Nobody Knows What's Going On

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(NOTE: This essay draws on a chapter in my new book, Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, which identifies nine radical branding and marketing insights for innovative business leaders to watch in 2010).

Ever get the feeling that you’re living and working in a fishbowl? All of the experts you rely on live in the same bowl. That means nobody knows what’s going on. We’re all inside looking at ourselves, like Flatlanders trying to imagine life in three dimensions. If an expert claims any more perspective that that, you should laugh and walk away quickly.  

Sure, anybody can float a theory, and most everyone has one or another; there’s no litmus test for who gets to talk about brands and marketing. So you can’t pick up a magazine that doesn’t claim to explain what happened in 2009 (and what you’re supposed to do about it next year). There are webinars every five minutes on the list of things you should do, follow, and otherwise believe. What pass for examples and case histories are stories written during the year, created in the heat of battle as folks stumbled through the tall weeds of expectations, variable skills, and imperfect perspectives on the shape, location, and substance of the fishbowl.

You probably sat through a presentation from a vendor, a trade show speech, or perhaps gave either or both yourself, always hoping to draw conclusions, and thereby give shape and reason to the chaos of what was going on.

Hello McFly? 

Here we are nearly done with 2009 and still I don’t think we know what the hell is going on. Worse, the exigencies of business require that we get with the program as quickly as possible, so I worry sometimes that our need for answers sometimes keeps us from asking the right questions. 

That’s why most of my Dim Bulb posts were ultimately about the same thing: what program?

Periodically during the year, I wrote about some possibility or trend that I suspected might be worth thinking about. I rarely had an answer, but I wanted to explore the possibility of different, better questions. While everyone was writing about the miracle of social media, I asked about what happens to trust and other externalities on which communications depend. Ditto for a counterpoint to the growth in crowdsourced fact, when I asked about its effect on objective truth. While most experts agreed on what was important to consider, I looked in other directions, and:

  • Contemplated the broader questions raised when companies selected to stop giving profit forecasts.
  • Wondered about the impact of presuming that "free" is really the new model for making money.
  • Pondered if the use of dubbed movie clips could be a new form of language in social media.
  • Got all confused about the purpose of mainstream media, if it only reports on itself.

Ultimately, I don’t think great prognostication is about being "right" or "wrong," but rather what insights and actions the process of prognosticating allows. It’s unlikely that you can make a safe bet on one POV over another, however brilliant the observations appear at the time. It’s especially troublesome when experts agree (what’s most obvious to the greatest number of them is often the result of a particularly confusing battle, or the height of those weeds). 

Here’s my advice for next year: don’t trust anybody’s advice, including mine. Whatever answers you are given, it’s probably more important to come up with more questions. 

And then repeat.

The Bulb Asks:

  • Is there an inverse ratio relationship between certitude and reliability? What’s most obvious now is probably going to be something we laugh about in a few years.
  • When an expert or vendor describes a trend or case, do first agree on definitions? One person’s "success" is another’s "irrelevance." Language matters.
  • Did you look to the past for ideas, or only forward? No matter how new or futuristic something appears, it has probably happened before in one way, shape, or form. Conversational media is not rewriting the rules of civilization, for instance. Check out what other people did when faced with the same things we face.

(Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs contains 10 tips on this topic and 8 others)

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