Don't Follow The Leader, He's Probably Lost Too


It Might Be Industry Standard

… but that certainly doesn’t make it right.


You’re embarking on a major new project. It’s probably been kick started quickly off the back of board room momentum, or as a reaction to a major competitor’s move that you’ve seen as either an opportunity or a threat.

Well if it’s working for the big boys.. it’ll work for us.

The logic is sound enough, IF it is working for the big boys. 25 years of experience tells me that swathes of projects are delivered top down… From a strategic idea or response to competition, through to a delivery team, via financial and brand governance, onto the customer and the project success measured after release. Often iterated in phases in response to someone else’s own response to their own failed strategy, the cycle continues.

Does this sound all too familiar?

What if the big boy did the same as you, in response to someone else? What if the heavy hitter with little practical experience had a big idea and made a judgement call, rather than an evidence based decision? What if everyone has just been copying each other and “best practice” is assumed, because “they’re all doing it”…

I can assure you that this happens a lot.. In planning, law, banking and finance, Ecommerce, transport, the arts… everywhere. It happens everywhere, all the time.

The information coming back from ops and the overworked marketing team looking for bang for buck is full of confirmation bias, too heavily weighted towards competitor analysis… Pricing has been set based on the competition’s prices, strategy and messaging based on brand guidelines and the competition; heralding a double constraint… budgets are set at the start, the project is siloed, group think has sanitised any sharp edged creativity and we’re all playing follow the leader.

But what if the leader is walking round in circles, and actually, who is the leader anyway?

It’s the user, the customer, the goal… the why. The best projects start at the end, they start with the desired outcome, move back through the user, the user research drives the project scope (if there is a project after all) and the scope aligns with the business values.. NOT the other way round.

Many years ago I was working with a board of a national albeit “upstart” professional services business. The latest addition to the board had come from the “big five” to make a difference. In the first discovery session for a major brand and web development project, he was waxing lyrical about how they did things in his previous role, and how the others in the big five worked.

I took him through the “what ifs” and it was clear that the strategy he’d been working to was a boardroom concoction, he confirmed that everything was delivered top down. In this case, an industry standard had grown out of a few ideas from a few vocal and talented individuals, all from their own perspective - a standard that neither informed the customer, helped the customer or achieved anything more than a vanity piece for the businesses concerned.

It was an enlightening afternoon, and shifted this board away from group think, to genuine customer focus, on to a couple of extra offices, a better segmented communications and brand strategy and ultimately a better business, a business later assimilated into a big five multinational, making several millionaires along the way.

I’m not saying for a moment that this was all down to us, far from it. As well as the business and staff being brilliant at what they do, it was the result of that board being the leader, not following the leader. By thinking of and empowering the customer, by disseminating the right information, to the right people internally and by delivering better value to the customer this business became a market leading brand, a genuine disruptive trail blazer. It became an itch that could be scratched and a huge success story of an acquisition. It joined the big five by outplaying the big five.

Our part in the piece was advocacy for their customer, stewardship of the brand and delivering this visibly and publicly. It’s the essence of our work. The processes are expert led, simply to provide the right framework and structure. We aim to allow the leaders we work with to see things in a different context and to validate ideas and opinions through the customer before being delivered to the customer. You’re going to end up somewhere so you might as well decide where that somewhere is, rather than just going the same way as the other guy…