From Super Bowl Ads, Some Management Wisdom

What this year's most popular commercials can teach us about government management.
by | February 9, 2011 AT 6:45 PM

When I headed off to college, I wanted to be an advertising executive. Long before Sterling Cooper, there was Livingston, Gentry & Mishkin, and I was hooked. That is, until I found out that to be one of the creative geniuses behind the campaign, you first had to spend your youth selling the ads and cold-calling local companies. The thinking was that you couldn't succeed in advertising unless you started at the bottom and worked your way up, and you knew the business inside out. (Avoiding cold calls may be the single biggest reason I went into government work.)

I imagine the guys behind the Super Bowl commercials we enjoyed this year had some great years in sales or in the mailroom or as a junior assistant to the copy editor's real assistant. Decades honing their skills by studying how it was done and ever so slowly working their way up until they got to the big league.

There are literally hundreds of sites and organizations that critique and rate these commercials each year (here's one where you can watch every Super Bowl ad from Sunday's game). And almost all of them agree for 2011, the Doritos spots were clearly in the top 3. No surprise: A Doritos ad was at the top last year, and the year before that.

What is surprising is that these ads were not designed by people who worked their way up from the mailroom. They weren't even designed by people who worked for ad agencies.

They were developed by amateurs — contest winners.

So, how much egg do you have on your face now, Elliot Weston? He's not alone. Several of the most well-respected and well-compensated ad execs are flabbergasted at the idea that some of the most recognized commercials in decades have been designed by complete unknowns to the business.

But it's no surprise to Public Great.

We've seen this phenomenon for decades in its more recognizable form, "That's the way we've always done it." We get so close to things that we can't see past the policy and procedures. And before you know it, even our best ideas are merely copies of old ideas.

We spend more time justifying why we can't than wondering what we can. We hear new employees ask "why" we do things on Day One, and "what" should I do on Day Three. And just like that, we've drummed out of them any hope of changing the machine.

Teri Takai, now CIO for the Defense Department (and a former state CIO of both California and Michigan), once told me that she knows it's time to leave a job when she hears herself saying, "We tried that" more than "let's try that." The tried and true is more comfortable than trying something new.

So how do we make sure we don't produce more Motorola ads that look like they're selling iPads? We need to take yet another lesson from those deliciously addictive finger-licking chips and find ourselves an outside perspective of our products.

See for Yourself

One of the easiest ways to change your perspective is to change the view. Go to where your customers interact with you and spend a day watching the traffic flow. Find someone willing to let you plug in for an afternoon at the phone center and eavesdrop on a few calls. Whether you are the leader in your organization or you work the graveyard shift in the basement data center, spending time in your customerss shoes will impact the work you do. And if you are lucky, it'll change how you do it for the better.

If you have the time, and a willing HR director, try moving folks around in job rotations. Not only does this give everyone a new perspective on the process and an understanding of the bigger picture, it helps cross-train employees. That way, when you find an area short-staffed or under a lot of backlog, you have built in capacity to help out.

Ask Someone New

Improvement teams almost always make one big mistake: They forget to talk to their customers. You can work in the Doritos factory, pumping out thousands of bags a day, but if you don't eat the chips, you don't know that licking your fingers might just be the best part. In fact, you've probably breathed in enough of that flavored cheese-dust that you've come to despise the taste. It takes someone who loves your product to point out the best part and then make that one of the most memorable belly-laugh commercials of the game.

If you are lucky enough to serve on an improvement team, invite a customer to participate. At the very least, make sure you get a chance to talk to them about the good, bad and ugly of your widget. I am continually amazed by the customer focus we run for different organizations and their insights into our operations. Done right, you can mine a wealth of information that can not only help you with your process improvement, but address the bigger question, which is this: "Is what we're doing really helping?"

Customers are not the only outsiders we should solicit. Want to know how to move more people through the line faster? Start by asking the manager at the local department store. How do you deal with a high turnover rate? Ask the fast-food owner. The problems we face are not new or unique. We do have some unique circumstances, but nothing that we have to start over from scratch to cope with. Learning by doing is completely overrated: If we can learn from the work of others, why not steal every morsel we can?

We all run the risk of sitting at our desks thinking we have the next big idea, the next great commercial. We think it's funny, because we think we know funny. Then one day, along comes someone doing what we thought we did, better than we do it. We're stuck scratching our heads and wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?"

And why didn't we? Because that's not how we've always done it.

If you need to break out of that rut, get out from behind your desk and look at the water flowing in your pipes. Talk to your customers, and look to our counterparts in the private sector who deal with similar problems. Do that, and the ideas will come crashing through your door like a hungry pug.