Instagram and the value of a business premortem…

In the modern business world, positivity reigns supreme. If you’re not positive to the point of delirious and motivated to build a utopian future, the common wisdom is you’re doing it wrong.

But there’s power in the opposite too. In fact, there’s a major benefit to visualising scenarios in which things go wrong. It might sound strange and counterproductive, but in direct response to overly optimistic, naive thinking, many business leaders are encouraging their employees to think negatively.

In a brilliant Fast Company magazine piece on Instagram’s growth this month, there’s one really illuminating paragraph. Insta launched more features in December last (live streaming, stories, advertising options) than it ever has before. All of them were successful. But according to CEO Kevin Systrom, the reason behind this wasn’t ‘the power of positivity’, rather something very different.

“Every recent change the company has wrought sprang from the team asking itself ‘what would we do if Instagram as we knew it suddenly stopped mattering?’. What kind of decisions would we make? This unlocked a torrent of creativity. It allowed us to be more risk seeking than we would have been in the past. Ironically, it would almost be risker not to do something like this”

The technique that Systrom describes actually has a name coined by psychologist Gary Klein – the premortem. In a premortem, a project manager must envision what could go wrong—what will go wrong—in advance, before starting. Why? Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish. A premorten insulates the company by preparing it for the worst. It opens people’s minds and allows the threat of adversity to stir creativity.

In a postmorten, we reflect around what happened in death. But having a ‘worst case scenario’ plan alleviates the need for a postmortem in most cases, since the company becomes more robust and antifragile to threats. It’s about preparing for disruption and working this into your plans. In earthquake threatened areas like Japan, engineers build slack into buildings to insulate from tremors. A premortem is the business equivalent. We can anticipate, pre-empt and then mitigate possible future problems.

The premortem goes back to the Stoics, who had an even better name for it: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils). The concept may seem pessimistic, but actually it’s just pragmatic, realistic and smart preparation.

As the old quote goes:

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.”

Think of it as pre-emptive hindsight, a decision insurance policy to protect your future self.


Further Reading:

Simple ways to prevent failure
The overthinkers guide to launching your next project
A simple technique to save any project from failure
Performing a premortem
The stoic art of negative visualisation


What happens when you have a brilliant product and market it badly…

Everyone who works in the marketing industry has had this conversation before with friends from outside the industry bubble.

“Marketing doesn’t work on me.”

“Ah branding is just a waste of money.”

“I’ve never bought something just because I’ve seen an ad”

It’s a tough stance to argue with. It’s certainly tough to convince someone with such entrenched views. Plus, most of marketing and branding’s benefit is intangible, unconscious and difficult to describe and perceive.

So here are two good videos to show your friends the next time this discussion comes up.

Both are examples of what happens when you have a brilliant product, but your branding and marketing is, well, a bit shit.


This is a great lesson for startups and companies that tend to see marketing and branding as a cost or an afterthought.

You can have a fantastic product. But unless you communicate that effectively with people, and signal that your brand is worth investing hard earned cash in, then many of your potential customers will take shortcut to presuming they shouldn’t take you seriously.

Marketing at its core is about intangible value creation. And even if we don’t think it has an effect on us, it’s very likely that it does.

The overlap of a desired product and brilliant marketing is the sweet spot for creating a great company. Having one without the other results in underperformance.

(First example stolen from Rory Sutherland’s excellent AdWeek talk)

When it comes to social media less is more…

We have a tendency as modern marketers to focus on volume. The presumption is that the more creative executions, more videos, more blogposts, more adverts we create, the better our results will be.

But more is not always better, particularly when it comes to social.

As much as we’d like it to be, our budget isn’t unlimited. Our job is to spend limited resources wisely, to understand our constraints and find ways to overcome them.

Previously, when organic reach was still achievable for all, it made sense for a brand to post 2-3 times daily. But that has changed. Most brands reach 1% of their Facebook fanbase, and with algorithmically driven feeds becoming part of Instagram and Twitter too, the organic approach is dying. Social is now categorically pay to play.

Thus, often little point putting a huge amount of effort into creating and manicuring a social post unless you’re paying to put it in front of people.

The problem used to be that we didn’t have enough social assets to push out. But now, a marketer’s main issue, whether they realise it or not, is often having too many assets and not enough media budget to get them placed in front of the right people.

The emphasis should be on creating less posts (thereby reducing production costs and time to create) but better optimising the things you do create, and ensuring that everything has at least some paid budget behind it. Brands no longer needs a constant stream of organic posts. Production budget should be more wisely spent in service of a bigger creative idea.

It’s easy to constantly create more without really understanding why you’re doing that. A more restrained approach is needed.

It sounds like a bit of a paradox given the need for brands to be ‘always on’, but otherwise you’re spreading your budget thin while also shouting into the black hole of the newsfeed.

Put the emphasis on doing less, but doing it better.