The Culture of Successful Projects and the Superbowl

As has been noted ad-naseum today, last night's Superbowl commercials were decidedly more subdued than in past years and many brands made a clear pivot to conveying more "authenticity" in their brands. I would like to think this is a good thing, but there were a few brands who...well, let's charitably say they didn't do this very well.

The worst sequence of ads reminded me of the characteristics of dysfunctional project teams. It came from InBev's Anheuser-Busch who managed to turn themselves in a bully with three commercials. I couldn't help but think how emblematic they were of my least favorite managers and implementation partners. Let's go through their sequence:

First, they aired a commercial intended to convince people to return to Budweiser by mocking craft beers and the people who drink them. Full disclosure: I am a bit of a craft beer fan. What you'll usually find in my fridge is either from Two Roads (Probably their "Road 2 Ruin" double IPA) or from our local Stamford brewery, Half Full. Let's first say that this campaign doesn't make any sense: Budweiser is in the process of aggressively buying craft breweries and marketing them as "craft" brands trying to win back some of the 15% of the market that hundreds of local breweries have taken from them. But then, they try and do that by mocking - without any relevant content - the people who enjoy these products. It's a really unfortunate, bullying approach.

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

Then, that lost puppy commercial. Trust me when I say that my wife and I love puppies like everyone else in America. We have a dog. She was a puppy once and we enjoyed that. I "like" puppy pictures on Facebook when my friends welcome new canine members of their families. I legitimately enjoy puppies. Despite this, my wife and I looked at each other after this Budweiser ad and said "That was basically offensive." It felt like Budweiser was trying to manipulate us into liking them - not that they were making an authentic connection. It was focused on creating a tenuous emotional connection to their logo rather than anything to do with their product. It didn't work for us.

Finally, AB aired the obligatory "drink responsibly" commercial also containing, for some inexplicable reason, a dog. How about a wife and kids? Maybe families of someone else on the road that night? Anyway, I actually didn't have much of an issue with this ad in isolation but found it to be problematic in their sequence.

So, in about 90 total seconds, InBev AB:

  1. Mocked everyone who doesn't like their product
  2. Tried to emotionally manipulate us into liking their corporate logo with a commercial that had nothing to do with their product
  3. Insisted that they are good guys because they want people to be "responsible" with their product and protect their dogs or families, or something.

Insult your opinion. Try to break you down emotionally with messaging unrelated to the main topic at-hand. Protect themselves from blowback by insisting they are good guys and only have your best interests at the top of their mind. Sound familiar?

This happens on big, hard projects all the time and it's the best leaders and managers who can craft a culture that redirects these tendencies. It only takes one person on the team who embodies AB's approach to damage everyone on your team. This will not only damage the mentalities of the people on your team, but create an unhelpful, unproductive and highly political environment that will make it difficult to get meaningful things done. 

There are many approaches to avoiding this type of team culture, but I'll outline five of my favorites here:

  1. Repeat early, often, and in every venue, that all opinions are important. Thank people for sharing their opinions even when they are not necessarily productive. Eventually be direct (and nice) about your viewpoint, but during the process of developing it be thoughtful about every idea and opinion. Avoid mockery or belittlement at all costs and never, ever condescend someone because of an opinion they provide. Assume they arrived at their opinion thoughtfully and probe it - don't seek to discredit it.
  2. Avoid the blame game. Things will go wrong. People will make mistakes. At least once (probably more), someone on the team will make a mistake that requires everyone else do a lot of work to correct it. That's unfortunate, but it will happen. These projects aren't hard because they require everyone to work hundreds of hours towards linear goals: they are hard because there are hundreds of interlocking decisions, ideas and goals that have to interact perfectly. The biggest sentence to avoid: "How could this happen?" There is almost never a productive answer that will help you move forward. The answer is that it's because people are people and you're asking them to do something difficult. One of my favorite quotes to use here comes from HBO's "Too Big to Fail" - [paraphrased] "If you want to go back in time and figure out what happened we can do that later, but right now we need a solution and we need it quickly."

  3. Keep the main thing the main thing. Be the person to redirect the conversation. People will try to use their version of Labrador puppies to sway others to their point of view. Don't let them. You need to be the person to (again, nicely) redirect the conversation to the main question you are trying to answer. There will be lots of good stories, lots of interesting ideas and lots of ways to never solve your hardest problems. State the intent of every conversation or meeting and make sure the dialogue is productive and stays on track.
  4. Meet people where they are. Make authentic connections by being interested in their interests. Do not force generic tropes or mindless sentimentality on them - make an impact by listening to their stories, picking up on queues about their interests and openly expressing interest. I had a client with a division in the Netherlands during the 2010 World Cup. Many of us Americans knew very little about soccer, but some of our team members talked to our Dutch colleagues about the game, its cultural implications, why it was important to them, etc. Many of those discussions turned into real friendships which, in turn, led to a wonderful, productive work environment. It's only because those were real conversations. 
  5. Own it. This is repeated so frequently that I hesitated putting it on this list, but I've seen this at so many clients I feel it still needs to be said. After Russell Wilson's game-ending interception last night, Pete Carroll went to the media and completely owned the turnover. It wasn't a bad pass, there wasn't anything wrong with the route or the receiver, it was a play that he wanted to run that just didn't work out and that was his decision. I loved that. When things go wrong and it starts to point back to you or one of your team members, don't say "well yeah but I'm a good guy because I want you to drink responsibly and I do nice things for people all the time and I give my time to charities and I donate to my alma-mater and...and...and." Just own the mistake, apologize and move on. People will respect it and forgive the mistakes.

No matter what AB's Superbowl ads were, I wasn't going to suddenly start drinking Budweiser. But I could have at least enjoyed the ads and not thought less of the company. Instead, they embodied everything bad about poorly run projects.

Poorly run projects are just awful: they wreck careers, they destroy people's self-confidence, they industrialize an organization's worst cultural tendencies. They represent horrible opportunity cost because good projects can serve as the spark to turn companies around.

Don't run your projects like Anheuser-Busch. Run them like a carefree Labrador puppy trekking back to his best horse friend after sleeping on a not-so-smart craft-brew fan's couch the night before because he had integrity and cared about being responsible.

See what I mean?

Stephen Ronan

Ronan Consulting Group, 06907

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