[Podcast] Agile Swarming with Dennis Hahn

[Podcast] Agile Swarming with Dennis Hahn

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This episode is a real treat for anyone looking to level up on how to work on brand strategy collaboratively.

Matt Davies and Jacob Cass sit down with global agency leader Dennis Hahn of Liquid agency.

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Together they quiz Dennis on his ‘agile swarming’ methodology covering what swarming is and what problems it solves for leadership, strategy, and creative teams.

Dennis outlines his principles for swarming and how to conduct a swarm. He also gives insights on what makes a great facilitator, the environment, and the tools he uses for success.

If you want to know how an agency at the cutting edge is doing its strategy work this is the episode for you. Not to be missed.


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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Well, hello everybody, and welcome to JUST Branding. We’re really excited and thrilled to have with us today, the one and only Dennis Hahn from Liquid Agency. If you haven’t heard of Liquid Agency, where have you been?

This is one of the world’s leading agencies working with brands such as Walmart, Intel and Nike, or Nike, if you’re on this side of the pond as we say it, but amazing to have you with us, Dennis. Thanks for carving out some time. Excited to have you on the show.

Thanks a lot, Matt. Happy to be here and same with you, Jacob. Let’s mix it up.

Let’s do something fun together.

Let’s do that. Well, what we want to focus on for today’s episode is the rather sort of, if I can say so myself, Dennis, and I hope you don’t take offense to this, it’s kind of a buzzwordy kind of title. It’s about agile swarming, which we’re gonna unpick this together.

We’re gonna unpack that. But there’s a lot of people out there talking about agile and all this stuff. So it’s gonna be really good for us to get some clarity on that.

Before we get into agile swarming and look at that, and look at all the buzzwords around that, what I’d love to do is really get to know you a little bit more, Dennis. Tell us about how you got to become the Chief Strategy Officer at Liquid and your journey.

Yeah, so, actually my journey starts from the world of design. I’m a graphic designer by training and degree. That’s how I started.

And as many designers ask all the annoying why questions, why am I doing this, what is this in service to and things like that, eventually you start to transition, right, out of just the aesthetics of design and start to think about what’s powering design, what’s underneath it. So for me, yeah, I was about trying to really, so that’s what really pushed me into strategy, really trying to get more formality around the underlying structure of meaning for the work that I was doing. And so while I still appreciate aesthetics, I appreciate what’s driving those aesthetics even more, so that’s how I kind of got on this path.

So I did that for 10 years. I was a creative director, designer, did all those things and then basically pivoted to strategy and I’ve been doing that for the last 25 years. So I’m not quite there yet.

I feel like I’m always learning. There’s always something to learn, but because I’ve worked in all realms of strategy, starting brand strategy, digital strategy, I’ve done all that. I’ve done culture strategy, and I were doing a lot of employee experience design, customer experience design, CX strategy.

So lots of different types from different flavors of it, all kind of coming together in service to our clients who need a much more integrated approach.

Amazing, amazing. And you’re the chief strategy officer at Liquid. What does that exactly entail?

That you do have teams underneath you? How does that kind of look, just so that we get a bit of a picture?

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Yeah, well, at the end of the day, it means I get all the credit for my team’s good work, which is amazing.

It’s a bit like Jacob, you know, I do a lot of work.

Yeah, but also the buck stops here with me too. So if they do poorly, I get a phone call from somebody and then we manage to fix it. So no, anyway, I’m just kidding, but essentially that’s what it is.

So I have a great team in all those disciplines of brand strategy, culture strategy, customer experience to strategy. And so they’re all working together to either both independently on certain clients or also in combination to solve pretty big strategic challenges for our clients and kind of tee up the work that we’re gonna be ultimately expressing through creative design and campaign work and experience design. So those are all, that’s what my team does.

It’s a diverse team at multi levels as well. So I have very senior folks, I have mid levels juniors doing it. So we’re basically farming and training strategists to grow and develop, which is amazing.

And just for fun on the side, I also run our analytics, so I have an analytics team, which we’ve put in recently to make sure we measure all the stuff that we’re doing.

Absolutely amazing. Well, thank you for pausing on what must be a very busy schedule to kind of come onto the show. Let’s dive in then.

What is Agile strategy? Sorry, Agile swarming, I suppose, is probably linked to strategy. So maybe you could sort of define that for us.

What is this newfangled jargon riddled thing called Agile swarming?

Sure. Well, it might be new to you, but for us, being born in Silicon Valley, we’ve worked with very tech forward companies who 20 years ago were very Agile back then and still are. And so a lot of how Liquid is born and grew up is really working with those very Agile companies.

And so what we’ve learned from them is that Agile is part of it, but the other part of it is lean startup. So this idea of prototyping and iterative design and things like that is all coming together with design thinking. So we’ve merged the two, and we call it Silicon Valley thinking.

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And that’s really what powers how we work at Liquid, right? And so if you think about that, working in Agile is a buzzword, right? We like to work with clients in real time.

We co-create strategy together. So you might be familiar with workshops, where you run workshops. It’s very, and workshops can be very static in a way, where you like, you say, okay, go do this, the clients go do that, and then they report back and then you kind of move forward.

But with Swarming, it’s really, you’re working together to co-create the strategy in real time, and you’re kind of working without a net. And so the reason we like doing it that way is because we get much more powerful ideas from our clients. They’re participants in the strategy making, but they’re also coming along on the journey.

So they’re being socialized into the strategy. They’re agreeing to it as you’re developing it. So you don’t have to like sell it in down the road.

So, and I think it creates it more powerfully and much quicker.

Yeah, no, and I was sort of playing a bit dumb to really kind of tee up the questions. I think Jacob and I are quite familiar. I’ve run Agile Strategy Sessions.

I did a week, I think back in the last year with a client. And you’re right. It’s just such a great way of connecting clients to the thinking and also leaning on their knowledge and folding all that together into this kind of really, really complex kind of way of doing things, but yet such a productive way.

What would you say the main kind of problems are solved? What are the main problems that this solves if you get everyone in the room and get everyone swarming in the way that you’ve described?

Yeah, I think there’s a few really key benefits of this. The big one is it breaks down organizational silos. So a lot of people, they’re responsible for parts of the brand or parts of the customer experience.

They’re sitting in different parts of an organization and they often don’t come together on their own to problem solve. They don’t know how to do it. They’re not trained to do that.

So really this is bridging that gap and bringing these different groups together. And I think that’s, and it allows them to get to somewhere they wouldn’t have gotten to independently. So I think that’s the first.

The second is it allows all voices to be heard. So when you think about swarming, usually if you’re just getting people in a room to brainstorm or what have you, or whatever method you use, there’s always that loudest voice in the room, driving the conversation, hogging the ball, so to speak. And a lot of people just shut down the introverts and things.

So we have a method which allows everyone to get their thoughts out. People work individually to start, then they get into a sharing mode. So everyone’s hearing from each other, they’re considering things maybe they didn’t come up with, and then eventually they’re moving into a motion around co-creation.

So I feel like that’s really important. And then it creates the buy-in, like I mentioned earlier. So all the stakeholders are buying in, whether their specific idea was used or not doesn’t matter because they’ve contributed to the thinking.

So there’s this idea of ownership transference where they feel like I own part of this outcome. And that’s powerful, right? Because now I don’t have to be sold because I was there.

I was part of it. So there’s really a lot of organizational benefits in our opinions, why we work this way.

Thanks, Dennis. Yeah, I love this way of working. And I want to contrast with that, how we all probably began as designers or how we used to work.

We’d get information from them, we’d design to a brief and then you’d send it back. And then they’ll disseminate it to like 10 people. You’d get the feedback.

And everyone has a different voice. And things, if you just get into extra rounds of revisions. So I love the fact that you’re doing it in co-creation, as you said, and you’re getting that buy-in as you go.

So no wonder it’s called Agile Swarming. So thank you.

Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right. I mean, I think a lot of agencies are trained to present three choices to a client you choose, and then you’re sort of selling an idea, but you’re not really invested.

The clients aren’t invested in the idea at all because they’re just, I call it their shopping. I like this, I don’t like that, but they don’t have any skin in the game. They don’t have any stake in it, right?

But this way, now they have skin in the game. They’re fully invested and committed, and you’re gonna get through bigger thinking faster because they were there with you.

Yeah, I call it like black box agency thinking. So it’s like this old school notion that, I’ll post a brief in to the black box, which is the agency. The agency will take that and out will come the perfect solution somehow.

A lot of agencies, I mean, haven’t been in the game for a while. It’s something we’ve probably all been guilty of in the past with the old school processes where you just think, well, that’s the way it’s done. You take it, you go back to your team, you scratch your head, you spend ages on it.

You think you’ve hit this brief, you’ve solved this problem, and you go back to the client only to find there’s some obvious thing that you didn’t know that they knew. And if everybody was together, you wouldn’t have wasted so much time. And it could be so infuriating as a designer, having been there, I know, thinking that you’re hitting the brief and doing a really good job.

And in fact, there’s some missing component that if only you’d known about, and if only the client had been able to articulate in a way that you could get, it would have got you there quicker. So what you’re saying is, and I completely agree, this process, getting people in the room, getting them thinking on a strategic level is far more productive. But I was gonna ask you, is this something that you just apply to strategy or do you see this applying wider?

Because I know there’s a little book called, what’s it called now? Scramble, which was by our good friend, Marty Neumeyer, who I know is connected to Liquid. And I had the privilege of proofing that a couple of years ago when he was sort of just about to publish.

And I found it fascinating because in that, Marty paints a picture of agile strategy, as he calls it, being deployed, not just in a strategic level, but also towards the end of the process, which is explained in the book in an executional perspective. And I just wondered what your thoughts were in relation to how you use this agile swarming.

Yeah, absolutely. I think when you start to bring the creative visualization piece into it, into play, there’s definitely an opportunity to explore prototypes very quickly. And so we have done that.

I would say it’s not something we do all the time, only because sometimes we’re solving for different things. So I think if we’re trying to get end to end, like in the case of Scramble, right? And you’re trying to get from beginning to a finished product in a very quick short order.

And a lot of times we have to take more steps in the process because I think clients need more time to digest and they actually can’t move that fast. But saying all that, we have done some pretty amazing design sprints. We call it, we run everything in sprints.

And so we’ve done a lot of design sprints where we’re literally concepting names for a new brand, we’re concepting identities, we are designing a store of the future, an architectural design, we’re designing imagery and identity stuff, all kind of concurrently, right? That can be very powerful when you bring all that together. And I think where creatives get reluctant is because when they put things out so quickly, sometimes clients attach fast.

And sometimes creatives want a little more time to have refined their thinking or their design. But I think what we like to do is put it in as more prototypes for saying that you’re not buying this creative, you’re exploring territories and creative spaces, right? And I think that’s very powerful when you can kind of bring that together with the strategic thinking, because then the strategy doesn’t become abstract, it becomes very tangible.

There’s so many different solutions to a brief as well. So exploring, you know, the odds and ends, like the stretch of it and like a safe option. And, you know, I like to use like the hard, soft and spiky approach.

Yeah, can we say mild to wild here in the US?

Mild to wild, yeah, that’s a good one. So, you know, once you… We’re talking about, you know, strategy to execution now.

So how do you actually bridge the gap between for an example project?

And yeah, so, you know, the strategy is there to serve the expression of the creative ultimately, right? So we mean, we don’t want strategy there for strategy’s sake. So we gotta be able to activate the strategy.

So we, in our tools that we create, the outputs of Swarms, right? So like brand platforms or culture platforms or whatever those strategic elements are that we’re building, they start to get translated, you know, into… First into language typically.

So we start with voice. That’s the fastest way to kind of get the spirit of the brand, the tone, the story, right? And sort of getting that into a narrative form very quickly, I think is a great way to start to ease in.

And then we, from a visual perspective, we use expression attributes that come out of the brand’s platform. And that starts to frame up creative territories, right? So we look at creative territories, whether it’s brand identity or brand campaign work or something like that, right?

So we can quickly get to these territories that come right off the strategy. So there isn’t another brief. We’re not like briefing ourselves to death, right?

We’re just, the creatives are there in the swarm. They were, that is the brief. They participated in it.

They don’t need to be briefed again because they understand the direction.

Well, can we go back to the voice, because that’s a big part of it. How do you actually define the voice, and what would a tangible thing be? Is it a document, or do you present that to your client?

That magical bridge in between is really what I want to put this on here.

The creative process is interesting, right? Because you can go and say, well, we’re gonna define everything to death, and we’re gonna define these guidelines, and these principles, and all this stuff. And then we’re gonna go create things.

But it doesn’t really work like that, because you have to start actually making creative expression first. You have to really get into the spirit and the tone of that brand, both verbally and visually. Then I think once things are getting more established, then we can go back and start to create rules around those things, right?

So that’s where the guidelines and stuff comes in. So I feel like for voice, we’re writing, that’s why we write that brand narrative, because it allows us to start to play with the voice. We get the tonality dialed in, we get the story sort of developed, and we start to think about, this is the character of this brand, this is what it’s about.

And this is the attitude and spirit of it, right? And those are hard, there’s an art to that, right? It’s hard to just say, here’s five attributes or three attributes, go nail it.

It’s not like a machine. So we have to kind of, it’s all very nuanced, right? And so I think it’s really working collaboratively with the creative team to develop that tone of voice, to develop those visuals, those first sort of elements that kind of come out of the expression, and then you’re collaborating with the strategist to kind of shape it.

It’s like, no, no, no, it’s more like little, it’s like building this souffle or something, right? Or a stew, how about a stew? A little bit more wine, a little bit more spice, you know, a little more, you know, texture.

You don’t want to get Matt involved with cooking.

You’re making me hungry. Oh yes, a little bit more chili in that, please. No, but no, I think you’re right.

And it’s interesting to hear you say, look, you know, how can you set guidelines and principles without road testing stuff? You know, because I see that mistake happening loads. And then basically what tends to happen is people then just start ignoring all of the guidelines.

You know, creative teams think, well, I’m gonna have to break these three things because it just won’t work for this piece of comms. So what’s the use of the whole of these guidelines? And then you can be in a mess in a year or two if they’re not taken seriously.

So it’s interesting to hear what you say, like almost keeping to use a little phrase, you know, the guidelines stuff liquid as you’re sort of building it. Do you ever see it sort of set in stone at any moment in time? Or do you see everything as kind of always a prototype, always evolving?

Well, that’s a great, that’s like a whole nother like podcast probably, but.

Yeah, sorry, we’re going off of swarming.

No, no, no, no, but in the 80s, it was command and control, right? It was like all about the guideline, put this here, the colors, it was all the brand police, all that control, but we’re not in a world of control anymore. The consumer audience owns the brand, right?

As we all know. So I think it’s more we influence, we inform, and we can set sort of intention around what the brand’s about and guide guardrails and things like that. But at the end of the day, brands also need to be fluid because the context is always the landscape shifting, right?

So you want some things that are very stable and understandable and repeatable and consistent, but then you want things that are more fluid, right? So Nike is one of the better brands I can think of that does this, they get this because there are things that are very core to Nike. And what I love about them, working with them, is you can go around to any employee and they’ll say, and they intuitively know what the brand is.

They don’t need to look at a guideline. They know at their core, they’ll say, that’s not, we would never do that. Or that’s not Nike, or this is more Nike.

So they can just articulate it because it’s so ingrained in the culture of the organization. You know what I’m saying? So it’s just carried around, it’s walking around everywhere and they all know it.

Yeah, and that goes to what you sort of started off with. It’s interesting to hear about the different roles of, well, the different places you’ve played in your career in relation to strategy. You mentioned culture as a kind of a core area, you know, and, you know, inside out branding.

It’s like the brand is, you know, is the meaning that other people attach to the organization, and so it’s gotta be part of the culture, otherwise that won’t flow through all the experiences to the customer. They won’t attach that right meaning. So interesting.

I’d love to pick your brains on tons of that stuff, but seeing as we’re here to talk about agile swarming, let’s dive back into that as a kind of a principle of working. Talk to me about how you, you know, how would, what would typically that look like? You mentioned a sprint that you talked about.

Talk to us about the framework, the principles of how at Liquid, if I was to be a client of yours, how you would sort of walk my team through this idea of agile swarming. What does it look like?

Well, there’s some pieces to it. So the first is the principles that you said, right? There are really three principles in my book.

You know, first you tightly frame the opportunity or define the problem, whichever language you prefer, but we frame opportunities using our discovery, our research, and that creates what we call a perspective. So we have a perspective on the thing we’re swarming. And again, swarming is a method, so we can swarm brand problems, we can swarm culture problems, we can swarm customer experience problems, whatever it is.

But framing the opportunities, one, two is explore all possible solutions. We do that through divergent thinking, meaning more ideas faster, quicker in small groups. So we break up, if you have 12 people or 16 people swarming together from a client, we break them up.

We say, all right, you’re gonna be in three groups of four or something like that, because we don’t want group think too early. We want to cast as many ideas as possible. Then we bring those groups back together, they share out and we synthesize and we’ve got a convergent thinking, right?

So that’s the last principle, which is boiling down the right things that come together and form the strategy that we want. So we don’t need all the ideas, we just need the best ones. And so that’s really the principles of it, right?

And if you can’t, so we don’t run swarms without those three things. We just don’t think we’d be successful. The way we set up a swarm is through sprints.

And so in this day and age, most of all of our swarming is almost all done virtually online, where we used to get together in a room, we used to do the whole face to face thing for two days, we’d knock it all out. Now we do it using Miro and Zoom, and Miro is our collaboration space, Zoom’s our telecom space, and we can do all that. We can do breakouts, we can give them, we do design canvases in Miro, they do the same activity as they would with analog tools like posters and post-its and all that, we can do all that online.

But the idea of the sprint is, and what we’ve learned is, you can’t run an all day workshop online, people just burn out, right? And it’s a lot harder to create digitally. One thing to have a conversation like this is a lot of fun, we can lean, I call it the lean back experience, right?

We don’t have to really commit to anything. It’s a free flowing conversation, right? But when you’re creating things, you have to, talk is cheap, right?

We have to get them to take their thoughts and write them down on the post-it so we can interact with these things, right? Or the prototypes that we’re building. So we have to create content together.

And so we do it through Swarm Sprints, each Sprint’s two and a half hours. That’s about the length of each Sprint. And then we make sure there’s at least an hour in between two Sprints.

So we might run two Sprints a day. We might run a morning Sprint, an afternoon Sprint. And many of our Swarms are six Sprints long.

So that means it’s gonna be over the course of a week, right? So we’re gonna be having them do a task. They’re gonna go do it, regroup, come back, maybe summarize what happened in the previous task and then go on to the next task, right?

And then as you well know, a lot of these tasks build on each other, but sometimes they’re not as linear and sometimes they don’t. So I think it’s just getting people to the point where they have just enough time to do some of the tasks successfully, but not so much time that they get just sort of fried and can’t do anything else.

Yeah, yeah, that’s an interesting one. And keeping that pace going without burning the team out, it’s just like, it’s a difficult one. I do a lot of facilitation.

And I think one of the things that I tend to always do is be checking in constantly, yeah. How is everybody doing? Do we need a break?

No, we’ll carry on. It is different, isn’t it? Facilitating digitally than physically.

You can’t pick as many signals up. You can’t have that little quiet, Matt, can I just speak to you quietly? I’m really, I think we need to, you can’t have those little conversations with the CEO on the side when everybody else is off because everybody’s in the same room.

So yeah, it is different and trickier, but also more productive, possibly.

We have some other channels, which you have like chat, and I’ve seen clients use chat very successfully to encourage colleagues or add things without interrupting the flow of the conversation. So there’s another layer that can come on top of that or even side chats, right? Where you can be chatting with the CEO privately, which I’ve done.

So you can do those things, which is great because… So there’s trade-offs, right? You don’t get the body language, you don’t get that high touch experience, but there’s some other things that you get.

Like everything’s in a digital native format right off the bat. So I don’t have to take photos of posters with post-it notes on it and transcribe all that. It’s already in there.

So there’s all trade-off.

And you don’t have to jump into planes. So you can, what I’ve found is working with leadership teams that are across the world, right? Which is obviously quite a normal thing today.

It’s not like they all have to jump on a plane, fly somewhere, hotels, someone’s late, the whole stress of that. It’s pretty instant. But I love the idea of sprints, 2.5 hours.

So do you set those, do you stack those up before? So everybody knows that we’re gonna do six sprints and these are gonna be the outcomes of each of the sprints.

Absolutely, and we have to do that because we have to get time on people’s calendars. We gotta make sure we have the right people there. And just so calendaring these things is something we do very early in the process.

So if it’s gonna take us six to eight weeks to even get to this forming, which it often does because of all the prep work we’re gonna do, we’re probably scheduling those sprints by week two, right? We’re identifying the stakeholders who’s involved and then make sure that these things are calendared. The agendas are set well in advance and everybody’s locked and loaded and ready to go.

I’ve got a challenge right now where the client wants something really quick and I’m like, that’s fine. Let’s get everybody in the room in a couple of weeks. Oh, we can’t do it.

And it’s like, well, we can’t do it in that speed if you’re not willing to get in the room. Very difficult. You’re scheduling challenges.

That’s the bit that everybody misses, I think. I suppose that comes down to good planning as you say. Jacob, did you wanna come in?

Yeah, I was gonna comment on the workshops and I’ve just grown up doing digital workshops. I’ve never had a chance to do it in person here in Australia. And all my clients are overseas.

So just literally growing up in Miro and use that as the platform and totally on board with that sweet spot of two and a half hours after that. People are getting quiet. But it’s been crazy just to see how people get on board and use these tools.

And you see like 10, 20 curses move around the screen and Post-it notes flying everywhere. But you know, the breakout rooms as well, I don’t think was mentioned with like Zoom, if you could go into breakout rooms and that kind of align with your divergent thinking as well for other listeners that want to get into Agile Swarming. There are other opportunities digitally that you can do to help facilitate this.

So if you haven’t used Miro before, check it out. There’s other options out there for our listeners to trial it out and also Zoom to make it very virtual. So they’re pretty common tools, but I think it’s something worth giving a try.

And for our listeners, there are some boards out there that are free where you can literally type in brand sprint to Google to find a Miro board that you can use as like a base template to conduct these workshops as a very actionable thing for you guys to take from this is like, how do you implement Agile Swarming? Well, you find a framework, you use a tool like Miro and you get someone in like a CEO or a client in and you just run the show. So that’s how you learn if you wanna make this very actionable.

You make it sound so easy, Jacob. And I suppose in principles, like I get a lot of people reach out to me and say, look, how do you do this? And I often think it’s not always the how, it’s you’ve gotta get the right minds in the room.

And I think that was your point, Dennis. You gotta get the right people in the room, not only from the client side, but you need people who are senior, they understand the principles, they’ve been there before. And you do learn by failing.

I mean, a lot of us, I’ve learned by failure many times, as Jacob will tell the world over the years. Would you agree, Dennis, in principle, these things are simple, but in practice very hard, because what you’re dealing with is people and brains and expertise. What are your thoughts on that?

What makes a good sort of swarm from your perspective?

Very great question. So I would say we have a lot of trust in our method, meaning we can run a wide variety of stakeholders through and 99.9% of the time, we’re gonna get the result we’re looking for. And the reason is because of a few things.

One is the activities are all baked, so we know exactly what we’re gonna be doing. There is no question about how we’re gonna run the activity, things like that. If we have the perspective built, like we said, as part of the swarm, that guides and provides input for the participants so they have some direction to go.

And then just making sure that each activity is clear. So we have a facilitation deck, so we say what’s gonna happen. We show them an example of another brand so they understand what they’re doing.

And then we ease them into the Miro environment. So they work independently, then they work as a group. So we kind of bring them along on the journey.

And by following the method, then it means we can focus on the content. And we don’t have to worry about how it’s gonna get done, to your point. It’s more equipping people for success.

And just having done it for as long as we have, we really know where the failure points can be. And so we’ve sort of ironed all those out over the years.

Okay, so just to jump in Matt, so it’s very important to have the method or the process or the framework. Yeah. So that’s important and have an example so people can understand it.

But what do you think makes a good agile strategist, you know, maybe a facilitator. So just to understand, because it’s that person that runs the show that’s gonna make it successful, right? So what do you think makes a good one?

Yeah, there’s, you know, it’s funny. We’ve just recently done through this at Liquid to understand what makes a good strategist, right? And at least at Liquid.

So this is purely from our point of view, but, and I’ll share with you what we came up with, because I think it all, you’ll see how it all connects, right? So the first, there’s five core capabilities, we say that every strategist has to have. First is grounded interpretation.

So it means, you know, the ability to combine an evidence-based research approach with the intellectual curiosity to explore and understand in mind for insight, right? So it’s understanding, developing a foundation of understanding, that’s the first thing. The second is creative tension, and this ability to, you know, see the future, but also deal with the present reality, and understand how are you gonna get from here to there?

Because brands, as you know, are time-based, and so how do we design for the future, and manage the not knowing until you need to know, right? Because you’re exploring into this whole divergent, convergent process. The third is co-creation power.

So we only co-create, you know, so the ability to collaborate and work together is paramount for our strategists. The fourth is narrative sense-making. So this idea to be able to story tell, right?

Because you are telling a story. So when you’re delivering that perspective, you’re really telling a story, and you’re bringing people along a journey, and that’s really important. And the last one is what we call dynamic problem-solving.

So things don’t go as planned, right? As you all know, you’re in the middle, that the swarm is, you know, something’s shifting on you, or something happened that you didn’t expect, and you want to go deeper on that, or you want to pull out, or you’re losing track of your, you know, your stakeholders or your, you know, you’ve lost the room for a moment, and you got to kind of regroup. So there’s a lot of twists and turns along the way.

And so the ability to on the fly, you know, just, you know, what we call learn from reality. So what’s learning, what’s happening around you, and then be able to adapt and respond. And, you know, we used to call it reading the room and then be able to adjust.

That’s really what that skill’s about. So that’s how we look at what a good strategist is.

Yeah. Yeah.

Oh, that’s, what a fantastic way of looking at it. What do you think about that, Jacob? Do you think there’s anything missing?

I love that. And you know, I should have put a little asterisk on it. I download a mirror template and run a workshop and let you have to know.

And do all these things.

And all do these things.

You’re talking about unicorns, aren’t you? You know, they’re hard to come by people that can run and facilitate in that way. Well, one thing I find a good facilitator has is a little bit of humility in the sense of they can be self-aware, I guess is what I’m saying.

So they can pick up tensions. I guess it is back to that point you were saying about reading the Zoom. They can pick up tensions.

They can alleviate conflict when it needs to be alleviated, but set up conflict in a positive way to get to an outcome that works. And that’s all hugely empathetic skills that you require to do that. Well, one thing I was gonna ask you though, was what are your thoughts on the experience that these sprints give?

Because one thing I find is that all the best projects I’ve worked on is I’ve felt that I’ve been able, been involved in delivering a positive and almost fun experience for clients as they go through some quite hefty strategic thinking. So much so that hopefully they’re not burdened by it. They almost look forward to handling that.

What are your thoughts on creating the experience? And what do you do at Liquid? And what do you do to make that as painless as possible for clients?

Right, well, in general, I’d say the Swarm sprints are the high point in the engagement. Because up until then, they haven’t seen a lot there. You know, we’re doing discovery, maybe interviewing folks or running research or whatever.

And so there’s not a lot of visibility. So we create it like an event. And so we make sure that they’re coming to an event, whether it’s virtual or in person, and we treat it like that.

So, you know, making sure that agendas are set, expectations are set, what’s to be expected, make sure they have the right tech set up. You know, I’ve had people literally call in while driving, trying to swarm. I’m like, no, you can’t do that.

So, you know, you need a computer, you don’t need to be driving because you’re going to be creating things. So setting expectations is really important. And then, you know, making sure that the instruction is clear and that people can follow and people need quick success because people can get very frustrated if they can’t figure out how to use Miro, for example, right?

So we’ve designed little warmup activities, like, you know, create a name for your team. And so we kind of give them little steps to get to bigger steps, right? So it’s all build skill building and a lot of times, and we want to make sure that they can be successful.

So I’d say those are some of the components. We also check in, like you said, so I’d like to run little polls, maybe after the end of a sprint or in the middle of several sprints, just to check in, take the temperature, see how people, are they feeling successful? Are they feeling like their contributions are having impact and things like that?

And we can adjust, right? So I think being able to be, to listen and make adjustments along the way is really important. You know, and then have, make it fun too.

I mean, it’s, you know, right, a little fun. I mean, cause you are going to be together for a while with these folks. So sometimes I, you know, we’ve awarded prizes, you know, and kind of gamified or made the little breakout teams.

It gets naturally competitive anyway. Everybody wants to win. You know, they want their ideas to be the best.

And so I kind of lean into that, but if the group doesn’t want to go there, I don’t force it. So I feel like I kind of take the temperature of the culture of the group and go with that.

You Do you think we could run through an example of a particular project that you’ve worked on from start to finish? What does that look like in the real world? How many clients were there?

How many people were in the room? How did you bridge that gap? What were the mistakes made?

What were the findings? Whatever comes to mind.

Sure. Well, the typical, I would say, like I said, it’s about six to eight weeks to build that perspective, which is all of the culmination of all of our findings and research and all our discovery. And so we always start there and it’s always a 360, right?

So it’s customer driven, it’s business or market driven, and then, you know, it’s also the brand itself. And so we look at all those components and we formulate this perspective. We build positioning territories for brand work.

So we go in with points of view of not to say these are the positions.

Dennis, just before you move on. So the research is a huge part of this. So what is actually happening with your research teams?

What are they doing to gather that?

Sure. I’d say minimally, we’re doing one-on-one stakeholder interviews. Very important that they’re one-on-one so we understand from them what they’re expecting, what they know.

This tells us how aligned or misaligned people are gonna be right from the get go. And often those stakeholders are gonna be participating in this form later. So we get to know people early, right?

We’re not just going in cold. I think that’s important. Customer research is vital.

And back in the old days, we would just maybe call a few clients and it was very qualitative, right? And now everything we do is quant. So we’re doing a lot of quant data.

We’re gathering more data, like customer data. So we’re really, we’re Qualtrics partner. We’re running all everything on Qualtrics now and we’re getting real customer data.

We’re getting behavioral data, like what are their purchase patterns? Are these good customers or not good customers? We’re doing perceptual data, right?

Like what do they believe the brand stands for or what do they believe that competitive brands stand for and things like that. So we are collecting lots of, we want a very well-informed perspective going in because we want to know who we’re designing the brand for. And that gets us to a whole nother topic, which is brand believers.

So we build these believer profiles, which are macro views of an audience. So Marty calls them tribes in his books and we’ve just evolved the language, but essentially it’s a believer profile as a macro audience for a brand. And every brand has a believer profile attached to it.

So that’s how we do it. So we come in and we like to design the believer first because before we even did get into the brand. So we say, this is who the brand is serving.

We design that and we use research to inform it. And then we come in and we say, okay, now we’re gonna build the brand for them. And that gets us to really land the brand concepts with the expectations, needs and wants of the audience.

That’s super smart. That, I love that because it completely flips the traditional process on its head, which is the industrial revolution process whereby we’ve got a factory, it produces X. Let’s run around trying to find anyone that will buy this stuff.

And what you’re, the whole thing, as we all know, is flipped to designing around the customer. So it makes sense that you build those profiles yourselves. I’ve not seen, well, I suppose I’ve seen a bit of that, but usually, you build, sometimes, well, I tend to build those profiles with customers in my workshops.

So that’s an eye-opener for me. But super smart, I can see why you do it.

Yeah, so you speak inside out, right? So it’s outside in, inside out. So we work it full circle essentially.

And yeah, I know, we started with the customer, the believer, we start with the brand, then we move to the culture and then to the employee. And then we can connect the employee to that believer through the strategy.

Gotcha. And then from there, you’re going on to that perspective, right?

Yep, right. So the perspective is delivered out, it’s the first sprint of the swarm. So we use it to level set everybody.

And that’s important. So all the people going through the swarm sprints and all that, they get the same information. It’s our point of view.

So we don’t have to debate it. They can say, I don’t agree with it. And that’s great.

We can say, great, let’s talk about, what don’t you agree with? So we don’t have to be right or wrong. It’s just, this is what we’re seeing.

And it’s a way to kind of get everybody on the same page with where we are, with what we’ve all learned. And that’s really important. You don’t want people coming in and out in the middle of these swarm sprints, if you can all help it, because then they don’t know what’s going on.

They don’t have context. And so bringing people along that journey is gonna be really important. And then it’s just running the sprints, right?

So it’s running through those various sprints. And then coming out of that, we’re basically going to be building documents that memorialize the things we created together. And so that’s essentially the process we run.

Okay, so just after you present the perspective, if I can use the word present, and there’s some disagreements, how do you handle that? What are the next steps? And then what’s after that once you have alignment?

Yeah, so it’s again, it’s being able to navigate the dialogue and kind of facilitate it, essentially. So if somebody or a group of people didn’t agree with a positioning territory, let’s say, okay, great, well, what would you, what is it you don’t agree with? So we kind of get at it and then we say, okay, well, that’s a great perspective or a great point of view.

So let’s, so we can discard those things and say, great, then don’t pay attention to that. Let’s bring, or let’s bring in something new. We’ve done that in the past, right?

Where maybe we missed something that was really relevant to our stakeholders. So we said, okay, so we’re very comfortable kind of working in that gray space initially. Because again, it’s more about getting the understanding and the dialogue going and kind of creating shared perspectives around the work.

And then we, so, but we don’t have to choose. We don’t say pick one or anything like that. That’s not, because that’s what the activities and the sprints will uncover, right?

So those become the actual inputs. So I think-

So you mentioned position and territory. Is this what you’re presenting? It’s like, well, here’s some perspectives that we found.

This is some potential places that our brand can be positioned. What are your thoughts? That’s what you’re-

Exactly. Yeah, because look, you know, we’re, our job is, okay, here’s the funny part. We’re co-creating, right, with clients, but we have to have a steady hand on, we’re that third party that we can see things clients can’t see.

They can see details we can’t see because they understand the business, but they’re very close to it. We’re more arm’s length from it, right? So we’re able to bring a perspective and a point of view that it can challenge thinking and push it, or push it, right, into a higher level or a different space.

So that’s really our role, right? And so I think when we think about the positioning territories, all we’re saying is because we did the market landscape analysis, because we looked at white space competitively, because we talked to your customers, because of all these reasons, this gives us authority to say, these are spaces that we think are highly viable for your brand to move into. Now, they may not agree, but at that point, we’re not asking them to choose.

So it’s just more saying, this is how we think you could do this or you could do that. And then we talk about implications to the business and the brand. If you went here, it would mean this.

If you went here, it might mean that. So there are trade-offs and they can start to think about, is this a radical evolution or is this a smaller transformation, right?

Okay, all right. So once you’ve presented this, just guided me through this, what’s the next thing, right? Then perhaps there’s some dialogue.

Okay, this one’s interesting. What do you do from there?

Yeah, we basically have the conversation and then we sort of bring it to a close. We might make some notes along the way, capturing the conversation. And then those positioning territories are used as inputs into the activities, the swarm sprints themselves.

So when we’re co-creating, we say, keep in mind, like I know archetypes are near and dear to your heart. So the first activity we tend to do is brand archetypes. So we say, great.

So we’re gonna use these positioning territories. Think of these territories as ways in to thinking about the archetypes. And we love to start with archetypes first because it’s the easiest activity.

It’s sort of like a warmup, right? People kind of get, it’s cause they just are just choosing archetypes. They’re not making something necessarily, but they’re thinking through the brand, through the role of the archetypes and their understanding of the attributes that are jumping out to them that they feel like their brand could embody, right?

And so we always start there because it’s a way to sort of start to think about the brand in a very sort of broad way. And then we just sort of build on that by, then we move into like, you know, onlyness, right? And when that’s another activity we do, or we do a cover story to, you know, shape the future story of the brand.

That gets us more into aspiration. So all the activities we do are all designed to kind of elicit a component of the brand platform. And that’s why we’re doing brand strategy, but it’s culture, it’s completely different, totally different activities, different tasks.

So we have a huge library. We have a huge library of tools and Miro templates and everything that we’ve built to cover all the edge cases of all the different types of swarms we do.

Can I ask you about that Dennis? So, you know, like clients, do you find that they, that you can run them through, you know, the same client? Will the same client go through the same series of sprints?

Because I find in my work that every business is so different. The clients are different, the personalities are different, the leadership teams are different, the markets are different, the customers are different, that I often find that I have to completely, and I’ve kind of, I’ve come to peace with this, right? I’ve tried for years to try and productize and standardize.

You can do that to some point, but my experience is that, you know, I’m super flexible. Like you say, I’ve got a toolbox and I’ll wheel out and combine elements that I know work to get the client to where they need to be. How do you find it?

Do you find you can systematically design programs or do you find more and more that you’re having to bespoke them?

If we’re, yeah, so I’d say our 80% of what we do is more systematized and standardized. So if we’re doing brand, if we’re solving a brand strategy problem, we’re gonna use the same tools 80% of the time. And if we’re doing a culture strategy problem, solving that, then it’s the same, right?

Same tools, same approach. And what’s different is the content that goes into that. Like I was explaining earlier.

So we don’t spend a lot of time like rebuilding tools.

The framework doesn’t start again. It’s how you get there might tweak a bit.

Right, keep in mind too, we’re running big teams. So I think an earlier question was how many people are swarming, right? And so we say 12 to 16 is a really sweet spot for the number of participants.

So if you think you’ve got 12 to 16 clients in there, you’ve got, and to produce a swarm, we actually have a swarm producer. So we actually have somebody that produces our swarms. It’s like an event, right?

I want that time. So, yeah, right? And then, and we might have half a dozen people from the agency participating in this swarm.

So everyone has to know what we’re gonna be doing. I mean, if we did it bespoke every time, can you imagine like the learning curves every time? So we can’t really work that way very efficiently.

So we have to kind of stick to things and we evolve those tools and methods over time. So as we see things maybe aren’t working or can be optimized, we do that. And then, but then there are certain problems.

We are swarming, solving for that are bespoke, right? Where we need to, hmm, we need to build a new framework for this or we need to create a value prop around X. Like I did one recently around the stakeholder economy.

So I had a client working with their leadership team. He’s a YPO-er, they use Harvard a lot, Harvard busy, HBR, they’re using that as like a learning ground. And there was an article about Airbnb in the stakeholder economy.

And the stakeholder economy is a big thing. And so Airbnb had a case study. And so the CEO came to me and he said, hey, I wanna really do a workshop on our stakeholder economy.

It’s like, great, never done it before. We’ll figure it out. So we did it and we did it inside of, we’ve created one sprint for that.

It was attached to some other leadership planning we were doing and it worked great. And we were able to come up with identifying the stakeholders, what the needs of each stakeholder group was, the role that the brand played for each stakeholder group, and then tangible examples that the company did that actually represent how they support that. So that’s kind of how we’re able to do that.

But I work with a much smaller team when we’re doing something more bespoke because we can’t train everybody up on something that new, right? So we’re kind of jumping in, we’re trying it out.

Yeah, that’s one thing that really impresses me looking at the outside in at what Liquid do is that ability that you’ve had to scale and systemize from the sounds of 80% of things, you know, in a way, that’s super impressive, very, very hard to do. So how have you done that? Is it exactly as you say, you’ve kind of managed to design it and then train everyone and get everybody on boarded and just time and effort and probably a lot of hard work, I can imagine.

Didn’t you hear before they farm strategists?

They farm them, that’s what they’re doing.

We do, we grow them, we literally do. So young strategists actually help prepare all the materials. So they’re out there building the templates, they’re building the tools, they’re setting up the swarm environments.

They’re there at the swarm. So we have associate level one year strategists at swarms. We say, great, you’re gonna run a breakout group.

You’re gonna learn how to support that. So we’re teaching-

You’re gonna get a lot more applications after this. Yeah, what’s your inbox? Sorry, Dennis.

Yeah. Yeah, and then I’m teaching the swarm masterclass as well. So now I have, through Level C, I’m teaching creative swarming, which is just more of the principles.

And then I’m doing advanced swarming, which is how to facilitate. And then, of course, if you take my advanced swarming, you get my templates. So even better, right?

Cause then you get Miro baked templates that work.

There you go. So there’s a little plug for Dennis’ Level C.

Yeah, there’s a plug.

Level C course on brands swarming. So brilliant. Well, look, I think we’re almost up on time.

We’ve mentioned Level C. Where else would people kind of connect with you, Dennis, if they’re interested, would you point them in the direction of any resource? Have you got a book, Dennis?

When’s the book coming is the question I’ve got. Tell us about how to connect with you anyway.

Yeah, so I think the best place frankly is on LinkedIn. That’s where most people engage with me, which I’m perfectly fine with that. And the book on swarming is being written.

So we can expect that sometime in the future. So I think that’s something to look forward to maybe, or maybe not.

So hang on, so just to be clear, you’ve written this, it’s written, is it?

The frameworks, yeah, it’s all built. I just need to now draft the final draft.

Come on, Dennis, come on. That is something we all need. That sounds fantastic, brilliant.

Let us know when that’s out, Dennis, and we’ll publicize it through our channels.

Yeah, and then through Level C, I’d say, because I’m very active through Level C, supporting what they’re doing, both through masterclasses that they’re teaching, but also through the Artisan Series, masterclasses that I’m teaching on Swarming. So those are places you can find me out there for now.

Well, thank you so much, Dennis. I love this conversation, we both did. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your knowledge.

Definitely, thank you, Dennis. And folks listening in, if you enjoyed it, if you liked it, share, like, connect, do whatever. What do people do now?

I don’t know, do the things. You know what I’m talking about. We, and hopefully there’ll be more fantastic episodes like this coming soon to your earbuds.

See you soon.

Thanks, Matt. Thanks, Jacob. Take care.

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