How to ask better questions

Great teams know how to ask the right questions at the right time. So how can we help teams ask better questions?

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Over the last 24 months, I have had the pleasure to work with brilliant teams and leaders who are all weathering change and transformation.

They say you learn as much from your clients as your clients learn from you.

What I learned is that the best most successful teams and leaders are not the ones with the best answers but the ones with the best questions.

When you think about it, it makes complete sense. Having the answers does not necessarily mean you are asking the right questions.

But it is hard. Most of us are trained to be the ones with the best answers. Why do we need to ask more questions when we already have the answer? We have the experience, we have the expertise, we have the solution. It is an impulse reaction, but not one that serves us terribly well today.

To quote a friend of mine: “A lot of new products and services that did not make the mark have been developed because people solved the wrong question really well.”

To become the ones with the best questions, we need to re-train ourselves to break through the behavioural muscle that makes us want to jump right into the answer. There is a lot written about this but very little practical support and tools to help teams ask better questions.

So we made something. We have developed a card game that helps teams think creatively about questions.

We call it PROVOKE, because throughout the moderated play session we use provocations and challenges in a safe and playful environment to help teams get creative, ask questions and build practical creative leadership skills.

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How does it work:

Our methodology is tried and tested in education and in industry and uses provocations to work through a real problem while developing creativity, critical thinking, and meaningful questioning habits. We allow teams to explore with play. Provocations encourage new connections with creative challenges and good questions about assumptions and habits.

The game is a catalyst to help break away from more conventional ways of thinking about projects and organisation in a safe and playful environment.

What do teams get out of it:

As teams work on a ‘live’ project question, we have seen teams walk out of the session with a much richer, accelerated understanding of the question, with new thinking connections and provocations that they bring back into the organisation. We have also observed the sheer energy and joy when teams allowed themselves to explore the question in creative, often non-linear ways.

We’ve been beta testing it over the last weeks and the feedback has been amazing. So we thought it was time to share it with you.

Let me know if you are interested to play.

Alex

Let's play Provoke!

Provoke, the creative game for big questions, is ready.

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We’ve been beta testing a new workshop and the reviews have been amazing so it’s time to share.

What is it? A half day workshop that uses provocations and challenges in a safe and playful environment to help you get creative as a team, and build practical creative leadership skills.

To think, make or do different things you need to start by having different conversations.

To think, make or do different things you need to start by having different conversations.

It’s good for teams and leaders who want to develop more creative practices across their teams.

How does it work? Our methodology is tried and tested in industry and uses provocations to work through a real problem while developing creativity, critical thinking, and meaningful questioning habits. The game is a catalyst to help you break away from more conventional ways of thinking about projects and your organisation in a safe and playful environment.

Workshops are led by Alex, Executive Coach, and Ivan, Creative Director.

Workshops are led by Alex, Executive Coach, and Ivan, Creative Director.

It’s a game where every card brings a fresh challenge.

It’s a game where every card brings a fresh challenge.

We explore with play. Provocations encourage new connections with creative challenges and good questions about your assumptions and habits. 


 

The workshop is highly engaging with team work, discussion and learning..

The workshop is highly engaging with team work, discussion and learning..

 
When company values kill brand value

Values are key to company culture, but when customers can see through your walls they become your brand, too.

Josh Levine on Forbes.com makes the observation that it’s easy to tell when a company talks to it’s customers in a way that’s contrary to to their culture. The key to aligning that story is with useful company values that employees can understand and work with.

In my own experience of brands that are disconnected from their people, it’s always a losing game. Employees are dissatisfied and customers can tell something smells. The customer experience is the sum of all parts.

Read the article on Forbes.

BBC Analysis - Maintenance
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BBC Radio 4’s Analysis show spends some time looking at Maintenance and interviewed Truth & Spectacle’s, Alex Mecklenburg.

As Chris Bowlby discovers, keeping our infrastructure in good condition is one of the most crucial and creative challenges we face.

They look at the creativity required in maintaining and improving the roads, bridges, buildings, and technology we already have and don’t look after properly.

Alex talks about responsible innovation and the role of maintenance and legacy in ensuring we make a better world. She makes the case for responsible innovators and says;

You can maintain something in innovative ways. 

It’s a really interesting look at getting maximum value from good ideas. Even if they aren’t your own.

David Edgerton (@DEHEdgerton) who teaches History King's College London had an interesting comment that helps contextualise the world we work in now;

Most of us are imitators rather than innovators […] Creativity today means getting rid of the idea that we live in a radically innovative culture and to set about our world in new ways that may not be quite as dramatic as the false prospectus that is on offer.

It’s definitely worth listening to if you work within an existing structure and have the responsibility of maintaining and improving it, whether it’s a bridge or a brand.

Listen on the BBC



Podcast: MegaPops talk about their brand, the ad industry, and their passion for creating a difference

“Live in neon, not beige.” - Meg

A few bits from their portfolio of work.

A few bits from their portfolio of work.

MegaPops are Megan Egan & Poppy Cumming-Spain, a creative team working at Creature London. They’re recent grads of SCA 2.0 and have pretty much launched themselves into the industry on a rocket fuelled with positive energy. Alex met them while mentoring at SCA and was struck by their charisma, honesty and wonderful work.

We met them in Shoreditch in early May and talked about how they built their team brand, MegaPops, the work they rate and how they pursue truth. They also shared their opinions about the state of “purpose advertising” and the value of doing real things rather than talking about them. It’s a refreshing perspective from smart people whom we hope go far.

Meg & Pops can be found at megapops.party

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We suggest you also look at Meg’s personal portfolio of illustration, street art and photography. She’s a talent.

How to add Spectacle: Where's the battle scene?
A dramatic reenactment of Spartacus fighting Romans.

A dramatic reenactment of Spartacus fighting Romans.

⚔ When Stanley Kubrick was directing Spartacus, he said, "You can't make a spectacle movie and not have a battle scene in it."

Kubrick was referring to the fact that he’d inherited a film script that had missed the point completely. It’s a film about a slave army who battled the Roman army for their freedom, and there was no battle scene!

It’s human nature to become blind to a story when we’re working very hard to produce it day in and day out. For most of us, we’re telling stories about the organisations we work with and those can too easily become pointless.

I think speed and efficiency are key but generally easier to do since you’re basically removing obstacles to help water run downhill faster.

Spectacle needs more. It doesn’t matter whether you design vacuum cleaners or brief in sales videos, every now and then you should ask yourself the question,

Where is the battle scene?”.

How to add Spectacle: The power of a lobster
Image from tate.org.uk. Art by Salvador Dali

Image from tate.org.uk. Art by Salvador Dali

🦞Salvador Dali understood the power of a lobster to make this dull telephone absolutely memorable.

Lobsters may not be your style, so think of a small element you can add to usually humdrum work stuff that will create useful cognitive dissonance (i.e. get some good attention). It can be as simple as a hit of colour in your PPT, or a well devised metaphor in a speech.

Courtesy of the artist Michael Keith Chapman

Courtesy of the artist Michael Keith Chapman

If you’re not sure where to start, Ivan gets his lobsters here.

Podcast: Katharina Wittgens uncovers the truth about fluffy towels, eye implants and brand purpose

Katharina is a Business Psychologist and the Managing Director at InnovationBubble. She chatted to Alex about the difference between truth and purpose, the importance of getting your values right from the beginning, how fluffy towels effect your travel plans, and eye implants.

The InnovationBubble are a business consultancy who use behavioural science to understand how organisations and brands really work.

She’s advised companies like Virgin Atlantic, Beauty Pie and Habito on finding the hidden psychological influences that affect their business strategies.

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Podcast: Jonathan McKay from Girl Effect talks about using brands to create a better world
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Jonathan McKay joins Ivan Pols and Alex Mecklenburg to discuss how Girl Effect use brands to improve the lives of girls around the world, and the role of truth and spectacle in reaching them.

Jonathan is the Senior Director of Create at Girl Effect, who were founded by the Nike Foundation in 2004, and today are an independent creative non-profit working from nine global locations and active in over 50 countries.

Apologies for the patchy sound quality. We’re still enthusiastic podcast amateurs. But in the spirit of getting an MVP done, we thought we’d share it.


Visit Girl Effect for more detail about their work.

Podcast: Silas Amos talks about cheering the world up with ink, remixing design, brand truths and lies
Artwork by Sir Peter Blake from a project with Silas Amos and HP.

Artwork by Sir Peter Blake from a project with Silas Amos and HP.

Silas Amos joins Ivan Pols and Alex Mecklenburg to discuss his ideas and experiences about truth and spectacle in design.

Silas is a designer and design strategist who has worked with Budweiser, HP, Eve Sleep, and Unilever. He does some wonderful collaborations with artists like Sir Peter Blake and the Yarza Twins.

Apologies for the patchy sound quality. We’re still enthusiastic podcast amateurs. But in the spirit of getting an MVP done, we thought we’d share it.


See more work at silasamos.com.


Truth & Spectacle Press Release - March 2019

Creative business consultancy Truth & Spectacle launches to help businesses rediscover their own truth and free themselves from existing agency models

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Creative industry veterans Ivan Pols (ex-adam&eveDDB), and Alex Mecklenburg (ex-Ogilvy) have joined forces to launch Truth & Spectacle, a creative business consultancy which aims to reframe how companies think about their corporate truth while also freeing them from existing agency processes to enable them to reinvent their creative efforts.

Founded against a belief that creativity and innovation have to be rooted in an organisational truth to be effective, Truth & Spectacle’s mission is to help businesses drive their own creativity, because creativity drives business.   But many organisations now base their creative efforts on their ‘brand purpose’ and this is limiting and holds businesses back.

Alex Mecklenburg, Co-Founder of Truth & Spectacle, says: “Truth fuels creativity but many businesses have confused their truth with brand purpose.  We help organisations uncover their organisational truth, the kernel that sits at the heart of everything they do, just as relevant to management and HR as it is to product development and marketing.  And in a post-truth world, this is more important than ever – we are all questioning who we can trust.

“Truth is an important source of creativity because it combines real data and useful facts with the feeling of rightness.  This unlocks powerful emotions that help everyone in the organisation understand how to create the best customer experiences, from stories and behaviours to products and services”, Alex concludes.

But even if a business uncovers their truth, they often get stuck in complicated and expensive agency models where creative decisions are made by external consultants who don’t have a vested interest in the business beyond the creative work itself.  

“The agency model is falling apart.  Many business leaders have abdicated their creative decision-making authority to outsiders.  In my past creative agency roles, I became increasingly frustrated that the time and money invested by clients into their creative efforts could have delivered much better value, if only managed differently”, says Ivan Pols, Co-Founder of Truth & Spectacle.  

“Client organisations have to be more confident in their own creative skills to become more successful and we can help them take charge”, Ivan concludes.

Alex and Ivan have already put their conviction into ‘truth’ into practical creative and innovative solutions for clients from different sizes and sectors; from large consultancy organisations and NGOs to tech companies and production/ arts companies.

The name, Truth & Spectacle, was inspired by film director Stanley Kubrick who, at the time of making Spartacus, was asked what makes a film great.  Legend has it that he said it needs two things to be successful: ‘truth’, the thing that touches you, the story that you connect with; and ‘spectacle’, it must grab you by the throat and make you want to watch it. The same principles are true for the world of business.  The ‘truth’ is the kernel – the strategy and the story. The ‘spectacle’ is built around the kernel – how that story is told.

Ivan is the creative director at what3words and was formerly the global creative director at adam&eveDDB and Ogilvy in London and Toronto.

Alex is working with a range of organisations including Doteveryone, Social Innovation Exchange, and Sky TV as a creative business consultant and executive coach.  She was formerly a client strategist at Edelman and prior to this, MD at Huge and Business Partner & Global Brand Director at Ogilvy One.

Having originally met at Ogilvy over a decade ago – and with over 20 years’ creative agency experience each – Ivan and Alex have worked with some of the world’s best companies and biggest brands.   Through their work they realised that, more than anything, businesses need to develop a creative mindset so that ideas can be challenged in order to make them great.

 
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EDITOR’S NOTES

About Truth & Spectacle

The complexity of great customer experience boils down to this: Be true to yourself and express it beautifully. Creative business consultancy Truth & Spectacle helps discover the truth that’s at the heart of an organisation and enable it to be expressed beautifully through products, services, stories and behaviours.  The truth is the kernel and the spectacle is built around it.

www.truthandspectacle.com


About Ivan Pols

With an eye for design and practical hands, Ivan’s career started in marketing and branding as an art director.  As he became more experienced, he started to really enjoy the big, complex projects where ideas must be bought by hundreds of people, influence millions and change the fortunes of companies.  He had to understand how large teams create together and help them make enough of the right decisions to produce a great result.

Ivan worked with Ogilvy and adam&eveDDB on their biggest accounts and finally became frustrated that as the market evolved their efforts increasingly delivered lacklustre results.  He realised it would only improve if client organisations become more creative. That’s why he co-founded Truth & Spectacle.


About Alex Mecklenburg

Alex went into the creative industries because she’s always been deeply connected with creating and making things that she cares about.  After diving head-first into the dotcom boom, she eventually found herself leading big global business accounts at Ogilvy. The meaning of creativity had moved increasingly towards delivering attention-centric shiny executions, with little or no risk.  Struggling with the industry expectation of walking into a room with ‘the answer’, Alex grew frustrated that many clients were seemingly handing over creative thinking, creative doing and their ‘creative truth’ to agencies and consultancies.

She stepped sideways to work directly with clients, often within teams using storytelling and coaching to discover their own truth.  From helping them to tell their stories, she also encouraged them to invite everyone into the story - teams, leaders, collaborators and customers. Co-founding Truth & Spectacle was the natural next step.



Alex Mecklenburg on maintenance and why we need better stories
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Jen McArther from Festival of Maintenance has interviewed Alex in the preparation for their 2019 Festival. It’s a great summation of her talk from last year.

Two things have changed fundamentally – again they are simple things, not big things. Firstly, collaboration and co-creation: inviting people who see it differently. There is a certain humbleness and vulnerability in these processes, whereas in the past there was a fear that openly critical conversations could kill creativity.
— Alex Mecklenburg talking to Festival of Maintenance

Read the full interview at Festival of Maintenance.

Creativity is dead! Long live create!
This a wonderfully (un)chained piece of graffiti from Mexico City. I love the duck.

This a wonderfully (un)chained piece of graffiti from Mexico City. I love the duck.

These are interesting times for the creative industry.

Traditional hotshot agencies are protecting their creative turf and talent pool with statements like BBH’s Sir John Hegarty that the in-house model is for “boring creatives”.

Big agencies are watching their bottom lines get squeezed into oblivion (read Madison Ave Manslaughter) and responding with aggressive resizing (Ogilvy) and mergers (Wunderman Thompson).

Old holding companies like WPP are streamlining to become a “creative transformation company”, while new holding companies like S4 Capital and You and Mr Jones are built on the idea that data drives creativity.

Not to mention management consultancies like Accenture who have seen the value of delivering creative assets, not just business services.

Organisations of all sorts are experimenting with in-house creative services, or subcontracted units of agencies, or communities of creative collectives, with various degrees of success.

The CMO of RBS has said that clients “can’t do creative communication”, yet 78% of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in 2018 had an in-house agency.

So, are they all failing at their jobs?

With so many opinions about what is and isn’t creative, who is right?

After 18 years as a creative at Ogilvy and adam&eveDDB I co-founded a consultancy called Truth & Spectacle to see what creativity in business could become.

A big part of my journey outside of the traditional creative industry has been working with an award winning tech company called what3words.

Over the last two years what3words has successfully scaled up to create most of its marketing, brand design and product design in-house; and we’ve had the same debates everyone else is having about the quality of work, striking the balance between pragmatism and belief, attracting and keeping talent, outsourcing and in-housing.

what3words x Airbnb with the reindeer tribes in Northern Mongolia in 2018. Photo by Chris Sheldrick.

How has a tech company like what3words become good at creating?

Early on the management team understood the impact of storytelling on the company’s value and sales, and invested in their own people to improve that skill.

There’s a studio but there is no “creative department”, creativity is the responsibility of everyone in the business.

what3words is confident in telling its core story through everything it does, whether it’s through products, sales conversations, video content, PR, or event posters.

And finally, we’re comfortable challenging our best ideas and experiment constantly to be fit for purpose.

When management consultancy McKinsey looked at the correlation between creativity and financial performance they found that more creative firms outperform their peers, so it seems to be more important than ever.

I believe we could do with less narrow minded rhetoric about who owns creativity and concentrate more on how we’re going to create.

In these interesting times it’ll take open minds to help the industry and discipline flourish in every organisation.

What do you think?

 
Creating a User Experience for Everyone

This is a video of a talk I gave at the Interact UX Conference which was held at The British Museum (///orders.behind.tanks) in October 2018.

I have the pleasure of being the Creative Director of what3words and presentations to a specialist audience give me a great opportunity to look at what I do from a different perspective. In this case, User Experience.

For me, the definition of UX is simply everything a company says and does.

But in reality “everything” is incredibly complex to manage, so how do we do it at what3words and what have we learned?

I explain how a 3 word address works, the design decisions that we’ve made in order to make it a global standard, how we work with voice, and show people around the world use the system.

It’s amazing what people can create with a few simple words.

Thanks to Henry and Nomensa for the invitation and for producing this video.

Maintenance vs Innovation
Creativity and maintenance go hand in hand. And in a mature ecosystem as much energy goes to maintenance as goes to creativity.
— Gary Snyder

Calen Cole at Stripe Partners does a neat blog post about the Festival of Maintenance. He quotes Alex so you know it must be good ;)

Definitely worth a read if you’re passionate about innovation.

The Festival as a whole was a provocative and eye-opening experience. It was also a strange experience – after all, Stripe Partners specialises in innovation. We spend our time and effort doing the research, ideation and facilitation that produce innovation that works. Our work is nearly always focused on new offerings, new markets, new consumer groups.

The Festival got me thinking: are maintenance and innovation necessarily antagonistic?
— Calen Cole | Stripe Partners
City Hall Digital Leadership
City Hall has been piloting a digital leadership programme, starting with senior teams, in partnership with @doteveryoneuk
— Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer London City Hall

Alex has been hard at work with DotEveryone and London City Hall on their digital leadership programme. She's having a fantastic time working with people who really care about leading with digital understanding and responsibility. New cohorts start in September 2018.

👏🏼 👏🏼 👏🏼 great work @petite_a who’s leading this programme for us at @doteveryoneuk - building understanding of digital and responsible leadership across the senior team at the GLA - it would be great to see more Mayoral teams do this.
— @CassieRobinson, Strategic Design Director DotEveryone

We can't wait to see how the programme goes from strength to strength.

Female Founders Program at PwC
Image: Kinga Incze

Image: Kinga Incze

Our very own Alex (fifth from the right) was a coach and speaker at PwC's first Female Founders Programme

Partnering with Blooming Founders, its designed to help startups scale in the B2B space.

It was an excellent day - so much energy, dedication, authenticity and openness. Made my week. So many shared stories and shared ambition.
— Alex Mecklenburg
Innovation obstacles and their simple solutions

Scott Kirsner writes in the Harvard Business Review about a study done for Innovation Leader about the obstacles innovation faces in large businesses. 

On one hand CEO's are happily not to blame, but on the other internal politics, turf wars and a lack of alignment are a monster cited by 55% of the study. 

Three things got my attention in the study and the feelings of the respondents.

Firstly, it was the simple inability of large businesses to react to market changes. Large businesses can lack structures or processes to test or attempt effective action. It means innovation never moves past the knowledge that something needs to be done, or a well-meaning strategic PowerPoint presentation.

...what mechanisms exist to set up collaborations with outside vendors or startups, or run a quick pilot test with a function or business unit? Too many companies wait for the annual strategic off-site to roll around before they address the changing dynamics of their market.
— Harvard Business Review / Scott Kirsner
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Then the need to influence corporate culture and create an inclusive innovation story can't be underestimated. 45% of respondents blamed cultural issues for a lack of innovation which is remarkable for such a poorly defined aspect of our working lives. 

I'd argue that it's a side-effect of positive innovation actions that failed or were dropped too quickly after people invested their reputations or energy into them. Few things reinforce a feeling of inertia more than I-told-you-so disappointment. 

Few things infuse a culture with self-belief better than turning ideas into reality, even if they aren't perfect every time. Start-ups disrupt with action, not perfection. 

Kirsner's final point cuts to the chase and is brilliantly simple, "long-term commitment is essential". 

Corporate cultures reject many new initiatives if people believe they are the flavor-of-the-month. When CEOs and other leaders talk about innovation, they need to make it clear it will be more like a daily exercise regimen — part of the way things are done here, from now on — than a magical incantation that delivers instant results.
— Harvard Business Review / Scott Kirsner