12 secrets of ‘Alchemy’

In his first book ‘Alchemy’, advertising legend, Rory Sutherland, focuses on the challenge of succeeding with nonsensical ideas. Rory explains why we should let go of logic to enable us to generate better ideas and solve business problems creatively. Here are 12 secret ingredients of ‘alchemy’:

1. The opposite of one good idea can be another

Conventional logic loves the idea of a single right answer. This is because, once you’ve come up with the answer, no matter how narrow the pool of material you’re pulling from, no one can fault you for following the logic to its conclusion. No subjectivity or unnecessary deviation was involved. However, this is a potentially disastrous approach if you want to generate fresh thinking.

Before James Dyson got involved, vacuum cleaners were a purely grudge buy. A utilitarian purchase that was only necessary if your old one had died. Logically, it made no sense to reinvent vacuum cleaners as cool looking high-ticket items. There was no demand for them. However, Dyson managed to add a degree of excitement to a boring household item and, with that touch of creative magic, created to one of the most successful products of the 20th century.

2. Don’t design for average, design for an unmet need

Most models of problem-solving will cause you to come up with a solution for a single, non-existent, representative individual with lots of completely average characteristics. This route can send you down a cul de sac, because it’s impossible to develop something you can be confident a fictitious person will definitely like. Instead, focus on standout ideas that might be readily adopted by those with an existing unmet need. Then you can make your way into the mainstream.

Take the humble sandwich. An 18th century culinary stroke of genius. The Earl of Sandwich was an obsessive gambler and wanted his food in a form that wouldn’t require him to leave the card table. Hence, the mad but simple idea of packing a filling between 2 solid slices of bread. No need for cutlery or leaving the table.

3. It doesn't pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical

In Military strategy, logical means predictable - your opponent knows what you’re going to do before you do. Using logic alone makes it very likely you’ll land in the same place as everyone else. In a crowded marketplace, this creates a race to the bottom. Instead, figure out the logic model of your competitors. Find where their use of it is too narrow and exploit this.

When people want to find a new home in London, they typically consider their journey to work and start with the tube map. There are 2 problems with this. Firstly, landlords and estate agents also have the same starting point. Secondly, people forget it’s an engineering schematic and not actually a map. Instead, look for options near overground railways stations – they’re likely to be cheaper and the train will get you into central London just as fast as the tube.

4. The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience

An experience isn’t just good or bad as a result of how its objectively judged. It also depends on expectations. Filling out a form with your contact details is a drag if you’re completing a tax return, but its quite exciting if you’re applying for a mortgage.

5. A flower is a weed with an advertising budget

In nature, you can see quite a lot of what seems like pointless and inefficient behaviour. However, the extravagance of the display is actually what conveys meaning. If you’re getting engaged, a diamond ring demonstrates you have skin in the game. Similarly, when you’re getting married, you don’t create a Facebook event to invite guests. You send out printed invitations and you make your vows publicly.

When you focus on marcomms as a game of efficiency, you lose sight of a large part of what makes broad reach campaigns work - namely that they’re costly to generate, costly to deliver, and messages are displayed indiscriminately. The evidence points to exactly those things that make campaigns effective. Trying to make something efficient and trying to make something effective are not the same thing. Flowers have evolved this way over 20 million years. We’re still catching up.

6. The problem with logic is that it kills off magic

Albert Einstein was once told by Niels Bohr (Danish physicist, philosopher and Nobel Laureate) “you are not thinking; you are merely being logical”. Once you’ve devised what seems like a logical framework for problem-solving, you’ve created something which is based on very simple rules. Something which will dictate a single right answer. Unfortunately, where logic exists, magic cannot.

If you want to improve a customer’s experience of your brand, logic dictates that you improve the product itself, rather than the perception of the product. For example, if you need to improve profitability at your hotel, McKinsey would tell you to cut unnecessary staff, such as a doorman. However, the presence of a doorman will enable you to charge more per room per night.

People don’t perceive the world objectively and, assuming that they do, means you’ll be confined to improving your product by doing objective things. Context is a marketing superweapon and it works because it works magically.

7. A good guess which stands up to empirical observation is still science. It’s also is a lucky accident.

According to the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who describes himself as a methodological alchemist, the idea that all worthwhile scientific discoveries have been made by obeying the strict rules of scientific methodology doesn’t hold true. Instead, he supports an ‘anything goes’ type of approach to finding solutions. Why would you let methodological purity restrict the number of solutions you could produce? We’ve got to learn to be more comfortable with progress that arises from happy accidents, which is how penicillin was discovered.

Remember, as Steve Jobs said, to stay hungry and stay foolish. This is a distinguishable feature of successful entrepreneurs who, since they don’t have to defend their reasoning behind every decision, are free to experiment with solutions that are off-limits to others within a corporate setting.

8. Test counterintuitive things, because nobody else will

Some of the most valuable discoveries don’t make sense at first, because if they did, someone would have discovered them already. This is a bit risky, of course - if you have a bonkers idea and it fails, your job may be on the line. Conversely, trying something rational is less risky. However, there can be an extraordinary competitive advantage if you create a small space in your business for people to test things that don’t make sense. The great value of experimenting outside of the rationalists’ comfort zone is that most of your competitors will be too scared to go there.

Consider the iPhone, perhaps the most successful and disruptive product since the Ford Model T. It was not developed in response to consumer demand or extensive focus groups. It was the brainchild of one slightly deranged man, who simply didn’t like buttons. The iPhone shows that if you go a bit mad and experiment, the pearl you find can be a remarkably valuable one.

9. Solving problems using only rationality is like playing golf with only one club

Rationality has its uses, but you improve your thinking by abandoning artificial certainty and learning to consider the peculiarities of human psychology. In other words, if you make assumptions on what’s important to people, you’re basing your conclusions on a very narrow view of human motivation.

For instance, if you are selling a product and you are defining motivation to buy in economic terms, the solution logically boils down to either fining people or bribing people. Those are perfectly worthwhile solutions to behaviour change. Incentives do work. But that’s one golf club among many. There are lots of reasons why people do the things they do, and economic incentives only cover a small part of them.

10. Dare to be trivial

Sherlock Holmes tells us that paying attention to trivial things is not necessarily a waste of time. The most important clues may often seem irrelevant and a lot of life is best understood by observing trivial details. No one complains that Darwin was being trivial in comparing the beaks of finches from one island to another, because his ultimate inferences were so interesting.

Small things, like optimising a call centre script, can have an enormous overall impact. So does simply redefining the same action in different contexts. Typing in your address when you’re filing your tax return or adding your details to a mailing list feels like a waste of time. Doing exactly the same to inform the delivery of a new washing machine feels much more exciting. This is exactly where logical models and the idea of proportionality fail us; we assume that in a rational and mechanistic system big changes in behaviour require big inventions. In a complex system, this is miles away from the truth.

11. If there was a logical answer, we would have already found it.

We idolise logic to such an extent that we are blind to its failings. It doesn’t help that rational people are everywhere and control everything, such as in finance team or procurement. When you set logical people the task to solve a persistent problem, you’re more likely to fail. Your problem is likely to be logic-proof, because the solution hasn’t yet been found. There will most likely be a solution, but conventional, linear rationality isn’t going to find it. These are the problems that hamper government decision-making and divide politicians. The reason why the problem persists might just be because no one has been brave enough to try an irrational solution.

12. Dare to look stupid

One of the ways to solve a problem is to ask a question no one has asked before. There are several potential reasons why a specific question hasn’t been asked before. One might be because no one has been clever enough to ask it or, more likely, that no one was stupid enough to ask it. There are copious amounts of questions that will make you sound incredibly dumb, but you should never hesitate to ask them. The only reason they make you sound like an idiot is because there is likely a preconceived, rational answer to that particular question. But, as we’ve seen, rationality is the enemy of alchemy.

We deploy more rigour and structure to our decision-making in business because so much is at stake. However, another potential explanation is that the limitations of a logical approach are what makes it appealing – the last thing people want when faced with a problem is a range of creative solutions with no means of choosing between them other than by subjective judgement. It seems safer to create an artificial model that allows only one solution and claim the decision was driven by the ‘facts’ rather than opinion. What often matters most to those making decisions in business or government is the ability to defend decisions – regardless of their outcome.

Colin Gray | Head of Marketing Strategy and Behavioural Economics

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