News & Views

The Golden Rule for 2018: Stay Limber

by Chris Barth

In the first of a series of articles on 'Agile Long-termism', we assess why this approach is the smartest thing any company can do this year

When I was a young pup consultant fresh out of college, I frequently traveled for business. Specifically, I commuted almost every single day, every single week, from Boston, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. And once a week, every week, to give myself a break from the two-hour round trip drive, I would stay in the same hotel in Providence, where I’d check in with the same front desk clerk and have the same conversation:

Me: Hello, I’d like to check in.

Front Desk Clerk: Welcome, Mr. Barth.

Me: Please, call me Chris!

Front Desk Clerk: Apologies, but I’m directed to greet guests by their title and last name.


Now, I genuinely believed the front desk clerk’s apology. He wanted to oblige my request as much as he could. But someone, in some office somewhere, had passed down a mandate that such behaviour was verboten. In an effort to enforce professionalism, management was in fact sometimes preventing employees from meeting customer preferences.

This is a classic example of what Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi describe, in their research published in the Harvard Business Review, as tactical thinking. Companies attempt to unify their offering by establishing a set of rules that dictate every decision or interaction, locking in a way of thinking and acting that is absolute.

In reality, though, organisations are more likely to succeed if they articulate their goals clearly while enabling fast-twitch adjustments based on the stimuli presented. This is what McGregor and Doshi, borrowing some military terminology, call adaptive thinking.

In a call-center experiment, McGregor and Doshi instructed a team to follow an adaptive model (going off script during calls, experimenting with new ways of working, sharing information on success and failures within the team). Within four months, that team was twice as successful at resolving customer issues as a control group. Meanwhile, the researchers found that only 27% of American workers have the same kind of leeway to find new ways of working in their day-to-day jobs.

At Contagious, we believe a blend of these tactical and adaptive mindsets is necessary for success – something we call ‘Agile Long-termism’. What’s more, we think Agile Long-termism is the biggest thing companies need to succeed in 2018. As customers demand more from brands, brands must strive to be strategic and crystal clear about what they stand for and why – their organising principle. But simultaneously, as platforms and consumer behaviours shift like sand in a windstorm, companies must be adaptive in how they achieve those aspirations. Think of yourself as the driver of a car. Set out with a destination in mind, but be ready to slow down in treacherous conditions, stop to fuel up, or swerve to avoid an accident.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman describes two systems operating in our brains, creatively named System One and System Two. System One makes quick, small, instinctual decisions almost like a reflex. System Two, on the other hand, makes a more limited number of careful, considered decisions. Every day these systems coordinate to help us navigate the world.

The same should be true of your company. System Two thinking is your well-thought-out and fully articulated mission that need not be revisited and revised regularly. System One is your day-to-day decision-making brain, which reacts and responds quickly and confidently to whatever challenges may arise. Marketers play tug of war daily between their System Ones and Systems Twos, between long-term brand building and short-term sales goals. Agile Long-termism means getting them to work together in harmony by keeping your eyes on the prize, but being flexible in the short term.

So, to start 2018 in the best possible way, we’re kicking off a content series all about Agile Long-termism and how to get it right. In the next few weeks, right on this website, we’ll publish a number of thought pieces from both the Contagious team and leaders from the wider industry. We’ll analyse the importance of an Agile Long-termism perspective, we’ll share advice on how brands can adopt it, and we’ll show you case studies of the companies already nailing this.

Stay tuned. And in the meantime: stay limber.

For information on our 'How to Win in 2018' presentation, please email Michelle Graves: