describe what one of those is) were using blueprints or an idea canvas and structures that derived from the structural realms of management consulting so were clearly must smarter than those weird and slightly disorganized ad men. It still wasn’t very diverse, mostly white, upper class, privileged, more male than female, but they involved the clients in the process too.

Now this all seemed pretty neat, it meant the big ideas that made it through stage gate frameworks and funnels had a better chance of seeing the light of day — everything was measured (often measuring made up things — we had 412 ideas on 1000 post it notes and did 7 prototypes) because it had to be desireable, viable and feasible (I still get those last two confused). And that was the next problem, all the big and best ideas fell onto the cutting room floor because it was weird, different, didn’t fit the template, wasn’t what people told you it would be in the textbook, and were actually innovative — so therefore it won’t do for the client because it’s risky and not what they do today.

I’m not going to blame why we are where we are right now on an innovation preference but for the last decade or more, we’ve lacked imagination and ideas when it comes to doing new things. We know all the problems, we’ve got a lot of the insight, however we haven’t really actioned it.

Digital banking is still for the most part crap, ecommerce hasn’t replaced a trip to the shops, buying a ticket for anything online whether it’s for a gig, sports event, lottery draw or flight tends to be shit. Yet weirdly we mastered music streaming, and ride hailing, and sharing lots of things that we used to value owning, things that I’m pretty sure didn’t come out of a focus group. Imagine if the idea for Uber or Spotify came from a focus group in Wolverhampton…

Anyway, insight vs. idea led innovation, you still need both, but we’ve leaned so hard on the former it’s time for a bit more imagination in the new world.

Yeah OK, I probably could have summed that up quicker.

Imagination will come from what drives us

It’s all very well saying ‘have some more imagination’, but where will it come from. You may as well send a memo to all the employees saying ‘be creative’. I remember when a client did that, the reaction wasn’t what he intended.

Personally I think there will be four themes that drive and re-invent us:

  • Back to School season — it will be like a new term when we’re allowed back outside, to the office and the pub.
  • Why are we here and what’s it all about? — time at home to reflect will mean we know what we really care about.
  • Culture > commerce — big ideas will come from people not normally at the top of the traditional business world.
  • Finding the colour in the grey — we might all become a bit nicer to each other and think about the implications more.

Are you ready to go out again?

We’ve been at home for weeks. Hands up if you’re loving those virtual drinks with friends over Zoom? Or would you rather be down the pub with them? Yeah I thought so. While this virtual world may be amazing for introverts, as Rory Sutherland so eloquently put it, it’s less fun for people who get their energy from others.

M’colleague and business partner put it rather well too if you fancy a shorter read than this.

I think most of us don’t love this current existence, it’s a whole new level of FOMO. It’s more just ‘missing out’. This spell at home has opened eyes, provided a time to reflect what we really care about, what we want to achieve and how we can go about placing our time, energy, effort and money a little differently after all of this becomes a little more normal.

It’s time to think about how this new attitude will impact how we work, travel, love, play, eat, shop, live differently. We’ve learned to do without things we previously couldn’t do without, and things we miss we never even thought of. Part of me thinks that $4 cup of coffee on your way to work suddenly seems like something I really didn’t need and I’m not going back to, I also just really miss going to a cafe so maybe that $4 is incredible value compared to a Nespresso pod at home.

Yes, this is a cliched example….but what will this mindset do to vacations, gambling, the housing market, shopping malls, the cinema? I might now value a curated, custom trip that someone organizes for me instead of the DIY jollies we’ve got used to, maybe I want to live in cottage country and not the city, perhaps the cinema is more appealing that that massive flatscreen at home, and could it be shopping malls do way more for retail therapy than a click on ASOS?

Real purpose, not the vanity shit for your conscience.

Yeah I know purpose is one of those words loved by consultants, I like to think some stressed out Partner from EY went on a retreat, got told to find his purpose, couldn’t answer the question but came back to the office talking about how he (it’s always a guy) had found himself and could flog purpose to insecure clients.

There’s a lot of snake oil when it comes to ‘purpose’, but I hope it’s a word that doesn’t lose its meaning….like 'innovation’.

Lots of people will have spent the last few weeks thinking “what am I doing with my life?” — whether that is questioning the job they do, or how they do it, having more time with their kids, or considering where they live etc. This can result in some pretty big long term shifts, take Toronto, will the trend of increasingly expensive, shoebox sized condos downtown continue? Will young aspiring professionals feel compelled to being in big primary cities to get ahead, or does a life in Halifax or Edmonton, or a suburban lifestyle in Mississauga or Vaughan suddenly seem a bit more appealing? For English friends, will London continue to suck in young professionals or does the trend of Manchester, Glasgow or Newcastle as the challenger cities start to accelerate and become more mainstream?

It’s also a question many organizations will be thinking about, some have done it unknowingly in how they’ve been there during a really tough time for their customers and employees — putting them before profit and shareholder returns. Hasn’t that been refreshing?

Will they continue to prioritize the short term quarterly profits, often at the expense of longer term business sustainability or will the longer term investments for the future business vision get put first? Maybe they will behave with a greater consideration for their impact on the world, creating something for their employees and customers to be proud of. If it’s the latter, might we see greater economic returns than we ever did with short term priorities?

The artist vs. the economist.

Something that was starting to happen before coronavirus was a thing was the cultural world starting to be having a bigger impact on the business world, pushing back on decades of control held by the bean counters, management consultants and more recently, the tech nerds.

We’re learning that it’s all very well being rational, but finally remembering that people are not rational beings — thankfully, how boring would that be? And that’s a good thing, because by looking to the creative industries for what comes next rather than the management consultants or economic theorists, we can create something that adds a little joy to what would have been mundane when left to a spreadsheet.

We’re seeing foresight teams with non traditional backgrounds excel here, new world advertising agencies that aren’t content being the AOR monkeys and instead think radically beyond the TV ad or the billboard, industrial designers writing the brief instead of just being handed it, poets, musicians and artists thinking about how to design housing, retail stores, even financial services.

The likes of McKinsey, Deloitte or whoever have had their shot, they pointed to 'best practice’, designed by spreadsheet, put all their faith in the economic model and lost the magic.

To make a case here, I often look to the skyline of a city like Vancouver or Toronto, all drab, unimaginitive glass and steel boxes rising skyward, or sprawling suburban cities like Calgary where you can have your four bedroom in any colour you like, so long as it’s a shade of beige. The you look to a developer like Urban Splash in the UK who have been pioneers here for years making homes that seem to have some character and soul to them.

I pray this type of business design comes to Canada, led by people thinking about how people could live, not how to max the returns in the model.

Digital stops being black and white.

As we’ve all become more digital, living our lives on our phones, getting caught up in social media instead of traditional news outlets, something bad happened…we all got a little nasty with one another.

Gone was the nuance, everyone was suddenly an expert (right now there’s a lot of wannabe epidemiologists on Twitter), winning the argument was more important than listening to a different point of view, complicated subjects suddenly lost all context.

There is colour in the grey, and I believe current events are demonstrating that, changing how we behave and think. It’s very hard to look at the news and seeing pictures of people on ventilators or waking up in the morning having lost our typical routine and rituals, this is a turning point. Life is bloody complicated, it’s not black and white, the heroes aren’t entirely holy and the villains aren’t all bad. Doug Ford for example, as much as I don’t really like myself for saying that is proving to be a somewhat competent leader of Ontario … who saw that coming?

There’s even a fucking frozen steak brand saying this…

Why is this important? Because the future requires big, bold and courageous strategic thinking, from political leaders brave enough to stand their ground longer than not just the typical media cycle but beyond an election cycle … or two.

Who will put their political and economic capital into something that it might not be recognized until a successor is in the role and could take the credit?

The polarizing nature of digital has stunted the decision making of the most senior leaders in business and politics, they need the courage to think beyond their tenure and if they can, your average bloke down the pub might not be getting drawn into not taking his questionable pub chat opinions online.

There’s a way to go …

At this time is almost goes without saying that there’s a road ahead and I don’t want to be insensitive to people with loved ones suffering, healthcare professionals working around the clock or the frontline supply chain, logistics delivery and grocery store employees busting their arses off to keep us healthy, safe and fed.

But to bring it back to our fictional Mr. Blofeld, as someone distancing and riding this thing out with a little time on their hands, I can’t help but look to the future and how we now have a once in a generation chance to think about how much better we can make things than they were before.

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face

— Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice




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Iain Montgomery

Iain Montgomery

in search of the bigger brief …

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