Meaningful marketing What marketers can learn from fighter pilots By Brent Wilson

Oct 13, 2016

Go to any industry conference and chances are you’ll hear the same predictable encouragements: Embrace failure! Work iteratively! Be comfortable being uncomfortable! Challenge assumptions! Break your patterns! Be T-shaped!

All of this insight is intended to help marketers come up with better creative solutions, earlier. But applying the advice to real marketing problems can be overwhelming.

How do you literally set yourself up to fail faster?

Do you challenge your own bias at all times?

Why is it important to be T-shaped?

More importantly, how do you approach problem after problem with the same speed and enthusiasm the advice seems to demand?

Make smarter decisions—faster

Let me introduce you to the OODA loop: a decision-cycle that helps you rapidly explore and test ideas, and get results quicker. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act and is an explicit and actionable way to navigate confusion, conflict and ambiguous environments. In essence, it enables you to do something with all that conference inspiration.

Invented by a fighter pilot, the OODA loop changed how aviators think during aerial combat. Its creator, USAF Colonel John Boyd, became one of the best dogfighters in the world, earning the nickname “40 second Boyd” because he could outmaneuver and defeat any other pilot in that time. But the OODA loop’s potential stretches far beyond military engagements. In fact, it’s ideal for handling today’s fast and fragmented marketing world. Here’s how to put it into action:

Observe: Assess the landscape you’re operating in and gather as much data and information as possible. Gain an accurate understanding of the product and audience. Understand the competition’s advantages and weaknesses. Try to set aside your own biases and assumptions by asking the question: What if that weren’t true? Draw it, find connections, and make everything as visible as possible.

Orient: This is the moment of analysis and synthesis: the step where you explore different possibilities. The more options you can consider, the more likely you’ll arrive at an innovative solution. This is why being “T-shaped” is so valuable. In marketing, applying expertise across psychology, culture, technology, design and the client’s industry generates effective insights and solutions. But depending on the situation, understanding sustainability, economics, politics or engineering might provide completely unexpected solutions.

Decide: Choose one of your options. This should be easy, but rarely do you have all the information or time you need to make a sure choice. Though it can be uncomfortable, making your best guess is nearly always better than doing nothing. Learning from a result—be it success or failure—allows you to move forward. Slow decision-making negates the advantages of the loop, particularly in a fast-paced environment.

Act: Put your idea into action. Quickly. The faster you learn whether your idea is viable, the sooner you can move on. If your option works, you can build it out. If it fails, you can learn why, apply that knowledge and investigate a new and better idea.

Your competitive advantage depends on how fast you can move from Observe to Act. Boyd was highly successful as a pilot because he rapidly advanced from his last action to his next action. It’s the same in business: Those marketers with the tightest loops are able to develop and explore a greater variety of options and land on the most innovative ones quicker.

It can be scary to be out in front. And it can be challenging to get others onboard with a process that embraces frequent failure. But remember: Using the OODA loop doesn’t require you to overcommit or put yourself in perilous circumstances. Instead, it ensures small, quick learnings on the way to big, bold successes. It moves risk-taking to an earlier part in the process—where it’s easier to recover—and provides a roadmap for what to do next. Finally, it provides a way to accelerate superior work in a world that is moving faster than ever. That’s something every marketer can get behind.

Brent Wilson

Brent's our big-idea guy. As our executive creative director, he is always looking for the “it”—the singular, bold, brave idea at the heart of everything worth doing.

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What marketers can learn from fighter pilots

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