Dissident: "person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution"

Welcome to DissidentBiz

We are a group of business writers and consultants who want to shake up the business world. Our aim is to challenge redundant, lazy and tired thinking about business, management and marketing.

We’re proud to be contrarian, swimming against the tide of traditional business thinking and conventional wisdom. Our intended audience is anyone looking for new ideas to revolutionise their workplace or business and frustrated with conventional ways of doing things.

Meet the Dissidents

Alastair Dryburgh

Described by the editor of Management Today as "a man who resides permanently outside the box," author of "Everything You Know About Business is Wrong: How to Unstick Your Thinking and Upgrade Your Rules of Thumb", as a consultant Alastair helps businesses apply different thinking to solve problems which cannot be solved by normal means.

David Sloly

Having trained as a journalist with the BBC David was promptly fired for humiliating a politician. The story spread quickly and David was snapped up by an indie production company. He learnt the art of story telling and has since created award-winning work for Radio, TV and Advertising. David is also a hypnotherapist, which gives him insight into how the mind works. Now if an employer tries to fire him, he simply hypnotizes them into a state where they dramatically increase his salary.

Ian Sanders

An Ideas Junkie passionate about making things happen. He advocates that if you’re looking to launch a business, forget strategic planning and just focus on execution. Ian helps businesses communicate ideas. His mantra is to go 'beyond the usual'

Martin Thomas

Has built a career out of demonstrating the value of square pegs in round holes. He has led award-winning PR, advertising media, sponsorship and digital agencies and pioneered integrated communications planning. He is an extremely independent marketing communications consultant, trainer, public speaker and writer and regarded as one of the UK’s leading social media commentators.

The Myth of Co-Creation

May 24th, 2012

Co-creation is one of the many myths propagated by the apostles of web 2.0. They would have us believe that millions of consumers are actively involved in the creation of ideas and concepts for their favourite brands. In fact why bother employing an agency creative team when there are millions of wannabe creative directors out there, willing to apply their brains and ‘Magic Markers’ to your brief. We are all creatives now.

The reality, according to The Future Foundation, is that only 15% of British consumers claim to have participated in some form of branded co-creation. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t creative – The Future Foundation also claims that around 50% of consumers say that ‘expressing their creativity is important to them’ and 60% regard creativity as ‘a route to personal fulfilment’ – they just don’t necessarily want to apply this creative urge to your brand or service.

The vast majority of successful co-creation or creative crowdsourcing initiatives have been more a case of ‘expert-sourcing’: this is more than mere semantics, the distinction is important.  During the summer of 2009 Unilever decided to abandon the usual practice of deploying an advertising agency on its Peperami brand.  It dismissed the agency that had worked on the brand for 15 years and created the successful ‘bit of an animal’ campaign and instead offered a prize of $10,000 to any creative team that could come up with the best-executed idea. Although the Unilever spokesperson claimed that the winning idea could come from a ‘plumber from Barnsley’, the fact that the contest was being run through an online community for creatives called ideabounty.com underlined how Unilever wanted primarily to attract entries from professional creative teams. The company also promoted the competition on the freelance recruitment sections of the major advertising and marketing blogs. It was therefore hardly surprising that the winning entry didn’t come from a Barnsley plumber, but from a former agency creative director working alongside a freelance copywriter.   Nic Ray, speaking on behalf of the freelance creative community, explained the attraction of this approach for his peers: ‘ almost all agency creatives work on freelance briefs outside of their normal employ – and get paid substantially less than $10k for doing so. Here’s an opportunity to work on one of the UK’s most iconic (and irreverent) brands, pull out those brilliant back draw ideas that were never sold and have some fun shaking up the industry in the process.’

When it comes to involving members of the public it is far more appropriate for brand owners and agencies to talk about creative collaboration rather than co-creation or creative crowdsourcing. People are happy to collaborate on many different levels – depending on this level of interest in or enthusiasm for a particular brand or service – but you have to make it easy for them. Don’t give them a blank sheet of paper but instead give them the tools to customise and adapt.  And don’t ask them to come up with ideas from scratch.  Writer Eric Raymond used the metaphor of the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ to describe two very different models of innovation within the software industry.  The bazaar represents the loose, open source approach, harnessing the skills of the wider developer community, whereas the ‘cathedral’ represents the traditional, tightly controlled model. Raymond argues that both approaches are valid and potentially complementary, although the experience of the software industry suggests that the ‘bazaar’ is not particularly effective at originating concepts, which still rely on the spark of individual genius to make them happen, but is very effective at testing and improving them. So in the case of your creative brief, you still need the creative thinkers –  working within the company’s or agency’s ‘cathedral’, to come up with the original ideas, which can then be tested and fine-tuned by the members of the ‘bazaar’.

- Martin Thomas

Why It’s Better to be Fast than Precise

May 15th, 2012

If there is one group of market researchers that merits the label of ‘dissidents’ it is John Kearon’s merry band of mavericks at BrainJuicer.  This company is one of a new generation of research specialists that is responding to the emergence of new social technologies and the demand from clients for much more timely research. Its founder John Kearon describes how most businesses, rather than buying research that ‘informs, illuminates and inspires better marketing, are simply trying to avoid risk by buying a 120 page insurance policy’. It gives then a comforting illusion of certainty, whereas what they are actually receiving – weeks if not months after it was commissioned – is according to Kearon, ‘heavy on numbers, light on insight and usually dead-on-arrival as far as senior management are concerned’. He talks about his company’s mission as ‘providing inspiring, illuminating, insightful, impactful, interesting and imaginative research on a quantitative scale, anywhere in the world, with consistent quality and at an affordable price and a hell of a speed’. He is also a strong advocate of the use of psychology and behavioural economics to predict human behaviour, rather than the rigid, empirical models that have traditionally been deployed within the research industry.

Predictive Markets is a typical BrainJuicer product, which builds on James Surowiecki’s idea of the wisdom of crowds. The company recruits a diverse group of 500 people (their diversity is important) who aren’t specifically representative of the target audience – which is contrary to every fundamental principle of good market research – and then plays a game with them in which they imagine that they have shares in a particular idea or product. They then decide, on the basis of the sales pitch that is made to them, whether they would buy further shares or sell what they have already. It has turned out to be a far more effective technique for predicting the likely success of a new product or service, than any of the traditional methods used by research companies. Kearon describes this as challenging the research dogma of ‘Me’ research – in which you must only ask me about my motivations, behaviour or beliefs – and replacing it with ‘We’ research. This leverages our skills as social animals, which make us surprisingly good at evaluating and predicting the behaviour of other people. In developing his thinking, Kearon collaborated with Mark Earls, the author of Herd, who has become an acknowledged expert on group behaviour.

This oblique approach to research – not asking the direct opinions of people for whom a product or service is intended – provides a richer, faster and cheaper way of understanding consumer behaviour, opinion and trends. It is particularly effective when comparing the relative merits of good and merely average products. Kearon describes the BrainJuicer approach as ‘much looser, less precise, but much better’. It would appear that there is a growing appetite for this way of working. Kearon describes how ‘the penny is starting to drop’ with many of his clients. They have witnessed the emergence of real-time technology and its impact on other areas of their business and seen the incredible speed at which information can travel through social media. When news of a major incident can be transmitted around the globe within minutes, it feels incredibly anachronistic to have to wait weeks for a report detailing the success, or otherwise, of your latest product.

-Martin Thomas

Judgments vs Checklists

May 14th, 2012

A friend of mine is secretary of  a listed company which means that once a year he has to prepare a “compliance statement” for the annual accounts explaining how his company complied, or did not comply, with the various corporate governance codes. Then he has to have it approved by the auditors.

He wrote the first draft himself, and sent it to the audit partner (big 4 firm). “It’s rather homespun.” said the partner. So my friend produced a more polished version. “Perfect” said the audit partner.

“That’s funny”, said my friend, “I lifted the new statement straight from the annual report of Northern Rock.”

Don’t get me wrong. I care deeply about corporate governance, and think it’s very important. Too important, in fact, to be reduced  to a matter of box-ticking, checklist-completing, and stock phrases. The danger with checklists is that we avoid the real conversation. Maybe we did tick all the boxes, but, truthfully, do we think that the people running this company are honest, trustworthy and competent?

In this case as in so many others, it’s the simplest question which is the hardest to answer, and the most important.

Going Off The Beaten Track: “What I learned from a knifemaker, a writer and a venture capitalist”

May 10th, 2012

Executives and entrepreneurs spend time and money each year attending conferences in search of new thinking. The trouble is if you go to the same conferences year in and year out, hanging out with the same types of people, you probably won’t be exposed to that new thinking you crave. So it might be time to rethink your conference strategy and go off the beaten track.

That’s what eighty delegates did at the end of last month, at The Do Lectures, an event  ‘that started out in a quiet corner of West Wales that inspires you to go and do amazing things’. I was there to see talks by thirty speakers, from a range of disciplines including not just entrepreneurs but also a fell walker and a baker. Delegates included executives from big organisations as well as entrepreneurs seeking inspiration for their next move. For most of us, this conference off the beaten track was out of our comfort zone, with no plush hotel rooms, limited connectivity and sleeping in shared tents in an – increasingly – muddy field. In these different surroundings, lessons came from surprising places. Here are my own three takeaways:

  1. “If the work is great then people will come” Joel Bukiewicz, Knifemaker Cut Brooklyn. We hear many stories of people who quit their jobs to become writers; less of writers who quit to do something else. Joel falls in the latter. Frustrated with writing, he took a break and landed on making knives as his new business. What struck me about Joel was the simplicity of his business model: he goes to work, makes knives, puts them in the shop to sell. What he doesn’t sell, he puts online to sell. His shop is open twice a week and he doesn’t take advance orders. I love that confidence and simplicity. There is a great little film about him here.
  2. “Does this work have a 1% chance of leaving a footprint?” Robin Sloan, writer & media inventor. We hear that if you want to make a difference with your work you must ‘make a dent in the universe’. Robin argued that dents get smoothed out over time – “time is the ultimate body shop” he said – and instead you should think about what fingerprints you’re leaving for the future. That focuses the mind on producing legacy work.
  3. “To have a life of doing, you need to not do” William Rosenzweig, Partner, Physic Ventures. Since William is a partner at a venture capital firm I was expecting a talk about entrepreneurship. Instead he introduced us to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei – the notion of ‘doing not doing’. William talked about the importance of getting unplugged and being still. It’s a personal action for me because I need to get better at switching off. He also reminded us the importance of listening in a storytelling-driven culture where everybody wants to tell, not listen”.

- Ian Sanders


Beware the “Wisdom” of Crowds

May 4th, 2012

Ever since the publication of James Surowiecki’s highly influential The Wisdom of Crowds, it has become a widely accepted convention that online crowds are imbued with a collective intelligence and are assumed to occupy the moral high-ground: the crowd is always right.  This has encouraged many institutions to recoil in the face of the slightest hint of an online protest.  As soon as a collection of critics starts massing on Facebook or a critical hashtag starts trending on Twitter, the standard response of those in positions of leadership appears to be to wave the white flag.  A few people don’t like your ad – pull-it, even if you have spent weeks pre-testing it. A few people don’t like your new product – withdraw it, even if your highly capable NPD team has been working on it for months.

There are times when organisations do need to be called to account for their poor behaviour or sheer stupidity, as Addison Lee’s John Griffin, has just discovered to his cost.  But there are other times when they need to show some backbone and stand up to their critics.  We admire politicians willing to take a stand on unpopular issues and conversely use the term ‘populist politician’ as short-hand for someone regarded as weak and unprincipled.  The same is true of ’populist companies’; they may aspire to universal affection by appeasing their critics but they are fundamentally weak and ultimately trying to play a no-win game. If they have behaved professionally, done their research and planned properly they should have nothing to apologise for, even if a few people are unhappy.

We live in an era of easy offence and supercharged criticism in which somebody somewhere will always find fault, no matter how good you are.  Jim Murphy, editorial director at forecasting agency The Future Foundation, described this state of affairs as a “society of contestation”.  His argument is that the collapse of trust in all forms of institutional power and our willingness to challenge traditional sources of expertise and leadership, has created a situation in which customers can never be satisfied, electorates are almost ungovernable and employees virtually unmanageable.  In this adversarial climate, trying to appease all your critics is a forlorn task.

Crowds can become forces for good or mobs hell-bent on undermining traditional sources of authority; they can be wise or irrational, creative or highly destructive.  They are not always right.

- Martin Thomas

The End of the Spinners

April 23rd, 2012

Few business functions have experienced the level of inflation in both status and salary enjoyed by the in-house PR professional. When I first started in the industry the corporate press officer was a relatively junior role, responsible for writing the chairman’s speeches and dealing with occasional press enquiries.

The last 20 years has seen its elevation to the exalted status of the corporate communications chief – the person paid a substantial salary to polish the corporate reputation, keep the critics at bay and the stakeholders happy. They have done their job so well that far too many of their internal audiences – especially those occupying the c-suite – have bought in to the idea that the world around them can be controlled, critics silenced and crises managed. Unfortunately, in a world in which trust is at a premium, influence is dispersed and criticism is cheap, these masters (or mistresses) of corporate spin are struggling. Stories can no longer be buried with a quiet word to your mate on the city desk.

Many years ago I worked for a financial and corporate communications agency which used to go into client pitches with two boards. On one board was written the word ‘friends’ and on the other ‘control’. The message was simple, compelling and, given the spectacular growth of the agency since that time, highly profitable: ‘We are friends with the handful of people whose opinions matter most in the valuation of stock prices or forming of corporate reputations and we know how to control the messages that they receive and transmit.’

Things have certainly changed since those simple times.  Authority and expertise have been dispersed to the extent that analysts are no longer reliant on personal briefings and are picking up their information from the web, and opinion formers are just as likely to be obscure bloggers operating out of their bedrooms as professional journalists or eminent academics. And the CEO is starting to ask why sites critical of the company are starting to appear at the top of the Google rankings. You are paid a big salary to stop this type of stuff from appearing, or at least that’s what you told them. Welcome to the new world of the public affairs or corporate communications director: chaotic, complicated and largely unspinnable. It requires a completely new set of skills, in which an understanding of social media, behavioural psychology and influencer marketing is far more important than a bulging contacts list on your BlackBerry. It is a world in which many of the people currently occupying the leading corporate affairs roles are going to struggle.

- Martin Thomas

Why Wait? The Need For Speed

April 17th, 2012

This was a guest column in the Financial Times, published Saturday April 7th 2012. You can find this article on FT.com here http://t.co/Nc1SxQZs

The business world is fixated on the search for the next ‘Big Idea’, whether it’s creating a new product or innovating a fresh approach. Ideas may be the oxygen every business needs to grow, but of course it’s not having the idea that wins, it’s how fast you get it out there. Acting fast will give you that edge over the competition. Seven years ago I had a meeting with the MD of a major brand. He wanted to start an ad campaign in London’s ‘Evening Standard’ later that week. I said I’d introduce him to some ad agencies I knew. But every agency head I called said they wanted to set up a meeting in a couple of weeks’ time. That just wasn’t quick enough for my contact. So I spotted an opportunity. I met with a media buyer, called up some designers and a copywriter and 48 hours later we had booked and prepared an ad. That was the start of a long and lucrative relationship, which I’d secured by being able to deliver a solution faster than more established players. Speed was my differentiator.

Adopting a rapid mindset not only differentiates your business once you’re up and running; it also gets you to launch quicker in the first place. After all, in 2012, waiting two weeks to have a meeting about a business opportunity may result in you losing out to a faster competitor – a lot can happen in two weeks. So if you’re a business taking a new idea to market, try going faster. Being first to market brings many benefits from grabbing your target audience to using early feedback to improve your product.

Of course being rapid does not mean compromising on quality, it has to be good enough. In the smart ‘phone apps market, software start-ups make their products fit for purpose and launch early, rather than wait until they’re perfect. ‘Fit for purpose’ means while it remains a pilot or prototype, they’re shipping a product of value – it has to do its job to deliver the promise or solve a problem. Applying that approach to your own business means you can launch early, listen to user feedback, and make adaptations as you go – creating a better product faster. In researching my new book  I spoke to venture capitalist and former chief evangelist of Apple, Guy Kawasaki. He told me success is about shipping your product to real life customers quicker, “You’ll learn more about your product in the first week after shipping than 52 weeks thinking about it, studying and doing focus groups.”

Many businesses get so stuck in planning and procedure they lose focus on execution. What would have been a brilliant idea if it was implemented in 10 or 30 days becomes weak when it is finally launched, diluted, 100 days later. Traditional business planning can apply the brakes on an idea. There might not be many voices in the the FT arguing business planning is a waste of time, but for many small enterprises, business planning is really just business guessing. How can you expect a business that hasn’t even launched yet to predict revenues for two or three years down the line? All that time spent planning could be spent doing. It’s more effective to launch your business faster and test your ideas in front of real customers, especially with a digital business that can be launched and adapted in days at low cost.

So if the risk is low, why not just press ‘go’ earlier? The business idea that launches fastest may be the one that succeeds; ‘done’ is often better than ‘perfect’. Don’t be one of those people who had a great business idea but got beaten to launch: put your foot on the accelerator and make it go faster.

- Ian Sanders

Feeling Stuck? Why Innovation May Not Be the Answer

April 2nd, 2012

If we are feeling stuck, if it’s clear that business as usual is no longer viable, we are naturally drawn to innovation. The idea is appealing, but often wrong. Consider, for example, the case of Intel.

Intel is, always was, a highly innovative company. Yet in the mid-80s it had a near-death experience. Its memory business, the traditional mainstay, was being destroyed by the Japanese. The solution was not hard to find; Intel needed to abandon memories and throw all its resources into its new, but highly promising, microprocessor business. Easy to see, but horribly hard to do. Intel dithered and procrastinated. It spent more than a year, in the words of President Andy Grove, “wandering in the valley of death” before, just in time, taking the decision to leave the memory business. Had they delayed much longer, hardly anyone today would remember them. It wasn’t lack of innovation that nearly destroyed Intel, but the grip of the old.

This explains why so many innovation efforts begin with a flourish only to suffocate under the pressure of business as usual. Innovation requires some empty space to move into, but most organisations are already over-full with products, customers and practices. Before adopting new ideas, we need to free ourselves from the old ones. In Intel’s case these were “we need to stay in memories because that’s where we develop and prove new technologies” and “we need to offer a full product range to our customers.” These two ideas came close to bankrupting the company.

Innovation sessions tend to be fun, and we are  drawn to innovation for that reason. The fact is, though, that innovation is easy compared to the hard work of freeing ourselves from the old in order to create the new.

I’m not arguing against innovation here, but urging you to be realistic about how hard it is, and why it is so hard. My guess is that you are already as innovative as you need to be, if you could free yourself from the old ideas, practices, policies and habits that keep you where you are.

- Alastair Dryburgh

Disciplined Contrarianism

March 29th, 2012

Is not an oxymoron.

Disciplined contrarianism is what you need when business as usual is not an option, but innovation is not the answer.

Disciplined contrarianism is a process for creating new options within existing constraints, freeing yourself from old ideas in order to create the future.

Innovation may not be the answer. It needs empty space, but often there is no empty space. The organisation is already over full of products, customers, processes or ways of doing things. Innovation will fail unless you can loosen the grip of the old.

You may not need anything new – you already have what you need, but it is buried underneath a lot of stuff that no longer works.

We’re all familiar with innovation efforts that begin with a great flourish only to wither and die under the pressure of business as usual,  because an essential first phase, a phase of clearing out, has been missed.

Principles of Discipline Contrarianism

1. Thinking about thinking. It’s clear from research in neuroscience, psychology and other areas that the human basic brain is not optimised for the complexities of modern life but is subject to a whole range of biases, distortions and blind spots. Recognising these and allowing for them can dramatically improve our performance at understanding situations and working out what to do.

2. Looking outside “management”. It’s unlikely that you need any more frameworks, concepts or techniques from a business school  or department of management. The breakthrough is much more likely to come from social science, psychology, behavioural economics or even psychoanalysis.

3. Asking the same questions will get the same answers. Asking different questions, even apparently strange ones, is the way to breakthroughs. Einstein asked himself “what would the world look like if I were riding on a lightbeam?” and came up with the theory of relativity. An equally strange question asked about your business could produce equally dramatic results.

To find out more, register for Alastair Dryburgh’s free teleseminar. It’s at 12 noon on Tuesday 3 April, but if you can’t make the time register anyway as there will be a recording.
Register here

Why you need to get out of the boardroom to think differently

March 29th, 2012

At Dissident Biz, we know that organisations and businesses need to get out of their soul-less boardrooms to devise new management thinking. Business leaders and their teams are not going to innovate staring at a flip chart or the four walls of a boardroom. Gregory Berns, professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and author of ‘Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently’, says that if you are in the same environment with the same people every day, you’re unlikely to have radical ideas:

“the easiest way to create new ideas and remix old ones is to put yourself in situations you’ve never been in before”.

Yet we still see organisations – big and small – task their people to come up with great ideas, and expect that to happen at their desks or in the office. It just isn’t going to happen! Most of us at Dissident Biz lead nomadic work lives; and that aids our ideas generation.That’s why we use train rides, flights and coffee shops to do our own ‘big thinking’.

Martijn Sjoorda heads dialogic*,an advisory firm for strategy, leadership and execution based in the Netherlands. He takes teams on train journeys across Europe to help unlock innovation and explore leadership potential. In this short video clip I asked Martijn to explain the science behind taking journeys; why changing our environment is so productive.

So if your organisation is looking to produce new thinking, try liberating your people from the boardroom. As Martijn explains, “If you change the environment that you’re in, you get better results because you’re out of the context you’re normally in”. Send your team out to the local coffee shop or for a walk in the park: that’s where they’ll create the ideas that could become game-changers for your business.

- Ian Sanders