I ‘met’ Justin Kirby online, when he interviewed me (see Stowe Boyd on Socialogy: The Theory and Practice behind Social Business) and I found his side of the interchange insightful, so I thought I’d get him on this side of the interview equation.
About Justin Kirby
Justin Kirby, founder and CEO of DMC, is a digital strategist and producer specializing in more connected, collaborative, and social approaches to business and marketing. He’s conceived and executed over 2,000 projects since the mid-80s, from mentoring start-ups to delivering £1m+ programmes, and providing board-level consultancy for international brands around the globe. Justin also instigates, edits and contributes to book collaborations with academics, fellow practitioners and commentators that look at the current practice and thinking in emerging fields as well as how they might evolve, including: ‘Connected Marketing; the viral buzz and word-of-moth revolution’ (2005) and ‘The Best of Branded Content’ (2013). He’s currently coordinating a new book with contributions from authors, such as Charlene Li, Christer Holloman, Euan Semple, Idil Cakim, and others including me. He blogs at afluxstate and other places.
Stowe Boyd: You and I were having an exchange about predictions in the ’00s about social business. But business people seem to be going through the same series of stages that we saw with the media and other organizations regarding the social web: denial, widespread bottom-up adoption and then commercial colonization. Why are businesses so bad at predicting what is already going on right in front of them?
Justin Kirby: Interestingly, those predictions came about as a result of an online discussion between a very diverse group of practitioners, academics and commentators from around the globe. To say that ‘creative tensions’ emerged as a result of the different perspectives would be Disneyfication, and even the less heated discussions could at times seem like a parody of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Yet despite the discord, members of the group came together to collaborate on a book that included a set of predictions that have seemingly held up well.'Research by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith at the A&M University in Texas suggests that brainstorming often fails to result in innovative ideas due to what's called 'cognitive fixation' where members get too fixated on ideas from others in their group rather than exploring new ones from outside it.'
About 18 months ago I read an article on ‘Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work’ in The Washington Post [by Jena McGregor]. Research by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith at the A&M University in Texas suggests that brainstorming often fails to result in innovative ideas due to what’s called ‘cognitive fixation’ where members get too fixated on ideas from others in their group rather than exploring new ones from outside it. I mention the article because it chimed with the research into diversity you talked about in our recent podcast discussion. It might also explain why we weren’t too far off with what was predicted back in 2005. In hindsight, I think we were fortunate to have some ‘forceful personalities’ with no affinities to other members, because they had nothing to loose (and possibly something to gain) by being deliberately contrary and/or provocative. This may have saved us from a vortex of self affirming opinion, because as General Patton allegedly once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking!”
My anecdote isn’t intended to be thinly disguised advocacy for callously introducing stress as a means to bringing about more productive ends. I just wonder whether there may be instances where Robert Sutton’s No Arsehole Rule doesn’t hold. For example, scenario planning and ideation are examples where disruption is expected and to some extent embraced, or at least in theory. In practice, it maybe necessary for businesses to actually engage with a diverse range of personality types, rather than just think about diversity in terms of skill sets, race, age, gender, etc. This raises some interesting questions about whether certain personality types are any better at helping generate more innovative ideas than others, and if so when should they be engaged on what, and how would this ‘disruptiveness’ be facilitated.
This doesn’t directly answer your question, but it hopefully it provides a clue for how businesses become ‘stuck’, and also where to look for a solution. As is so frequently seen in nature, the antidote is found near the poison.
SB: Actually, a lot of my thinking lines up with that. If organizations want resilience in the face of a rapidly changing world, they have to accept divergent opinions and people moving in different directions and at different tempos. It has to be that way, although many corporate cultures don’t support it.
You mentioned that Brian Solis and I spoke about empathy at length in an earlier Socialogy interview, and raised some good points. How could deeper thinking about user involvement play in the discourse about social business?
JK: Part of my consultancy work includes the mentoring of start-ups, and this crosses over into Agile Development, User Experience Design (UX), and Lean Business Thinking. I think there are aspects of all these disciplines that could add to the discourse about social business (se below). However, it’s the core UX principles of User Involvement and Empathy that are possibly the most interesting, not least because they are embedded into the actual practice through the tools and techniques used by UX designers. These principles might provide a useful trigger for a deeper discussion about how they could be applied within Social Business, or perhaps the basis for thinking about a similar mental model and set of supporting tools.
SB: I remember years ago hearing Kent Beck make the case that courage was the most important attribute of agile development thinking. By which he meant the courage needed to make a deep commitment to the process of agile, and to not take half measures. I have said for years that all mastery arises from practice. The key tenet is that you must trust your practice. I bet that one of the difficulties encountered in attempting to introduce new thinking about business operations will require these deeply emotional attributes, like empathy, courage, and trust.
A last question: The central theme of Socialogy is that the findings from scientific research — in areas like sociology, behavioral economics, and social network analysis — hardly find their way into management thinking in business. What’s your take on the possibilities for a deeper, more scientifically-grounded sort of business culture?'I'm reminded of Gandhi's quip when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a very good idea.”'
JK: I’m reminded of Gandhi’s quip when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a very good idea.” Joking aside, I not only buy into the idea but believe in the necessity. However, some of the responses to the predictions you mentioned earlier suggest that there’s still a long way to go. I have some thoughts about speeding up adoption that’s partly based on the product seeding work that I’ve conducted and been writing about.
One interesting area to explore might be the psychometic profiling I mentioned in my answer to your first question. It’s something that doesn’t need much explaining because it is already used extensively in HR and recruitment. In theory, it should be possible to build on this understanding and usage to show how these tools can be used more predictively for relationship management, team building, and possibly even the disruptive dissent I was on about earlier. Based on what I have observed in the start-up space, the trialability is just one of the key factors for the adoption, but there’s also the business dating aspect that helps teams make better decisions about relationships with external partners, mentors, and even investors. This includes the preemption of possible friction, not least being equity and salaries, but also the ethos of the company and its brand values.
Pyschometic tools are just one possibility, and I mention them simply because I’ve seen how they encourage people to think about who they work with and why, as well as how they work with them. For me what’s also interesting is observing the users being more actively involved in the development of the tools.
This kind of feedback and testing forms part of more agile design and development methodologies and is another interesting area to explore, along with the kind of hypothesis testing of assumptions that lie at the heart of Lean Business Thinking, like the Minimum Viable Product. We are already seeing the language of these disciplines permeate through business speak (minimal viable product, lean, agile, responsiveness, etc.), it’s not a big leap to see how their practice could be adapted as a method for the diffusion of social business innovation.
SB: Yes, I’ve written some about ‘lean social’ a little, and you are giving me the inspiration to return to that. Basically, it involves adopting some of the streamlining of lean development into the activities surrounding any sort of cooperative work. I heard Tim Leake speak about Eric Ries’ Lean Startup principles:
- Work fast
- Minimize waste
- Expose ideas to real people early and often
- Test hypothesis
- Iterate in response to feedback
- Scale successes
These principles are fundamentally different from most business operations, so I think social can’t just be gravy poured on top of the current meat and potatoes. And it’s really about innovating, which again argues for a fundamental rethinking of how work works.
Justin, thanks for your time.
JK: Thanks for asking me.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.