“With great power …”- if you’re a planner you have a HUGE responsibility
I am the old school type of planner. I kinda like to call myself a planner and am starting to dislike the new name, “strategist”, mostly because everything is a “strategy” today. Making a simple call is a “strategic decision”. Having a coherent thought is “strategic direction”. Making sense is “strategic thinking”. The word strategy is, these days, akin to the word “fucking”. We use it as a modifier for anything (fucking amazing, fucking stop it, fucking idiot, just like strategic decision, strategic thinking, strategic planning, strategic route) but it effectively has zero meaning beyond being a sort of rhetorical emphasis, like verbal “jazz hands”.
But I digress. More on that later.
Planners, as opposed to strategists, evolved from a very clear background: research, and that was a position of power because the researcher was the one connecting the creative to the consumer. That power is, today, eroded because we believe that our own experience of information or, even worse, of reality is enough to drive “strategic thinking” (meaning decisions).
So this is where this week’s episode of Revisionist History, called Saigon 1965, comes into play. This is an episode about an intelligence consultancy supporting the US government to make sense of the Vietnam war. The long and short of it is: two immigrants to the US, of completely different backgrounds, end up working for this intelligence consultancy and looking at the same piece of research — thousands of interviews with Vietcong partisans. They both come to completely different conclusions from the EXACT SAME research. This impacts US policy and ultimately the course of the Vietnam war.
And as a conclusion, Malcom Gladwell says this incredible thing:
“That’s why intelligence fails […] the people who make sense of intelligence are human beings, with their own histories and biases.”
Now, I know I should not be comparing research on baby food or the automotive industry to what drove US presence in Vietnam in the 1960s. And still I cannot help thinking that, as planners, we have a huge responsibility in how we work with research. We can choose to say things like “the majority of our consumers say x” when only 70% do say x, or to highlight that “it is interesting that only a minority say y” when in fact over 40% say y. We can choose to showcase the safety of the majority opinion to the quirkiness of going with a minority opinion. And often we make a choice based on two factors: our background (age, preferences, interests, groups of friends, lifestyle) or our agenda (we need to prove something or win an award or persuade a client).
I think we spend little to no time questioning the scale of the impact we, the humans who do planning, have on the data we interpret. And I think we should think more about that because we have a responsibility to read data in the most objective way possible.
Equally relevant, we have a responsibility in how we internalise intelligence which has been interpreted by other people. A couple of weeks ago, I was highlighting to a colleague that 100 years spent with a particular ad format was genuinely not impressive if you divided that by the overall number of users of where that ad format was shown, and by the average number of daily log-ins of each user. It actually accounted for less than 80% of all users interacting with one instance of that format over a period of less than a month. Not as impressive as 100 years, which gives the impression of incredible engagement. A clear head is needed to not succumb to the hype.
For planners, intelligence/data/research, however you want to call it, is not something one can take lightly. And, clearly, our own preferences and agendas influence the way we interpret intelligence. This should be always on your mind, if you are a planner.