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Opinion / What's In A Brief

by Nick Parish

How do you brief for the unknowable? In Part Two of our series on briefing, Nick Parish asked some unconventional sources for their opinions and discovered what it takes to boldly embrace what you don’t know

In the first part of this series, we argued marketing has become increasingly fluid and therefore needs to be more reactive. The brief is too static and rigid, the opposite of reactive. Meanwhile, the best, most transformative and impactful outcomes to business problems are, by their nature, often entirely foreign to a corporation. A great solution might have previously been unthinkable.

So what would be the components of a Contagious brief, for this kind of unknown, revolutionary idea? What would go into a request for an idea that brings the world never before-seen concepts and is able to help birth the essential change in a fluid, mutable way? In asking these questions, we realised briefing isn’t just about change, it’s about asserting indeterminacy in a fundamentally straight-jacketed agency-client relationship. We need to allow for change. In fact, the Contagious brief would be centred on openness to change. But with that must come the acknowledgement that the outcome of that change isn’t known, can’t be known, at present. 

The benefits (and limits) of agility

Some would say that to allow for change, a brief should evolve to incorporate lean or Agile Principles, such as those in software development. While that’s a great way of working when building responsive technology, in which you keep users engaged throughout the process, it’s not necessarily the best way to brief.

People tasked with coming up with ideas need to have the latitude to think, without a production schedule or daily check-ins orchestrating their creative responses.

Course of action development

We believe there are two levers to understanding briefing for change. The first is managing the transfer of institutional knowledge among all the partners.

The actual physical shell of the Contagious brief could benefit from exposure to another information-rich-yet-chaotic environment: the modern-day battlefield.

I talked to Brady Moore, a former Green Beret, who now works as a client representative at IBM and volunteers with Next Ridgeline, a non-profit that helps former special operations soldiers make the transition to civilian careers, to help me understand the military’s planning process. 

Moore gave me a crash course in the military’s system of conveying tasks and planning, its institutionalised knowledge transfer, the Military Decision Making Process. He took me through the Five Paragraph Operations Order, a format the military widely internalises. He then introduced me to Course of Action Development, a much more fluid, creative process akin to a Request For Proposal. This is the territory of special operations groups, where a vague objective is presented to a commander who must then present a plan to the superiors of how that objective could be accomplished. (Sound familiar?)

‘You determine what the mission is, then you determine three different ways to accomplish that goal,’ Moore told me. ‘They all have to be independently feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable and complete. As a Green Beret you’re working with a cross-functional team, and this is their opportunity to make their case of “here’s what we’re going to do”.’

This sounded much like briefing for the unknown. ‘It’s a great way to bring the most talented people to the table and get their buy-in,’ Moore said. ‘The team members get the opportunity to plead their case, you as the leader get to develop different courses of action.’ Each option is wargamed to its conclusion, and rated by leadership according to a criterion — which is the fastest, which will offer the least potential casualties, etc. The recommendation is placed before the next higher commander, who frequently will direct the incorporation of some elements from Plans B and C into Plan A.

The biggest benefit of this way of working? ‘Once you’re carrying out the mission, each member of the team is well equipped to come up with the inevitable changes on the ground, because you came up with three different ways to fix the problem,’ Moore says. ‘Everybody was involved in that planning process.’

Power to the people

The second key lever in briefing for change is giving power to everyone down the line to enforce plans and guidelines. This is a key lesson in Atul Gawande’s 2010 book The Checklist Manifesto, a study of how complicated interactions with lots of specialist stakeholders achieve success. He looked at areas such as the logistical symphony of skyscraper construction, and the intangibles of medicine such as a state-of-the-art hospital, where, Gawande writes, 178 daily tasks need to be performed for each ICU patient. These, as well as cases like disaster relief, form the basis for a fairly simple question: how do we take risk out of the complicated procedures that are part of modern existence?

For instance, in talking about bestowing responsibility to those far down the food chain, Gawande tells the story of Walart’s disaster relief role after Hurricane Katrina. The retailer was able to provide much-needed food, clothing and medical supplies before the US government. The briefing from chief executive Lee Scott to store managers was simple: ‘This company will respond to the level of this disaster. A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision you can with the information that’s available to you at the time and, above all, do the right thing.’

The Contagious brief would focus on these transfers of knowledge, and giving everyone who is working on a project the power to embrace the guardianship of these briefed ideals, because when things get foggy and unclear, they may be all you can depend on.


Empowerment Through Vagueness

Briefs that result in great work are frequently vague, but building levers to enable autonomy within your search for a solution is ultimately more beneficial.

Our Insight & Strategy interviews from Contagious I/O all ask about the briefing process that led to the creation of exceptional work. The most common objectives were:

- Communicate our product in a remarkable way

- Appeal to people who have never tried product X

- Encourage people to try the product

- Get as much attention, buzz and interest as possible

If you’re a client, you should trust your agency with a brief that doesn’t ensnare them with the dreaded mandatories, what Lesya Lysyj, former CMO for Heineken USA, writing in Advertising Age called ‘a great way to kill creativity before it even begins.

What's In A Brief was originally published in Contagious Magazine issue 46