Planners have supposed to have gone beyond digital, made something and figured out our T-shape. But what do strategists and planners do? What is our craft? Every person in an agency is a problem solver. Art directors solve by making things beautiful, copywriters solve by writing and technologists solve by making the interwebs tick. And planners solve by ______? Planning? Strategizing?
The intangibility of planning makes it really tough to find a universal definition for what we do and hence even tougher for me to explain my job to my mom. We research, we study culture, we understand clients, we think about our creatives and we find a way to bring all that thinking together and apply it to a problem. Yes, we do write briefs and guide and plenty of other documents – but none of that represents what we do the way a well crafted line represents what a writer does. It’s all cerebral. So is the trade of a planner…thinking? But everyone thinks! What is it about our thinking that makes us planners and strategists? In the quest to become better at planning, should I be working on being a better thinker? Is that even possible?
To find answers, I spent some time thinking about thinking and studied my own problem solving process. Here’s what I found. I’d love to hear what your process looks like.
My planner anatomy has two main components.
It’s always on and soaks everything in. The New York Times, a random podcast, endless links on twitter, tumblogs, the social commentary of Glee, case studies, RSS feeds, conversations with strangers, comic books. All this, being consumed and stored away. Then there is project specific soaking – the brand, the audience, the competitors and the ecosystem they all thrive in. While it is storing all this, it is also categorizing, organizing, connecting and merging these concepts, ideas and information.
I was reading a really fascinating article in WIRED about unconscious thought and this paragraph spoke to me instantly.
…this research is an important reminder that the unconscious is smarter than we can comprehend, as it processes vast amounts of information in parallel. While we’re distracted by tedious chores and dumb puzzles, it’s frantically sifting through the facts, trying to find us the best car and the winning soccer team. Sometimes, we just need to learn to listen.
I’ve felt this a few times when I get down to planning. All the stored information from my brain is channeled to what I call the planner gut. It processes all this information and combines it with the hunches I have. The things I “feel” are true when I turn off the rational side of my brain. I’d like to point out the difference between these and what counts as an ‘opinion’. An opinion is based on some hard fact or observation. What I am referring to is more intuitive – the truths we know inside of us. It is in the planner gut where facts and observations turn into insights and ideas.
There is now way these two work mutually exclusively. Each time I learn something new, the gut becomes smarter. It slowly gains a surer voice. And it never stops growing. What I put in counts too – it’s not about the quantity of information, but the diversity of that information too. By some magical subconscious process, the gut starts making connections between architectural principles, musical notes of Mozart, the open source revolution and applies it all to a brand problem.
I also tried modeling the planner brain in terms of cognitive processes. There are two primary ways of thinking: divergent and convergent.
Divergent thinking is stimuli driven. It is the process that helps us come up with answers for tasks such as ‘think of 15 things that are red’. Our brain jumps around, collecting ideas, objects, songs and sights associated with “red”. It branches off and shoots for novel ideas and new perspectives. Instead of a single correct answer, there may be a whole host of possibilities.
This is what the sponge brain does. Triggers spark ideas, connections are made between concepts and then stored in our heads.
Convergent thinking is when we locate a problem at the “center” of our focus and then gather peripheral resources to bear down on the problem. Then our resources “converge” on the problem. Often times with convergent thinking, there is a single best solution that is sought. This is when I think the planner gut kicks in to gather the resources the brain has stored and converge on the problem at hand.
This is fascinating to me because I rarely think about my ‘process’. Just like an artist finds ways to improve her aesthetic eye, the writer looks for her voice, I want to find ways to become a better thinker. Thinking in these terms helps me add tangibility to my ‘startegery’. My planner gut is still a kid and has much to soak in & learn. But like all kids, it wants to grow up real soon. And I’m trying to feed it all kinds of things right now.
I’d love to know if you’ve been aware of your own process. Or does it even matter to you? I leave you with this little gem drawn from the tenets of a certain form of Buddhism.
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Insight does not arise from thoughts, but is an inner, intuitive knowing quite different from discursive and logical thinking, rather an outcome of a clear and calm mind. This leads the awareness into the depths of truth, which has always been there, but which did not rise to the surface before, so that the mind could not grasp it previously.