Green Homes Grants: the good news and the challenges ahead

July 10, 2020


When I heard the Chancellor announce a new Green Homes Grant scheme this week my ears pricked up. Over the last 12 years I’ve done research and strategy work, alongside the talented team at Behaviour Change, on how to get people to make their homes more energy efficient. Homes contribute about 40% to the UK’s carbon emissions and we cannot meet our commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 without widespread improvements to how they are insulated and heated. Yet despite much talk, and a Government ‘Green Deal scheme’ available from 2013-15, little has changed.

So what’s different this time? The good news is that the new scheme involves grants: homeowners and landlords can apply for ‘vouchers’ of up to £5,000 (£10,000 for low income households) to fund up to 2/3 of the cost of energy-saving home improvements. This is in contrast to the previous Green Deal scheme, which required households to take out a form of a long-term loan to fund improvements, with repayments made via their electricity bill, in line with the amount they should save in energy costs. A grant is a much simpler and more palatable proposition.

Another big difference is that awareness and consideration could be much higher and more widespread this time. Many households are currently alert to the different forms of Government financial support that might be relevant to them personally, and seem more willing to trust what is available and apply quickly. Again this is in stark contrast to the Green Deal, which received almost no centralised marketing and was little known and not well trusted.

But will this scheme get enough impactful and sustained communication from its planned Sept launch onwards to cut through?  We know that that home energy efficiency improvements tend to be far from top of mind or high up people’s To Do lists, and this autumn many households will have a lot of other more pressing concerns.

I remain hopeful but there are major challenges to overcome if the scheme is to have any significant real world impact. Getting these kinds of home improvements planned, done and funded will be a complex process with multiple points at which people might decide not to bother. What needs to be done will vary from home to home: will assessment be carried out by someone trustworthy and independent from installers (as with the Green Deal scheme) and how will householders find such assessors? Then how do people find and select local companies who could do the recommended work and do those providers need to be accredited in some way for the grant to be approved? At what point is the grant received – will householders need to pay in full and then apply?

In many cases to get a step change in energy efficiency we’re talking about messy, expensive and disruptive changes like installing solid wall insulation or replacing windows or boilers. While many of us remain stuck at home how feasible will it be for people to face going through that upheaval?

And the scary fact that no-one is talking about: to seriously reduce carbon emissions from homes we need a lot of homes to stop using gas for heating and hot water. That’s right: goodbye to the gas boiler supplying your hot water and radiators. Will these grants apply to installation of ground or air source heat pumps or even hydrogen based systems? If this scheme can massively expand an understanding of and appetite for these newer systems from householders and landlords, and rapidly create a national workforce that can install them, it could be a game changer. However the scheme is reported to last for only one year, which makes it unlikely that it can do more than facilitate smaller wins around optimising insulation or double glazing.

How successful Green Homes Grants become will depend both on the big picture and the details: the big picture of branding and communication so that the scheme remains salient, understood and trusted over the coming months; and the details of what measures are covered and how friction-less each stage of the process can be.

Contact me or David Hall at Behaviour Change if you want to discuss further.


The perils of loyalty schemes

July 24, 2015

If I had £1 for every time a client had said to me ‘We’re thinking about launching a loyalty scheme …’ I would be a rich woman. Companies get very excited by the potential sales increase if they could only get customers to buy once more per year, or feel they need to reward and hence retain their heaviest buyers since they represent a big proportion of revenue.

But I have many reservations about loyalty schemes, the marketing archives are littered with examples of programmes that launched then disappeared, and there is very little published evidence that they are financially effective. Yet here we go again … this time with a scheme from a brand I buy regularly, Yeo Valley.

range shot

I eat plain yogurt with fruit for breakfast most days and recently started buying Yeo Valley plain yogurt (or ‘yeogurt’ as they insist on calling it) every week because I discovered it was delicious when my usual brand was out of stock. I was happy to make the move because Yeo Valley seems like a well-managed British brand with a strong sense of identity and good products.

Eventually I noticed that there was some kind of promotional programme involving collecting ‘Yeokens’ (which you have to admit is quite a good name) via a code under the pack lid.


So (partly in the interests of professional research but also because I thought a good brand like this might offer something half-decent) I saved 5 lids and just went onto the website to see what you get.


I reckon what most people are thinking, if they’ve bothered to get this far, is: ‘what do you actually get, is it worth bothering with this?’. So what’s the answer here?


Well you can apparently get ‘Yeo Valley goodies, offers from our friends and great days out’ … but the detail of this (and how much you have to save to get anything) is not available unless you sign up to an account!  What on earth can the rationale for that be? It’s just asking for people to drop out.

So I created an account – not too onerous a process, but the fact that they say ‘we’ve made the form simpler’ implies it was worse in the past.

log in

(And what is the logic for including that apologetic message? Account users don’t see this page, they are logged straight in if they are returning on the same device, so anyone who has found the process tedious in the past won’t see the apology.)

So I set up an account and then entered my five codes – each 14 letters long, is that really necessary? Another ‘pain point’ at which people might drop out. Then I discovered that despite having bothered to save as much as 5 packs, the only thing I’m close to earning is a crappy trolley token keyring thing.


And the next item up from that requires me to save another 100 tokens – so I’d have to keep saving for another 10 weeks unless I buy a larger pack or other Yeo Valley products. Which frankly I’m not going to if the incentive is a branded yoyo (sorry ‘yeoyeo’) which looks like it would cost 50p to buy.

Surely they should be offering a better range of lower point items to keep people engaged early on? I imagine that the vast majority of Yeo Valley users don’t buy enough to qualify for any item in the foreseeable future, which limits the relevance of the scheme to a real minority of brand fans who must really like the products already and don’t need incentivising to buy again.

And worse, this is a risk that even brand enthusiasts might get annoyed by a poor scheme and become less inclined to buy. I must admit to feeling rather irritated by Yeo Valley now and as soon as you Google ‘Yeokens’ you see things like this:

fb2YV facebook

These seem to be referring to an earlier incarnation of the scheme but demonstrate the risk of disappointing your customers in any way.

As Byron Sharp (‘How Brands Grow’) and others have demonstrated with lots of examples, brands get big because of penetration not frequency or loyalty. There is not that much variation in frequency or loyalty within a category, because there are only so many times a week anyone is going to eat yogurt, and most of any brand’s buyers buy very infrequently. Hence any loyalty scheme or similar promotion is only likely to be cost-effective if it is able to influence lighter/lapsed/non buyers and is really cheap/easy to run. This scheme doesn’t look to be either of those things.

The only loyalty schemes which seem to ‘work’ are the ones for brands that people use very regularly (e.g. supermarkets, Boots) since you can build up points quickly … but even those schemes have understood the need to provide good rewards quickly. And part of the great value of those schemes to the brand owner is the purchase data at customer level acquired, which can then be used for personalised targeting of offers or sold on to other organisations. But to do personalised CRM is pretty sophisticated and expensive stuff and only very big, savvy companies can make it pay.

Thinking mostly very slow

April 22, 2014

I went to see Daniel Kahneman speak a couple of weeks ago – the psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for Economics and wrote ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ – which is a book I see lots of people with but which even Kahneman jokes that few probably finish. [I was given another copy of the book at the talk so shout if you want it.]








It made me conscious yet again of all the new insights and provocations that have emerged in recent years from the fields of behavioural economics, neuroscience and psychology, and the difficulty of articulating a clear point of view when clients ask.

So I’m going to use this blog as a way to clarify for myself the bits that I find useful and perceive to be connected, and maybe that will be of use to others.

System 1 and 2

Kahneman has popularized the understanding that our minds have two main modes of operation:

‘Fast’ System 1 (the ‘autopilot’): automatic, effortless, intuitive, impulsive.  Capable of providing instant answers to questions like ‘what’s 2 + 2?’, interpreting facial expressions, grabbing a favourite brand off the shelf or driving a familiar route, and so much more.

‘Slow’ System 2 (the ‘pilot’): conscious, effortful, evaluative, voluntary.  What we use when we have to pay attention – e.g. to answer questions like ’What’s 24 x 17?’ or ‘Who might be the next Man United manager?’, or choose an important gift, or park in a difficult space.

We assume we are primarily guided by System 2 – that we are rational, reasoning beings – but actually System 2 is the back-up mode that kicks in only when required – the vast majority of our decision-making is automatically being done by System 1. If we used System 2 all the time we would react too slowly and would be overwhelmed by all the choices available (System 2 is limited in capacity whereas System 1 has a huge capability to process every single bit of information perceivable by our senses at any point). And System 2 is described as ‘lazy’: people generally avoid expending mental effort – it feels tiring and has been demonstrated to be physiologically depleting of blood sugar.

A key point is that the two systems don’t operate mutually exclusively – especially not System 2. System 1 is implicitly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. Most of the time System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification – you believe your impressions and act on your desires (you follow your ‘gut instinct’). But sometimes System 2’s reasoning might override System 1’s impulses (e.g. when you decide that the noise that woke you up feeling alarmed is not actually someone breaking in).

Another key point is that System 1 is not, in contrast to the ‘rational’ System 2, ‘irrational’. System 1 generally makes very good decisions, using innate instincts we were born with plus knowledge, skills and associations we have learned over time. But System 1 is particularly emotional: feelings are often the main driver and feelings largely derive from our memories – how we felt in similar situations in the past is extremely influential on our System 1 thinking.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the work in this field but already it throws up some profound issues for marketers. We have long assumed that people make far more considered decisions about our brands and communications than they actually do – that all options within a category are considered, that persuasive messages are read or heard, that product performance is assessed objectively, … whereas in fact people decide extremely quickly and intuitively, based largely on emotional memories which are highly subjective and imperfect.

This connects up with something that has resonated for me in the work of Byron Sharp, which comes from the quite different perspective of mathematical analysis of patterns of brand growth …

‘Memory structure’

I have written before about Sharp’s book ‘How brands grow: what marketers don’t know’ and its provocative but convincing arguments (based on the work of Andrew Ehrenberg) about the need to focus on increasing penetration not loyalty, and the benefits of targeting light buyers.

Sharp talks about the importance for brands of maximizing ‘physical availability’ (distribution and in-store presence) and ‘mental availability’ (the ability to get noticed or come to mind in relevant situations, accompanied by positive associations that encourage purchase). The combination of these two things makes brands easier to buy – in Kahneman’s terms more capable of being suggested by System 1 and not screened out by System 2.

Sharp refers to ‘memory structures’, the collection of mental associations we have in our minds linked to a brand name, developed and refreshed over time through experiences such as buying and using the brand, being exposed to its marketing and hearing about it from other people. The more extensive, fresh, coherent and emotionally positive a brand’s ‘memory structures’ are, the more likely it is to get noticed or thought in buying situations.

Hence the key task of advertising is to enhance memory structure for a brand: to refresh existing positive associations and add new ones. And it needs to be ultra easy for people to process communication using System 1, so the more it uses distinctive assets already in memory (colour, logo, pack shape, executional devices, etc.), the more likely it is to be assimilated (although not necessarily consciously) and stored in memory, linked to the brand.

I am constantly amazed by how few marketers really understand this and put it into practice. We are people who love creativity, change and get enormous energy from new ideas … but this isn’t necessarily in the brand’s best interest.  This has been evident when brands change their design too radically – e.g. Tropicana allegedly lost €30m in two months and returned to their previous packaging. System 1 automatic recognition of the pack was decimated by the change of pretty much all the easily identifiable elements (remember that in shops we are often viewing packs using peripheral vision – which is blurred).









Of course sometimes brands need to change their advertising. But when everything about a memorable campaign that really resonated with consumers is left behind I feel very uncomfortable. Lloyds Bank recently ‘relaunched’ (from Lloyds TSB) and replaced their long-running, distinctive, charming and effective (IPA Effectiveness Award winner 2010) animated campaign with something that is visually, aurally, tonally and emotionally miles away:

lloyds cartoon

Lloyds 1






Lloyds 2








I have no evidence of the new campaign’s effectiveness but I can’t believe it’s high.

But nor is it usually in the brand’s best interest to just endlessly repeat stuff and not innovate with products nor refresh communication, since consumers will eventually get bored, categories move on and competitors may build up more effective memory structures. David Taylor of the Brand Gym uses the term ‘fresh consistency’ to describe the need for careful balance: to stick to brand ideas and distinctive brand properties but keep them refreshed, relevant and interesting over time.

Yet it is very rare that I hear any discussion of what those distinctive brand assets are and how they should be exploited and refreshed. In research we are inclined to despair slightly when consumers keep referring to old advertising years later, but we should be working harder to understand why they have remembered it for so long and how we can build from that. Where is the box on our brand positioning frameworks for this stuff? The only example I’ve seen is the ‘Root Strengths’ box on the Unilever Brand Key format.

In advertising pitch situations, or when results aren’t looking good, clients and agencies are too keen to throw out everything that’s gone before – whereas the more intelligent approach may well be to build from the best bits that already exist. I’ve been working recently on advertising effectiveness for Specsavers, which has achieved a fantastic return on investment through constant refreshment of the same memorable idea: ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ – used since 2002 but most effective in recent years. My personal favourites below – so different yet so similar:

Specsavers ‘Vet’ ad

Specsavers ‘Collie’ ad

Next time we’re racing to reinvent some marketing let’s think about whether there’s a case for ‘thinking slow’.

The power of introverts

March 12, 2013











This is a GREAT book. In my humble opinion – as an introvert. There it is, out in the open … and this book helps me feel good about it, whereas for years, I’ve felt a bit ‘wrong’, strange and nerdy.

Now those of you who know me may be thinking ‘no way is she an introvert’. I am not paralysingly shy, I can speak in public with relative ease, I get along with people just fine. But shyness is not the true definition of introversion. Yes shyness and introversion are often correlated but the way psychologists define introversion is much more about the extent to which someone recharges and gets their energy from being alone versus recharges and gets their energy from being with others.

And I am very much in the former camp. A major part of my decision to work independently is because I crave time alone and love to spend at least part of my working day thinking and writing quietly – that’s how I best do my job of solving problems and having ideas, rather than being constantly in the company of others, debating things noisily – the default mode of ad agencies and many other companies largely populated by extroverts.

One of the many interesting things about this book is that it reveals the latest research on how the brains of introverts and extroverts differ – i.e. there is a biological basis for introversion. Introverts are what development psychologists call ‘high reactives’: even when tiny babies they react more strongly to stimuli of any kind and are more highly sensitive to their environments. I really identify with this – I find open-plan offices really stressful, I can’t sleep if there’s any noise or light, I pick up on others’ emotions very easily. Whereas extroverts have more ‘low reactive’ brains so require an awful lot more stimulation and novelty to feel excited, take more risks, are less bothered by criticism, etc.

Part of the reason why I’ve always been embarrassed by my tendencies is that the extroverts have taken over the world – at least the business world. Business culture venerates and rewards the overtly charismatic, confident and gregarious – it is those people who become leaders. Business culture LOVES teamwork – indeed it pretty much insists that that’s where innovation and new ideas come from and many workplaces are now organised to maximise interaction.

Whereas there is an awful lot of evidence that very many breakthrough ideas are made by introverts – by people who prefer to work independently and for whom solitude is critical to enable concentration and creativity. Apparently Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Einstein, Van Gogh, …. all introverts. In my experience advertising creatives are often introverts, and have fought hard for the right to retain offices with walls within agencies keen to mix everyone up in open-plan formats. Not always successfully.

There’s so much important stuff in this book. If you’re interested start with Susan Cain’s great TED talk:

Then read the book if you think you might be an introvert, are married to one, need to parent one with care, have to manage one at work, … Honestly, it could change someone’s life.




When is different too different?

June 11, 2012

Thanks to David Taylor of the Brand Gym for alerting me to this piece of research via his very good blog. As a planner working with creatives you have to constantly deal with the tension between creatives wanting to reinvent the wheel and do something totally different in order to stand out and your instinctive sense that the ad needs to retain some link to how people perceive the brand in order to be easily appreciated.

Well here’s some neuroscience research that demonstrates the need to resolve that tension carefully – to achieve ‘moderate newness’ or ‘moderate incongruity’ (in the words of the neuroscience consultancy Decode Marketing who have written it up in a paper on their website) or ‘fresh consistency’ (in the words of David Taylor).

Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands observed nerve cells reacting to familiar and new information. When we are expecting something and the stimulus confirms our expectations, the brain switches off and attends to other matters. That’s the efficient response: why spend time considering something when we already know what it’s going to be? The researchers say that’s why most car crashes happen on roads we know well – our brains have switched off because they think they know what they will find.

However when the stimulus is unexpected the brain actively processes the signal and tries to understand it in the light of existing knowledge and expectations. The trouble is that this active processing of disruptive stimulus is hard work, our brains are lazy and won’t keep that up for long (see Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’) and advertising is not something most people are interested enough to expend effort on.

Further research indicates that a message that is ‘moderately incongruent’ with expectations works best: that total newness has as little effect as total familiarity.

I’d like to see more detail on the examples they used to come to this conclusion (and it would be great if the other research examined a spectrum of degrees of unexpectedness, from a little bit unexpected to totally disruptive) but nonetheless it’s an interesting conclusion that rings true with my personal experience and the proven success of campaigns which manage to balance consistency with newness (Lynx/Axe worldwide a great example).

The tricky call to make with a long-running campaign is when ‘effective consistency’ becomes ‘over-familiarity’. Sainsbury’s worked Jamie Oliver very hard for a long time but eventually they ran out of ways to create sufficient ‘moderate incongruity’. To my amazement the Walkers crisps campaign with Gary Lineker still seem to be pulling it off, but surely not for that much longer?

And did BT end the ‘couples’ campaign too early, when it was still capable of delivering some ‘moderate incongruity’ each time? The new campaign is so incongruous for the brand (in a way that the Adam & Jane campaign wasn’t, even at the beginning) that I bet it’s really ineffective: it’s just too different. I can see that the brief was ‘drive reappraisal of BT amongst younger people’ but you’ve got to retain some linkage with existing brand perceptions or it’s just too much like hard work for our poor brains. Especially when the ads are as painfully unfunny as those are.

Will brands be celebrating post Jubilee?

June 6, 2012

OK, bit late on the Jubilee theme here but I’ve been on holiday (and enjoyed watching the rain on TV from my sunbed tee hee). On a trip to the supermarket last night I noticed loads of brands who have done the Jubilee limited edition thing so it got me thinking about the value of doing so.

While they aren’t conventional examples of brand extension (in most cases it’s only the packaging that’s changed, not the product itself, and usually they’re replacing the standard product on shelf rather than requiring additional skus) it will have cost the brand owners money to do them so let’s ask the key brand extension question: Will the new variant pay its way? Will it generate incremental sales via attracting new users, triggering additional purchases from existing users and/or commanding a price premium over the standard version?

In the case of products likely to be purchased for Jubilee parties, the answer is probably yes. There will be lots of incremental purchasing going on for these events and if your product catches shoppers’ eyes as particularly suited to those events you will get bought more than usual. It will work best if the product still demonstrates the theme once it’s actually being served (e.g. Pimms, Tyrrells red white and blue crisps) but even if it’s just your outer packaging promising the desired jollity of the occasion that’s probably enough.


If you can make the Jubilee link fit well with your brand, you can gain something extra in reputation terms and add to the bank of positive brand memories in people’s minds – e.g. Tyrrells have adapted their usual packaging practice of an old photo and substituted the usual line below the brand name ‘Hand cooked English crisps’ with ‘For Queen and Country’.

However Lindt doing limited edition Lindor chocolates just feels all wrong to me: it’s obviously not British and it’s not the typical kind of treat Brits would have at Jubilee parties. I struggle to believe they got a lot of extra sales out of that.


Macallan likewise: not the right product for the weekend, Scottish doesn’t feel quite the same as Britishn or English and would drinkers really like this froufrou Queenie packaging?


When it comes to everyday products that you wouldn’t expect to be purchased in greater quantities for the Jubilee, I find the logic pretty questionable – especially if all the brand has done is whacked a Union Jack on the pack and there’s little strategic fit with the brand idea. McVities biscuits, Mornflake Oats, Kleenex, Andrex, … I’m talking about you. I doubt you’ve gained incremental sales and I doubt anything is retained in terms of brand perceptions.


Soreen: nice pack that really stands out so might gain some extra sales but ‘the Great British Summer of Soreen’/Britain’s no.1 fruity malt loaf (you mean there are other fruity malt loafs?!) feels a weak link.


Tesco English butter becoming more wholeheartedly Union Jack-ish with its pack is perhaps more forgivable because the Englishness is emphasized, it might qualify as a party purchase and in a pretty undifferentiated category the nice pack may be enough to drive some brand switching.


Ditto Plenty, where the product has Jubilee branding (not just the pack as with Andrex) and you can imagine it on the table or in the kitchen at Jubilee parties.


Heinz and Kelloggs have taken the approach of returning to their packaging from the fifties.


This nicely reinforces their longevity but I doubt drives incremental sales. A Kelloggs spokesman is reported as saying they think consumers will want the packs as souvenirs -?!? I don’t think so. And without the Union Jack element it’s actually quite hard to notice the packs have changed, especially for Heinz.

Then some brands have gone even further and changed their names. Ma’amite: genius – funny, it’s a British icon, ‘toasting the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee’ is a nice touch and it’s very consistent with their marketing approach of having some fun and doing limited editions. You can definitely imagine people buying a lot of these to have in the cupboard, just to enjoy the idea in weeks to come.


BritKat: OK but no cigar. While it feels quite a very British brand (albeit not a British company) it feels a bit ordinary to be a product for Jubilee parties, it just falls rather flat for me.



Queensmill: Hmm.


In abstract a fairly clever idea but in execution it’s too subtle for me: without the Union Jack cues I think you miss it completely and it’s just not funny enough to stick in the mind. Apparently they’ve done a TV ad for it, which I haven’t seen, but that massively increases the cost of doing it so you’d have to get a major uplift in sales to break even … I bet they don’t. Am resisting a lame joke about not making enough bread. Or dough. Better stop now.

The value of a Facebook fan – or not?

May 15, 2012

No doubt we’ve all experienced, either as consumers or marketers or both, the tendency for brands these days to be desperate for you to ‘like’ their brand on Facebook, with bribes often offered in return. I guess the motivations are that brands think it demonstrates customer engagement, the friends of the likers will see the endorsement and be somehow positively influenced by it, it allows a brand to get into someone’s newsfeed with its updates and content and thereby increase their involvement, etc. But to what extent does liking a brand actually demonstrate any real interest in or commitment to a brand, rather than just a way to get access to a prize draw or whatever?

In this month’s Admap there’s an interesting piece of analysis about the extent to which fans of a brand on Facebook actually interact with the brand beyond their first ‘like’. It’s from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, where Byron Sharp of ‘How Brands Grow’ works – I’ve posted about him/them before because they bring some much-needed empiricism and clear thinking to the gut-feel-led world of marketing.

They’ve analysed the newish Facebook measure ‘People talking about this’, which counts any direct interaction with a brand page such as initial liking, liking content, posting to a wall, commenting, sharing a post or content, photo tagging, checking in or RSVP-ing to an event.


Over six weeks they calculated the average weekly PTAT versus the average weekly fan numbers (likers) for the top 200 brands by fan numbers on Facebook. In any of these weeks, less than 0.5% of brand fans engaged with the brand on Facebook. So 99.5% of your brand fans in any given week didn’t interact with the brand on Facebook in any measurable way – although they may have read the brand’s posts in their news feeds I guess.

The engagement levels vary only a little by category, with cars and alcohol brands getting the most engagement, but still less than 1% of brand fans interacting per week, and financial services the least. Even the cool brands that we might imagine would have higher than average interaction (Nike, Harley-Davidson, D&G, Jack Daniels, …) don’t get significantly higher engagement.

And the vast majority of growth in the PTAT number is explained by growth in the number of likers – i.e. the bulk of what we see as brand engagement is just the initial liking. Plus what they don’t mention but is pretty clear is that the number of likers is always a tiny fraction of the penetration of a brand – looking at my clients’ brands for which I know the penetration it looks like the number of likers is about 1-2% of total customer numbers.

So should we despair about our inability to drive social media engagement at any scale? Or are we prioritizing the wrong thing, since there is no real evidence that I know of that this kind of engagement correlates with sales? It feels like this is another example of marketers’ tendency to get distracted by a pursuit of brand loyalty rather than brand penetration.

Consumers don’t care about brands that much. They develop habits primarily because it’s convenient to do so, not because they want to be in a relationship with a brand. Yet because we ourselves are in a relationship with the brands we work for or with, we seem to find that so hard to accept.

The full article is published here for free at the moment:

Social sensitivity beats IQ for groups

February 2, 2012

I’ve just come across some research by MIT (via Johnnie Moore – a great facilitator whose facilitation training I attended a while ago) showing that a group’s performance at a variety of tasks is much more strongly correlated to its social sensitivity (the extent to which members are able to perceive accurately each other’s emotions) than to the collective IQ of its members.

A group with total higher IQ might be better at one or two tasks but the groups which were very good at a wide range of tasks were characterised by three factors:

High average social sensitivity
A high rate of sharing who gets to communicate
The presence of women

Predictably this has been reported as ‘women make groups better’. Which is true up to a point but actually when the researchers controlled for the presence of women in groups the social sensitivity factor won out.

This absolutely chimes with what I observe in workshops: you might think that a group containing a particularly smart person will excel but if that person doesn’t allow their group to contribute fully the team doesn’t benefit from the collective expertise and probably won’t progress as far as one that is supportive and encourages everyone to take turns applying their insight to the problem. Interestingly the research says that factors like group cohesion don’t matter much, so it’s not necessarily about putting together people who can get on well, but rather people who will be sensitive to each other and ‘play well’ together. And yes in my experience women generally do that more easily than men.

But I’m left thinking ‘what about Steve Jobs?’. I haven’t read the autobiography yet but from what I gather he was the antithesis of socially sensitive. Do some tasks (e.g. doing something transformational and never-done-before and/or managing huge collaborations) fall outside of these principles? What role does leadership play in all this?

And it’s made me pull out a book that’s now 15 years old but looking at it now I’m remind of how brilliant it is: ‘Organizing Genius’ by Warren Bennis.

He tells great stories about some historical great groups (e.g. the Manhattan Project, the turnaround of Disney, the development of the first PC) and draws some general conclusions about Great Groups which are still very relevant today I think. Every time I use them with clients they ask for a copy so here they are in full:

1. Greatness starts with superb people
2. Great Groups and great leaders create each other
3. Every Great Group has a strong leader
4. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it
5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together
6. Great Groups think they on a mission from God
7. Every Great Group is an island – but an island with a bridge to the mainland
8. Great Groups see themselves as winning underdogs
9. Great Groups always have an enemy
10. People in Great Groups have blinders [blinkers] on
11. Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic
12. In Great Groups the right person has the right job
13. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest
14. Great Groups ship
15. Great work is its own reward

The whole book is worth a read but most pertinent to this discussion:

5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together: Bennis says yes of course you need amazing talent but there’s no point recruiting geniuses who cannot collaborate well. But this doesn’t mean you have to have amiable nice people – indeed Great Groups are more tolerant than ordinary ones of personal idiosyncrasies, because they are so focused on their goal.

3. Every Great Group has a strong leader: It’s interesting to read how Bennis defines great leaders for this kind of high-performing groups – not as a typical ‘boss’ who directs in a ‘parent-child’ way but rather someone who considers it their mission to enable the others to do their great work. This kind of leader persuades the right people to come on board and then creates the right conditions for them: protecting them form above, giving them enough autonomy, managing their stress and freeing them of anything that gets in the way.

Which in turn reminds me of Adam Morgan’s concept of the Smokejumper in ‘The Pirate Inside’, his book about how to create challenger brand cultures. The term comes from firefighting in forests in North America where the smokejumpers are the people who fly low and spot small fires and parachute in to cut a firebreak and stop things getting out of control.

Adam says challenger brand teams (especially those within big organisations) need a Smokejumper  as a kind of sponsor who protects them from high up, is actively watching to see if problems emerge and takes preventative action – but then gets the hell out and lets the people on the ground get on with it. So it’s not about the more passive kind of sponsor but someone who’s actually prepared to DO stuff. There are some good examples in the book.






The link between maths and creativity

October 19, 2011

This was the subject of a cool talk by Jon Leach for the Account Planning Group last night. Jon is a planning guru and maths geek yet also entertaining. Spooky I know.

The bit I remembered most this morning was the formula he shared regarding creativity (he said it came from Doug Hall, the American marketing/innovation guy):

C = D x S / F

The Creativity in the room equals the Diversity of the people multiplied by the amount of Stimulation, divided by the level of Fear. Makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? And I think it gets more powerful when you try out some numbers, as Jon did.

Assume D, S and F operate on a simple three point scale – i.e. if Diversity is low we give it a 1, if it’s high we give it a 3 and so on. You will no doubt quickly appreciate that on this scale the maximum Creativity is 9: Diversity 3 x Stimulation 3, divided by Fear 1.

And the minimum Creativity is Diversity 1 x Stimulation 1, divided by Fear 3 = 1/3. So a difference of 27 times between the most and least creative situation you can set up. Which is a lot.

Imagine the typical workshop where you’ve made a bit of an effort with Diversity (e.g. you’ve got someone from R&D, maybe an ‘outside expert’) and brought together some half-decent Stimulus so you allocate both of those a score of 2 and get 4.

But if the Fear in the room is reasonably high and also 2  (the client-agency relationship is at a low point, the big boss needs an answer by the end of the week, …) your Creativity ends up being only 2, so quite rubbish. The Fear is a real killer, no matter how good your planning.

Another interesting bit was about the creativity of groups. Working with others increases creativity because each person brings their own ideas and presumably they are multiplicative rather than additive since the ideas can be combined in different ways. But the trouble is that the more people in the group the higher the Social Cost: the challenges of getting along with each other, doing the difficult and emotionally vulnerable work of creativity together.

With three people there are three Social Units: the dynamics between each pair of people and between the threesome. With four people there are 11 Social Units (I think) because there are six possible pairs, three possible threesomes and one foursome. So the Social Cost will go up rapidly and counteract the additional Creativity.

Jon Leach reckons that creative output is optimized at about 4 people, or 5 if they know each other really well – i.e. the number of people you can into a taxi. So for meetings where we are doing (or presumably reviewing) creative work we shouldn’t have loads of people present. Maybe we should have the meetings in taxis to enforce the discipline.

And it explains why in workshops we tend to break people into groups of about 4 for doing teamwork. I’ve realised for a while that any bigger than that and the teams don’t cohere and work together well (you get factions, or a non-contributor or two) but this explains it mathematically. How very pleasing.



Tell Boris what you think

October 18, 2011

That’s the heading of a letter/questionnaire I got in the post yesterday from the ‘Boris for Mayor’ camp. Well Boris, what I think is: this survey is a very clever way of drawing people in to support you.

It’s nicely designed and inviting, and it primarily looks like a survey with proper questions about what you think London’s key issues are. So you think ‘gosh, Boris really wants to know what I think’. Good start.

Plus his team get useful research feedback on priority issues for the electorate and can play the results back to us in their communication so we feel listened to. I predict in the future we’ll some ‘Londoners told us that … so we …’ in public communications and if they’re really smart I might get some direct mail acknowledging my answers and giving me some targeted information.

Then you realise they’ve cleverly begun a lot of the questions with an assertion of Boris’s achievements in that area: ‘Boris Johnson has secured the biggest upgrade of the Tube network on record. What is the next part of the transport network you would like to see upgraded?’. In so doing they get you to read about his achievements by stealth and, importantly, I think the mere act of ticking a box underneath in some way creates a level of acceptance of the assertion in your mind.

The question is constructed in such a way that you don’t get invited to consider whether you actually believe he can truly claim the credit for the Tube upgrade and aren’t able to have a whinge about the Tube upgrade (which frankly all Londoners would want to do) but rather you are encouraged to accept that he has ‘sorted’ the Tube and only asked to comment on ‘what next?’. I think that’s really clever.

I even like the way they call their campaign BackBoris2012: the alliteration, the acknowledgement that he’s a one-name brand and the purloining of 2012 as a strong Olympics-related equity that many Londoners feel good about. I am not a natural Tory at all but you’ve got to admit these people are good at marketing. The bikes are a brilliant way of getting re-elected. I feel I’ve heard nothing from Ken at all.