Wednesday, 6 November 2013

“Creativity is subjective” and other copouts that keep you from being remarkable

Picture the most creative behavior possible. Is an isolated or eccentric individual part of your mental image?—Perhaps an artist covered in paint frantically attacking a canvas? Or maybe a writer like Lewis Carroll, who must have been in some trippy state, in order to concoct something like Alice in Wonderland?
It is too often that we equate the uniqueness behind all creative work with an eccentric way of life that enables it. When we use the term subjective, however, we are not simply highlighting the originality of the work or of the artist, but we are also putting creativity inside a very small box. Why? Because we transform it into an impenetrable process, into a black-box, whose constitutive elements are simply out of our reach—the term subjective becomes in fact a copout for what we prefer not to understand.

The words subjective and objective have a classic (although maybe stereotypical is a better word) scientific tint to them: the objective/subjective divide is used, or so we are told, to separate reality from dream, fact from opinion, and order from chaos. It is this underlying separation what makes of a statement such as creativity is subjective a particularly troubling one. I will spare you the philosophical conversation behind the use of the subjective/objective opposition, and will instead try to present several reasons why we should view creativity under a completely different light: as an essentially cooperative and social event.

Let’s take, for instance, two well known artists: Édouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. Both, Manet and Picasso are today regarded not only as masters of the visual arts, but also as true revolutionaries and innovators, who changed the history of western art forever. Manet is considered the father of impressionism and with it Modern art, while Picasso is the father of Cubism. Both painters struggled immensely to get their work shown. The critics of their time were implacable about their lack of talent, which isolated them from well known artists and galleries of the time—let alone museums. The creative spirit that we assume of them today was in their time, and by any measure, completely dismissed. It took them time, perseverance, and some luck (for the cultural changes proper to their time to gain momentum) before they were able to become respected artists. Theirs is to a great extent a story of success, because they were in the end recognized as amazingly creative artists—many others, like Van Gogh, who never received any formal recognition during his lifetime, are not half as lucky. The story of Manet and Picasso is a telling story about the importance that industry influencers have, but that is not the interesting aspect of their story. Theirs is a story with a clear lesson: no matter how creative you think you are, you will always need of a community that agrees on your work being creative. You need a Tribe—to use Godin’s term—before the broader public will actually appreciate your creative work.

Now, if you believe that you have come up with something creative, but you find yourself alone in this belief, don’t be surprised or discouraged—that is certainly not the point. It is true that without a community standing behind your creative work, you simply cannot expect any recognition or reward for the uniqueness or originality of your ideas—but this is only one aspect of this truth, although it can be a harsh one. Bear in mind that what I mean with community is not simply—or at all—a fan club or a group of admirers. A community is much more than that, inasmuch as what is at stake is cooperation and shared interests, not superficial devotion. Building a community begins by identifying and pursuing shared interests—this is another reason why creativity should not be reduced to the individual, because by doing so you truly miss the forest for the trees.

A creative community may function very much like those in social media, but they require a commitment that most of those do not have. A creative community requires the commitment and conviction of militant political groups, with the vein for experimentation and cooperation of an Art collective. Commitment and conviction are crucial, because they are powerful motivators that allow for group rather than individual goals to be set, which is precisely what is needed for shared interests to rise to the surface. Shared interests are seldom transparent or obvious, but most often come as the result of negotiations between individual perspectives—as a result of the critical discussion about what should be shared and pursued.

A community acts as a propeller: it allows for a shared vision to gain momentum. However the role of the community does not end there. By sharing a vision communities become relevant conversations or think tanks of their own: if, for instance, you want to innovate on user experience and web-design, your creative ideas will be best served if critically assessed by others who have a say in the same business, for example web-designers, product developers, programmers, etc., but also by others who have a relevant say, but who come from a different industry or discipline, for example visual artists, gamers, and experience creators at large. It is actually the opinion of the latter what can result in a criticism that will prove to be much more invigorating, for it will allow you to identify blind spots, to relate to other audiences, and, in this case, to learn from other types of user experiences—which is fundamental in this particular case.

The type of community I refer to has the connectivity and communication character of a network—I know this is an overused term, but once you forget about its use on ‘networking events’ it is actually a powerful image. This is because a network is a structure that gathers differences rather than simply ignoring them. A networks is made up of knots, through which information is not only relayed, but also transformed—that is precisely what occurs in the process of criticism and diffusion that I refer to above. In a network knots may vary in importance—in the amount of information they gather as well as in the number of connections possessed by each one individually—yet even the smallest knot must remain active and engaged for the network community to function properly.

So, once we leave the myth behind, what we find is that Creativity is a social process, and it is produced today through networks! I will come back to the subject of networks. Remember to subscribe to the factish and let’s continue harnessing the power of creative networks. 

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

“It’s not me it’s you”: a breakup story between Innovators and CFOs

“The forecast is clear; the numbers don’t add up, we need to do something about these red figures”.

“What do you suggest to get rid of these red figures, if increasing the value of our products is completely off the table?”

“You know that our clients won’t like an increase in price. We need to put an end to our soaring costs. Let’s get rid of all these useless expenses and focus on being back in black by the end of the year…we may need to let some of your people go...”

“Why my people?”

“Well, they are expensive. What we need now are people that can take care of our clients, you know. We need the indispensable ones. We can think about innovation when things are back on track”

There is an essential aspect behind all innovations: they make sense only under the light of a long term perspective. There is an equally essential aspect to financial forecasting: it is mainly about the short term, which is also the time frame in which it can be truly accurate. In addition, predicting the financial outlook of a company’s incursion within a blue ocean (a new market) is practically an impossible feat—or at least one for which you will need an econometrician coming from a place like the World Bank to get you somewhere.

This is why it shouldn't be surprising that CFO’s love, both, the short term and the fierce battling for market share by means of cost-cutting savagery. They are not evil for wanting these, but they do have different motivations in their work.

Innovating is a losing battle, if the only markers of success within a company are provided by stringent, short-term focused financial figures. Yet, this is perhaps the difficult part of the process conducive to innovation that is better understood: you need to invest in R&D and product development, in order to have a viable offering in the long run. CFO’s will agree with the innovators on this, even enthusiastically, because deep down they know that one never reaches the long run if the short run must always come first.

This much is clear: if you believe in the need for innovation, even if only as a matter of faith, you are still on the right track—it’s a bit like choosing for healthy diet: you don’t know exactly what the benefits will be, but you still do it, and you do it knowing that it is something for the long run; the benefits of a single salad are negligible, it is at 10,000 salads where the real goal lies. The financial enthusiasts are those who keep on reminding you at this point about the ‘Light’ labels in your favorite junk food: there is no need for a salad if you can eat ‘light’. ‘Sure!’, you respond sarcastically to such naïve retort, yet only few would respond in the same way when asked to delay key investments or replace high-skilled (and expensive) employees with replaceable (and cheap) ones.

In the long run the ‘light’ foods enthusiast will wash his hands, wisely reminding you that ‘Light’ meant that you needed some moderation. In other words, that it was your fault for listening to them too closely. Not surprisingly, it also rarely the case that a bad forecast is the CFO’s fault: ‘the competition has squeezed our profit margins’.
However, I said that the long term aspect was the less contentious point. The true trouble comes when creating a business model that encourages innovation and creative thought. Seth Godin, for instance, discusses the importance of the ‘linchpin’ employee: someone driven by a need to create, to stand out, and to lead, hence, someone that will never fit in a model where rules, the chain of command, and ‘easily measured goals’ are expected to drive the competitive advantage of business. In equal fashion, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” seem—all of them—to challenge any such rule-following and standardized approach to their work. And outliers are exceptionally hardworking individuals. They are not the type of employee who is interested in fitting inside the demeanor behind heavy hierarchies: CEO, CFO, the rest of the executive team followed by country or regional managers, so on and so forth. 

They are especially not the types who are willing to set a limit to their learning (because work ends at 6), or to assess the value of their work by the amount of commands they were able to get through in an email thread. If as a manager or executive you need to set specific tasks to your employees, because you mistrust their autonomy, then you will get what you asked for and nothing more: not a single new idea, not one hour extra of work or any improvement on the way to fulfill the tasks given. You won’t, because people who feel they are being measured in dimes and nickels will conclude that their rewards are equal to their expected results—if you want them to work more, then that will cost you. This is what a business model built upon a structure of minimal costs creates: mediocre workers, average products and zero innovation.

The lesson is simple: If you are in a company where there is a clear need in disaggregating their offering into small and repeatable processes, in order to render employees accountable, then those in charge have missed the last 200 years of history and you are in the face of a dead end job—and most probably a failed company. 

The problem, when it comes to innovation, comes with the limited ability of the financial experts to render something accountable. Why limited? Because it depends on creating  production processes dependant on excessive simplicity.

The fear of complexity. This is the main issue against which innovators must focus their energies. This is the core and essence of the problem at hand. Most MBA’s, Financiers, and Economists have been educated to fear complexity and to show blind respect for the simple. The simple is better than the complex. Why? Well because it’s simpler to manage (Duh!).

Saying that the simpler is simple is a truism, like saying that the sky is blue. Saying that the simple is better is a fallacy—it has no truth to it, no evidence to back it up as some kind of universal truth. The problem for companies, furthermore, is that without complexity you cannot deliver anything truly valuable, only commodities. If you want product differentiation simplicity (namely the CFO) will only put pressure on price, and such pressure can be equally and easily replicated by your competitors. If you rather want a blue ocean where you can grow without limits, that is, if you rather want your company to innovate, then you need complexity, you actually should crave it.
Complexity does not mean incoherence or lack of structure. Complexity means that you need smart, ambitious, people, who are not afraid to prove their skills. That’s all. You don’t need rocket scientists, as the saying goes, but you need people capable of thinking at different levels. As a business owner or CEO you need, for example, people in marketing that can understand not only their role as marketers, but also their relationship to sales managers and product developers, as well as to the copywriters and designers who make of their marketing plans a reality.

There is still much more to say about the value of complex thought. A smooth running complex is better than a smooth running simplex; it is better because it is much harder to replicate and hence more valuable, if only because of its scarcity—replicating something complex is hard, you only have to take a look at the public struggle of Apple’s competitors to know why. The begging question is how should we understand complexity and make it work? That is the topic of the second part of this post. Don’t miss it! Subscribe and keep up to date with the factish.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The medium is the message OR why we must stop being social media narcissists!

It is often argued that social media owes its success to this very fact: people show a flawless version of their lives, sparking envy and cynicism in others. Detractors of social media, arguing against the growth of impersonal relationships and lack of censorship, seem to have their work cut out for them. Marketer's, on the other hand, walk around in the dark stumbling upon crashing failures or unexpected success stories which they cannot replicate. Does this all mean that we must agree with those who say that social media cannot but cultivate shallow relationships and superficial egos?
My belief is however that they have it all wrong!
The thing people often miss is the fact that the internet is a tool. Too obvious? Perhaps, I say too that the internet is a medium. Confused? Well, let me explain.

When I say that the internet is a medium, I mean that it is actually a medium for creating relationships. The catch is, however, that these are not the same in kind as the face-to-face relationships you have with your closest friends, your family, or even your peers at works. The internet is a lousy medium to generate strong long lasting bonds. Understanding this is a necessary step, prior to grasping its true potential as a medium.
The word medium may perhaps carry some of the blame for the misunderstanding. The problem with the Medium is the results of taking it as representative of two basic images. On the one hand we have the medium as a sort of support for transporting something, where the image of, for instance, a pipeline, through which water flows freely, would be exemplar. The medium is, on the other hand taken as a sort of visual support that would somehow bring something distant to our presence, where for instance the TV would be a medium through which a TV-show is seen, or a screen the medium through which a projected image becomes visible. In both cases, however, what is at stake is the notion of the medium as essentially transparent and passive. The pipeline is a medium inasmuch as is it transports, without hazard or leakage, the water that flows through it. The moment at which the pipeline starts leaking the medium becomes visible, we become aware of the pipeline, but we do so always in a negative fashion—the pipeline has become a bad medium when we are aware that it is there leaking. The same can be said about the TV. The TV without a TV-show to watch is dead, but a broken TV is not much better. 

Curiously enough we become aware of the medium only when there is something wrong with it, and we, again, grant true importance to the TV-show, but not to the TV; to a certain extent if we could watch the show as a live audience then the TV becomes useless, because there would be no need for a medium, for a support. From this perspective, therefore, the internet would be expected to equally transport something; words, videos, photos, and, to my point here, it should also transport persons, to the extent that social media should replace face-to-face relations only there where flesh-n-bone interaction would not be possible.
I propose, in turn, that we shouldn't see the medium as a support that should somehow help us to create experiences that should resemble, albeit badly, the ‘real thing’ (the live TV-show, the friendly conversation, and the sensation of fresh water). From this point of view the medium will always be a plan b or a second best, whose positive qualities are always dismissed. The positive qualities of the medium are, for instance, being able to TiVo a show to see it later, while in my pyjamas with a pizza in my hands, or, for instance, being able to contact someone who we don’t and can’t know in person, but with whom we have a patent shared interest, and so on. 

The role of the medium, furthermore, is not to primarily allow me to become friends with a scientist in the North Pole or with a Movie star in Italy, for this would again be nothing but a reduction of the medium to a second best. What the medium so distinctively and concretely allows for in a wonderfully unique manner is for me to become familiar with the writing, photos, paintings, drawings, ideas,  and, in a word, the work (professional or not it doesn't matter) of virtually anyone around the globe. I may not be able to use the medium as a way to get to know a person’s deepest personal thoughts or funny quirks, but I can take advantage of it to create my own networks of shared interests. 

Given that these networks will expand or contract depending on the actual exchange that goes on through them, and given that the more that is shared between people the more solid a virtual relationship will be, it is then not surprising that the more you give the more you will be able to expand your role within your networks. It is not simply a matter of public advertisement or sophisticated public relationships—although it could be—because we are not simply bumping into strangers in an interruptive manner: networks live of mutual exchange and there is no mutual exchange in uninvited interruption. 

There is mutual exchange in shared interests, and these mutual exchanges are indeed gifts (don't miss Gift Giving and other Crazy ideas that Bosses don't Get), because the same as with teachers, mentors, or colleagues, we can cultivate and cherish the relationships we have with them, notwithstanding that they may not be the same in kind as the ones we have with our closest friends, our siblings, our kids or our parents.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Gift giving and other crazy ideas that most bosses will never get

laughing boss at the factish

We have all gone through two equally annoying experiences.

The first, having our gifts inspected and evaluated by someone with the hope of somehow assessing their value. We become aware of this through almost invisible—I said almost not entirely—social cues which allow us to assert with little chance of error that our gift was being valued and even compared with other gifts.

The second one is receiving a gift that we had not asked for, but could to a certain extent expect given the context of the situation (a birthday party, a graduation, etc). Upon receiving and opening the gift we realize it’s a decoration or clothing article which seems almost purposefully meant to clash with our own taste. What we witness is one both cases the same queer event: the unnatural, yet recurrent exchange of items between strangers in our contemporary society. The strangeness of such events has motivated economist to add to the confusion by labelling as suboptimal allocation of resources—we would be better off by getting the money rather than the gift.

You may probably be asking yourself: Is this guy disparaging against giving gifts? Not in the very least! My intention is the entire opposite. If anything I would encourage you to give perhaps even more, than you do now, but to do so without half the dissatisfaction or obligation that most of our current gifts carry along with them.
Have you ever wondered why the nature of gift giving is so badly explained by the word ‘exchange’? The reason is that an exchange implies that we can always compare what is being exchanged and that the goal is to reach an outcome of mutual benefit. Suppose I go to a store like the H&M to buy a t-shirt—there is an exchange between my money for the t-shirt. The mutual expectations and benefits are clear. I do not expect to get some extra shoes as well, nor is the cashier going to ask me to work a couple of hours in addition to the money I just handed him.

We have become so accustomed to understanding exchange in purely economic terms that too many times we transform authentic occasions for gift giving with an economic transfer of sorts: from the buy one take two offers, to the office gift exchange where everyone is always asked to contribute a fixed amount of money. In a word, every time we feel dissatisfied with a gift and we ask ourselves things like ‘I wonder how much she spent on that?’ or, ‘is that all he cares about me?’, we have fallen prey of the confusion between gifts and exchanges. This is not to say that exchanges are bad and gifts are good, but rather that we are missing out on the unique opportunities that come along with gifts.

The nature of gift giving is to encourage bonding and to nurture new or existing relationships. Gift giving, when authentic, will allow you to reach out, to enable trust, sympathy and consideration—both individuals and companies should reflect on this!

If you want your company to create solid customer relationships, stop thinking about special offers, deceiving Calls to Action, or interrupting SEO techniques. Touch your customers with the surprise of a gift—with no strings attached. I can bet you the competition has failed to do just that!

If you are looking for work and you are tired of applying blindly, why not send a gift of your work to those places you like—a sample of your design work, an article, or an interesting insight.

Wonderful sources on the nature of The Gift are Lewis Hyde’s The Gift as well as the highly recognized work of Levi Strauss, from which The Elementary Structure of Kinship provides a rich source of ideas on kinship and exchange. Stay up to date with the factish to discover the nuts and bolts of authenticity and gift giving.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The story of how experiential marketing became a blue ocean for philosophers

1.      Wrong idea about a philosopher:
Bookworm sitting in the corner of a dusty old library reading an even dustier book.
Philosophers like most things in life come in different shapes and sizes. Contemporary philosophers, however, occupy themselves with a broad scope of current issues, from ecological thought and movements, to the European crisis, the flaws of the prison systems, sustainability, quantum physics, art, and, yes experiential marketing. Surely not everything happens inside the same head and at the same time. The point is that philosophy is a discipline deeply rooted by its interest in contemporary life.
So, why would philosophers have anything worthwhile to say about marketing?
The answer is simple: philosophers are expert communicators with a highly structured mind. Being an expert communicator means truly knowing how to persuade, how and when to use arguments and when emotional messages, and how to create structural profiles based on qualitative or incomplete information. If these skills are not enough to give them an advantage over most marketers I know, keep in mind that they have also the uncanny ability to see problems from a myriad of different angles, which can be of great help when managing teams and clients. If you ever had a client asking for something that seems entirely at odds with his own goals, no one better than a philosopher to explain why a different course of action should be taken. This ability to transform problems into reasonable silutions is fundamental, because it would allow you to, in this particular case, approach the client from his own point of view making the at times impossible task of changing someone’s mind a feasible possibility.
‘Hmm this surely doesn’t sound so bad, but you said something about ‘experiential marketing’…
 Yes! I refer to experiential marketing for one important reason. The creation of consumer experiences, whether at the level of the offering or of the marketing efforts requires for a complex network to be created with a sole aim in mind—effectiveness! The hard truth is that most people learn by doing or by trial and error, which can be extremely costly for a company and which can leave a stain on a marketing manager’s reputation.
Philosophers are not only able to envision this network, without losing track of its complexities, but they are also able to provide an additional and incredibly valuable insight on human experience itself. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not some abstract or perhaps even mystical story about the human spirit—although you may get that when you go for after work drinks. Their insight is valuable because it provides you, on the contrary, with a perspective on experience based on precisely those material means at your disposal.
A philosopher will be able to provide you with clear answer to questions such as: How do both reflection and emotion work jointly in the consumer’s mind? How can I make the messaging more persuasive without being pushy? How can I expect my customers in Latin America to react to my European campaign? Is it really worthwhile to make culture specific ads?
There are many grasping and interesting figures that will help you discover the great potential of philosophers. A few of my favorites on human experience are Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari,the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau Ponty. When it comes to understanding networks, few are as illustrative and acute as Bruno Latour is.  

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Friday, 20 September 2013

2 reasons why innovators should pay more attention to Digital Art

So, Why art?

There two main reasons why artists are essential to anyone wanting to innovate:
First: artists are the quintessential experimenters of contemporary society
Second:  contemporary artists work creatively with the tools that digital agencies use to make their own offerings

Saying that artists are innovators may not be a surprising statement—and it shouldn’t be. Yet, if your interest is experiential marketing then your focus should be on the work digital artists—also labelled often as Relational or Inter-medial artists.

‘Wait, digital art? ...what is that exactly?’

Digital art refers to the work of contemporary artists, who work with any one kind of digital media platform or who are interested in creating inter-medial experiences, that is, experiences that come as a result of the combination of different elements in their work (for instance, video and performance, projections and sculpture, or robots and lights). These artists are constantly experimenting with one sole aim in mind: creating new experiences for spectators.

These experiences can be, for instance, full blown multi-media spectacles, as in the case of renowned performer Marie-Claude Pietragalla and her ‘3D immersive spectacle’: Mr et Mme Reve.

An even more impressive sample of innovation, way beyond his time, can be found in the work of artist Nam June Paik. His 1969 Electronic Opera, made through a combination of negative video images, dancers, a background of music—where a fourteenth century clavichord sets the mood—and vectorial movements—similar to the popular screensavers in the 90s—work all in complete synchrony to deliver a powerful experience of the senses and the mind: a topless dancer and three hippies have their images manipulated distorted, and saturated with additional color; Richard Nixon and other well-known figures are twisted up; Voiceovers issue commands to the audience: "This is participation TV."—this is an incomparably compelling experience with a clear message (albeit critical) to it!

Artists working with computers can be traced all the way back to John Whitney, who worked with outdated military computers in the 1950s and 1960s. His innovative work was pivotal in making the amazing credits sequences in Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, Northwest and Psycho! As reported on Rhizome ‘Whitney was hired to complete the seemingly impossible task of turning Bass’s complicated designs for Vertigo into moving pictures’.

Other, perhaps less known, although not a bit less interesting artists are Frederik Heyman and Keren Cytter just two name two guys that always come to my mind.  Heyman works with a combination of photography, graphic design, and video. 

Wonderful samples of his work can be found in his website or while

Keren Cytter 2011 Avalanche series of short films is a work that I truly enjoyed—it makes you laugh, think and reflect on many aspects of filmmaking and storytelling. The films play with time perception, with character roles and traits which appear as bizarrely inconsistent, there is no clear story line, and the atmosphere is purposefully sabotaged through the use of wrong props and incoherent settings, etc. Take a look at one Cytter’s wonderful short films here.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

All you wanted to know about ‘Experiential Marketing’ but were 2 afraid to ask (Part II)

I have argued (see Part I below) that the key to experiential marketing lies in the way we understand the term experience. The term, I suggested, should be understood following 2 conditions:

1) A multi-level analysis, that is, an analysis where the different elements cannot be simply added and subtracted to each other, but associated as running parallel to each other, while maintaining a still tangible relation between to each other.

2) The projection of a sense of unity, which assumes the coherence of the elements collected, results in the construction of a cohesive structure, which is the network.

Just to keep things clear, the term ‘network’ is widely used today in relationship to social media networks, which are, no doubt, a type of network. When it comes to experience the concept however is owed to Bruno Latour and Actor Network Theory. It would be a long roundabout to go into the details of ANT, which forces me to continue rather to the way in which such form of analysis is applied to experiential marketing.

The question of experiential marketing cannot be taken as separate from experiential offerings. This means that producing marketing experiences is related to the task of rethinking an offering in terms of an experience.

From the side of an authentic experiential offering the key elements for the creation of an experience follow from addressing these questions:

·         What sensations are unique to your offering?

·         What reflections or ideas are unique to your offering?

·         What ideas do you want the consumer to associate with the offering at time of consumption?

·         What type of memorable experiences does your offering enable?

·         What other elements (products/services/persons) will help to enhance your consumer’s experience?

In a similar fashion addressing the following questions will allow you to construct marketing efforts that are truly experiential:

·         What concept better gathers the type of experience your offering gives consumers?

·         How can the experience of your offering be transformed so as to convey it through the various marketing channels available?

·         How can you use two or more of your marketing channels to deliver a more powerful experience of your offering?

·         How does knowledge about the elements that your consumer associates with your offering affect your messaging?

·         How can you use that same knowledge to promote your offering through the various channels? (e.g. create blogs, newsletters, infographics, etc)

The more comprehensive the answer to these questions is the more experiential your offering and your marketing will be. Answering these questions will, in turn, provide potent insights about your consumers’ attitude toward the experiential and, hence, will help you to better analyze and select the key performance indicators that drive your business.

 Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

Friday, 13 September 2013

3 Reasons Why Your Management Team Needs a Philosopher

So, you landed here for one of two reasons: either you are a manager or an executive and you don’t believe me, or perhaps, you are curious, mostly because deep down you, like almost everyone, have no clue what a philosopher does. In any case, you want to know what I’m talking about, so I won’t keep you waiting.

Managers must be good with numbers, they should preferably hold an MBA, and they should be able to encourage subordinates to be productive, right? Wrong, dead wrong. The reason most people believe in this is: either because they have climbed the corporate ladder thinking that way or, like most of us, because they think that organizing a productive team of workers is to an MBA what healing the sick is to a Physician. This reasoning is unfortunately based on the wrong metaphor: businesses today tend to entail complex interactions that are ill suited for technocrats, instead requiring a critical vision and a more creative approach. 

The first insight to keep in mind:

Adam Smith made a nail factory famous by using it as an example of the positive effects of the division of labor: divide a complex process into smaller, technically simple ones, and your productivity will soar. In Smith’s time there were not many factories, not in our sense of the term anyway. Chances were that if you adopted such process you would be able to conquer or at least take over a good share of your market. Today, however, the story is different: everyone knows about the secrets of division of labor, efficiency and cost accounting. This means that no matter how good you get at it, the advantage you get of doing so will be minimal in an established market. The key lies instead in being able to build complex products; to efficiently manage people doing complex not simple tasks—if you find yourself lost at this point, bear with me as I say a few explanatory words. It is precisely the combination of complexity over complexity what is mind-boggling for your traditional MBA graduate, who has been told over and over again that simple is better, period. The truth is that simple is better if and only if your product is as simple as a nail and your competition is not aware that division of labor exists. Given that they most probably are, then you need someone that is able to, literally, build complex offerings (the distinction between products and services has become blurry, which is why I prefer the term offering). You need someone capable of managing a team that can repeatedly deliver complex work.

Here, we arrive to the second thing you must keep in mind:

Organizing teams of people means having to deal with people; not with efficiency, process flows or any of that jargon MBAers love—those same MBAers that at my mention of the word ‘people’ roll their eyes thinking that some touchy-feelly story is coming their way.

Dealing with people is something we all do everyday all the time, so we should all be quite good at it, right? No, wrong again. As with driving a car, we can get pretty good at it, but our proficiency behind the wheel pales in comparison to the one of a formula driver. Our driving expertise consists in simply getting around town without crashing, in being able to Parallel Park, and in having once, when we were 16, showed off our ‘drifting’ skills to our high school friends. Hence, and keeping with the analogy, when it comes to dealing with people, a philosopher would be the formula driver and an MBA graduate would be the grumpy old man slowly driving on the express lane, and who, visibly annoyed, signals others to go around him. The point is that in business, just as in the highway, we do want to go faster. Or would you rather stay behind the old man, who would insist his driving is safer?  

If you want to spot the grumpy old man within your ranks, just ask your manager of choice a question of this sort next time a mild conflict among coworkers emerges: Why did X and Y clash over such a menial assignment last week? Or, why did X blow out irrationally in front of everyone this morning? Or, how can the people in Y’s team lack motivation and yet continue coming to work? If any of the answers you get explains their behavior in terms of personal character, personal issues, stress, or on it being a one time event, then you can be sure you have a grumpy old man in your hands.

You see, here is where the difference appears. A philosopher doesn't reduce human interactions to personal and professional attitudes and there is a simple reason for that: such view is entirely outdated and unscientific—the psychology of a person matters, naturally, but someone’s psychological make-up is neither stringent nor the natural cause of behavior. The key to a philosopher’s advantage lies in her ability to gain and maintain more than one perspective at the same time. Instead of seeing conflict as the necessary result of emotions or genetics, the philosopher sees it as the result of different but equally valid rationalities. Sounds complicated? It should, and as with any form of mastery it takes years of training to get there. Yet being able to understand conflict, as the expression of various points of view, is the easy part. It is being able to negotiate between them what really counts. A philosopher will do both and the result will be….alas! Greater motivation and increased productivity.

Lastly, the last reason why your company needs a philosopher is vision:

All companies have a vision, although usually nothing beyond a webpage tab dedicated to outlining some ambiguous future, where innovation is very important and they are the leaders of something. This sounds as a nice message and it may play well with an emotional approach to identity and brand cration, but it is not really a vision. It is not a vision if it does not outline concrete and attainable goals. Even if hypothetical scenarios need to be created, being able to imagine, to see the future as a concrete event, is essential to actually arriving at that future. Philosophers are trained to deal with hypothetical scenarios all the time; they are trained to create thought experiments and derive practical outcomes from them. The skill needed to see past-present-future as a continuum lies at the core of philosophical thought and it is not a matter of numbers. Economic or financial forecasts, as any honest economist will tell you, are grossly dependant on suppositions: suppositions about the market, about the demand for an offering, the behavior of your competitors, about aspects, such as technological innovations, prices, and the list could go on and on, for way too long. 

Forecasts deliver nice pictures indeed, but they are not visions, they are wishful thinking in the best of cases. Most strikingly, putting too much faith in them ends up transforming them into self-fulfilling prophecies—when they are negative—and in terrible miscalculations and unnecessary restructuring, when they are good (and we all have seen this!). The philosopher’s vision is, on the contrary, the construction of a future, yes, but more importantly, it is the construction of a pathway leading towards that future: the philosopher will tell you what has to change in the company for that future to come about.

So, next time you see the HR Manager preselecting the MBA’s…make yourself useful, and throw them to the bin once she is done.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez