Risks, improv and chocolate

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“Most books on branding,” Adam says, “focus on what it takes for a brand to be great: follow these steps, tick the boxes on a flow chart.”

“PRINCE2 training is just like that,” I reply.  “If you complete these documents your project will be a success. That’s not how things work in the real world.”

I’m talking to Adam Morgan, author of The Pirate Inside: Building a Challenger Brand Culture Within Yourself and Your Organizations.  It’s taken three attempts to set up this call.  The jacket flap says ‘Adam lives on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic.’  At the moment he is in a hotel foyer somewhere, so he’s trying not to shout.

“Most of business is unplanned,” he adds.

I agree.  There is a lot of spontaneity in project management, even though it scares project people to think that their beautiful schedule is not going to be followed.  Most schedules are reforecasted, but even knowing that doesn’t make change more palatable.  Adam recommends a book, Everythings an Offer by Rob Poyton from the company On Your Feet.

They take the learning of improvisation and apply it to business.  The thought freaks me out, but Adam assures me it isn’t about learning to tell jokes – it’s more about appreciating the fluidity of the business environment and learning how to operate confidently within it.

Changes can happen as a result of a realised risk, and it also takes confidence to manage those effectively.

“The risk about risk,” Adam says, “is that one tends to think there are only two ways to go:  really intuitive like Richard Branson, or really cautious and research everything.”

In the branding world, successful risk takers spends a lot of time talking to the users of their products so that when ideas come up they have the confidence of ingrained knowledge of the customer and what that customer would like.  It makes the risk taking less risky because it is based on a strong sense of what will work and won’t.

People have different ways of finding that confidence.  Adam tells me about the founder of Gü chocolate puddings, James Averdieck.  Averdieck mocked up some packets, took them to his local Waitrose, cleared space on a shelf and put his packets on display.  If someone comes in and picks it up within 10 minutes, then I’ll launch the product. Two people came in and tried to buy the empty boxes.  I imagine someone running down the aisles fishing empty boxes out of disappointed customers’ shopping baskets.  That’s quite some risk – especially as he didn’t tell Waitrose that he was doing it.

“Different people have different ways of finding their confidence,” says Adam.

Adam is a good example of someone who has found a niche in which he can operate confidently.  He started out working in advertising agency in the US, working for clients that needed a creative input to take them to the next level, but without the muscle of the distribution channels of their competitors.

The European business director came along and used the term ‘challenger brands’ to describe these small companies trying to do something different and take on the big players.  “What else have you got on that?” Adam asked.  She had nothing – it was just a term.  Adam was due a sabbatical.

He had planned to spend the six months writing a novel but instead decided to research the idea of challenger brands and write a business book instead, Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders.

Adam’s specialist area is branding, but it’s clear as we talk that there are more parallels than I earlier identified.  Engaging the end customer early, for example.  In the workshops that he runs there will be a customer representative, even if in the early days it isn’t a real shopper.

“We’ll invite a journalist,” he says, “or someone with a good understanding of the sector.”  Anyone who knows what the customers want, like a researcher, is able to represent their interests at the very first workshop.  I wish more project managers did that, especially on IT projects.  Then more customers would end up getting something that suits their needs.

Recently his publishers advised him to update Eating the Big Fish.  It came out 10 years ago and doesn’t cover Amazon or eBay.  I’m surprised that it’s been so long.  In the interim he has written The Pirate Inside, and founded Eat Big Fish, his consultancy company.  He’s now working on a new book which will look at innovation and opportunity and try to answer the question why challengers see opportunities before other people do.

After that maybe he’ll get time to work on that novel.

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