General Marketing

Brainstorming: Terrible for Solving Problems

A thunderstorm in Port-la-Nouvelle, since brainstorming images are boring.

I’d like to illustrate one of the main pitfalls of brainstorming with a situation I see frequently: when I meet with a client for the first time, one of the things I try to determine is “What problem are you trying to solve?”  More often than not, they’re not completely clear themselves.  The typical answers I get include:

  • I need to improve my website
  • I want more sales
  • We’re not using social media very well

Note that while these are, generally, suggesting an area where a problem might exist, they’re not really the problem itself.  Compare to these hypothetical answers:

  • My goal for the website is to get at least 10% of new visitors registered for our free online orientation course, but it’s only getting about 3%.
  • Right now our ecommerce sales are averaging only about $15 each and packing and shipping costs are really eating into profits, so we’d like to get that average sale above $25.
  • We want to be using Pinterest to drive branding and interest in our jewelry line among upper-income white women, but don’t even have an account yet and don’t know how best to approach it.

See how the second list is far more focused on a specific achievable something?  Something you can envision being achieved?  When a new client says they want “more sales,” I typically ask, “So if you make one penny more this year than next, you’d consider that a success?”

The Pitfalls of Brainstorming

Oh, but here’s the pitfall.  Many a business owner’s mind goes directly to the default strategy of many a school or business:  brainstorming.  If you’re not sure, let’s come up with as many ideas as we can!  That’s what being creative looks like!

But here’s what we get when someone starts brainstorming problems:  lots of problems.  Not only that, most of those problems generated would still not be satisfying successes even if they were solved.

In fact, now, instead of just a mushy sense of direction where the problem might lie, you now have a huge pile of items that you probably shouldn’t be worrying about at all, pulling you in every direction.

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

More specifically, brainstorming is the wrong strategy because it triggers the wrong kind of thinking.  Solving a problem is convergent thinking–mental effort that converges on a single thing: the solution.  Convergent thinking is, essentially, thinking that eliminates possibilities (such as approaches that won’t likely solve the problem).

Brainstorming, on the other hand is divergent thinking–mental effort that increases the number of options or possibilities.  Creativity is divergent.  But often so is distraction and procrastination.

I once worked for someone who asked me to brainstorm with her different ways she could remember the dates that I’d be out of town.  To do so would have been wasted time because we already had a sufficient solution:  putting the dates on her calendar.  Could we have spent lots of time being creative?  Sure.  But more creativity (read: divergent thinking) would bring us no closer to solving the problem than we already were.  We only needed to implement the solution.

When Convergence is Most Appropriate

We circle back now to the situation I mentioned at the beginning.  “What problem are you trying to solve?”   And think also of another question:  “What could you paint a picture of?”  The first question is likely to have a single best answer.  The other, to have multiple equally valid answers.

That’s the trick here.  As entrepreneurs, we like to think of ourselves as creative problem solvers, but “creative” and “problem solver” require two different, diametrically opposed modes of thinking.

A better way to go about it is to first decide, “Do I want more or fewer things?”

  • If you want to be decisive, you want fewer.
  • If you want to focus, you want fewer.
  • If you want to be clear, you want fewer.

Those are all terrible situations to use brainstorming.  Instead you want to use logic, or to prioritize and eliminate the lowest-priority items.  Sherlock Holmes never said to Watson, “Let’s sit down and brainstorm all the things that might have happened!”  Instead, he said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

When Divergence is Most Appropriate

On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “We’ve tried everything and none of it worked,” you want more.  If you’ve been asking, “What else could we offer…?” you want more.  That’s when you brainstorm.  I should note that if it’s clear that you don’t already have a solution to a problem in your set of things you’re considering, then maybe you can brainstorm first–but switch quickly to narrowing!  That’s the scenario much less often than people think, though.

In short, when you are determining a goal, or a problem you intend to work on solving, use processes that converge on your best answer, not generate more.  Eliminate, narrow, and prioritize.

Image by Maxime Raynal from France – Orage PLN, CC BY 2.0,

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Focus with the Ladder of Desire

Ladder rising from darkness into a brightly lit openingLike it or not, we’re all human (except for the spiders, of course). You are, your customers are, and I am. As humans, we’re not entirely clear on what we’re trying to achieve, or even if we are, we often don’t articulate it very well. Whether you’re not entirely sure what your clients want, or what you want, I may have an idea to help you bring more of these things into focus: the Ladder of Desire. I’ll first cover the idea itself, then get into how it can help you understand and better serve your customers, and to clarify your own needs.

If you’re confused about the spiders reference above, I recently talked about the “spiders” that crawl the Web in my newsletter.  Subscribe to get a monthly tech term defined, tips for improving your online marketing, and more!

The Ladder of Desire–An Overview

I was reminded of this idea while reviewing notes I took in a workshop a while back. The Ladder of Desire divides the strength and type of desire a person has for something into three broad categories. As you go up the ladder, the intensity of desire increases. Similarly, both the price tag and the involvement of others also increase.

Rung 1: Lowest desire for help/product/service, lowest cost, and lowest involvement for a supplier, consultant, expert, or other person who might be brought in for help. This is the “tell me how to do it” level. If you want a chocolate cake, Rung 1 would be represented by a cake recipe. It’s cheap, requires very little effort from someone else, and depending on your personality, motivation, and skill level, least likely to actually result in a chocolate cake that you can enjoy.

Rung 2: Step up a rung for a medium level of desire, cost, and involvement. This is the “show me how to do it,” or “do it with me” level. When a potential client says to me, “I could use a little hand holding,” I know they fall in this category. With our cake example, this would be a baking class. It’s more expensive than a recipe, and the baker or pastry chef needs to expend more time and effort than they would if they just handed you a recipe card, but most of us would be more likely to achieve a delicious chocolate cake afterward.

Rung 3: The top rung is where everything is cranked up to the highest level. Here’s where people say, “I’m willing to pay for you to do it for me.” If you’re married, did you take a baking class to learn how to make your own wedding cake?  Probably not. Instead, most people pay a lot of money for a skilled professional to take care of it for them so that they just go directly to the goal without worry or mishap.

Here’s where human nature gets funny, though. Lots of people are torn between valuing their money and valuing their time, between wanting the skill and wanting the result of the skill. In my own family, a story often told of my uncle was that as a child he’d complain that he wanted to be a great pianist but without practicing. And this is where the goal setting gets confused, and why the Ladder of Desire helps.

Serving Your Clients with the Ladder of Desire

It is a rare client who comes in knowing, and able to express, precisely what they want from you. Usually there’s some shopping around, or exploration, or asking questions. See if you can estimate which rung they’re on, first, because that is going to help guide the conversation.

For example, I used to work in a tea shop. Some customers were at a low level of desire. Maybe this was their first time into a tea shop at all, or they’d heard tea was good for you or something and wanted to look into it. I’d usually give those people our one-page price list of our most popular teas, including descriptions of each.  But some had specific questions about brewing tea (“What’s the difference between a teapot and tea kettle?” or “How do you use a gaiwan?”), so I would do a little demonstration. Customers could “try out” teapots to see how they felt to pour, whether they dripped, and so on. That’s a Rung 2 sort of activity. And, of course, we put on occasional immservie experiences like tea dinners–where the food is prepared with tea, and other teas are paired with the dishes. Or professional-level tea tastings. These were high-ticket items because they required the most from us as a shop, and only the die-hard tea aficionados (that is, Rung 3) would sign up.

The usefulness of the ladder doesn’t end there, however. In addition to helping identify what a customer might be most likely to purchase, you can also use the ladder to create new products or services. Are you serving each level of the ladder equally well? Are you pricing them accordingly?

Finally, you can also use the ladder as a way to draw people in. People who have engaged with you at Rung 1 are warm leads for Rung 2. After all, if they have your instruction sheet, or recipe, or price list, they have expressed interest in your offering. That’s warmer than random people off the street. Can you find a way to get those people to “buy up the ladder”? Perhaps they’re at a lower rung than they really should be, and the right conversation or the right offer will help them understand that they should be higher up…meaning both that they are better served and you’re increasing revenue.

Understanding Your Own Goals with the Ladder

Your busisiness is also someone else’s customer. So are you in your non-business roles. All of your vendors, suppliers, shops, restaurants, and other folks you do business with see you as a customer, but they may not be thinking with the Ladder of Desire. However, they’re going to love it if you’ve already done so.

When I worked at the Washington Women’s Business Center, we’d often tell people that every business owner should identify an accountant, a lawyer, and an insurance broker that they’d like to work with. (Now, I’d add a digital strategist because the Internet is so important to businesses these days, but as a digital strategist myself, I’m a bit biased.) Let’s say your business is fairly new and you’re still looking for an accountant. What’s your desire level? Are you looking for a book or software recommendation so that you can take care of everything on your own (Rung 1)? Do you want to take a Quickbooks class so that someone can answer your questions as you learn how to use the software package (Rung2)? Or do you want someone to just take all your numbers, put them in, and file your taxes for you (Rung 3)?

What do you really want? Going into a conversation with an accountant knowing that information will be so much more productive.

If you find a conflict in your desires, that can be useful as well. What if you want the Rung 3 work, but can probably only afford the Rung 2 level of service? That’s something you can articulate more clearly now! “I’d really love to have someone who can do all of this for me, but I’m just not there financially yet. How would you suggest I prioritize the services you offer? How have your other clients dealt with this situation? If I can only pay for you to guide me on a few things, what’s going to give me the most bang for my buck?”

Put It Into Action

Here’s your assignment: Go out into the world this week. Whenever you’re in a place where you can watch people doing commerce of any kind, from the grocery store to your own business, try to keep the Ladder of Desire in mind. See if you can develop a “sixth sense” for which rung someone is on. When you’re looking at advertising or marketing–yours or someone else’s–identify which rung is being offered. Is this “tell me how,” “show me how,” or “do it for me”? Raise your awareness and see how it can help you see things differently, be more clear of what you want, and what you might be able to offer your customers.

Image:  Alcove house entrance, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA, by Wingchi Poon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Going Viral The Low Tech Way: InCoWriMo

Image of correspondence with fountain pen and glasses, as an example of a low tech networking

If you know me, or have been to more than a few of my classes, you’ll probably know I rather like low-tech, analog things such as fountain pens, fine paper, and so forth. Recently, while I was catching up on back episodes of a newly-discovered podcast for pen addicts, I heard them mention InCoWriMo. I loved it twice over. First, it had to do with those analog things I love, and second, they were marketing it in a genius way that combined the low-tech with some of the things that make something go viral in the high-tech world.

What is InCoWriMo?

InCoWriMo is short for International Correspondence Writing Month.  Like its better known cousin, NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month”), the idea is that during the appointed month–February, in this case–participants endeavor to write a letter (or postcard, or greeting card, etc.) by hand to someone each day of the month, and either mail or personally deliver them.

Of course, I get excited by that idea just because it gives me an excuse to use my fountain pens and various pieces of cool stationery I’ve picked up over the years.

How Do They Market That?

They publicize the International Correspondence Writing Month with, of course, a website.  There are the prerequisite FAQs (Yes, they must be hand written, but no, you don’t have to quit if you miss a day–just write two the next day), a participation map, a contest to win a very nice fountain pen (now long past the deadline for 2015), and so forth.  There’s even a video about how to write a letter, for those who may never have done such a thing.

But the most brilliant piece of the marketing is a page called, “These 29 People Would Love to Receive your InCoWriMo Correspondence (2015)”  Since participation requires writing notes to people, even though these can be delivered in person or left secretly for patrons at a coffee shop or whatever, the organizers did not want you to be stopped by the excuse that you had nobody to send a note to.

The list begins with the promise, “All of the names on this list are real, live people. I’ve spoken to each personally (trust me) and while they may not be able to respond to the flood of letters that InCoWriMo provokes, they each confess, proclaim, and affirm that they crave your correspondence.”

Then come the names and addresses.  These are not just randomly chosen former participants of InCoWriMo.  Well, some might be–for example, there’s a student in Bangalore on the list.  But many of the people are folks like Ellen DeGeneres, His Holiness Pope Francis, Bill Gates, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, George Lucas, Google CEO Larry Paige, Jon Stewart, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Why is this genius?  Because these people have influence.  And that’s important for two reasons.

They’re Not Going To Read My Letter…Are They?

The first reason it’s useful to have these influencers on the list has nothing to do with whether or not they really have time to read your letter.  Or any given letter.  But imagine the person who is considering whether or not to participate in InCoWriMo.  There is likely someone on that list of 29 people who they’d be a little star-struck to meet.  Whether you’re totally into comedy (Ellen, Jon Stewart), are religious (the Pope or the Dalai Lama), or a technology and science geek (Gates, Paige, Tyson), or interested in the entertainment industry (Lucas), there’s probably at least one person there that is intriguing.  And, having read the ‘disclaimer’ at the beginning, ostensibly they are welcoming your letter.  Not welcoming–they crave your letter.  That might just tip you over the edge into participating in InCoWriMo.  After all, he might even write back, and how cool would that be?

So the potential for connection with a celebrity, in a particularly personal and individualized way, nudges people into participation.  I can imagine that most of the 1.2 billion Catholics would be at least a little intrigued by the possibility of getting a letter from the Pope.  Therefore, you’ve got more people pulled into the activity.

Why Have I Not Heard of This Before?

The other reason the celebrity mailing addresses are useful is because of the other end of the equation.  Imagine now that you’re the celebrity.  For my example, I’ll pick Neil deGrasse Tyson.  So you’re Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science educator.  Someone asks, “Do you confess, proclaim, and affirm that you crave receiving hand-written correspondence?”  Of course you say you do, because who doesn’t like getting a nice letter in the mail?

Now imagine hundreds of letters showing up in your mailbox in February.  Or, since you probably do get a good deal of mail, hundreds of extra letters.  That’s notable.

So notable, in fact, that you might mention it.

The mention of a celebrity is so powerful that companies pay huge sums to get celebrities to endorse their products.  It’s so powerful that consumers still buy into it even though they know the celebrities are paid to say those things.  Think how powerful a celebrity endorsement is when it’s genuine and unsolicited.

If Ellen mentions InCoWriMo on her show, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about it in an interview, that one mention is worth potentially millions of individual word-of-mouth shares, as well as potentially millions of dollars of advertising.  Of course, it would be free.  It’s not guaranteed, but it would be very valuable and free, from the point of view of InCoWriMo.

In short, celebrities can spread the idea further and wider and faster than most individuals, and the more people send them mail, the more likely they will.

Okay, So What?

The point is that you don’t strictly need technology to go viral.  The technology part is just a tool that might make things go a little easier.  You do, however, need to understand the mindset and psychology of the people you’re trying to reach.  If you recognize the motivations of your target audience, you can come up with marketing approaches that naturally nudge people into sharing or spreading the word.  And that’s what makes something go viral.  No technology required.

(By the way, if you want to correspond with me, you can send a letter to Michael J. Coffey, PO Box 30632, Seattle, WA 98113.  Even if it’s not February.  I’d even write back.)

Image credit:

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Charlie Munger, the T Professional

CharlieMunger smallBefore we get to Charlie Munger and what a T Professional is, I want to be up front and say this article has two basic purposes.  If you find that you are similar to Mr. Munger, I hope this article helps you recognize some of your strengths or eliminates a sense of stigma that sometimes accompanies this kind of skill set.  If you are not a T-shaped professional yourself, I hope this article helps you understand why you want to hire, partner with, or in some other way have around this type of person for the benefit of your business.

Who is Charlie Munger?

A while back, I read an article about Charlie Munger. Never heard of him?  I hadn’t.  He’s the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, so he’s Warren Buffett’s right hand man.  I’d heard of Warren Buffett before.  There’s more to Mr. Munger than just that, of course, but that’s enough to give you a sense of how successful he is at business. When Warren Buffett calls you his business partner, you probably know what you’re doing. But that’s not what I found interesting about him.

What I found intriguing was the term used to describe him: an expert-generalist.

It was a term that resonated for me. And described me.

The term “T-shaped individual” or “T professional” also refers to this same concept but is a little more popular in human resources circles.  It refers to the strengths of a particular approach to learning and life experience.

When I was growing up there were lots of terms people used to describe me: “Jack of all trades but master of none,” and “professional student.” These terms seemed to say, “You are incapable of picking one thing, but until you pick, you can’t specialize. And if you don’t specialize, you can’t achieve success.”

But I never bought into that model. Sure, it used to be that you could get a job where specialization meant career advancement, and career advancement meant moving up the ladder at the company that hired you in your 20s and from which you retired in your 60s. We no longer live in that world, of course, but the attitude that specialization is the only gateway to success still hangs on.

Charlie Munger is an obvious example of how wrong those attitudes were.  Warren Buffett is successful, in no small part, to having Charlie Munger sitting next to him.  He represented the successful “Jack of all trades” — the expert-generalist, or the T professional.

What is a T Professional (or Expert Generalist)?

It is a person whose interests are both broad and deep. That is, they are interested in lots of different topics. But they also go deep in many of those topics. Not as deep as a true specialist, but deep enough to understand how that field, area, or topic generally works.

In my case, I’ve got lots of very diverse interests. To list a few: British literature, business, chocolate (not just eating it, but how it’s grown and processed as well), education, genealogy (both through historical documents and genetics), green technology, history, language, music history, neuroscience, non-Western music, publishing, tea (not just drinking it, but how it’s grown and processed, its cultural history, economic significance, and more), technology and how it both helps and hinders people, and world culture.

Some of these are fairly shallow areas of interest, like non-Western music and chocolate. I’ve taken a couple of classes, or read a couple of books, and found it all fascinating. I’d learn more if it happened to come up.  But some areas are pretty deep, like British literature (my college degree), business (one part or another of my work since I started my first company in 1998), education (I’m a State-certified teacher with years of classroom experience) and tea (training people since 2003 and now writing a book).  These are areas where I’ve spent multiple years actively studying in the field.

But so what?

Strengths of the T

In preparation for this blog post, I watched myself for a while, looking for specific examples of what characterizes the T.  The strengths derive from taking models and concepts from one area, and applying them to an entirely different realm.  For example:

  • I used the mating strategies of shrimp to explain different approaches a client might take in dealing with a business problem.
  • I applied understanding of the cognitive biases that lead to various “denial” groups (climate change denial, moon-landing denial, Holocaust denial) to a marketing issue in social media
  • I avoided making a bad electronics purchasing decision because I know how health claims about tea tend to skew (or get dead wrong) the actual facts.

Put another way, I used my knowledge of biology to further a client’s education, neuroscience to improve business, and tea to reduce costs.

The strength, then, is the something like a metaphor.  Or of systems thinking.  It’s applying models and patterns that are useful in one realm into areas where they’re less common but equally applicable.  It’s recognizing that problem X is hard to solve, until you notice that it has essential qualities of problem Y in another field, which was solved in that field by approach Z, and therefore, the best answer might be to find the analog solution in the field where problem X appeared.

It’s not just recognizing similarities between things.  Anyone can make a metaphor.  X is like Y.  It’s deeper than that.  As mentioned in another article, the expert generalists like Picasso and Kepler depend mainly on two cognitive traits: openness to experience, and need for cognition.

The first is based on the basic neurological fact that you can’t put the pieces together in new and interesting ways if you don’t have any pieces.  The habit of collecting more and varied experiences and knowledge support innovation and creativity.  Someone in my family once called me “brave” for buying a cheese at the grocery store that I’d never tried before.  My behavior–trying a new product–was openness to experience.  Her reaction illustrated the reverse.

Need for cognition, on the other hand, is essentially the trait of enjoying thinking and learning.  (When someone says to me, “You think too much,” I have a hard time not immediately replying, “Are you sure you don’t think too little?”  I stop myself because I know not everyone enjoys thinking.  For some people, it’s unpleasant and they see it as a drawback.)  It’s this enjoyment of mental activity that leads to taking those pieces and putting them together.  It’s looking for ways of using them in unusual ways. It’s of asking deeper questions to understand how they work, and how those revelations can be applied to new situations.

It was probably someone with need for cognition who came up with something a friend said in college:  a cat is like a sidewalk because neither can play the piano.  Someone thought about the qualities of cats and sidewalks and pianos long enough to recognize a new, innovative, and surprising way of putting those pieces together in a completely true statement.  It is what “thinking outside the box” looks like.

In short, then, an expert generalist is a specialist of a sort.  But it’s not a specialist in a subject area, but in a group of mental skills that prime them for being extra creative, problem solvers, and solution finders.  It’s an expertise in learning things and a specialization in figuring it out.  And that’s a hugely beneficial trait in the constantly changing landscape of a small business.

How Can I Use This?

That depends.  Are you an expert generalist yourself?  Are your skills truly T-shaped?  If so, I’d say take a moment and revel in your awesomeness.  Then keep an eye out for the societal pressures to silo yourself into a narrow band of expertise.  Pull as much interdisciplinary strength as you can into your business.  I have no doubt you can figure it out.  It’s what you do.

But what if all that doesn’t seem to fit right?  What if I didn’t describe you above?  It might even sound horrible.  What if you realize you’re not that open to experience, or you don’t enjoy sitting down for a long session of pondering?  Well, get someone like that on board.

I started Ardea Coaching in part because I recognized that I could lend my brain–my rather unique way of dealing with information and situations–to those who found it difficult to do what I found easy.  If you want me to apply relevant things I’ve learned from my palate of deep-learning subjects to whatever your marketing or business strategy problems are, that’s what I’m here for.  I do this mainly in the area of online marketing and business strategy, but there are other T-shaped consultants, mentors, and coaches out there whose particular background make them great at other areas of business.

You could also get that boost by looking for that kind of person when you hire employees.  If you go this route, though, be sure you actually listen to their suggestions and recognize that although they might be saying some things that seem oddball to you, those suggestions are precisely why you hired them.  It does no good to ask a T professional to solve a problem and then throw away the solution, even if you struggle with how and why they arrived at it, or how you might carry it out.  That’s just a new problem for them to solve.

Free bonus interview question:  You see a kind of cheese in the supermarket that you’ve never tried before.  It’s next to the kind you usually get.  What do you do?  (Just kidding, but describing a situation that might have multiple solutions and seeing how creatively they address it could be a good approach to revealing some of these traits.)

Whether it’s you, a consultant or coach like me, an employee, or a business partner like Charlie Munger, be sure you have at least one expert generalist, or T-shaped professional somewhere in your inner circle.  Their skills will really boost the flexibility, creativity, and effectiveness of your small business.

Image credit: Nick Webb

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Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  1 Comment  |  in General Marketing
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