Helen Edwards: Momentum is magic

In a profession awash with talk of 'project phases' and 'target dates' instead of deadlines, decisive action is too easily side-stepped

The line between thinking and doing is fuzzy. Let this page serve as an example. Since this is a weekly opinion piece, you could argue that the cerebral bit - musing, researching, theorising - is an integral part of the doing.

That is justified, up to a point - and that point comes abruptly at noon on Thursday, with the final deadline for copy. By then, I have most definitely reached the doing phase, and it feels scarily different: copy typed and emailed, in all its imperfection, to the production desk, to be sub-edited, art-directed, indexed, marked up, printed, distributed, sold. Miss that deadline, and brain cells are irrelevant.

In the other world that I inhabit, working with marketing teams as they grapple with targeting, innovation, customer service and the endless quest for advantage, deadlines seem to have gone out of fashion. Instead, there are 'key milestones' in the 'project phases' which, ideally but not imperatively, should be reached by 'target dates'.

During the genesis of any given initiative - let's choose service innovation - a great many scoping documents will be produced, debriefs given, progress updates charted and steering teams assigned, but this is no guarantee that the innovation ever gets crystallised, let alone launched.

'Deep insights'

Whenever the process throws up a stubborn question, the answer is usually research. It is by no means rare for the findings of all recent research exercises to be given to another research-based supplier to cross-analyse, for 'deep insights'. What is the marketing department doing, meanwhile?

Another step guaranteed to becalm, befuddle, and beget even more research is something called 'ideation': the gathering of the team to generate ideas based on all the various inputs to date.

These sessions will be run by an outside moderator. Here is what that person will not say at the outset: 'No one leaves this room until we have agreed a concrete service innovation, with a name and all features set down, and responsibilities clearly assigned for the roll-out. Your car may be towed, your cat may starve, your children may run feral, but you do not leave the room until we have those assets on this flipchart.'

Because that goes unsaid, the real rules are inferred: it's a brainstorm by another name, with the usual get-out clauses for those who prefer not to confront the hard choices or surmount the inevitable practical barriers.

Without deadlines, initiatives die. Innovations perish before they are born. Teams defer and demur but never do. Ideas that should see the light of day, and take their chances in the critical but inquisitive gaze of the consumer, remain what-ifs.

How have marketing departments become so indecisive? Is it that the much-vaunted 'permission to fail' is cant, and everyone knows it? Or is it worse than that - something about our discipline that fails to attract the entrepreneurial types, the people who, like Stelios and Branson, are natural marketers deep down but have that dominant action gene?

There is much talk in marketing about 'magic', the elusive ingredient that can trump analysis and give a brand an edge. Well, momentum is magic.

So think about that.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw.

30 SECONDS ON: MOMENTUM

- 'Action is the foundational key to all success.'
Pablo Picasso

- 'There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.' Howard Schultz (chairman and CEO, Starbucks)

- 'It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.'
Franklin D Roosevelt

- 'While we are in here bullshitting about strategy, something is happening out there.'
Gary Hamel (US management expert)

- 'The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. It's as simple as that.'
Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari)

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