Updated: Jul 29, 2019
The environment that marketing organizations operate in today has evolved beyond the point where traditional organizational structures and processes can be effective. Customer expectations are continuously changing, industry lines are blurring, and the pace of innovation is accelerating. As a result, the number of possible scenarios that a marketing organization needs to manage has grown exponentially. Furthermore, marketers need to be able to collect and respond in real time to many streams of data collected throughout the organization to detect market changes and optimize performance. What can marketing organizations do to address this complexity and continue to operate effectively?
To answer this question, let’s take a trip back in time to New Orleans and Iraq.
On February 3, 2013, a near real-time response to an unexpected event in New Orleans would go on to impact an untold number of marketing job interviews for years to come. On that date, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens met in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens were winning in the third quarter when most of the lights in the stadium went out, halting the game for half an hour. Within five minutes of the blackout, the Oreo cookie Twitter account tweeted the now famous "You can still dunk in the dark" ad. It would go on to become one of the most common responses to the "What is one of your favorite campaigns?" question in marketing interviews.
The Oreo team was able to quickly capitalize on the Super Bowl blackout because they had developed the right set of capabilities during the year before that moment with their "Daily Twist" digital campaign. For that campaign, they assembled a war room with a cross-disciplinary team that had all of the necessary skills to create and launch new social posts, empowered them to decide what to launch, and aligned them around a common goal of contemporizing the Oreo brand in the context of current daily events. This enabled the team to respond effectively to an unpredictable event with a relevant ad within minutes.
Almost a decade before that Oreo ad was tweeted, General Stanley McChrystal was building many of the same capabilities within the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. At the time, the task force was wrestling with how to respond effectively to the many unpredictable actions of Al Qaeda. That team had built itself into an "awesome machine," optimized to combat a specific set of scenarios through rigorous planning and efficient execution.
Unfortunately, Al Qaeda was an unconventional enemy, and the task force was incapable of quickly and effectively responding to anything outside of the scenarios they had planned for. The task force initially tried to adapt by planning for more scenarios and operating their machine faster and faster. They were unable to keep up no matter how much faster and more efficient they became at operating their current playbook. They quickly learned that it was impossible to prepare for all of Al Qaeda's possible actions.
General McChrystal realized that to be effective against Al Qaeda, the task force would need to trade efficiency for adaptability. In order to do this, he built a multi-disciplinary war room, ensuring that all of the teams in the task force were connected through a network of personal relationships, grounded in a shared purpose, and operating with the same set of data. This established a common understanding throughout the task force that McChrystal called their "shared consciousness.”
Once that was in place, he decentralized decision making, allowing people throughout the task force to act independently, assured that they would make the best decisions possible because of the shared consciousness in the organization. It took years, but by developing these dual capabilities, shared consciousness and empowered execution, he was able to transform the organization into a team of teams, capable of quickly and effectively responding to the many unpredictable actions of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
These two examples provide a model for how today's marketing organizations can transform themselves to remain effective in a complex environment. The command-and-control processes and siloed organizational structures that drove efficiency in a world of finite possibilities can't keep up with today's radical and unpredictable change. Marketing organizations need to instead focus on becoming as adaptable as possible by developing the twin capabilities of a common understanding and empowered execution to build the organizational equivalent of a mesh network. Although it takes time, this can be done by focusing on five key actions.
1. Ensure everyone knows the organization’s primary objectives and understands how their work contributes to those objectives.
2. Create common forums to bring together cross-functional teams that possess all of the expertise needed to accomplish each of those objectives.
3. Provide transparency through centralized, real-time data sets and common performance reports.
4. Enable decision making at all levels of the marketing organization, pushing decision making out to the people that are best positioned to respond quickly.
5. Encourage a test-and-learn mindset.
The first three steps will help establish the common understanding in the organization, and once in place, the remaining steps will institute empowered execution. Together, this will create the adaptability needed in the organization to rapidly test, learn, and iterate its way toward successful strategies. The marketing organizations that do this will be the ones that can best respond to unexpected changes in the market.