Why We Should 'Aim for Zero'
I recently came across Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
Having spent over 30 years as an astronaut, with over 4,000 hours in space, the book takes you on a journey from Chris’s early training years through to multiple missions to space. The time, work and dedication of a crew of hundreds just to send three people into space is breathtaking.
Chris spent seven years training for his first mission and 20 years training for his third and final mission to the International Space Station. 20 years for a 10 month mission.
It’s no wonder why so much of your time is spent training when, to be a successful astronaut, being an elite pilot isn’t enough. You have to be a skilled engineer, a competent scientist, a level-headed PR spokesperson and a leader of people. A successful astronaut means being the ultimate polymath, and to be the ultimate polymath, means constantly learning and absorbing new information.
I believe strategists are and should be quite similar.
We’re constantly learning new things about human behaviour and psychology – for example it’s only in recent years we’ve understood that behaviour tends to inform attitude, and not vice versa. We’re consistently absorbing and implementing new ways to reach people in media – there are now over 400 different content platforms we can reach audiences today.
We constantly develop new theories on how advertising works and what it means - if you had asked an advertising professional in the 1950’s their view on adland, their opinion would be hugely different to those today.
It’s no surprise when you remember that marketing as a fundamental concept is less than 80 years old. No matter how many years you have under your belt as a strategist, there is always more to learn. So how do we ensure we keep learning and developing as a discipline? I think we can look to Colonel Chris Hadfield for some answers. According to Hadfield the trick to developing at an elite level is to 'Aim for Zero'.
What Hadfield means by 'Aim for Zero' is that in life, in any new situation, you are usually viewed in one of three ways.
• As a 'Minus One' – actively harmful or someone who creates problems in a situation.
• Or as a 'Zero' – someone who’s impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or another.
• Or finally as a 'Plus One' – someone who actively “adds value” to a situation.
The temptation to most competent and capable people is to be a 'Plus One'. You want to add value. But the reality is that being a 'Plus One' from the outset, almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a 'Minus One', regardless of what skills you bring to the table. Why?
As advertising strategists it is our responsibility to help simplify the complicated, unstick the stuck and untie the knotty problems for our clients. And it’s all too tempting, when working as a team, to be the 'Plus One'. It can be our natural urge to barge in, solve problems and offer opinion without any consideration that we might have more to learn.
Problem solving is iterative, and there may be more than one way to get to the right answer. There will be different opinions and different voices that may be useful in helping to solve your problem or brief.
Orthodoxy is dangerous in any field whether it’s space exploration or marketing. I’ve rallied against dogma in advertising strategy as I firmly believe that there is often more than one way of solving any problem. I believe that we can learn from Chris Hadfield’s assertion to listen and learn from others, no matter how 'experienced' or 'senior' you are.
It goes against conventional wisdom perhaps, but as strategists, I think we would do well to listen to other perspectives, learn new ways of tackling old problems, listening to alternative theories and not dismissing an opinion because it doesn’t fit with your preconceived ideology.
Let’s avoid trying to forever be the Hero and instead aim for Zero.
Gen Kobayashi is head of strategy, communications at Ogilvy UK