Why Business Needs Poetry

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If you had asked me nine years ago what I wanted to be when I grew up, a career in business would have been at the very bottom of the list. A fresh graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I had majored in Creative Writing and Anthropology and was hell-bent on changing the world. I had written poems about “tiptoeing on the conscience of corporate execs” and was concerned that my decision to go to graduate school amounted to poeticide (the act of killing one’s poetry). In my commencement speech, I addressed my decision to specialize in Poetry head on:

“I entered into CU in the fall of 2004 as an English major. And I later decided to specialize in Creative Writing, specifically Poetry – which everyone knows is the best major to pick if you want to get a really good, high-paying job after college.”

The joke got quite a few laughs at the time and would still to this day. Poetry majors aren’t widely regarded for possessing the strategic acumen required to be successful in business. Yet, nine years later, here I am, a poet swimming upstream in a sea of businesspeople. My experience has taught me that the business world desperately needs poetry. 

Here are five reasons why:

 

Poets craft beautiful, memorable content.

The ability to effectively create a message that is not only relevant, but resonant, to a target audience is essential for business. But many companies overlook this—they place junior staff in communications and marketing roles and are frustrated when they don’t get press coverage. Good PR and marketing doesn’t stem from media relations. It starts at the foundation with positioning and branding. It starts with a message architecture that is injected like a virus in everything a company says and does. Without contagious messaging, a company’s communications are at risk for falling flat.

From using the right sounds, choosing the best words and structuring sentences for optimal delivery, the best practices that make for beautiful poetry also allow for beautiful, memorable content.

 

Poets are the yin to the business grad yang. 

In business, we occasionally fall victim to favoring our own perspectives. A hiring manager might prefer candidates who graduated from the same business school, or people who were in the same fraternity. Why? Because we get used to what is comfortable and what works.

At Cunningham Collective, we value diversity of perspective. Every engagement we undertake includes a collective innovation session. In these sessions, we put our team’s collective brainpower to work on a specific client, evaluate their problems and opportunities from multiple perspectives and apply the best solution for that problem.

My background in poetry provides a fresh perspective to these sessions.  Whereas many of my colleagues see frameworks and supply chains, I see story arcs, characters and context. Is one type of thinker better than the other? No. But they’re much better together.

 

Poets aren’t just right-brain thinkers.

The left brain/right brain debate is nothing new. Left-brain thinkers are viewed as logical, process-oriented people while right-brain thinkers are seen as creative and artistic. But a new study from Duke University has challenged this prevailing sentiment. It discovered that creative people have better-connected brains, enabling them to more easily communicate between brain hemispheres.

What implications does this have for business? It suggests that creative thinking types like poets are not only more creative, but they’re also better able to communicate between different areas of the brain to solve problems. And speaking of problem-solving, a recent Harvard Business Review article found that most of the issues businesses encounter solving problems has to do with an incomplete understanding of the problem. If those problems are repositioned or reframed in another context, a creative solution is more likely to become apparent.

 

Poets make simple the wildly complex

Poets have a rare ability to take a complicated topic and surface a specific feeling in a concise and compelling way. A great example of this is Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro.”  

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In this poem, Ezra Pound vividly captures a moment – bustling travelers in the station of the Paris metro – in only 14 words. This talent is not only enviable, it also endlessly applicable to business. It’s a beneficial skill for content-focused roles in copywriting, marketing and communications. But this ability to make simple the wildly complex can be applied much more broadly to UI development, product managers, software engineers, even executive management.

 

Poets possess inherent executive leadership skills

The Bureau of Labor & Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook sadly does not profile the job outlook, skills and work environment for poets in the United States. They do, however, evaluate a related profession, writers and authors. It lists the following Important Qualities successful writers and authors typically possess:

  •  Adaptability
  •  Creativity
  •  Critical-Thinking Skills
  •  Determination
  •  Persuasion
  •  Social Perceptiveness
  •  Writing Skills

This list reads like a direct description of some of the most successful, game-changing CEOs out there today like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Reed Hastings and more. These “Important Qualities” are must-haves for any executive today. They may even be the qualities that differentiate great CEOs from those that are merely good.

From creative problem-solving and mastering the art of simplifying the complex, to crafting compelling content that resonates, businesses can learn a lot from poetry. I just hope they’ll listen.   

 

Emily Stine is a Strategist at Cunningham Collective. She also occasionally writes poetry. 

In Defense of Positioning

My passion is positioning companies for success, specifically technology companies, and I’m writing a book about the process I developed to do this. I like to think of it as Trout and Ries 2.0. It’s a how-to manual for articulating what your company actually does and why it matters. It’s called Mothers, Mechanics and Missionaries: The Only Way to Position Your Company for Competitive Advantage. It is based on a framework that identifies corporate DNA and then helps articulate a unique position in the marketplace that your company can own. Identifying the ideal market position and articulating it in a compelling way is the end goal, but the process to get there takes into account the “DNA” of your company and illuminates positioning paths that align with it. Positioning without this alignment results in inauthentic descriptions of your company and deteriorates in a matter of months. It is the alignment of your corporate DNA and your leadership team that makes for a sticky positioning statement that attracts customers and enables you to explain how you fulfill their needs. We call this “Getting to A-Ha.”

Several weeks ago I explained the framework to the CEO of a well-funded and most-likely-to-succeed startup. Let’s call him “Steve.” Steve was looking for a new way to talk about his company as he expands his product features and seeks to attain more customers. He was intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that he went back the mount where he recounted my thesis to his VC seeking guidance for his own positioning problem. Mr. VC wasn’t buying it. He told him that as the CEO of a startup, he couldn’t afford to focus on one or another “DNA type.” He had to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. In effect, what he told the CEO is, “You have to be all things to all people.” Not easy to do and in fact, the antithesis of positioning. Great positioning is about sacrifice. And more importantly, it is about the discipline of sacrifice. Great venture capital is about picking the passionate founder who can also lead, about timing product-market fit and about identifying resources (like positioning) that can help turn ideas into businesses.

Here’s what I told Steve.

I developed a “corporate DNA” framework for positioning about 15 years ago to help tech companies get to a credible and compelling description of their market position (positioning statement). Credible because it has to ring true and compelling because it has to be differentiated from competitors and exciting to customers. Many marketing types figure this out in the privacy of their own creative brains and come up with something that sounds very good at first pass—frankly, that’s what I used to do. However, I learned that this approach doesn’t work as well with technology companies. First, very little evidence for the new position is apparent and engineers like evidence. Second, leadership team members usually don’t align with the new position because they haven’t participated in its development. Consequently, the solutions that come from this exercise don’t last very long. So I decided to develop a process—or more accurately, reverse engineer my own process, to determine exactly how I was developing “positionings” for clients. That’s when the “Corporate DNA Framework” was born.

It is a framework to aid in the determination of the best possible description of a market position. It is a bit like “personal medicine” for marketing. We look at the DNA of a company and help determine a positioning statement that aligns with the corporate body because when it is aligned, it is easier to execute and has a better chance of success. This framework relies on an intimate understanding of the company, its product and its leadership (DNA) as well as the competitive environment. 

The construct is relatively simple and it focuses on the dominant DNA of the three types of companies identified in the thesis: a customer-oriented company (think Zappos), a product-oriented company (think Uber) or a concept-oriented company (think Salesforce). I call these Mothers, Mechanics and Missionaries. Each of these companies organizes itself a bit differently, focuses on different success metrics and hires different kinds of people. They each express themselves according to their DNA.

And it turns out that each type has available to it two positioning directions. Mothers can position themselves around customer segmentation (like Garmin) or customer experience (like Lyft). Mechanics can position themselves around features (like Microsoft) or value (like Huawei) and Missionaries can position themselves around the Next Big Thing (23andMe) or cult of personality (Hampton Creek).

It is important to note that recessive genes play a huge role here too. Just because Zappos is a customer-oriented company doesn’t mean it ignores the product. Just because Uber focuses on the product doesn’t mean it abdicates responsibility to customers. And so on. The framework simply enables companies to develop brands that are consistent with who they are and what they trying to do. None of this precludes the prime directive of walking and chewing gum at the same time. But it’s the companies that know what they’re made of, structure themselves accordingly and exploit the hell out of that while shoring up their recessive areas to meet market needs that typically win. 

By the time I developed this framework, I had already done hundreds of these positioning exercises and since then, hundreds more with a perceptible increase in clients Getting to A-Ha! at the end with the added benefit (perhaps even more important) of an aligned leadership team on direction. This is because a good positioning statement is a compelling description of the corporate strategy and this exercise forces alignment on strategy. Once the company’s role and relevance are stated simply, it is easily understood by management and becomes a filter for ongoing business decisions like acquisitions, partnerships, management and personnel.

As a marketing person, I believe understanding a company’s corporate DNA type is critical. It not only articulates a unique role and relevance in the market, it also aligns management teams and provides differentiated descriptors for analysts and press, not to mention new hires. This exercise also helps to inform whether a new category should be created. All in all, positioning is an exercise of strategy that when done correctly cements the foundation of a company and informs all marketing, sales and HR initiatives. It is an act of sacrifice that ensures a long and healthy life.

Get to A-Ha! with your positioning too. 

Andy Joins GrowthPlay's Board of Directors

Our Founder Andy Cunningham has joined GrowthPlay's Board. GrowthPlay is a sales effectiveness firm that partners with its clients to grow revenue. 

"I'm very excited to join the GrowthPlay Board. This company is uniquely positioned to address a massive marketplace need for better and more effective sales. I look forward to assisting Dan Weinfurter and the leadership team in their ongoing merging of brands, sales effectiveness collaborations, and overall growth," says Andy.

GrowthPlay brings together a powerful combination of sales performance offerings that align and enable customer organizations to achieve their revenue goals. The company focuses on consulting, training and technology solutions to elevate sales performance and drive profitable growth. Bringing together sales industry leaders - Force Management, Chally Group, Incite Sales, Akina and Law Leaders Lab – GrowthPlay provides a tailored approach and a breadth of offerings that activate change at both the organizational and individual levels and deliver lasting, measurable results.

You can read the full press release here. 

Restructuring is not just about Organization

Written by Principal Henry Hwong: 

Having worked with and for several organizations that have undergone major restructuring, I’ve seen the same post-restructuring challenge that seems to linger long after the actual change has occurred. There is a certain slowness that the organization continues to feel, even though there was a lot of work to streamline the organization. You would think that fewer people would make for accelerated decision-making and alignment afterwards — that’s the reason for the reorganization, right?

But that’s not the case. Why is that?

A big part of the problem is that during a restructuring, the only focus is on the immediate cost, which usually means how many people can we eliminate and combine into a smaller number of organizations. What often is missed is the fact that the processes remain the same long after the people have gone. When I’m talking about process, I’m speaking of strategic planning, product R&D, procurement, time and expense policies, etc. Of course, processes are important in that they help a company scale, and usually fast growing companies don’t have enough process.

However, there is a right level of process for each size organization. The number and complexity of processes in a company should be aligned with the scale of the organization. When a company restructures for the main purposes of cost, 9 times out of 10, the processes are left with fewer people that struggle to maintain the integrity of the process that was designed for a larger company. Decision-making gets even slower — and before you know it, the remaining managers want to hire back those holes in the organization.

It leads to an ongoing cycle of layoffs, followed by a small number of hires, which leads to another round of layoffs because the efficiency gains aren’t there. It is painfully obvious with companies that have undergone a major reduction in staff in a relatively short period of time (over 30% in less than five years).

So, if you’re going to have to make your organization more lean, you also should look at simplifying your processes.

You can follow Henry on Twitter here

“Smarter” Procurement?

By Principal Henry Hwong

McKinsey recently put out an article to urge more partnering between procurement and marketing when it comes to spend. Having spent many years in procurement technology with many battle scars trying to get into marketing, I have one thing to say:

Uh, what?

Putting aside the oil-and-water aspect of the procurement and marketing relationship, in general, procurement processes work well when things are very well defined. Sourcing, in essence, is about aggregating spend into categories of common items and services to have a better negotiation position with suppliers. That’s what’s being touted in this article.

However, we are still in the early days of digital transformation and marketing technology (martech) adoption. Even marketing automation, the grandaddy of martech, still has less than 50% adoption. The ground is still moving under marketing, from an agency, technology and process perspective. The last thing they need, in essence, is a slow moving, resource intensive process while everything is still evolving quickly.

Yet, the article touts that “continual transformation” is the reason why we need these deep, detailed processes. What? Something doesn’t compute.

It’s nice that they were able to get a 10% reduction in agency spend and 20% reduction in media, but what it doesn’t state the internal resource effort needed in both marketing and procurement to undergo a five month agency review. Think about that. Five months of people itemizing agency spend. Meanwhile, in this uncertain state, I wouldn’t be surprised if marketing campaigns were also impacted during this process.

If procurement wants to work with marketing, epic deep dive processes and only focusing on spend reduction as the result won’t cut it. This article tells me that thought leaders in procurement still don’t get it.

Sounds like procurement needs a dose of agility. Agile Procurement. Now that’s an interesting idea.

You can follow Henry on Twitter here

Founder Andy Cunningham Chats with Lee Caraher about PR and Marketing

Founder Andy Cunningham sits down with Lee Caraher of Double Forte to chat about her career path. Andy shares her journey from working with Steve Jobs to the founding of Cunningham Collective. Furthermore, Andy shares her unique perspective on the transformation of the PR industry and today's critical importance of solid positioning. Listen in to learn about the true art of positioning, best-practices in marketing strategy, and how to scale a career in PR. 

Key snippets: 

  • "When it comes to service businesses, the idea is to give them the best possible experience"
  • "There are only really three types of companies in the world: customer, product, and concept. Respectively, I call them mothers, mechanics, and missionaries"
  • "My favorite question in PR: what does that really mean?"

Inside Our Latest DoubleX Panel, Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women in Space

On March 29, 2016, Cunningham Collective partnered with First Republic Bank and GSVlabs to bring together six female leaders in the space industry for an evening of panel discussion and networking. More than two hundred attendees listened as the panelists shared their inspiring personal stories and perspectives working in the space industry.

Check out the video below to see some of the highlights from the panel and learn more about the DoubleX vision from Cunningham Collective founder Andy Cunningham. 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Women in Space, Where No Man Has Gone Before

By Ewa Zwonarz

‘What we think as impossible is something that hasn’t yet happened,’ said Loretta Whitesides, the Founding Astronaut at Virgin Galactic to an audience of over two hundred attendees who gathered at GSVLabs in Redwood City on the evening of March 29, 2016 to hear six women panelists share their perspectives.

The event was organized by DoubleX, an organization founded by Andy Cunningham of  Cunningham Collective, with the mission to make gender in technology a non-issue. The audience included business leaders as well as high school students and retired space enthusiasts, all sharing the affinity for an industry that has stimulated innovation as well as imagination.

Tamaira Ross, Configuration Design Engineer at Blue Origins said that we are at a remarkable time in space development. ‘With the increased commercialization of space exploration opening to wider number of people, the issue remains: how can we make it less expensive and more available?’

For the teams at Planet Labs, getting to orbit more cheaply, has been on the forefront of thought. Erika Reinhardt, the Director of Product Engineering at Planet shared that there are lots of exciting things in progress – from commercialization, to designing renewable systems and components.

 

DIVERSITY & DESIGN

An important theme weaving through the discussions pointed at the fact that designing systems that work in space, can help us create solutions on our home planet. ‘Space teaches us how to solve really hard problems. If we can tackle them out there and succeed, we will be successful here on earth,’ said Tamaira. She added that it is important to consider technical diversity across genders and sizes if we are to accommodate millions of people who might one day soon find themselves working in space.

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenberger, a Retired Astronaut from NASA and one of only fifty-nine women to ever enter earth’s orbit, is no stranger to the importance of design. When using a bathroom during her 2010 mission on the space shuttle, she got nervous when things did not work with the necessary precision. ‘I was worried that things would…overflow,’ she said. ‘But thankfully I was the only one concerned. The others minds were focused on the right thing – the spacewalk.’

Dottie added that thanks to more women joining the space crew, accommodations in space have improved in the recent years. In fact, the latest class of NASA astronauts is half women! The diversity is crucial when working on space related projects, and that doesn’t only include gender.

Dr. Ioana Cozmuta, PhD, Microgravity Lead, Space Portal at NASA Ames Research Center said of her department, ‘We speak so many languages! Scientists begin with data and end with conclusions. Engineers do the reverse. Businessmen think of business first trying to find the fastest and leanest way to do something.’ She added that problems get solved when there is a balance of perspectives.

For Ali Guarneros Luna, Senior Engineer at NASA Ames Research Center balance comes from her regular interactions with people at Pottery Barn Kids, where she continues to work part time. ‘After spending much time in the company of scientists and engineers, it’s nice to connect with regular people,’ she said to the roaring audience.

 

SPACE MOTHERS

Ali’s story of raising four children while working to put herself through school did not pass without an applause. In order to get her degree and begin working at NASA, she needed to create a strong support system. ‘I’d bring my kids to school with me sometimes. I’d sit in the back listening to the lecture while my child was with me.’

Ali shared that NASA was supportive of her occasionally bringing her children to work. ‘It was important to show them what I do so that they knew where I was when I was not with them.’ The message she waned to pass to her children was: ‘If I could do it, so can you! Nothing is impossible. All you need is the right mindset.’

According to Dr. Ioana, having kids has been a best growth experience ever. ‘I could not get a Ph.D. in child rearing. Not even a manual. I had to figure it out myself.’ The mother of two daughters believes that being the best parent means supporting her children in becoming who they want to become. ‘They should choose what makes them happy.’

Dr. Ioana added that Bay Area could greatly benefit from creating a better support system for young mothers. ‘Back in Romania I had a whole neighborhood to ask for help. It was like having an extended family,’ she said, adding that here in the US it can be a challenge for young mothers who do not want to take the time off to raise their children in order not to be judged for not working as hard as men.

Dottie shared that if she could go back in time, she would ask for more support. ‘I got pregnant while I was in the midst of my space training. Women in the office who had been through it offered cribs, clothes and lots of advice. But the training was hard and I was hesitant to ask for help, which I should’ve done. After hours of underwater training in a spacesuit, I’d go to a meeting room to debrief. By then, I was so full of milk it was painful. I should’ve taken a break to pump, but I didn’t. I suffered through it.’

Loretta offered another perspective on motherhood while working in space. Admitting to having type-A overachiever personality, she said her identity crashed when after taking time off to raise her two children, ‘mommy brain’ took over her normally sharp acumen. ‘My self-confidence really suffered. But I learned something really important as a result – that I am not my job title, I am not what I do, I am so much more than that!’

 

MORSELS OF ADVICE

‘Our world is not perfect, which is great because there are so many opportunities for everyone to step in and improve it,’ said Dr. Ioana when asked about what advice she’d give her 22-year-old self. ‘I’d tell myself to take life one day at a time, because a succession of happy days leads to a happy life.’

Dottie would encourage herself to re-read Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go and know that amongst the adventures and thrill, there will be moment of slump and waiting. ‘And those are ok! Because they are places we all must know before up, up again we go.’

Erika, the youngest of the panelists, said that ‘a whopping two years ago,’ she’d tell herself that we are where we are for a good reason. ‘If you find yourself doubting, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. We all have these moments. It’s what makes us normal.’

Ali would tell herself to be patient and enjoy life’s moments to the fullest. ‘I would tell myself not be so afraid and to learn from my mistakes. They made me who I am.’

Tamaira would save herself many frustrations having known that she can’t always control other people’s behavior or decisions. ‘Sometimes a dream we have has to wait because we lack the support. But we are always free to choose how we respond to a situation.’

Quoting Sting, Loretta’s advice is to always ‘be yourself no matter what they say.’ Looking back, she said, at all the moments of personal achievement, she finally realized that success is not something to be attained. Once a goal is attained, a mountain climbed, there is nothing to be found on top. ‘I’d be back to my normal self in a few days. True success is having no distance between who I am inside and who I am known for in the world,’ she said to the cheering audience.

Another thing working in space has taught Loretta more about living on earth. Knowing that somewhere out there we might not see a cloud spontaneously form or breathe the way we do here, this awareness makes her more present and grateful. ‘There are over 1,800 planets discovered. But not one is are like ours. This one is pretty awesome.’

To read the panelist’s full bios, click here.

For more about Ewa, click here.