How Counterintuitive Thinking Can Help You Cut Through the Clutter

I’ve seen quite a few articles lately from content marketing buffs on how to “cut through the clutter.” That’s a legitimate concern, given that for instance, an estimated 1400 blogs are posted every minute.

But much of the clutter-cutting advice is not good, and here I will invoke a law my colleague, Mr. Rosenbaum, cited recently: Sturgeon’s, which says that 90% of everything is crap. I’d never heard it before, but have since found it enormously useful in work and in everyday life.

In regard to breaking through the clutter, Sturgeon’s Law manifests itself in two ways. One bad: 90% of the advice you will read on how to cut through said clutter is useless. Crap advice for cutting through the clutter, read recently on the web, includes:

  • Use images: How novel! We have been doing that since The Times (of London) accompanied an article about Lord Nelson’s funeral with his portrait. In 1806.  
  • Spread your content far and wide. If your content falls in the 90% crap category, this is like spreading manure (which, by the way, is 100% crap).
  • Make content portable: Dang, just as we were mastering the art of carving it onto stone tablets.

The other manifestation is good: 90% of what’s published in your area of expertise is also useless, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to rise above it. Crap advice repeated endlessly in professional services firms’ articles includes:

  • The world is ever more competitive: No, it isn’t. Competition has been a feature of markets since the dawn of time. If there are too many potters in your village, the price of clay pots goes down until a potter goes out of business, and then the market re-equilibrates. Competition self-regulates, at least until the government gets involved.
  • Attitudes toward risk in a company depends primarily on the tone from the top: This derives from an assertion made by the Institute of Internal Auditors about 20 years ago that has never been proven, but which nonetheless has been repeated endlessly.
  • Millennials are different than other generations: Not really. According to a 2015 study, only 40% of millennials self-identify as such, and even they are conflicted as to what defines them.

So, lots of clutter, lots of crap. But how to cut through it?

Really, the answer is the same as it ever was: Create good content and distribute it well. There are many determinants of good content, as well as of good distribution, but let’s focus on one thing that helps content stand out from the crowd: Saying something counterintuitive. Research shows that concepts that run contrary to what we believe are are more readily noticed, and easier to remember.

Of course, it’s easy to say the opposite of what everyone believes. You could say, for instance, that Big Data and analytics are liabilities for any business. That’s counterintuitive. That will stand out. But it’s probably wrong, and it’s certainly not helpful. To posit a point of view that is counterintuitive and verifiable and useful is more difficult. What happens if we try? Here are a few attempts:

  • Silos Can Be Good: It’s a business cliché that we should break down silos in organizations. A certain editor once told me that he would slit his wrists if he ever read that phrase again, and that was at least five years ago. So, why not write an article about when, where, and why silos are beneficial? We don’t need to break down the silos between sales and accounting, for instance; no one needs salespeople messing about with the numbers. And a recent article in HBR reported that the best collaborators in an organization are quickly overwhelmed with requests from so many teams they inevitably become ineffective. The authors suggest structural changes may be required. Anyone for building a few siloes?
  • Top Management Support Isn’t Necessary: Another cliché is that any initiative of any import must have top-management support. No, it mustn’t. Top management doesn’t have time to support everything that someone thinks is important. A client recently told us it would have taken him two months to get the $30,000 he needed to kick off a development project. Instead, he went to a client who donated $2 billion of financial services business for them to use together as a “development sandpit.” “I’ll take it back to top management when we’ve articulated the new [business] model,” he said.
  • Avoid Disruptive Innovation Like the Plague: Another popular cliché is that we should all embrace disruptive innovation, this century’s version of the now-humble “think outside the box,” perhaps. However, many of us have businesses that can (and should) reject it. The humble Bloom Group relies on deep editorial expertise and a suite of tools and techniques developed over 20 years to do what we do. That’s not easily disrupted; a competitor can’t replace us by sourcing copy on content.ly and wrapping an infographic around it, though some have tried. On a more corporate scale, many firms have deep infrastructures, cultures, and practices that have served them well and would be difficult to breach. FedEx comes to mind. I’d wager that FedEx doesn’t need disruptive innovation, or need to fear it, either; it just needs to keep building on and defending its enormous assets.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways to make sure your content falls in the worthy 10 percent, and being counterintuitive is only one of them. But it’s perhaps a muscle we flex less often because it seems difficult to do. However, it gets easier if you assemble a few bright, talented people, and, without top management support, stick them in a silo and let them improve on what you already do well. 

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