What’s the difference between a marketer and a project manager?

Heads with gears to represent systems thinkingIt sounds like the beginning of a joke – but when I started a unit on my degree about project management and systems thinking, I found that it’s not such a daft question. In fact, I suspect most marketing professionals are using a particular type of systems analysis without even being aware of it.

(When I embarked on this degree, I thought ‘Hey! I’ll be able to use the work I do on my assignments to create fabulous blog posts. How cool is that?’ Has it happened? No – this is the first. As it turns out, doing a part-time Masters’ as well as running your own business is quite time-consuming. Who knew.)

Anyway, for this latest assignment, I’ve been reading about something called Soft Systems Methodology. I wasn’t really looking forward to project management – I’m not really a GANTT chart kind of girl, and the idea of systems makes me yawn quite a lot. But Soft Systems Methodology (or SSM from now on, to save my fingers exploding) is specifically about projects and systems that don’t behave in a rigid, predictable, engineering-type way. Projects where the objectives are a bit nebulous, or hard to pin down.

So for example, if you’re building a bridge, the objective is quite clear: if you have a bridge at the end of the project, and it’s in the right place and conforms to the specification and didn’t cost more than it should, then your project is a success. Well done. On time, on budget and on spec, the Iron Triangle of project management evaluation.

If you were running that project, you might have also used systems thinking to make sure you had thought about all the things that might affect the project and their interdependencies – not just materials, labour etc but also the stakeholders involved, the political climate and other tricky elements. Systems thinking helps you to think about the project holistically, rather than as a series of discrete actions, so you can examine all the interlocking mechanisms that impact on your project, from beginning to end. So a system to produce a bridge would have inputs (money, labour, materials, specification etc), a process (the construction process), potentially some sub-systems (the system to build the foundations as opposed to the system for getting stakeholder approval), and various constraints (budget, time, safety, environmental impact etc), as well as outputs (the bridge).

Systems thinking, and classic project management, rely on you having very clear, quantifiable objectives for your project. A bridge. A house. A new IT system. But what about if your project is to change peoples’ behaviour? Or create a better internal culture? How do you define the objectives for that system in a quantifiable way, or begin to map the process that gets you to that objective?

Peter Checkland, who came up with SSM in his book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, described it as being necessary to deal with systems that do not have clear, quantifiable objectives – particularly what he called ‘human activity systems’. A human activity system is any kind of system that involves human actions – for example, a football team, or a government, or an organisation. And humans being what they are – messy, unpredictable, unique – you can’t come up with a clear-cut process that produces guaranteed results. So rather than a nice tidy flow-chart that says that A inevitably leads to B, your system is suddenly full of uncertainties and weirdness.

Marketers are very used to uncertainties and weirdness. Even the most data-hungry marketing analyst will tell you that people are weird, and the way we respond to marketing is not always predictable. Researching this assignment, I came across a fantastic quote from Stephen Brown that nails the Big Data mindset completely: Surely, so the argument seems to go, if marketers try hard enough, if we crunch ever-larger data sets through our ever-faster computing facilities and develop ever-more sophisticated mathematical models, we will eventually break through to the bright uplands of absolute marketing understanding”. He wrote that in 1996, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to those bright uplands now despite exponential increases in data collection and processing power.

So how should one respond to uncertainty and weirdness? Checkland suggests that project managers should gather as much information, and as many viewpoints about the system as possible. Unsurprisingly, this is what marketers do as well, during the research phase of any planning activity.

The second step for SSM is to produce what Checkland calls a root definition for the system. There’s an odd mnemonic for what this should contain: CATWOE. The letters stand for Customers, Actors, Transformation, Worldview, Owners and Environment. Again, this maps pretty well to the information marketers tend to assemble when putting a strategy together: customers (obviously), actors (the marketing team), transformation (what do we want the customers to do/change as a result of the campaign), worldview (what customers currently feel or believe about the brand/product/service), owners (who the campaign is for) and environment (the context for the campaign). So the root definition of a marketing campaign to sell biscuits might be:

A system to make customers (customers) aged 18-24 who currently think Brand Z is the best chocolate biscuit (worldview) buy Brand X biscuits instead (transformation), using a marketing campaign carried out by the marketing team at Agency Y (actors), on behalf of the Brand X team (owners), during the 2014 World Cup (environment).

Checkland then says that this root definition allows the project manager to build a conceptual model of the ideal system that will enable the transformation to happen. Which is exactly what marketing strategy is all about: coming up with a model that says ‘If we do this (campaign/ad/social media activity) then our target audience will buy our product’. You then align your project as much as possible with the ideal system, and see what happens.

If it all works as you expect, marvellous. If it doesn’t, then tweak, refine, tinker with your system, and adjust your conceptual model until it does. With the advent of digital marketing, tweaking, tinkering and refining is something we can all do from the moment we launch a campaign.

There’s clearly a lot more to SSM than this. It’s worth reading Peter Checkland’s book if you’re at all interested in project management or systems thinking, or have just run out of things to read. But I was struck by the similarities between his thinking and the way marketers operate, and by his recognition that wherever human beings are involved, things are not going to be predictable, clear-cut, or easy to manage.