Richard Madden: In search of a little intellectual conflict

Tough times call for tough measures. So rather than gold-plating your marketing planning process with elaborate problem-solving methodologies, now may be the time to experiment with a little constructive conflict in the workplace.


I’ve stopped going to dinner parties. Partly because I’m a curmudgeon. But largely because I’m sick of explaining to people that even though my job title is ‘planner’, I’m not responsible for that mini-roundabout at the end of their street.

Planning is a hard thing to describe, so often I default to ‘strategic problem-solving in communications’, or some such anaemic phrase. The main trouble with this description is that it implies there’s some sort of generalised methodology for doing it.

The reality is that most planners carry around a weighty toolbox of ways to attack problems, plundered from life experience, business books and agencies where they’ve previously worked. The trick is to pick the right tool for the job.

However, when it comes to writing responses to procurement-driven tender invitations, such naive honesty butters few parsnips. So I’ve been reading up on some of the more formal and rigorous-sounding problem-solving methods that are available to marketing strategists.

I started with James Webb Young’s 1939 book A Technique For Producing Ideas. I’ve always agreed with its central assertion that creative problem solving is essentially the art of finding new connections between old ideas.

A procurement manager would just about swallow this. Spun well, it could also answer that tricky question about your agency’s recycling policy.

However, the method Webb describes for spotting previously unseen connections sounds just too honest. It involves having a well-furnished mind and the discipline to sleep on problems. Unfortunately, no procurement department under the sun is going to countenance paying its agency for strolling round the British Museum every afternoon before heading off to bed with a milky drink.

To pass muster, a problem-solving ‘ology’ needs to sound altogether harder and more rigorous. Ideally, its inspiration should come from engineering, not from the humanities. W Edwards Deming, the inventor of Total Quality Management, was therefore onto a winner when he promulgated the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) problem-solving cycle in the 1930s.

His major innovation was the ‘check’ element, which introduced the idea of feedback into problem solving. In other words, test, learn, and test again.

Deming was largely ignored in his native America, but he was welcomed as a minor deity in post-war Japan, especially by Taiichi Ohno, who is largely credited with the invention of the Toyota Production System.

The notion of feedback is central to Ohno’s idea of Kaizen, or continuous improvement. However, Ohno and his visionary colleagues at Toyota embedded it within a uniquely Japanese and almost mystical framework of profound observation (Genchi Gembutsu) and cultural consensus building (Nemawashi).

Creative problem solving is essentially the art of finding new connections between old ideas

The Toyota Production System has rightly been called “the machine that changed the world”. Its many persuasive champions would argue that its precepts can be applied to strategic problem solving in any sphere of activity, including marketing.

However, like all prophets, Deming and Ohno also have their detractors. They argue that because PDCA-style thinking was designed to analyse and improve closed systems, it lacks the flexibility to take account of the broader competitive pressures that should shape any marketing strategy.

Enter Colonel John Boyd. Boyd was a US fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Through bitter experience, he became convinced that traditional strategic thinking of the PDCA type had one fatal flaw – it left the enemy out of the thinking loop.

Boyd promulgated an alternative which he christened Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA). For me, the interesting part of this concept is the ‘orient’ bit. To Boyd, ‘orient’ meant rapidly understanding your position relative to the opposition, informed by what you knew about the enemy’s capabilities, training and culture.

Boyd’s problem-solving technique became something of a mantra in the Pentagon of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in the years since the second Gulf War, Boyd’s thinking on problem-solving has come in for some serious review.

OODA was predicated on the notion of an enemy using known weapons in a predictable way. However, the insurgency the allies faced in Iraq after 2003 used new weapons such as suicide bombs in an anything but predictable way.

Luckily, the man who got the job of sorting out the mess in Baghdad knew that while talent imitates, genius steals. And the idea that General David Petraeus stole was the Tiger Team.

Mystery surrounds the origins of the idea of the Tiger Team, but many believe it dates back to the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts in 1967. Shocked by the loss of his friends, astronaut Frank Borman put together a so-called Tiger Team of contrarian engineers and test pilots. This crew descended on the contractors responsible for the Apollo capsule and painstakingly challenged every engineering assumption its designers had made in its development.

Accepted thinking was tested to destruction, even at the expense of some bruised egos. Which is exactly what General Petraeus did in Iraq. He created a Red Team of strategists with a simple mission to think like insurgents, and in so doing help others to develop more imaginative strategic countermeasures.

Conflict is never nice. But in an economy where the competition has never been less predictable, a little well-managed intellectual conflict may be a productive way of solving some of those thornier marketing problems.

Richard Madden is chief strategy officer at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas