The 11 rules of succeeding with nonsensical ideas, according to an advertising legend

In his first book Alchemy, advertising legend, TED talk master and behavioural genius Rory Sutherland explains why we should let go of logic so we can generate brilliant ideas, solve our problems creatively, and successfully influence the world around us. Here are his 11 rules for creating this ideas ‘alchemy’. 

1. The opposite of a good idea can be another good idea

Conventional logic loves the idea of a single right answer. This is because, once you’ve come up with this answer, no matter how narrow the pool of material you’re pulling from, no one can fault you for following the logic that made you arrive at your conclusion, because no subjectivity was involved. However, this is potentially disastrous if you want to generate an original idea.

Consider the success of the brilliant engineer-alchemist James Dyson. Hoovers used to be a grudge buy that was only necessary if your old one had broken. It was a purely utilitarian item. Therefore, logically, it would make no sense to invent a cool looking, but very expensive hoover, because there was no demand for it. But Dyson added a degree of excitement to the transaction of a boring household item, and with that created some magic that led to one of the most successful products of the twentieth century.

2. Don’t design for average

Most models of problem solving will cause you to come up with a solution for a single, non-existent, representative individual with lots of completely average characteristics. This way you create a dead end for yourself, because it’s impossible to develop something this fictitious person will like. Instead, focus on extreme ideas that may be adopted by unusual consumers and then make their way into the mainstream. You are more likely to come up with a good idea focusing on one outlier than on ten average users.

Take the sandwich for example – this eighteenth century culinary stroke of genius was not conceived by the average eater. The Earl of Sandwich was an obsessive gambler, and demanded food in a form that would not require him to leave the card table while he ate. Hence the mad but perfectly simple idea to just add filling between slices of bread – no utensils, plates or leaving the table required.

3. It doesn’t pay to be logical when everybody else is being logical

Being logical makes you predictable, and your competitors will know what you’re going to do before you do. This is because using logic will very likely land you in the same place as everyone else, and sharing a market space with competitors this way creates a race to the bottom. Instead, figure out the logic model of your competitor, find where their use of it is too narrow and exploit this.

Consider what you do when you want to rent a flat in London. Many people will stubbornly only look along the tube lines and make this a non-negotiable. But thousands of competitor renters are thinking the exact same thing, which inevitably means that rent prices along tube lines are higher. Instead, next time you find yourself flat hunting, look for flats near railways stations. They are likely to be cheaper, and the train gets you into central London just as fast as the tube.

4. The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience

Whether an experience - be it a hotel, a bar, a restaurant, a product or anything else - is good or bad doesn’t just depend on what the experience is like objectively. It depends on what we expect the experience to be like.

Imagine you’re going to Berlin for a long weekend and have booked a hotel in the former east side of the German capital. When you arrive, you discover your hotel is in a former prison. The rooms are spartan with no ornamentation, your bed is on a platform above the shower, and it has a black and white television tuned to only one channel that plays The Big Lebowski on repeat. If you had turned up at this hotel expecting the Marriott it would have been the worst experience of your life. However, if you expected an incredibly cool, authentic, industrial East Berlin experience, it would be the best hotel you ever stayed in.

5. A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget

Nature engages in quite a lot of what seems like pointless and ineffective display. But the very pointlessness and extravagance of this display is what conveys meaning to us. Consider this - if you’re getting married and you’re inviting people to your wedding, you don’t send around a casual email or a Facebook invite. You send out an expensive or elaborate invitation, and you make your vows in front of everyone you know.

In attempting to make advertising a game of efficiency, we’ve completely lost sight of a large part of what makes advertising work, namely that it’s 1. costly to generate 2. costly to deliver, and 3. in many cases, displayed indiscriminately. But it is exactly those things that make it so effective. Trying to make something efficient and trying to make something effective are not the same thing. Flowers discovered this 20 million years ago. We’re still catching up.

11 rules of alchemy

6. The problem with logic is it kills off magic

As Niels Bohr (Danish physicist, philosopher and Nobel Laureate) apparently once told Einstein, ‘You are not thinking; you are merely being logical.’ Once you’ve devised what seems like a logical schema for problem solving, you’ve created something which is based on very simple physics and maths – something which will always give you a single right answer. But where logic exists, magic cannot.

If you want to improve someone’s experience of a hotel, logic dictates that you improve the hotel itself, rather than the perception of the hotel. But people don’t perceive the world objectively, and assuming that they do means you will be confined to improving your product exclusively by doing objective things. Context is a marketing superweapon, and it works because it works magically.

7. A good guess which stands up to empirical observation is still science. And so is a lucky accident.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who describes himself as a methodological alchemist, effectively says that the idea that all worthwhile scientific discoveries have been made by obeying the strict rules of scientific methodology simply doesn’t hold true. Rather, he supports an ‘anything goes’ type of approach to finding solutions. And he’s right – why would you let methodological purity restrict the number of solutions you could produce? We’ve got to learn to be more comfortable with progress that arises from happy accidents.

Remember, as Steve Jobs said, to stay hungry and stay foolish. This is a distinguishable feature of successful entrepreneurs who, since they don’t have to defend their reasoning behind every decision, are free to experiment with solutions that are off-limits to others within a corporate setting.

8. Test counterintuitive things, because nobody else will

Some of the most valuable discoveries don’t make sense at first, because if they did, someone would have discovered them already. This is a bit risky of course – if you have a bonkers idea and it fails, your job may be on the line, whereas if you do something rational that fails you get to try again. But, there can be an extraordinary competitive advantage if you create a small space in your business for people to test things that don’t make sense. The great value of experimenting outside of the rationalists’ comfort zone is that most of your competitors will be too scared to go there.

Consider the iPhone, perhaps the most successful product since the Ford Model T. It was developed, not in response to consumer demand or after tireless consultation with focus groups; it was the monomaniacal conception of one slightly deranged man, who simply did not like buttons. The iPhone shows that if you go a bit mad and experiment, the pearl you’ll find can be a remarkably sustainable one.

9. Solving problems using only rationality is like playing golf using only one club

Rationality has its uses, but you will improve your thinking a great deal if you abandon artificial certainty and learn to think ambiguously about the peculiarities of human psychology. In other words, if you make assumptions on what’s important to people, and how they think, decide and act, you are basing your conclusions on a very narrow view of human motivation.

For instance, if you are selling a product and you are defining motivation to buy in economic terms, the solution logically boils down to either fining people or bribing people. Those are perfectly worthwhile solutions to behaviour change. Incentives do work. But that’s one golf club among many. There are lots of reasons why people do the things they do, and economic incentives only cover a small part of them.

10. Dare to be trivial

Any Sherlock Holmes-devotee will tell you that paying attention to trivial things is not necessarily a waste of time. The most important clues may often seem irrelevant, and a lot of life is best understood by observing trivial details. No one complains that Darwin was being trivial in comparing the beaks of finches from one island to another, because his ultimate inferences were so interesting.

Small things, like simply adding an extra line to a call centre script, can have an enormous butterfly effect. So does simply redefining the same action in different contexts. Typing in your address when you’re filing your tax return or adding your details to a consumer database feels like a waste of time. Doing exactly the same to confirm where your new washing machine, an order of books or brand new clothes should be delivered, feels much more exciting. This is exactly where logical models and the idea of proportionality fail us; we assume that in a rational and mechanistic system big changes in behaviour require big inventions. In a complex system, this is miles away from the truth. 

11. If there was a logical answer, we would have already found it.

We fetishise logic to such an extent that we are increasingly blind to its failings. It doesn’t help that rational people are everywhere and control everything – your finance department, your procurement department, the consulting firm you hire, your government and so on. But when you set logical people the task to solve a persistent problem, you’re likely to fail. Your problem most likely is logic-proof, because if the solution was logical, you would have found it already. There will most likely be a solution, but conventional, linear rationality isn’t going to find it. These are the problems that gridlock government decision making, divide politicians, make businesses obsess. And the only reason why they are still problems is because no one has had the balls to try an irrational solution to solve them. 

12. (because why restrict yourself to a predetermined number?) Dare to look stupid

One of the ways to solve a problem is to ask a question no one has asked before. There are several reasons why a specific question hasn’t been asked before. One might be because no one was clever enough to ask it. A more likely explanation is that no one was stupid enough to ask it. There are copious amounts of questions that will make you sound incredibly dumb, and you should never hesitate to ask them. The only reason they make you sound like an idiot is because there is likely a preconceived, rational answer to that particular question. But, as has been explained thoroughly, rationality is the enemy of alchemy.

We deploy more rigour and structure to our decision-making in business because so much is at stake; but another, less optimistic, explanation is that the limitations of this approach are in fact what makes it appealing – the last thing people want when faced with a problem is a range of creative solutions, with no means of choosing between them other than their subjective judgement. It seems safer to create an artificial model that allows one logical solution and to claim that the decision was driven by ‘facts’ rather than opinion: remember that what often matters most to those making a decision in business or government is not a successful outcome, but their ability to defend their decision, whatever the outcome may be.

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