Sometimes I worry that we’re forgetting something really important. Amid all the rancor of social media, 5-minute celebrities, and Dennis Rodman becoming an elder American statesman, we must not forget that we are living smack dab at the beginning of an enormously important and consequential time in human history — the Internet Age.
And you’re at the beginning of it. Your kids and your grandkids will ask you a whole lot of “what was it like” questions. Just as I asked my grandparents, “What was it like before television or cars?” In the case of one of my grandfathers, there was the story of rural Kansas getting its first telephone. His father and my great-grandfather — a very intellectual man, I might add — had no interest in this so-called phone because “there’s no way a voice will be able to carry over that tiny tube.”
You may laugh but similar questions abound today. And by today, I mean the last 20 years. When I first started Ciceron in 1995, the common thoughts among business people included:
- No one will feel safe buying stuff over the Internet.
- No one will want to put credit cards online.
- We won’t put our product information online because our competitors will get it.
More recent ones include:
- Our customers don’t read or leave reviews.
- We don’t need a mobile strategy. That’s not how our customers buy from us.
- Having our employees engage on social sites (including LinkedIn and industry forums) is a waste of their time.
Last week, my good friend Chas Porter and I were having breakfast, and he brought up a very poignant point. “You know, everyone is planning for 2014 right now. They don’t seem to realize that whatever they come up with is going to be their life next year.”
Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones, but I don’t show up at the office every day just to do stuff; punch in, and punch out with zero personal attachment to the work I do. I also know that the professionals that I know have a yearning desire to produce work that’s meaningful, purposeful and relevant. The challenge for today’s work environment is that not enough organizations have gone through some of the very fundamental changes required to remain relevant in today’s “new telephone” days.
In fact, when I review many companies’ upcoming year plans, I still see only incremental changes from the previous year’s plan. “We’ll do little more search, a little more social, and maybe a site redesign.” Doing a little more assumes that the company has, at some point, done a lot to change how they’ve done business previously. And, if that’s the case, then hats off to ya! That’s amazing. If not, then why not?
Again, what you plan for next year is going to be your life’s work for 12 months. Think about that. Of course, we’re all in this together if we’re going to do meaningful work.
First, to you bosses. Here are some key questions I would be asking:
- Am I leading my brand and team towards the actual needs of my customers? Or might I be following either internal demands (sales teams, financial pressures, etc.) or the whimsies of my competitors and their agencies? Am I doing what I know how to do or what I need to do?
- Is my team too digital? Yes. I said it. If your marketing team is largely comprised of digital natives, they may know nothing more than digital channels. They may not understand the value of a well-directed, targeted direct mail campaign. (Hell, they may never have received a piece of relevant mail in their life!) Integrating their digital talents into well-conceived multi-channel experiences may help them do wonders for both you and your customers.
- Am I cynical or tired? Remember, it is always easier to do something easy or routine to get by than it is do something hard that requires lots of oars in the water across your company. Maybe you’re tired of being shot down. Maybe the amount of collaboration it’s going to take to get somewhere seems way out of reason, considering your organizational readiness. Sometimes the hard work or the “organizational disease” alone can keep people from setting high ambitions, and once that happens, cynicism and general malaise sets in across your staff or your agency. Don’t let it happen. Lead through it.
Second, to you team members.
- You don’t know everything. Yes, you may know a helluva lot more about technology and social media than your bosses, but that doesn’t make you an expert in business. Get really good at making business cases for the technology or digital recommendations you’re pining for. How does this solve a business problem? How does your idea truly delight a customer or partner? How does your idea make your company better?
- Be eager to learn about old media. The fact is we all use and consume all sorts of media. Hell, South By Southwest is old media. Think about that. How are you going to help create amazing physical experiences in 2014? If you don’t know, ask.
- Be open to teach rather than complain. If you are concerned that your boss or boss’ boss doesn’t know about a technology that you truly believe is important to your company’s well-being (because you’ve made a good business case), offer to teach that person how to use it or wrap their head around it. Chances are that you’ll both learn an incredible amount about each other in that process.
It’s true: Whatever you’re planning right now will dictate your working life next year. Don’t treat this simply or casually. The process of planning absolutely should be challenging and uncomfortable. But the result can be transformative if everyone gets around the table together and asks some of these tough questions.
Andrew Eklund is the founder and CEO of Ciceron.