An Optimizer’s Dilemma
I’ve been thinking for a few months about a post I read on the dangers of continuous improvement. Its author, Ron Ashkenas, makes several good points about how continuous improvement methodologies (Six Sigma, Kaizen, Lean, etc.) can stifle creative problem-solving and add other risks to a business.
This worried me at first, since I was trained to apply continuous improvement methodologies to improving the performance of websites and marketing campaigns. Was optimizing via testing in a continuous fashion introducing risk to my companies or clients?
Ultimately, I decided that continuous improvement in the optimization space is still the most appropriate approach. If the risks of Six Sigma and similar approaches are a) stifling disruptive creativity, b) failing to see the bigger picture, and c) degrading company culture, I believe all three are either not applicable or can be solved for in the marketing optimization discipline.
Continuous Improvement vs. Innovation
I certainly agree that a Kaizen approach to marketing introduces a risk of being less creative and innovative. I think the key to success is the order in which you apply the different approaches. For example, when starting a company, developing a product, or brainstorming a campaign, do NOT think in terms of continuous improvement. Some proponents of the Lean Startup approach may disagree with me here, but I believe that at the birth of an idea, you should aim for innovation and creativity. (An interesting aside is that the Lean Startup movement also coined the phrase “continuous innovation,” so maybe this isn’t an either/or argument? Would love some discussion around that.)
Once your product is developed, and your ideas are “baked,” then I believe a continuous improvement approach is ideal to find your way to the optimal product messaging, offers, landing pages, conversion funnel, etc.
Continuous Improvement vs. Strategic Thinking
Ron Ashkenas’ example from his blog post regarding ‘missing the big picture’ is that many projects aimed at continuous improvement are so laser-focused on improving process and efficiencies that they neglect to ask important, challenging questions. In other words, what’s the point of optimizing a process that the customer doesn’t care about and doesn’t add value?
This makes sense, and there is a danger in the world of optimization that you will become so obsessed with testing and tuning that you miss bigger problems and/or opportunities. Any marketer who’s tried to market a substandard product is well aware of this pain. Getting a series of 2 or 3% lifts on a landing page isn’t that great if your brand is being trashed in social media, reviews are poor, net promoter score is low, etc. The phrase “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic” comes to mind.
To avoid this potential issue in your marketing optimization, I recommend a few things:
- Build strategic thinking checkpoints into your continuous improvement process, e.g. a mandatory group brainstorm for every 3rd test.
- Involve strategic marketing thinkers in your tactical optimization process, e.g. ping a brand manager even though the test hypothesis doesn’t revolve around brand
- Switch from multivariate testing back to radical A/B testing to make sure you’re occasionally trying more radical approaches to messaging, layout, style, and tactic.
Continuous Improvement vs. Company Culture
It’s hard to imagine that a testing-centric company culture could be a bad thing, but if it’s myopic, it introduces risk. I have seen companies “catch the testing bug” and get really excited about testing in a very short period of time. This is a risk if the company culture stops paying attention to things like customer service feedback, shifting competitive landscape, evolving target customers, etc.
Ultimately, intuition still does play a part in a scientific optimization process. So, any continuous improvement mindset that attempts to ignore intuition is bad. The trick is to listen to, then test, those gut hunches.
One way to avoid this in your organization is to remind everyone that testing is only one source of data among a growing data set. It’s a great source of data, but it’s not the only one. Don’t focus on optimization to the exclusion of usability testing, surveying, web analytics, competitive analysis, financial data, social media listening, and all the wonderful other forms of data that we have at our fingertips these days.
Like Ron Ashkenas, I believe that Continuous Improvement and disruptive Innovation can coexist. The key is to evolve beyond a dogmatic application of methodologies like Six Sigma to an approach that takes the context and nuance of your company into account. Talk with your colleagues about where your mature continuous marketing improvement approach may be endangering your future success. Testing is an incredibly powerful tool, but only for certain jobs. And there are plenty of other tools in your marketer’s toolbox!