The Proximity Paradox - Kiirsten May - E-Book

The Proximity Paradox E-Book

Kiirsten May

11,99 €


You’re too close to your business, and it’s killing your creativity

Traditional business structures love stability and predictability. Yet many organizations believe the two essential ingredients for long-term success are creativity and innovation. Kiirsten May and Alex Varricchio, founders of the marketing agency UpHouse, call the relationship between these two opposing expectations The Proximity Paradox™ — the belief that those who are closest to a subject are best-qualified to innovate for it, when, in reality, intense proximity limits creativity. Instead, people need to create distance from challenges in order to see the best way forward. May and Varricchio believe that until we can separate innovation and execution within ourselves, we will only innovate to the level at which we can execute the idea. To be effective, we need to create distance between our innovation brain and our execution brain.

Unpacking ten common Proximity Paradoxes that affect a company’s people, processes, and industry, the authors share some practical ideas to create the distance necessary for your next great idea. An especially valuable book for creatives, and non-creatives in creative industries, but equally applicable to all businesses that depend on innovation, The Proximity Paradox encourages us to ask hard questions about how we work, how our businesses are structured, and why we routinely find our creativity at odds with what’s asked of us as executors and stewards of the bottom line.

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Seitenzahl: 259


The Proximity Paradox

How to Create Distance from Business as Usual and Do Something Truly Innovative

Alex Varricchio and Kiirsten May


Praise for The Proxmity ParadoxDedicationPrefaceIntroductionPart One: Create Distance for People1. Be an Innovator, Not an Executor2. Listen to the New Blood3. Stop Trying to Be So EfficientPart Two: Create Distance from Process4. Trust Yourself Before Data5. Don’t Be Precious with Ideas6.Come Up with Ideas to Plan7.Invert the Org ChartPart Three: Distance from Industry8. Create for Future Customers9. Keep a Healthy Distance from Partners 10. Compete with Those You AdmireConclusionAbout the AuthorEndnotesCopyright

Praise for The Proximity Paradox

The Proximity Paradox is both provocative and prescriptive. It will challenge your industry experience, best practices, and team alignment. In our digital economy where creativity and innovation are in constant demand, business leaders need a new approach for meeting their client needs. The Proximity Paradox helps you see what you are doing wrong and how to fix it. A must-read for all agency and marketing executives.

—MK Marsden, three-time global CMO, managing partner at Touchpoint Strategies and board practice leader at Avasta

The Proximity Paradox isn’t just a must-read for anyone in business today, it should be your manual for continually unleashing innovation in your teams and within yourself. Their approach is pragmatic, challenging, and, most importantly, hopeful.

— Matt Johnston, Johnston Group

On almost every page of this book, I found myself nodding in agreement, taking notes, or dog-earring the edge. It brings up so many points that I will now be putting in to practice in my own business. Big thank you to Kiirsten and Alex for putting this together. It’s a must-read for creatives and entrepreneurs.

— Phoebe Cornog, co-owner/founder, Pandr Design Co.

I have read a ton of famous business books and The Proximity Paradox is one of the better ones. It’s practical, relatable, and immediately applicable. I think the Proximity Paradox is a great concept, true in many ways. It gave me three ideas that I will try with my employees and a new business idea.

— Steve Alexander, operations manager, AGI Westfield

I read The Proximity Paradox as a neuroscientist, psychologist, and business owner and from all three perspectives feel like it’s great! It’s like applied neuroscience without all the jargon of how the brain works. Instead it’s a practical guide to taking a step back from some of the biases our brain naturally makes when we are too close or experienced in an area. I felt inspired to try these strategies with my own company and at other times affirmed with some of the strategies I already use. The examples throughout were poignant and I even caught myself laughing out loud on the streetcar. This book is a must-have for any creatives, business owners, or academics who want to stay relevant in their field for years to come.

— Mandy Wintink, PHD, RYT, life coach, director, Centre for Applied Neuroscience Inc.


Dedicated to our families, friends, and the creative folk whose weird stories fill these pages.


A graphic designer is invited to paint a mural on the side of an old building in a rough end of town. She collaborates with a group of artists to turn four storeys of tired brick into a contemporary work of art. When the mural is complete, the neighborhood throws a party to celebrate the first of what they hope will be many rejuvenations to the area. The graphic designer’s boss reads about the mural in the news and asks her, “Why can’t you create something like that around here?”

We’ve seen things like this happen again and again for more than ten years. As advertising agency people, we have the opportunity to work with a lot of creative types. We’re not just talking about designers and artists; we’re talking about people with the ability to solve old problems in new, imaginative ways. Advertising agencies and marketing departments attract thousands of these types. Yet it’s rare to see a creative person unleash his or her full potential at work.

We call this effect the Proximity Paradox, and that’s what this book is all about. Proximity is the effect that shackles creativity, dilutes innovation, steers brave people down safe roads, and pushes leading-edge companies to the back of the pack. It’s what was blocking your view when a competitor blindsided you. It’s what eventually wore down your bold, inventive younger self, and it’s what is still wearing you down today.

What’s paradoxical about proximity (in the literary sense of paradox) is that many of us don’t view it as a hindrance. We view it as credibility and call it expertise. We set up systems to reinforce it, we teach it, and we pass it on to future generations.

The Proximity Paradox is slowly killing original thinking and, as a result, our ability to remain relevant.

We live in a world where we must innovate to survive

There has never been a more important time for people and organizations to break free from the chains of proximity. According to a report by Mark J. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute, only twelve percent of Fortune 500 firms that existed in 1955 still existed in 2016:

It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2076, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy, and that dynamic turnover is speeding up in today’s hyper-competitive global economy.1

It’s impossible for a company to adopt dynamism and innovation when the Proximity Paradox is at work. We need to restructure our teams and processes so our people can adopt the style of thinking that spurs new ideas.

It’s harder than ever to win over new customers

The pressure to compete and attract customers is high. American investor Bill Gross says a product must be ten times better than the competition in order to convince a potential customer to switch. Organizations that only look to do marginally better than their competitors will never achieve the customer base they need to win.

We need to create distance from the old rival down the street and instead measure ourselves against a formidable new opponent. It’s the only way we can really challenge ourselves to create the exponentially better product or service we need to acquire new customers.

The jobs of creative people are being commoditized in business

In an article she wrote for Quartz, Sarah Kessler reported that new technology allows companies to do away with hiring and just buy marketing services online. Platforms like Fiverr have dragged many creative services into the sewer of quality and price. Organizations no longer need to hire writers, designers, developers, or even advertising agencies — they can get their basic marketing work completed online for a few bucks in a few days. People who have spent years developing their craft can no longer earn a living doing great work — they must do fast work cheaply.

But people who can offer big-picture thinking, strategic services, and innovative ideas cannot be commoditized, and they will continue to find top jobs and top wages. We need to help people in commoditized industries develop these skills so that they aren’t easily replaced.

Who are we to help?

We’ve both had the opportunity to see inside hundreds of different organizations and learn about their people, products, and businesses. We’ve worked with such industries as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, trade brokering, logistics, food services, real estate, law, accounting, health care, education, research, arts, and tourism, as well as with public utilities, the charitable sector, and local and regional governments.

Time and again, we’ve met with marketing professionals with thirty years of experience, and we’ve contributed ideas that they had never dreamed of. And not just within the realm of advertising, either. Our client brainstorms and discussions often stir up ideas for channel modification, new product features, and community initiatives.

Why is that? It’s not us. We don’t bring anything special to the table, other than our outside perspective.

We have realized that outside perspective is indeed the most valuable tool we can offer. It’s more valuable than a deep knowledge of the client’s business, more valuable than thirty years of marketing experience, and more valuable than the certifications required to work in their industry.

You don’t have to be outside your organization to think like an outsider

A person’s proximity to his or her business problem directly correlates with his or her ability to solve it. The closer you are, the harder it is to come up with the out-of-the-box ideas that are often the key to success. But when you are further away from a problem, you can see solutions that others can’t.

Throughout the book, we’ll look at some real-life examples of proximity. We’ll share some practical tips and suggestions for you to implement, and we’ll tell some first-hand stories. The stories are sometimes told by both of us and sometimes by just one of us. We haven’t specified who tells each story, as it doesn’t matter that much, and we thought it might be more confusing than helpful. Here’s hoping that’s true!

We’ve written this book for marketers and anyone tasked with innovation, from artists to entrepreneurs — whether it be at home, at school, or in the workplace. We look at the common places where proximity might be holding you back, and we offer exercises and thinking systems to help you create distance from a challenge so you can solve it more effectively.


I. Recognizing the Proximity Paradox

“The experts told us to do it this way.”

“Ask him; he’s been here the longest.”

“It’s worked for us in the past; it will work again.”

“We hired the most experienced person in the business.”

“She started in the mailroom and now she’s VP.”

“That’s a good idea, but they would never go for it.”

“We just don’t have the resources to pull that off.”

“But our customers love this product the way it is.”

“We might offend some people if we did that.”

“This worked for our competitor, so we should do it, too.”

If you’ve ever heard someone utter one of those statements, you’re seeing the Proximity Paradox at work. It’s what drives smart people to reinforce stability and predictability at the expense of creativity and innovation. And while each statement is delivered by an individual in response to a small action, over time, taken together, these statements shape the people and processes responsible for an organization’s success or failure.

The Proximity Paradox is the theory that the closer you get to a challenge, the harder it is to see it for what it really is. It might seem like common sense, but it is an extremely difficult issue for businesses to manage.

Consider Kodak, the company that owned 1,100 digital imaging and processing patents. It failed to switch to digital photography, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early 2012, and sold its patents to Apple, Google, and Facebook.2

We can scoff at Kodak’s blunder, but when we scratch the surface of the problem it faced, we realize that we are all more vulnerable than we would like to think. When you’re dominating an industry, the Proximity Paradox makes it hard to see the outlier product with grainy image resolution coming to knock you down.

How can we see our own impending dangers? Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Black Swan:

Think about the secret recipe to making a killing in the restaurant business . . . The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea.3

In business, we put a lot of stock in the current population of industry players. That’s the Proximity Paradox at work again. We are close to our competitors because we benchmark our success against theirs. We set up Google Alerts on their company names, dig for clues on their product development pipeline, and challenge our own product development team to one-up them.

But if we take Taleb’s example, none of the big players are going to come up with the next killer idea for their industry. When we race to perfect the film camera, we overlook the newcomer who is figuring out how to fit one on the back of a cellphone.

II. The Birth of Proximity

While it’s tempting to point blame at the people who reinforce the Proximity Paradox in our organizations, it’s not their fault. Proximity isn’t a choice.

Our brains are wired, and rightly so, to look for what is familiar. We are programmed to identify risk so that we can avoid it. Our schooling and training have imposed homogeneous thinking on us from the day we entered the system. As a society, we celebrate expertise and entrust the big decisions to the most tenured among us.

Human nature

People tend to crave routine — the actions we know and the experiences we can excel at. People also tend to like rituals, as they have a causal impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations where the outcome is important, uncertain, and beyond their control.4 That’s why taking the risks needed for creativity is so fundamentally hard to do, particularly when the outcome can affect our livelihood.


There is a sameness of curriculum throughout elementary school, high school, college, and university. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently conducted a study on education. Researchers found that workers with postsecondary education in 1973 held only twenty-eight percent of all jobs. In 2010, they held fifty-nine percent. By 2022, they are expected to hold sixty-five percent.5 That means two-thirds of Americans will bring roughly the same education, experience, and problem-solving abilities to the workforce.

The industrial world

The comfy life we enjoy in today’s post-industrialized society was built on predictability. Workers joined organizations to make their lives more predictable. These organizations operated in a predictable manner and they depended on other organizations to do the same.

In a 1995 Harvard Business Review article, Howard H. Stevenson and Mihnea C. Moldoveanu wrote, “What is happening to predictability in an intensely competitive, rapidly changing global economy? It is being destroyed.”6 If this was true during the year Jeff Bezos launched Amazon to the world, it is still true today.

Predictability is no longer a guarantee of success, especially in the face of disruptors capitalizing on new technology to innovate within laggard industries.

We’ve had the opportunity to see the Proximity Paradox work its way through the layers of human nature, education, and business in our own city. There is a popular communications program offered through a local college that attracts about fifty students per year, and it has been doing so since the 1970s. Students learn a variety of skills for jobs in the communications, media, and marketing fields. The program prides itself on instilling high standards of professionalism and a do-or-die work ethic in students.

Our city is full of program graduates to the point that alumni jokingly call themselves a mafia. Communications can be a fast-moving industry; grads don’t want to risk hiring someone with a different education background who may not have the skills they themselves value.

As a result, we get similar people with similar personalities bringing the same skills and experience to the same organizations, decade after decade.

III. Managing Proximity

I hiked the Grand Canyon for the first time in 2017. Most hikers start at the South Rim, descend the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River, and then hike the Bright Angel Trail back out to the South Rim. The hike out requires walking up a steep incline for seven to eight hours, and many times I had to stop to catch my breath. When I stood on the trail looking back toward the bottom, I could clearly see the zig-zagging path that I had already walked — the power of hindsight. But when I looked up ahead, I could not see the path to the top. All I could see was a narrow strip of dirt that would switchback and disappear into the rocky cliffs — the obstacles in my way. How do you get a view of the entire trail, the path to the top and a way around the obstacles? You stand on the distant North Rim and stare across the chasm.

Distance gives us the perspective we need to find our way around obstacles and reach the top. The same principle applies to innovation and coming up with imaginative new solutions to the challenges we face in business and as creative professionals.

In the chapters that follow, we’ll expose the places where the Proximity Paradox is at work among people and their responsibilities, in the processes we rely on to work effectively, and in the ways we try to position ourselves for success in our industry. We’ll explore why these areas are prone to the effects of the Proximity Paradox, and we’ll share some strategies for how you can create the distance you need to overcome it.

Distance is not a snake oil solution — just scroll through Facebook to find the latest story of a disruptor reinventing the way we use everyday services. The chances are high that the entrepreneur behind the disruption did not come from the industry they now dominate.

For example, the founders of Airbnb did not come from the hospitality industry. Nathan Blecharczyk has a background in software engineering. Joe Gebbia is a graphic designer. Brian Chesky is an industrial designer. Similarly, the founders of Canadian company SkipTheDishes did not come from the restaurant industry. Their backgrounds were in finance, software engineering, and sales.

The two groups of entrepreneurs saw needs in the market that no company was filling: one group for couch surfing with strangers, the other for single-point-of-contact food delivery. They used the technology that was available to work out the logistics of connecting sellers and buyers. Since it was founded in 2008, Airbnb has accommodated 200 million guests.7 SkipTheDishes was bootstrapped by the founders for three years before British company Just Eat PLC purchased it for $100 million down and another $100 million in incentives.8

Distance is the tried-and-true antidote to overcoming the Proximity Paradox and rekindling your relationship with your creative self.

Three fundamental steps to overcoming the Proximity Paradox

First, recognize when the Proximity Paradox is at play. We’ll show you some of the top places to look in your people, your processes, and your industry.

Next, accept the fact that you may not be the best person to solve a challenge, and be OK with that. Remember, proximity isn’t a choice. Feeling its effects does not reflect negatively on you or your skills and abilities. It is simply a condition of our minds and our world — a condition that you have the ability to overcome.

Lastly, create distance by shaking up the way you traditionally tackle a problem or come up with an idea. This book is full of exercises and systems you can use to do that, and we’ll frame them with examples from other innovators.

Part One: Create Distance for People

I am sure you can remember a time as a kid that you made a big mess. Maybe your own children have gotten carried away building an incredible fort, pulling all the toys off the shelves, or creating an entire world in which to play for hours on end. It’s an important part of childhood and one that helps children exercise their imaginations. And, when you’re really little, you can often get away with not cleaning it up.

I was recently talking with my sister about my three-year-old niece. She had pulled out all her toys and clothes from her room and stacked them in a large pile in the living room. It was a big pile — impressively big for a kid her age. When my sister asked what she had done, she explained that she was headed on vacation and needed to pack her toys and clothes for the journey. She then went on to explain, in great and imaginative detail, why she packed each of the toys and outfits. Some of the toys remained toys, some of the toys were her friends, and some of them served other purposes that only a three-year-old could fully understand.

The imaginary vacation took place, and when it was time to clean up, my sister ended up doing most of the heavy lifting. It’s easy for a three-year-old to pull all her clothes out of the dresser, but a lot harder to fold and put them back in their rightful place.

As my niece gets older, the expectation of play will change, and as she learns how to fold her own clothes, she will ultimately become responsible for cleaning up her vacation creations. While this makes sense in a lot of different ways, it will also begin to hamper her creativity. She will only imagine and play to the extent that she is willing to clean up her mess. Her capacity to create and discover will shrink. She’ll be given more and more responsibility, which will narrow the scope of what she believes is achievable.

I’m not suggesting we stop teaching kids to clean up after themselves or that we live in houses full of toys and clutter (although a lot of people with kids would attest that this happens anyway), but the analogy does raise an interesting question. If kids, or any of us for that matter, were not limited by having to deal with the outcome of what we create, could we create bigger and better things? I bet we could.

In this section, we’ll look at the ways we unintentionally dampen people’s creativity and let the Proximity Paradox take hold. If you own a business or manage a team, you already know that your people are your most valuable assets. But did you know they’re your most valuable innovators, too? The problem is that we often ask the wrong things of them and ourselves. We need to give people the space they need to innovate.

1. Be an Innovator, Not an Executor

Free yourself to think about what you could do, not what you have to do.

“Salespeople should not project manage. If a person is responsible for both the sale and management of work, then he’ll only sell to the level at which he can personally manage the work. Once he reaches that threshold, he stops selling.”

You’ve probably heard this rationale before, or something very much like it, and you can see the logic. If your project-manager salesperson sells a project, he focuses on completing it. By the time he is ready to start another project, the sales well has dried up and he has to start again from square one. It’s tough to gain momentum and grow a business this way, and that’s why most organizations that require both sales and project management have moved away from this approach.

Unfortunately, the old model is still common in marketing and creative-focused jobs. Instead of sales and project management being merged, it is ideation and execution. These two responsibilities are often placed on the shoulders of the same person.

Take a look at a couple of the duties we pulled from a job description for a marketing director:

The marketing director will:

Develop and create new and forward-thinking ideas for current and possible products.

Complete marketing department operational requirements and be responsible for the execution of department projects.

It’s a common job description, but in reality, balancing these two expectations can quickly become an almost impossible task. And without both product development and project management, the employees and organization will suffer.

What’s the alternative? You could make the case to totally separate these responsibilities into two different roles, arguing that you need a B-type right-brainer to develop the forward-thinking ideas and an A-type left-brainer to excel at their execution. But the reality for most professionals is that their jobs are not going to change. Most organizations cannot afford to hire a second senior marketer to take on half of the marketing director’s role, and your CFO will tell you that every job is going to require elements of creativity and elements of execution.

Instead, we need to learn to manage these conflicting responsibilities within ourselves.

Where have you built your ceiling?

Each of us has our own innovation ceiling and execution ceiling. Our innovation ceiling represents the extent to which we can think creatively. It’s the highest reaches of our imagination and creative potential. It’s pretty damn high.

Our execution ceiling is much lower. It represents our threshold for delivery, our ability to take an idea, deliver it, and make it real and tangible. The execution ceiling height is determined by our skill set, timelines, budget, competing responsibilities, and physical and emotional energy. These are the challenges to which we are in close proximity.

Until you can separate innovation and execution within yourself, you will only innovate to the level at which you can execute the idea. To be effective, we need to create distance between our innovation brain and our execution brain.

Fig. 1: The difference between innovation and execution ceilings.

Different ceilings can create tension between teams

Conflict can arise when two people are working with different ceilings. I experienced it firsthand in my early days working as the creative director of an advertising agency.

There were two people involved in a working relationship: my agency’s junior account manager and the director of marketing for one of our clients. I saw there was a tension between them and wondered where it was coming from.

I was joining the junior account manager (essentially a junior marketer) at a client meeting. In the car on the ride over, she briefed me on where things were at. We had recently presented the client with an annual marketing plan and were going in to review feedback.

On our drive, I got the sense that the junior account manager was frustrated with the client. She talked a lot about what she had put into the plan, why it was so great, and how it was going to move the needle. She couldn’t understand why the client was pushing back on it. She spoke about the client in a patronizing manner, saying things like, “He just doesn’t get it” and “I’ll have to explain it to him in person.”

When we arrived at our meeting, we sat down with the client. My role was essentially to watch and listen — see how things were going and assess whether the client was getting what we had promised them.

I had felt strange about the interaction in the car, as the conversation wasn’t a new one for me. Agency people will often say, “The client doesn’t get it” or “The client doesn’t know what’s best for their brand.” It’s easy to shrug these comments off and attribute them to agency egos.

But something about this particular meeting cemented things for me. Here we were, in the client’s boardroom, and a junior account manager fresh out of school was slowly explaining the basics of marketing to a director with twenty-five years’ experience like it was the first time he’d heard about the Four Ps. The level of condescension shocked me. The longer the junior account manager explained the intricacies of a direct mail campaign, the more the seasoned marketer dug in his heels.

What we were all missing at the table was that our account manager was wearing her innovation hat and the client was wearing his execution hat. We weren’t having a conversation about the same thing, so of course we weren’t connecting.

The tension and miscommunication were perpetuated by the differences between the parties’ innovation and execution ceilings. The junior account manager had a high innovation ceiling — she was new to the role and full of excitement and ambition.

The marketing director’s innovation ceiling was also, no doubt, very high. But in that particular meeting, his execution ceiling was getting in the way.

His existing team had to complete all the work with the existing marketing budget. They were understaffed, and our recommendations would require changing some of their systems, which would have put more work on the already stretched team. The fixed budget meant he couldn’t hire other professionals to complete the work. The marketing director couldn’t see the value in the recommendations — he could only see bad ideas.

We failed to recognize the factors that were making the client’s execution ceiling lower than our agency’s innovation ceiling. Instead, each party assumed the other was being ignorant.

The ceiling affects anyone tasked with bringing an idea to life

I continued to see this trend of condescension from agency people for years to come, coupled with their belief that in-house marketers don’t “get it” or don’t know what’s best for their organizations. I constantly had to remind people that agency marketers and in-house marketers all have the same education and training, and we all have the same passion for creative ideas. We just happen to work on different sides of the fence.

I have been on the opposite side of the fence from in-house marketers for most of my career. I would come into their organizations and present out-there ideas that could push their brands in new and different directions. I feel confident doing this; it’s a skill that comes naturally to me.

For a few years, though, I switched sides of the fence and became my agency’s director of marketing. My sole focus was promoting our agency and bringing in new clients. All of a sudden, my creativity dropped, my ideas turned safe, and I took what should have been a very exciting job and made it vanilla. From the outside, I could have suggested dozens of amazing initiatives to market our agency. But from the inside, it was much more difficult because I had to both develop and execute the initiatives.

This experience showed me that both in-house and agency marketers are fully capable of ideation and innovation, but the in-house marketer is handicapped by his or her proximity to the challenge and the limitations they see in the organization and the brand.