Bean counters, be very afraid

Surviving the downturn will take courage, so be wary of the accountant who counsels too much caution. Try hiring a few extra creatives instead, says Julian Grice

Times of change and upheaval offer opportunities to those who can take advantage. Who will be the winners and losers in business, public service and in our communities?

Before Christmas, I listened to pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell pitch his new book Outliers to some of London’s media village. The essence of his proposition is that many geniuses – from The Beatles to Bill Gates – were propelled to success not only by their skill; they were also able to exploit their skill at a time of significant change. So who will be the new ‘outliers’?

This is a wonderful moment for the design industry to prove its value and demonstrate business leadership. We in the creative business community need to unite and ensure that our message is heard/ creativity drives business.

Just last week, I heard from a client deep in a change programme. I asked how it was going. The reply was as disappointing as it was familiar. ‘We’re trying to get the management consultants out of here, so we can bring you in to develop the ideas… if we have any budget left,’ he said.

I wonder if the army of rookie consultants have had any new ideas? Have they engaged the organisation? What creative thinking have they offered?

Now don’t get me wrong. Management consultancies have much to offer, but clients miss a trick by using them.

Becoming a true 21st century outlier will require a new approach. So why not fire a few accountants and hire some creatives to create opportunities or crack problems? Better yet, get the spreadsheet-meisters and lateral thinkers to tackle business challenges together, as market insights and user needs are as powerful as lean thinking or process re-engineering.

The challenge of steering organisations as change rolls in is immense, but only by thinking creatively, acting courageously and being open to new ideas will they be ready to exploit new opportunities.

Bean-counter advice to slash investment can make sense, but could constrain businesses more than necessary.

Sacrificing capability to maintain profitability may be a short-term necessity, though it is not without risk. Lay off staff and the cost will be talent and knowledge; rein in your marketing spend, you’ll lose market share; fail to maintain your brand and you damage your connection with customers.

Driving down costs to maintain margins is important, but so, too, is driving innovation. Successful decision-makers will be the ones capable of embracing both mindsets. No one wants to be the most cost-effective provider of something people no longer want.

Blue-sky advice is about possibility. Creative thinkers flourish in this kind of environment because they are open to change, and see opportunity where others only see risk.

Designers, however, still understand accountability. They’re natural problem-solvers and appreciate that fit-for-purpose is key. They embrace solutions grounded in research, which are delivered on time, on budget and achieve targets. Effective solution design marries the possible with the pragmatic – at the moment organisations can ill afford unnecessary risks.

Designers thrive on a challenge and find ways to overcome constraints. They represent the best-value investment on the market when you consider the calibre of talent your pound buys – a plus when budgets are tight.

It’s impossible to predict how current conditions will impact society. I’ve learned from the past that you can only have the right answers if you know how to ask the right people the right questions.

Only by understanding what matters to people – how they think, feel and act – will you be able to connect with them. The intersection between people’s motivations and their perceptions of a brand will continue to determine their decisions and behaviour. That is why generating and maintaining a high level of trust in your brand will be crucial to future business success.

The rules have changed. In this age of uncertainty, decision-makers should follow three golden rules: examine how creative thinking can expand potential, and increase the likelihood for success; trust designers to be at the heart of change strategy; and be audacious with the challenge and the rewards.

Who will be the new outliers? Those ready to welcome in the designers will be the winners. When the chips are down, game-changing impact is what we do best. So go on, show a few of those accountants the door.

Fortune Favours the Brave…

What can creatives bring?
• A start-up mindset to tap into the zeitgeist for the next Google
• A laser-like focus on opportunities where others see threats
• A collaborative spirit that inspires your team in times of stress

How can creatives make a difference?
• Parachute them in as disruptive influencers to shock the system
• Let them advise your senior decision-makers
• Team them up with auditors as a foil to the spreadsheet

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