The Power of a New Direction: Possibility-Based Marketing

All too often—and too quickly— marketing planning falls to the discussion of tactics, and the thinking becomes limited by what has been done before, or what people can imagine possible.

Whether marketing thinking also arises from disagreement among the planning team, narrow, insufficient support for ideas, or failure to sell in to leadership. The net result: the organization makes incremental changes, and fails to realize the potential of innovative or game changing opportunities.

Sometimes, the best fresh perspecives come from outside of the discipline. This September article in Harvard Business Review holds some inspiration for breaking through such constraints in the marketing planning process: “Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy,” by Lafley, Martin, Rivkin, and Siggelkow.

The issue with strategic planning is getting caught up in black and white thinking that often results in all energy being focused on analyzing the problem rather than designing a solution.

The authors put forth a structure to engage all participants in the planning process, and to open the field of possibilities. While the process offers a breakthrough approach to strategy, it builds on practices we've used in our strategic and creative processes for years, including:

  A 7-step process

1) Set up the process as a choice:

Frame each concept, challenge or possibility into mutually exclusive resolutions. This breaks the process free from calendar or trend data that usually drive business—and marketing planning. A choice is a decision. The call for a decision helps marketers focus on the solution, not analyzing the problem (Data collection and analysis come later in the process!)

2) Expand the possibilities with more options:

A possibility is a story describing how the organization might proceed. As such, it doesn’t need to be proven yet. This keeps the creative process active for a longer period.

Include a multi-functional team, not just the marketing group for this process.

Ask the right types of questions

Marketers are intimately familiar with research. And this is where the types of answers are affected by the way questions are asked. Note that these are business questions, not marketing questions. Here are 3 types of highly productive questions:

  • Inside-out questions: what resources and capabilities does the company have, that can create value for the  market?
  • Outside-in questions: where are the gaps in the market, the unmet / underserved needs?
  • Far-outside-in questions: what would it take to dominate the market, the way Google or Apple do in theirs?

The litmus: the status quo begins to look less like a great idea (but may still be in consideration) and at least one possibility makes the group uncomfortable

3) Specify conditions for each possibility by describing what must be true for it to be strategically sound:

This step isn’t for arguing what’s true. Instead, team members should identify what conditions would have to exist or be created in order to give confidence that the idea can work.

When the team has specified the conditions, they become well adept at making a persuasive case for each option, which must be sold to executives and overcome other resistors.

4) Identify barriers by determining which conditions are least likely to hold true:

Begin the critical process by rank ordering the conditions, from greatest concern, to least.

5) Design tests for obstacles to each condition:

Design research to test. This can be as exhaustive as needed, to satisfy the process. The entire team must be compelled by a valid test. The most skeptical member of the team should take the lead in testing it, thereby bringing the highest standard of proof. Done this way, the rest of the team will buy in more readily.

6) Conduct tests, starting with the conditions in which the team has the least confidence:

Start with the most difficult barriers first. If the easy barriers are insurmountable, the option can be discarded with the least expense. 

7) Choose a final option, by reviewing your key conditions in light of test results from each decision:

Normally the decision process is difficult. By following the above, the best strategies become self-evident, as the team has been building the case both amongst themselves and within the organization.  

The possibilities-based approach sounds easy, but calls for making 3 difficult mindset shifts:

1) Marketers—as with business managers— must move from asking “what should we do?” and instead ask “what might we do?”

2) Marketers must avoid asking “what do I believe?” To asking “what would I have to believe?”  This requires a manager to imagine that each possibility, including ones he does not like, is a great idea, and such a mindset does not come naturally to most people.

3) By focusing a team on pinpointing the critical conditions and tests, the possibilities-based approach forces managers to move away from asking “what is the right answer?” to concentrate instead on understanding the right questions, and what must be done to make a good decision.

Most managers are better at advocating their own views. The possibilities-based approach taps the whole team's ability to inquire, then to develop the strategic path.

The result: strategies developed this way can be surprisingly bold and innovative, and possibly provide the key to helping an organization differentiate from the competition, and engage the market more effectively.  

photo: WFMU Jersey City, NJ