The Power of Critical Thinking in Marketing (or: Devil’s Advocate, Get Thee Behind Me!)

I read a great blog entry entitled Critical Thinkers vs. Critics by Mark Logic CEO Dave Kellogg. (Quick aside: Any blog by a CEO/Chairman/Founder that is regularly updated and features plenty of wisdom, wit and insight is evidence that company has a competitive advantage in leadership. Good on you, Dave.)

Dave Kellogg raises the important difference between a “critic,” a person who criticizes everything, generally without proposed solutions” and a “critical thinker,” a person who attacks ideas in the spirit of making them better, and who can hold both sides of an argument in their head at once.”

Point very well taken. I’d additionally define a critical thinker as someone who will also not allow herself/himself or others to fall victim to “paralysis by analysis.” Even more importantly, by virtue of being unafraid of taking a hard, unbiased look at issues and listening to others’ opinions, concerns and doubts, and in fact welcoming such open discussion, a critical thinker is also an optimist by nature.

I like how Dave assesses the level of critical thinking applied in the crafting of successful marketing positioning (emphasis added):

Critics “attack” other people’s ideas but not their own. Critical thinkers “attack” everyone’s ideas, especially their own. For certain disciplines (e.g., marketing positioning) one of my primary tests is not to examine the substance of a proposal, but instead to examine the critical thinking in the process that led to it [for example, reviewing a marketing proposal recommending a new company tag-line]:

  • How many other tag-lines did you think of?
  • Why didn’t you pick tag-line 3?
  • Did you consider tag-lines based on the higher-level notion of satisfaction?
  • What’s the argument against the tag-line you’re proposing?
  • What are the direct and indirect competitors tag-lines and their relative strengths and weaknesses?

As David Ogilvy once said: “good writing is slavery” (see page 33 of Ogilvy on Advertising). So is good positioning. And it comes from critical thinking and plenty of it.

I think delving into the multiple meanings of Dave’s word “attack” is important here, too.  A critical thinker will indeed “attack” an idea much differently than a critic. There is a world of difference between “attack,” as in how a critical thinker will “earnestly initiate” a rigorous debate of an idea, in such a comment as, “The European sales team will have concerns about the time they will need to devote to the new product. Let’s work out how we can address that concern and ensure they will have time to complete their deals in the pipeline,” versus how a critic might truly “attack,” as in, “beat down,” an idea with a discussion-dampering remark:  “Oh, the European sales team always marches to their own drummer. Mark my words, they will ignore the new product. I’ve seen it before.”

Dwight Schrute-A good example of an office criticHow to effectively deal with the “critic” is addressed in author Bruna Martinuzzi’s article on optimism, which she kindly allowed me to republish on this blog. Bruna accurately identifies the behavior of the “critic,” aka “devil’s advocate,” as symptomatic of general pessimism, which can discourage critical thinking:

How can someone who has a pessimistic outlook embrace change over the safety of the known?  Those who have a pessimistic outlook typically approach changes to the status quo with the familiar: “we tried this before,” “it won’t work,” or “it will never fly.”  Such individuals often label themselves as devil’s advocate.  The negative effect this can have on creativity, innovation and change is reflected in the title of a new book by Tom Kelley of IDEO, the world’s leading design firm: The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization.  Kelley provides a roadmap for those who want to fuel innovative thinking and neutralize the pessimistic, often destructive “naysayers” who shoot down ideas and stifle creativity.

Bringing this discussion full circle, Bruna’s definition of an optimist leader is very much in line with Dave Kellogg’s “critical thinker”:

To be innovative, one needs to be open to new ideas, wide open to seeing possibilities, willing to take risks and encourage others to take risks – willing to challenge the process in order to create new solutions or products or improve processes.   In short, one needs to have a sense of adventure and an expectation of success…

[Dr. Martin E. Seligman, who has extensively studied the human trait of optimism, recommends practicing] “flexible optimism,” i.e., having the wisdom to assess situations and identify those that require a pessimistic inquisition, and those that call for optimism, for having a “can do” attitude and taking a chance. (emphasis added).

Bruna Martinuzzi goes even further in her new book, identifying optimism (and, by extension, “critical thinking”) as just one of several key qualities of a leader who is a mensch, a person of supreme integrity, honor and character. Dave noted how surprised he is how many, many executives do a poor job thinking critically. I unfortunately must concur whole-heartedly. So, if you find yourself working for a “critical thinker” aka “flexible optimist” aka mensch, consider yourself lucky!

Stay tuned Click here for my review of Bruna’s new book, The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.


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