Wednesday, June 12, 2013

From the horse’s mouth

I was introducing lateral thinking and my Eastern European friends were amazed when I related that “I heard it right from the horse’s mouth in Manila when I was still wet behind the ears.” [Anacleto del Rosario, my mentor, and considered the first Filipino marketing consultant, brought Edward de Bono to Manila in the early 70’s. May he rest in peace! And recently Business Mirror had this article: Great innovators think laterally,” Ian Gonsher & Deb Mills-Scofield, 28th Apr 2013. []]

Because the logic was straightforward, my Eastern European friends quickly picked up the imperative of raising margins. And they thought that reducing costs was the answer. That is important and so is raising efficiency. But if a product is trapped in a certain “image and pricing,” cost reduction and efficiency could only go so far. I thought they needed to revisit the fundamentals of marketing. Here was a bunch of creative and great-quantitative folks and I wanted them in the classroom to learn something they thought they already had first-hand knowledge. They could talk product segmentation but, unfortunately, their brands were trapped in their narrow segments.

To set up the discussion on lateral thinking necessitated pulling out Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – to get them away from the classical marketing theory that a segment is targeted to an income group. [Many have heard the Nokia story: they dominated the high-volume basic cellphone segment because of China and India, but it undercut their margins to the detriment of the company and the country, where Nokia’s revenues and those of support industries were an appreciable piece of GDP.] “Our consumers are poor Bulgarians.” And so I asked, “How many of you have smartphones?” And most of them raised their hands. “And who wears designer jeans?” Again, most hands were raised! “We will move from segment-thinking to category-thinking; and that is how we would learn lateral thinking. We will do several exercises; meaning, we will not get there overnight – because it is counterintuitive.”

Today lateral thinking is part of the company. But it was a long journey. After training them in marketing and product development and innovation, they had to be trained in selling. And to “drive the solutions through to completion” I had to manage the sales force for two years. “[M]anagement consultants figure out the solutions and generally leave the implementation to others. I wanted to help drive the solutions through to completion,” Robert Musslewhite, “More than problem-solving,” The New York Times, 27th Apr 2013. In the beginning I would come for a month and leave them with several pages of what I considered solutions – with the expectation that they would follow-through with the implementation. They were very smart people and their facility with numbers could stand up against the whiz kids I’ve worked with in New York. They were logical thinkers. And I thought they were even more creative and artistic than typical brand managers in the US, impressed by their product packs when I first saw them. Yet, they would be unable to implement solutions for which I had provided “next steps,” in typical consultant-speak.

If I learned how to construct a business or a financial plan from my grandfather and lateral thinking in Manila, what then did I learn in the West? In one word, I learned execution – which comes from tough-mindedness. And that could be what is holding us back, Filipinos. We simply can’t be tough-minded? We are holistic in perspective and thinking to the point of being caught in analysis-paralysis? And even before that we struggle to objectively define a problem; again, because of our bias for inclusion – fearful of leaving something or someone behind? We have yet to internalize the 80-20 rule?

We’ve invited so many contemporary thinkers like de Bono in the early 70’s, and countless more over the years. And yet our inability to move the country forward would indicate that we can’t execute because we are too nice, not tough-minded? Poverty has been staring us in the eye? What to do? We think road shows overseas would sell our products or get foreigners to come and invest? They want to see tangible things get done like power and infrastructure; and they like to see us move from parochial- to global-thinking. We’ve been doing road shows overseas for decades. But that is still inward-looking – or “pa pogi?” Understanding what the consumer needs means reversing our thought process, i.e., to be outward-looking, not parochial. It is not about what we offer but what they need; and that is what we must respond to. 

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