Enter the code breakers

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My friend Ernie Mosteller, whose blog has been a regular feature on TheBrandBuilder is leaving the very cool Houston-based Tangelo Ideas to become VP and Creative Director of Blattner Brunner's Washington, DC office. (Congrats, Ernie!) The piece below is something I found on his blog a few days ago that I really like. (Why? Because it reminded me of this post I wrote several months ago. Go check it out once you're done with this one.)

I don't think it's become crystal clear to business leaders yet, even in the Marketing industry, that as Marketing's tools, tactics and increasingly diverse roles evolve, so must the types of people who form the teams that will make them successful. Operatives for Marketing's new age should be a lot more versatile than they have been in the past. Instead of being specialists in only one specific field, they should have one core (deep) skill - like copywriting, graphic design, media planning, etc. - and a bagful of broad, cross-functional training such as cultural anthropology, sociology, product design, improv, concept ideation, project management, psychology, pattern analysis, etc. as well as talents like the one Ernie mentions here:

Code breakers are observers, first and foremost. They seem to have a sense of what makes people tick. Interestingly, the very best salesmen are pretty good at it, deciphering which of seventy possible product attributes might entice a particular buyer the most - based solely on interaction in a short face-to-face sales call. Being a good code breaker is simply a personality trait.

Right now, this function within an agency is most closely related to the planner. And maybe it is the planner. But it's a planner with an innate talent - the ability to observe and listen firsthand, and come up with insight no research study will ever reveal. There are trendwatchers, and there's Faith Popcorn, and to an extent these are code-breaking / future-predicting services. But it strikes me that a good code breaker is something more. It's someone who can read all the research that's ever been published about insurance salesmen and cell phones, but then insists on spending time hanging out with or around those salesmen to observe. And when she returns from her observation, she brings you insight and information about what's really happening, what the real problems and opportunities are - not just an aggregate trend-guess compiled from those who decided to answer the survey questions. A good code breaker can deliver insight that takes an idea from ok to spectacular.
Here's a word of advice, however: Hire talent, not characters. Hire curious generalists before formula-driven specialists. Hire folks whose experience makes for interesting conversation at parties. Hire anyone who isn't afraid to ask a lot of questions and have both the guts and the imagination to look for answers in unusual places.

IDEO has been experimenting with cross-functional/cultural project teams for years now, and with tremendous success. Most of IDEO's people have one deep skill and a panoply of broader, adaptable skills that allow them to negotiate any kind of project, challenge, hurdle or environment with relative ease. Here are descriptions of some of the new funtions that they pioneered:

Human Factors specialists apply their knowledge from psychology, anthropology, biomechanics, and related fields to enhance people's experience through design. As interdisciplinary design team members, they employ a range of observational and empathic techniques to understand the issues people face. They use this knowledge to frame design opportunities and to create scenarios and "experiential prototypes" to explore, test, and refine opportunities in context.
Business Factors specialists help clients identify and implement opportunities for innovation, and facilitate critical decision-making throughout the innovation process. This includes defining the innovation challenge, and identifying relevant assets and competencies that can be leveraged to achieve success.

Industrial designers concern themselves with the tangible experience of seeing, desiring, obtaining, and using a product, ultimately defining the user's emotional connection to the object. They are involved with a project from the initial strategic and conceptual design through to the detailed implementation of production, integrating the essential aspects of business factors, human factors, and technical factors identified by the client and design team.
Interaction designers concern themselves with complex user experiences that unfold over time. They have broad knowledge and diverse backgrounds in areas such as interface design, product design, information architecture, graphics, cognitive psychology, software engineering, and computer science.
We're pretty far from the old single-function (copywriter/engineer/product manager/PR Manager, etc.) model we know all too well, but if being a market leader is one of your principal objectives, that's a good thing.

Don't hire for "the job". Hire exceptional talent. Create new positions, or modify existing ones to capitalize on your new Marketing commandos' skills. Let yourself drift away from the old single-function model. Throw out the old titles and functions if need be. Partner with code breakers. With thought leaders. With innovators. With answer-seekers. With rule-breakers. Partner with anyone who stands out and has something exceptional to offer.

Do it now, or someone else will.

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