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Why Embracing the Mess is Crucial for Building a Successful Business Strategy

I recently watched Rory Sutherland presenting at Nudgestock 2023. (Nudgestock is the world's largest festival of behavioural science and creativity). Rory Sutherland is always worth listening to and I especially liked his talk entitled "It's time to embrace the mess". He argued that creativity and good ideas, especially in strategy and marketing, don't come from sequential, highly structured frameworks, rather they emerge from what might be seen as a mess of data. Let me summarise what he was saying.

We like to imagine that there is a high level of order in business. There must be order in accounting and production. These key elements of business can't afford to be messy. However, in marketing and business strategy there is a significant amount of mess. We are inclined to pretend otherwise, especially when reporting upwards within a company because the powers that be would hate to believe that their business plans are dependent on luck.

Consider the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in drugs have been happenstance. Penicillin was invented in 1928 when Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday to find Staphylococcus bacteria had grown mouldy in his absence. The mould prevented bacteria around it from growing and so gave birth to the idea that it could do the same for us within our bodies. Viagra was discovered by accident while the Pfizer researchers were looking for a treatment for angina. Lithium, warfarin, and Botox were all accidental inventions. These wonderful discoveries weren’t the researchers’ focus, they appeared out of a mess.

We can't run a business in a random sort of way. It would be chaos if we simply played around, doing things we like doing, hoping everything will turn out all right. A business plan needs structure, and this is provided by frameworks. However, the caveat must be that flexibility and creativity is necessary if anything worthwhile is to emerge.

When we propose an idea within a company, it should be justified with data that shows a strong chance of success, otherwise funding will not be forthcoming. Finance departments wants to be convinced with solid plans and finance departments love facts.

This logic doesn’t work with business and marketing strategy. A marketing strategy is based on many assumptions and some of these will be wrong. In such circumstances the marketers need to be good at problem solving. They need to recognise that assumptions are just that - theories and suppositions that could be wrong. When planning a business or marketing strategy marketers must be prepared for a direction of travel that is not a straight line.

To find a way forward it is important to ask the right questions, especially at an early stage. This doesn't involve heaps of statistical data. Rather, questions should be asked that help understand why and how things are happening and what would make things better. Qualitative research will be more useful than quantitative research. Outliers will be more interesting than averages because these are the dots that will show the direction of the trajectories. As Mark Ritson says, the average is the enemy of the marketer.

Rory Sutherland’s advice to marketers is simple: embrace the mess, learn from weird things, and avoid the temptation to simply project big data forward. And keep asking what, why and how.


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