Being Like Everyone Else
Blair restrains himself from going off on a rant about who his clients choose to learn from.
DAVID C. BAKER: Blair I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions today, I’m gonna put on you on the spot. The subject is something that you’ve been thinking about for a while, it’s this notion of, of you know sources or examples of inspiration. Like who do, who do we learn from? Who do principals, particularly your clients the people who go through your training program who do they learn from? What are their, what are their sources of inspiration? What, what … First of all, what got you thinking about this and has it been going on in your mind for a while or just something recent?
BLAIR ENNS: I had to do a little meditative exercise before this recording because my goal here is not to go crazy, not to go off on some sort of rant. Because it’s a topic (laughs) that’s just, it’s like clawing at me or claw, it’s ah, it’s like a burr under my saddle, um.
DAVID: So my goal is to get you on the rant …
BLAIR: Yeah, I know, I know …
DAVID: … oh I to see.
BLAIR: … I never should have admitted that.
BLAIR: Yeah, it’s like there is nowhere to go from here but just in the [inaudible 00:01:23] (laughs).
DAVID: So when does this, when does this ah, hit you? Like what are some of the triggers for this, things you hear?
BLAIR: So it’s always the same trigger and it’ll be um, sometimes I hear it in a sales call when I’m talking to somebody who is considering signing up for our training program. But more often I hear it um, as a complaint from a client, somebody who is in our training program.
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: And it’s when we are talking about peer, the peer to peer learning that’s part of our program where we put firms into um, owners of firms into different ah, peer groups so you can you know facilitated by coach. Um, ah, but you’ve got these peers like four or five other owners of, of other um, creative or marketing firms and obviously we are managing for client conflict so there is nobody who does exactly what you do but you are all kind of largely in the same business. And the, the, the complaint I guess if that’s the term I get is, “Ah, like, like I’m not getting anything out of this. These, these other businesses are nothing like mine,” and that drives me up the wall when somebody says…
DAVID: Remember meditate, meditate, meditate.
BLAIR: Yeah um.
DAVID: You are starting to lose it already.
BLAIR: Yeah, it drives me nuts.
BLAIR: It drives me nuts.
DAVID: When they say they can’t learn anything do they mean specifically like this firm is smaller than mine? They obviously have way further, they are not where we are on the path and I have already gone through all that stuff? Is that what they mean? Is it more about the size of the firm?
BLAIR: Yeah, they are and sometimes size, sometimes um, a person making that statement is prejudiced by the size of another firm. Like early on they’ll just look at the firm and, and say, “Well, yeah that my, my firm is, my firm is larger than that.” I’m fond of saying I don’t know if I can, yeah I can say. I’m fond of saying um, agencies are like penises pause (laughter), yeah, pause. I love saying this from the stage in the UK or a real proper audience. Ah, agencies are like penises nobody ever says mine is bigger than yours but there is a lot of like sideways measuring up in the locker room (laughter).
DAVID: You have no idea what I would like to talk about right now but I’m going to resist (laughter).
BLAIR: But it’s just …
DAVID: But you know yeah, I saw that like ah, years ago when I, I don’t do it so much anymore but I would go to these conferences and I would watch people interact. And um, so like between sessions and so on out in the lobby or whatever and so these two people would come up and there would be a name tag and so you would know the name of the person and you would know maybe where they were from and the name of the firm. So one of the early questions would be, “Oh, well tell me about your firm, how many people are at your firm?” And the, what they were doing was obvious is like I wanna to figure out a way to use my time as well as, as I could, as I can. So if, “Oh a four person firm, okay next,” I thinking of an emergency call …
DAVID: … I’m making to myself. “I need to talk with somebody who is obviously more sophisticated because there are 20 people at their firm.” But it’s not just about size in your case like it’s deeper than that. When you say that they are, when they say, “Like mine, that firm is nothing like mine,” they mean something besides just size right?
BLAIR: Yeah and I should, I should just kind of ah, caveat that there are certain instances where certain topics that we will be discussing that it might be where ah, the perspective of somebody whose business is closer to yours is, is more valuable. But in a lot of the times I think the, the opposite is true. Like I’m in an, I’m in an …
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: … entrepreneurial coaching program. There is 40 other entrepreneurs in the program that I’m in and there is nobody in there whose business is like mine. And ah, I’ve had some great conversations with a guy who is like in the snow removal business.
BLAIR: Um, yeah and, and just being fascinated by his business and taking lessons from him. And it just, that just happens every time I’m together with this group like I end up talking to somebody who’s got a completely different business than mine. And I, and maybe it’s a personal bias because I really go out of my way to look for examples and sources of inspiration that are far beyond the business that I’m in.
And I, again maybe it’s a personal bias but I’m gonna say what I think here and that is; I think it’s the height of intellectual laziness to keep looking, when you are looking for … You know there is something about benchmarks right? But benchmarks are, they are dangerous too. There is, and I think it’s the height of intellectual laziness to not look beyond those firms that you see as most like yours for examples of how you might do things.
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative) .
BLAIR: And that’s the frustration I get when somebody says, “Well, I know like that person’s business is nothing like mine.” From, from my point of view when I look at their businesses I see, I see businesses that are, have 98.5% of everything in common like the DNA of a human and a chimp. There is, I see they is just so much more in common and they pick up on a small number of differences and think, “Well, because of this small number of differences I can’t, it doesn’t make sense for me to stop and think what I might learn, learn from this person.”
DAVID: So are they dis-, are they using that as a way to even subconsciously dismiss the, the possible changes of course they might make because it doesn’t apply directly enough to them? Like I, I noticed like in my …
DAVID: … own consulting I’ll make a recommendation to somebody and the more courageous it is or more courageous it would me for the client to do, the more they ask me, “Well, can you, can you connect us with somebody who has gone through this?” And, and I’ll say, “Well why?” And they say, “Well, we just want to figure out from their experience.” And it’s like, “Well, no because they haven’t um, you know they haven’t signed up to be a consultant.” You know switching to my side of the business for a minute and also like courageous choices are the ones that a lot of other people aren’t necessarily making. But why are they, why are they doing that sorry, sorry to interrupt you there. But is it because they, it gives them permission to not, not follow the advice they might otherwise learn from?
BLAIR: Yeah ah, it’s, it’s a prejudice and what’s behind the prejudice and I think it’s, I think the answer to why is intellectual laziness. I think it’s um, and I think firms that ah … I think the most successful firms like the, you know the people that you and I work with like the where you get a client and you think, “Wow.” You get into the business and think, “Wow, this person is really smart they take a lot of risks. They’ve built something that’s really and in, in some ways quite different from anything I have ever seen before. This person as an individual is smart and fascinating.” That’s not somebody who is looking for the business close, closest to his or hers as, as an example of how to do things. That’s somebody who is actively …
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: … trying to get away from the competent.
BLAIR: Like we use the term outside the box all the time right so outside the box, outside the box. I, I want to be thinking outside the box, but I can’t take inspiration information example from this other person because they are outside the box.
BLAIR: That’s what drives me crazy.
BLAIR: It’s this conflict of like we, we either mean that and we apply that to how we shape and grow our businesses but we don’t mean it at all.
DAVID: So yeah and as you were saying that it just hit me like it hadn’t before it’s like these, these individual firms and you know we could, you know I could probably name them. You know there is 10 that keep coming up in conversations as, as the famous firms that all the other creative non famous firms who want to emulate. They are famous in part because they are not doing things the way other people are doing them right? So …
DAVID: ... yeah, so yeah I get your point. So it’s either we can’t have it both ways; either we, we should or we shouldn’t learn from them. So I’m trying to, to sort of dovetail this though with the notion of, of specialization and learning from similar situations. Like how does this apply? How do we reconcile that? So here as a firm you are, you are advising your clients to focus in a way to see similar patterns. In, in a way you are saying ignore some of the outliers and just pick up the patterns by observing situations that are very close to each other. How does that fit with this advice?
BLAIR: Well, I think the idea of observing patterns really is just it’s not, it’s a client patterns it’s not necessarily the patterns. I think you need to be careful observing the patterns of what your direct competitors are doing. I also think and some people might see this as heretical; I, I abhor the idea of going to kind of a conference and listening to a client say what they want, I think that’s a huge mistake. I think … Well I, I listen to clients get up on a stage at some sort of conference and, and, and manage agencies or say to agencies, “Here is what I want from you.”
I think you need to pay attention to some of that but if you, the letter of what a client says they want from you is a, probably not exactly what they need and b, almost certainly not in your best interest to deliver. So I think you need to be careful about you ah, it’s ah … You know and every valuable kind of idea or you know leap forward is probably based not just on an idea but a duality of some kind. So you need to be able to take this idea the, the thing that I just said which is don’t pay so much attention to your competitors or to your clients and some people are just riling at that right? They just cannot comprehend this (laughing) and …
So you need to take that idea and then you need to be able to take the opposite idea of well, you know you have to be tuned into your clients. Um, there is a small amount of information that it might be beneficial for you to know about a direction that the field is heading in just in case you are making a horrible mistake. So you need to take this kind of polar opposite ideas and somehow move forward and, and, and make them make sense for you. Um, and if you are ah, if you are an intellectually lazy person you are gonna have a hard time with that because it’s you are, you are extreme, you are one thing or the other. But I really think that we need, I’m going off on a tangent here.
It’s like if you wanna grow, if you wanna leap forward, if you wanna reinvent your business, if you wanna take your life to the next level, you want relationships whatever you need to be able to take two conflicting ideas and somehow make sense of them and find you know what is essentially a third way and we can talk more about that idea later maybe.
DAVID: So, so being, listening to ideas from different places and then when you hear an idea that doesn’t jell with what you have believed up until that point just, just sit with the discomfort until you can figure out exactly what’s happening. But how do you, how do you personally systematize this? So you I, like I know um, what you don’t want to listen to. So like you are, you are not likely to want to read sales books ah, out there but how do you allow yourself to get drawn to the right things? Like how do you open your mind up very intentionally to ideas that might be new to you? Where do you get those from?
BLAIR: You know I think it’s just being open to the idea that your um, ah, you need to be open to all kinds of sources of inspiration and you need to be going down avenues and looking at businesses ah, with kind of a curious eye without knowing why you are going down that avenue. I remember reading a book once on ah, it was on Parkinson’s disease. I don’t have Parkinson’s disease, I’m not close to anybody who has Parkinson’s disease and I, the whole time I’m reading this book thinking, “Yeah I’m not sure, I know there is a reason I’m reading this book and I’m not sure what it is.” And then I read a sentence about two thirds of the way through the book and I went, “That’s what I was looking for the whole time.”
So the idea that, I think you need to be, you need to be open to exploring like pa-, not parallel world adjacent world. You look at what you do and if it’s like a marketing for healthcare then you know you should be exploring things outside of healthcare and you should be exploring things outside of marketing. Especially if we talk about marketing or whatever the discipline is ‘cause you can take you know what it is, what it is that a firm does and you can break it down into discipline for market; so we do this for these types of people. So the discipline you know if it’s marketing, if it’s UX design, if it’s public relations um, if it’s app dev. whatever it is, whatever the discipline is you’ll be far …
I’m not saying avoid what’s going on in that space, but you really should be spending I would say more time looking at things that are going on adjacent to that space than things that are going on in that space. So I’m, you are very scientific at what you do right? Like you, you’ve said before you consider yourself a scientist and it’s basically the …
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: … the mechanism through what you do sciences your consulting practice. And I, I am not, I am not scientific in that way because I don’t have the attention to detail and the kind of the, the rigor to be able to do the kind of detailed studies that you do but I’m very, very interested in science. I read a lot about all the different branches of science. Maybe, oh I don’t read any chemistry but I read about physics, I read about biology, I read about the social sciences quite a bit, I’m deep into economics the last few years. And I’m, the reason is I’m constantly looking for models. Models and a model is simply a, a way of looking at the world right?
BLAIR: And maybe more specifically it’s a way of looking at your client’s world or your client’s businesses. So I’m looking for models that I can bring back into sales and into a training business, so I can bring it back into the you know my own intellectual property and I can bring it back into my own business model. So I’m constantly exploring other fields for models. And I think, you know and maybe my … I, I know from objective test that my need for information is higher than the average person. I love just inputting in a strength finder assessment my number one strength is input, I love collecting information.
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: Um, so I’m biased that way and I recognize that not everybody has that kind of um, desire to collect information the way I do. But I believe strongly that you need to be pulling for multiple models to find something that’s kind of optimal for your business. And if you just keep looking at other firms that are exactly like yours, you are just like, you are furthering the commodification of your space. And you and I know there, I mean there are some ecosystems within the marketing firm space where everybody is copying each other.
BLAIR: Yeah and if you do a Google search you are going to find similar firms to yours ah, day after day, after day thousands and thousands of them and, and that makes your job ah, trying to differentiate your firm even more difficult. I, I think of it a little bit as like a shape of a T, the letter T. So there is really deep expertise and ah, over the years your expertise gets deeper and deeper but the cross bar at the top is more of a broad relevance. And so the, the broad relevance is what keeps the expertise um, with inner context that make sense.
You know something else that I have, I’ve tried to do more over time is to also try and ap-, apply the thinking whatever it happens to be that I’m thinking about nowadays would be to apply it globally. So like take what I’m …
BLAIR: … this thought that I have. Now plant it in a remote village in Bolivia, does it make sense or have I just thought of this very weird first world solution that isn’t broadly relevant. That’s, that’s the advantage to me in traveling as well. And when you are traveling talk, I am honestly I am just as interested in talking with a cab driver on the seawall in Havana as I am in talking with … Actually maybe more interested in talking with that cab driver in a Havana that I am with talking with some diplomatic friends or something.
And it’s like how does this person make their life work? How do they think about these things? How, how is, how is this deep expertise that I’m trying to develop? How, how I’m I keeping it within a broader context like worldwide? I think that would be a big advantage.
Maybe it would be tough to have so many people sign up for your training from all over the world, but it also would be a fun challenge so that the principals you are espousing in this, in this program they work in different countries. They are not just working in New York City but they are working in ah, Australia for instance with one tenth the population in the same land mass.
DAVID: Yeah, I always think the, the person in New York or ah, maybe LA who is in a class with somebody from ah, you know Australia and Oklahoma and you know like, you know that you get the geographic diversity, you get the discipline diversity, you’ve got a PR firm, you’ve got a landscape design firm, you’ve got a ah, internal communications firm, you’ve got a you know (clears throat) a UX firm. I was, like those are the best classes and where you get this um, like you get this ecology or this cross pollination but some people can’t see it.
You know as you are talking I’m wondering, “Well is it, is it really just two groups or people or a spectrum of where some people are curious and, and look, I guess I don’t how to say it and some people aren’t and maybe that’s probably overly harsh. Well, let me, let me ask you; beyond travel where do you get your inspiration from and equally like what sources of inspiration or ah, I guess examples do you work to avoid or shut out?
BLAIR: Hmm, so (clears throat) my inspiration comes from ah, reading broadly that’s, that will probably be the primary source just because it’s so easy. So easy as in it’s accessible to me whenever I am. So when I get up in the morning I’m going to read this the, the same world wide publications everyday and then there are some things I read weekly and I am very quickly scanning them to say, “Does that fit in my world view? Does that fit in my world view,” or, “Oh, that one doesn’t, what do I need to modify about my world view or what strikes me as odd here.”
And it’s just, it’s the notion of skim, skim, skim, skim and then find something that I can dive really deep into because it’s fascinating and often I’ll, I’ll talk with Julie my wife about it and she may not be as fascinated as I was. Or I will find some willing soul that is, that acts interested for a minute and, and I’ll talk to them about it and then I am bam, bam going on to the next thing. I also, you described yourself as a collector of information you like input. I’m not ah, the same, I’m not the same as you are there but I do find that I have to have some way to categorize or catalog the information I get because I know I’m gonna to use it in some way.
So I think there are, I looked at this yesterday there is like 260 different article ideas that I want to write. So I come across something I throw it in there and that will, that gives me the freedom to come across something else and throw it in there and not have to write about it right now, so to me it’s mainly reading. The second um, source of inspiration would be travel. For me it’s just …
BLAIR: … stepping into a new country that I’ve either been to or haven’t been to before. And like I’m, I’m speaking three times in Guatemala in a week and a half and I’m very executed about doing it and I know I’ll learn a lot. I’ll sit and I’ll talk with these people about their business lives and it will be fascinating to me because I don’t, I really think there is a, there is this, it’s not even subtle.
There is this business arrogance that the US has in particular that some of it is deserved, not the arrogance but the confidence. Some of it is deserved but a lot of it is not and I admire people that are making their business lives work in cultures where it’s just not as easy as it is here. It’s so easy to do everything in the US that I’m really amazed at other countries where (laughs) that isn’t the case.
DAVID: Yeah, isn’t that and especially during good economic times and you know depending on who you listen to we are kind of, we are kind of right for ah, ah, the ship to go the other way. Hey, I want to ask you before we wrap up here just the um, if you, so you are a management consultant and if I said to you, if I made a comment about your the you know, your participation in the community.
BLAIR: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
DAVID: The community of your profession what would your reaction be? Like what’s your relationship to the community?
BLAIR: Ah, of management consultants?
BLAIR: I, (clears throat) I don’t have any honestly. I don’t belong to any associations.
DAVID: So, so, you don’t, you don’t okay. No Associations …
BLAIR: Never been to a conference.
DAVID: … you don’t feel like you are …
BLAIR: No. Yeah no.
DAVID: Ah, so, do you, have you, have you thought about because if you think about ah, our clients who are designers there is very definitely a design community and I have been wondering, “Well why is there…” There is probably a lose community of independent management consultants and of course you would never (laughing) you would never, like Marx who would never join a club who would have him as a member ah, Groucho not Karl.
DAVID: Have you thought about how that community of other practitioners is important to designers but not important to you and what that says?
BLAIR: Yeah I do (clears throat) I’ve often wondered, marveled actually at how ah, creative whether a designer or a writer or a videographer or whatever. How excited they’ll get ah, if they are invited to address their peers at some conference.
DAVID: To give away whatever secrets they might have, yeah?
BLAIR: Yeah, right. They are much more excited about that than if they were invited to address say like ah, do a keynote ah, address at a conference that gathered their prospects which is so backwards to me. Because one is about um, landing new business and one is about speaking to the choir that is never going to hire you um, that, that’s always fascinated me. I think that creatives in particular feel like business is a second it’s, it’s an afterthought. It’s ah, it’s what they do because they haven’t figured out how to make money otherwise and so it’s a necessary evil but they really like to be with their kind.
BLAIR: I (clears throat), I don’t think other management consultants are my kind. I don’t, to me when everyone I, every once in a while I happen to run across an article written by a management consultant or I see the proceedings of, I have never been to a single conference. I don’t have any of those certifications and I’m not ah, I don’t belong to any of those associations.
It feels to me like it’s, it’s a process of damming down consultants so that we are all doing the same things and I, I just want to throw up a little bit in my mouth when I think about it. I just I have no interest whatsoever in being like that and so I have never (laughs), it’s never occurred to me I guess. Maybe I should I, there probably are something. Now I have read some management consulting books that I have really learned a lot from. Ah, David Maister has had a big influence on me.
BLAIR: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative) .
DAVID: Um, there are, there are a couple that have um, but in general ah, no it hasn’t interested me at all. Not as nearly as much as my clients.
BLAIR: Yeah, it’s interesting how and I don’t think, I don’t think that designers are wrong for wanting to be, they are part of a guild basically. This craft of, you know this guilt of craftsmen. So I, I get that and again here is an example of I’m gonna say something extreme and you need to basically take, take the power of this idea and hold it with some other opposing ideas and come up with a solution. But I’ll just point out that you know who is Google’s community? If, if they way the designers talk about the community does Google talk about …
When you are in Peter Thiel’s words, when you are a creative monopoly you, like you’ve or maybe it’s white space blue ocean whatever parlance or framework you wanna us; when you have built something that didn’t previously exist before, you are not part of a community because you’ve just invented space right?
DAVID: Right, right
BLAIR: You’ve just invented something where previously there was nothing. Now that’s, I’m not saying there’s very few creative firms or marketing firms who are going to actually do that create a creative monopoly for a variety of reasons. But that is, that is one end of the spectrum and the other end of the spectrum is just full commoditization right? It’s full commoditization, in the fully commoditized space there is a community of commoditized producers.
So when I’m doing kind of a win without pitching stamp speech introducing the core concept or talking about the book um, I very to a group of designers usually the first question I get after the speech is, “Blair, what can we as a community do or as a profession do to combat free pitching?” And my answer is always, “That’s the wrong question.” And then I pose a question in the reply I say, “If you could learn to win without pitching while your competitors …
DAVID: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)
BLAIR: … continue to along this inefficient path of giving their thinking away for free, staying up all night writing proposals. It’s high cost to sale would you ah, would you, what would you prefer? Would you prefer the profession is fixed or you get fixed and everybody else continues to suffer?”
DAVID: Sort of the competitive business.
BLAIR: Nobody ever answers that.
BLAIR: Yeah, I know what I would, I know the answer I would choose.
DAVID: Yeah, keep sucking as a profession so that it’s [inaudible 00:27:46].
DAVID: But you know you and I are (clears throat), I’m not sure that our dreams for our clients match their dreams for themselves. I don’t say that …
DAVID: … with any sort of judgment I, but I do think that a lot of principles are, would really be generally satisfied with being as good as the average firm with a predictable income and not rocking the boat all that much. I, I think it could be that we are, hey I’m kind of working ourselves out of a job here but maybe …
BLAIR: It seems like every podcast ends up with you and I like making …
BLAIR: … the group of the, we are relevant to a smaller and smaller. Go ahead …
BLAIR: … just keep destroying our businesses.
DAVID: But yeah, but our dreams are bigger for our clients than their dreams are for themselves. They, I think many of them would be happy being a slightly above average um, firm from Minnesota so to speak to use that, (laughs) that illustration that you know the like woebegone thing.
DAVID: The, the slightly above average and, and, and that enough like the risk reward isn’t, it doesn’t pay of enough for them whereas my perspective as a human is more I’m going to crash it or I’m not going to do it. But I don’t think that’s the perspective that many of my clients do and I’m not, that’s not meant as judgment, it’s just meant as fact like what do I do with that?
BLAIR: Yeah. Okay, what was the topic of this podcast?
DAVID: I have no idea.
BLAIR: (Laughing) I feel a little better though.
DAVID: Okay, you did a pretty good job of holding the rant in, I’m gonna let it build up a little bit more and then we are going lance that sucker later.
BLAIR: (Laughing) all right.
DAVID: Thanks Blair.
BLAIR: That was fun.