Q&A: Writing the ‘history of your future’


This is a Q&A with Monica Heuer, Nancy Drozdow, and Larry Hirschhorn of CFAR Center for Applied Research, a Wolff Olins internal engagement partner. 

WO: Thanks for talking to us! First, would you please tell everyone what CFAR is all about?

CFAR: We’re about helping organizations, often successful ones, to figure out what’s in the way of their progress, and then how to acquire the will and skill to change it. We’re able to work with leaders to discover not just what might seem obvious about what’s in their way, but to get to what’s at the heart of why things are the way they are and may feel stuck there—whether it’s their economic engine, the way people work together or how and why they feel like everything leads to the same outcome.

CFAR spun off from the Wharton School in 1987. How have you all seen consulting change in the last 25 years?

Clients came to us in those early days to do research that could only be done inside a university. Today any company that knows how do to research can find data on almost any topic via the Internet—much faster and cheaper. This seems so obvious but is a big change since our founding, and has led us to adapt and change. Today the focus is not on acquiring knowledge, but knowing how to put it to good use.

So while what we do has changed, our clients have many of the same sort of questions now that they had then—wrestling with fundamental dilemmas of organizational life: “Our margins continue to be squeezed so how do we avoid becoming a commodity?” “Our strategic direction is clear but we are not getting the results we expected. What explains this disconnect?” “Organizational friction exists (between generations in large family firms, between physicians and nurses in hospitals, among business units in public companies), and the resulting conflicts impede our progress.”

When you visited our office last month, we talked about how we’re seeing more and more organizations collaborating with outsiders (consumers, partners, or even traditional competitors) to create better products and services—we call that being “boundaryless.” What else do you think growth in the 21st century will require of businesses? 

We are definitely in the middle of a profound shift from an Industrial Age model of organizational life and leadership, to an altogether different one. In fact two decades ago we published an article in Harvard Business Review on the “New boundaries of the boundaryless organization.” Today, even in a down labor market, people are less loyal to organizations and more committed to the good work they can do and the teammates who help them. Work takes on the character of a succession of projects, each with its own unique trajectory, story, and promise. This is the world of work we see. 

Growth in this world may be more about finding ideas that have “legs” and less about where these ideas are found—organizations that can germinate ideas that start anywhere, regardless of industry or geography or sector, are more likely to grow. But this takes what we’ve been talking about—less tight control, more intrinsic motivation of employees, clarity around goals—a sense that working together will be better than working independently.

We also talked about the need for today’s organizations to have the confidence to be creative with the future. How have you helped clients on that front? How do you guys act on this as a business?

One thing we take seriously is the risk clients take to lead in such uncertain times. We begin with our own teams’ thinking together about what risks we will need to take to move our client’s organizations forward. We know that there is not just one answer to the dilemmas that face organizations. The best thing we can do is build an organization’s “learning muscles.”

Creativity comes from a willingness to try things, and that, in turn, comes from some degree of freedom to make a fool of yourself without being organizationally sanctioned. We certainly have tools that foster new thinking, and these really help, but more than that we develop our staff so that they know how to help clients create a climate of problem solving rather than politics.

How do you guys measure culture change within an organization you’re working for? 

We set goals with our clients at the beginning of any assignment—what results do they want to achieve, what does success look like—and then commit time to regularly assess with them if they are on the path to success. 

The best measure so far is what clients tell us directly, as well as what is learned by independent consultants we have used to survey our clients about the impact of our work. One example is a client saying that if they had known how much they’d accomplish at the beginning, rather than seeing it at the end, they would have hired us sooner. An important milestone for us is that leaders can accept and work with people “speaking the truth” to them, rather than doing the politically correct, but not so helpful, thing.

How do you make useful tools for clients as they move forward without you?

Our tools help clients grapple with what was once undiscussable by using data to depersonalize disagreements. We do our best to stay in touch with clients after we’re no longer working together, and we hear about how they’ve used what they learned to solve some new challenge. That’s as good as it gets!

Can you give some examples?

We invented a tool for supporting strategy execution that helps clients explicitly identify, step by step, the accomplishments they have to achieve and the obstacles in their way of achieving them. We use the results of this analysis to help clients write a “history of their future” which tells their story of how they succeeded and why. The result is a motivating document and an important communications tool.

In our strategy work we also heard our clients tell us that they wanted to hear early from the people with a stake in the strategy, but didn’t want to be overwhelmed with data. We developed our Strategic Options survey as a way to ask large numbers of stakeholders—employees, customers, board members, leaders—provocative questions about the often implicit and un-verbalized assumptions they make about current strengths and weaknesses, and future options.

The survey results become the center of a conversation among a leadership team aimed at helping them develop a more synchronized view of their organization and what’s next.

What about when you’re working with a relatively flat organization (no hierarchical leadership structure), how do you drive the adoption of new ideas?

Organizations now are all, to some degree, organizing “volunteers.” Even the military has had to adapt its ways of getting things done. This is particularly true as our economy is now based on “knowledge work” and services rather than products. While we have seen no good substitutes for hierarchy and authority, we also know that leaders can’t just say, “make it so” and expect followers to follow their orders. Organizing today’s workforce takes new and interesting skills. 

Leaders need meaningful contact with a broad cross section of employees—what many call “engagement”—so that people feel they matter and are welcomed when they bring their own passions to work. They also need to be much clearer about how they both describe and express, in their policies and practices, the organization’s strategy. Bullet points on a PowerPoint aren’t especially motivating! Instead, employees want leaders to “show not tell.” 

This means of course that leaders want to hear from employees, even when they don’t agree. The structured organizational dialogue can yield what hierarchy alone was once used for: key people throughout an organization—leaders and employees—seeing the rationale for change and being part of advancing it, exercising influence rather than control, to get things done.

Let’s keep the conversation going. What questions do you have for Wolff Olins or for our audience?

We have felt challenged to answer your questions well, and would have many of the same ones for you. Brand seems so central to identity in the way we think about it.

How do you help your clients imagine their future, overcome fear of change, discover a new way to think about a problem?

How do you help your clients understand the relationship between “the brand” and their work—and does this even matter to success? How do you use branding and marketing to help your clients achieve collective value and impact?

We’ll be diving into CFAR’s questions in a follow up post this month. Keep an eye out.

For more information on CFAR contact info@cfar.com or 215.320.3200, or visit their website at http://www.cfar.com.

Image via Cairn Culture

My bad; My opportunity

By Rachel Blatt

We all make mistakes. But often, those mistakes provide an opportunity to show people just how good you are at dusting yourself off and trying again. Today, as brands’ relationships with consumers become increasingly based in the digital, the possibility of a quick error affecting your consumers at scale is ever increasing. Take, for example, this email Eastern Mountain Sports sent out last night to anyone who’d ever shopped at their store:

It’s more important than ever that brands be flexible, human, and have a sense of humor when things like that happen. This is an example of a brand doing just that, turning a blunder into a lovely Thanksgiving bonus. 

Rachel Blatt is global content manager at Wolff Olins.

In Jeddah: Imagination and Ingenuity

A few of us are delighted to be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this weekend for the launch of Dr. Hayat Sindi’s i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity

Hayat is well-known here as the first woman from the Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology. She left home, alone, and went the UK, got into Cambridge, then MIT and then Harvard to do her post-doc work. There, she co-founded Diagnostics For All, which offers ultra-low-cost point-of-care diagnostic tools for people living beyond the reach of medical infrastructures. 

Our work with Hayat began in 2011, when she came to us with the ambition to translate her passion for science and social innovation into a solution for unemployment in her home region, the Middle East. The ambition that eventually became i2. 

Despite substantial government investment in education and training, roughly half of 20–24 year olds in Saudi Arabia are still unemployed—the region needs a solution that’s both sustainable and scalable. Hayat’s dream is that beginning today, with the opening of applications to i2, stories like hers will become less exceptional and more possible for every young innovator. 

With years of hard work and a fierce determination to connect innovative practitioners, educators and creatives from around the world, Hayat will launch the Institute and its Fellowship Program tonight.

The Fellowship develops and supports young scientists/engineers/future entrepreneurs in the Middle East through a holistic ecosystem of resources, programming and mentorship. Selected fellows spend 8 months working as a group to develop their individual business ideas. Access to a well-connected ecosystem creates the conditions for innovation and economic and social change. Later in the process, a business venture conference is held to introduce those young innovators to investors. 

For us, it was never an option not to work with Hayat because of the consequences of not getting involved with such a great idea. It’s a critical moment for the Middle East and i2 will bring young people the chance to have the right platform, to know what to do and how to connect to the right people, in order to make their dreams reality. Good luck today, Hayat!

Applications are now up on the i2 website and we’ll be posting live updates throughout the weekend from the launch event

(Rachel Blatt)

Watching HBO

Last night, my mother sent me an email worth sharing with the industry. It’s a pitch perfect example of how any brand would want a mom to react to a digital experience of it. And it speaks to something we really believe at Wolff Olins- brands that make it super easy for people to use and share their great products have the advantage- their loyal customers do the marketing for them. 

subject: Watching HBO


did you ever try to get onto hbo go?  Even on my computer, I think I can access any hbo show, any season, any episode, so if I have the time I could start watching the Wire from episode one, or Deadwood or any of the series from the last 6 or 7 years.  

You could watch Treme which is great or True Blood which is crazy!

Let me know, 


Rachel Blatt is the Content Manager at Wolff Olins.

Upfronts en Español

The 50 million Latinos in the United States have advertisers’ attention. This morning the NYT blogged about the sharp increase at this year’s upfront presentations in the number of broadcast networks and cable channels that aim their programming at Latino viewers.

There were nearly twice as many presentations by Spanish language networks as there were last year. We were there to see our client Univision present. They pulled out all the stops with great info, dancing, and even an appearance from Shakira. 

Some key stats we picked up at the presentation, feel free to RT:

        Hispanic Americans are the 14th largest consumer economy in the world. 1 trillion dollars a year. #univision upfront.

        1 in 3 Hispanics in America are millennials. #youthculture. #univision upfront.

        Brands should be spending 10-15% of media buy on Hispanic market. #univision upfront.

Image via @WolffOlins

Why Brand Takes a Tweeting

By Rachel Blatt

This week, in his WSJ column, Ralph Gardner reckons with himself about why it’s taken him so long to get on Twitter and what motivates some of his younger reporter colleagues to tweet in earnest. “I appreciate there’s an ulterior motive here, though I can’t say I fully subscribe. It’s about growing the brand.” 

Gardner admits slowly and begrudgingly that Twitter is useful. No doubt, the people and organizations who are active on social media truly do add viewers, readers, followers, etc. by extending their reach on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The point he seems to miss is that today’s media environment is a two-way street, where we’re all the source of each other’s truth. As everyone from brands and celebrities to consumers and Occupy protesters broadcast their opinions on Twitter, they are also taking in a gigantic stream of inputs from the people and groups they follow. 

These new vehicles of communication and collaboration have created a host of new uses and users for brands to think about when they consider their offer and outreach. We can think of the traditional “UX” as a metaphor for brand interactions today, with “users” describing anyone who interacts with a company or personality through digital media or technology.  In a journalist like Gardener’s case, you could use social media to source topics for future columns, learn about your audience’s interests, and end the week with a chat about the column you’ve produced. 

In his book Users, Not Consumers: Who Really Determines The Success of Your Business, Aaron Shapiro, CEO of HUGE Inc wrote that users can sometimes be “more intimate with and influential on a company than anyone who has completed a purchase.” It takes Ralph Gardner a little longer to get to a similar conclusion, but he eventually says it: “It’s all about establishing your presence in the ether.”

Indeed, just being there (and being accessible to users of all sorts) is an important half of the battle. And that applies for both people and brands.

Last week at Wolff Olins New York we held an internal workshop to talk to our own strategists, designers and account managers about how they can develop their own personal online brands. Some were worried that they didn’t have much to say—nothing worthwhile that could be eloquently (or forcibly) expressed in 140 characters. While it’s always important to contribute smart things, develop a unique point of view, and create and curate content that communicates what you’re all about, our workshop stressed a more fundamental point: The first important move with social media is to just be there. 

Being there lets you hear what people are saying. It makes you discoverable and accessible to a host of different users. And once you’re there, listening to others helps you figure out what you have to add.

You can follow Ralph Gardner of the WSJ as he figures it out: https://twitter.com/#!/Ralphgardnerjr

Rachel Blatt is the content manager at Wolff Olins.

Illustration by James Kape.

SHARE: Ale Lariu of everybody SHOUT

By Thao Nguyen and Rachel Blatt

Born in Brazil and now native to the digital space, Ale Lariu considers herself a “geeky jungle kid.” We see her more as a spunky guru for creatives in digital, marketing and advertising. Our friends at Fast Company would certainly agree; they chose her as #29 of the 100 most creative people in business in 2010, topping Tom Ford, Jamie Oliver and the founders of FourSquare. 

Among her other impressive credentials, Lariu was once the SVP, Creative Director at McCann Erickson. While she enjoyed the thrills of agency life, she told us at a recent Share in our NY office that she had a stronger desire to live a “free range” existence. “I just thought, well, if technology and co-creation has allowed us to do all these things, why don’t we take advantage of them? Why are we still working in the same way?”

She left McCann to cofound SheSays, a now award-winning global creative network for women. Her goal is the engagement, education and advancement of all creative people in digital marketing and advertising, but her focus is on women. 

The newest venture out of SheSays is Shout, a radical and innovative way for women in digital advertising to work collaboratively and be compensated for it. Think of an online community where everyone is encouraged to give creative input towards a client’s brief and then gets rewarded for their contribution, whether their direction is chosen or not.

Shout embodies all of Lariu’s ideas about cage-free working, or what Wolff Olins usually dubs being boundaryless. People work when and where they want, with whomever they choose to. The profit is shared, the culture is collaborative, the rewards are both financial and non-financial. A lot of the Shout community contributes part time or freelance, Lariu told us, as a sort of supplemental income. 

“One insight I had when putting this together was that there are so many clever people out there. For instance, I bet I’d like to work with all of you guys. But when I was tied to one agency I couldn’t.” Once you’re part of the network, Shout has a LinkedIn-like algorithm that introduces you to people with complementing interests and skills, who you might want to work with. 

At the same time, Lariu says clients are into it because of its social aspect. “On the public layer, people are always commenting on the work as it’s happening. It’s like real-time PR for them.” 

Shout also collaborates with its sister company, SheSays, to educate its members through events, courses, career management and mentorship. To learn more, get involved, or take classes at these two ventures, visit http://weareshesays.com/ and http://www.everybodyshout.com/.

SHARE is a weekly show & tell at Wolff Olins NY. Check out previous Shares HERE.

Image via the grindist


Is this the first Twitter-based commercial?

Did a smart car company in Argentina just create the first Twitter-based commercial?

But for the ASCII, it’s a classic setup for a car commercial—a little smart car takes the scenic route from city to country and back, eventually maneuvering into a tight parking space between two large vehicles, showing off its size.

In this case though, 456 Tweets by the company Smart Argentina (@SmartArg) tell the story. Viewed as series of Tweets, the piece is a kind of low-fi parallax scroll, or a flipbook where each Tweet is a re-Tweetable “page” that “moves” the car forward. 

See it here and hold down the “J” button: https://twitter.com/#!/smartArg

While the handle Tweets in Spanish, the only relevant language here is visual. Clever use of the Twitter machine. Seen anything else like this? Direct us to it if you have!

Thanks @asenasen for the tip

Touchy-feely phone calls


By Rachel Blatt

You know the little kick of dopamine you get whenever your phone buzzes with a new text message? Imagine what it would be like if you were the thing buzzing. In the future, a magnetic marking on your arm, stomach, finger or fingernail might be able to alert you to a new text message, call, calendar alert or low battery warning. 

According to Digital Spy, Nokia is filing a patent for a new “vibrating magnetic tattoo” that will do just that—an interesting project among a growing number of investigations into “haptic” (or touch) feedback in mobile devices.

Their patent application details stamping or spraying “ferromagnetic” material onto your skin and then linking it to your phone. Based on your phone’s commands, the material would vibrate with “one short pulse, multiple short pulses, few long pulses… strong pulses, weak pulses and so on,” according to the filing.

Cambridge-based Zoran Radivojevic and Piers Andrew are the inventors, along with Finland-based Jarkko Saunamaki and Tapani Jokinen. 

There’s obvious value in creating #useful experiences that enrich customers’ lives, and being the first in your sector to do it.  But is this truly useful? Similarly to the “Face Unlock” system in Google’s latest Android operating system, your magnet tattoo could be used as an identity check, like a magnetic fingerprint. In a very noisy place, where you risk not hearing your phone, this technology would certainly make you aware of it. In quiet places, it could also be less disturbing than the sound of your phone vibrating. 

Of course, once you tell your friends about your new magnetic tattoo, ignoring their calls will become all the more incriminating. 

What do you think? A #useful innovation or an uncomfortable intrusion?

Image via US Patent & Trademark Office

Brand = your purpose, not your name.

The Washington Post recently got its hands on captured documents from Osama bin Laden’s compound that will be publicly released shortly. It reports that near the end, bin Laden was apparently obsessed with “rebranding” al-Qaeda.

To quote the Post:  

Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for [Atiyah Abd al-Rahman], he argued that the organization should find a new name.

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, Bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was “Qaeda al-Jihad,” bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation was “Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.

Fascinating, but someone should have told him that brand is about what you stand for, not just your name.

Image via Al-Jazeera hat tip to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones