Rory Sutherland’s Rules for Alchemy

By Mike Burton

Rory Sutherland is my man crush. I love the way he thinks. 

His book Alchemy explores the surprising power of ideas that don’t make sense — logical sense, that is.

“The fatal issue is that logic always leads to the same place as your competitors,” he explains. 

Rory’s in charge of a department at advertising firm Ogilvy dedicated to testing counter-intuitive solutions to problems. Why? Simply because no one else is doing it. 

There’s no shortage of rational, logical, reasoned thinking in business. But to be brilliant, you have to be irrational. That’s the claim of the book.

Alchemy is rich with insights. And not just for writers. For marketers, designers, strategists, damn near everyone in any industry anywhere. It belongs on every business owner’s bookshelf.

Here are a few rules to give you a taste of the book. I hope they inspire you to introduce a little more alchemy into your life.

The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea

The“single right answer” mindset is wonderful if you want to keep your job. If you want to have an original idea it’s potentially disastrous.

Don’t design for average

Models cause you to aggregate people so you’re solving the problem for a single representative individual. That makes problems difficult to solve because it’s difficult to find things the average person will like. Look at the extremes, however, and you will find things that will be adopted by extreme or unusual consumers that then makes their way into the general populous.

It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical

You can’t be logical at war because your enemy can predict your moves. Similarly, in business logic will probably lead you to the same place as everybody else.What you have to do is find out what your competitors are logically wrong about and exploit it.

The nature of our attention impacts the nature of our experience

If you go to a hotel in Germany expecting the Marriott and get a former police station with Spartan rooms and a black and white TV with only one channel, you’d be furious. But if you went expecting an authentic East Berlin experience, you’d be happy.

A flower is a weed with an advertising budget

Nature engages in a lot of seemingly pointless and inefficient display. But the pointlessness and extravagance can be what conveys meaning to us. Attempting to make advertising an efficiency gain we’ve completely lost sight of why a lot advertising works, which is that it’s costly to generate and deliver. Making something efficient and making something effective are not the same thing.

The problem with logic is that it kills off magic

The rules of logic demand that there can be no magic. Logic would say if you want to improve a hotel you have to objectively make the hotel better, you can’t just change people’s perception of the hotel. Context is a marketing super weapon, and it works because it works magically.

A good guess which stands up to empirical observation is still science ... but so is a lucky accident

Don’t let methodological purity  restrict the size of your solutions set. A hell of a lot of scientific discoveries have been happy accidents and justified afterwards with the scientific process. As genius physicist Richard Feynman said, “First, guess!”

Test counter-intuitive things simply because no one else will

It’s unbelievably dangerous and risky being slightly bonkers in business. Try something a bit nuts that fails and your job is on the line. Try something rational that fails and you get to try again. That bias means you can enjoy a huge competitive advantage if you create a small space where people can test things that don’t make sense.

Solving problems using only rationality is like playing golf with only one club

Rationality had value, of course. But every time you create a neat rational model of the world, what you leave out may be more valuable than what you put in. When you’ve define the problem in that way you only allow for a small solution set.

Dare to be trivial

In the need to be rational people construct models that are modelled on a child’s idea of physics. They assume the scale and effect on human behaviour is proportionate to the scale and cost of the intervention. That’s simply not true in a complex system. Really small things can have an enormous effect.

If there were already a logical answer, we would have already found it

This isn’t the middle ages. There isn’t a shortage of people desperately trying to look logical to each other. Rational people are everywhere and control everything. Therefore, if a problem is persistent it’s likely the problem is logic-proof.

Dare to look stupid

One of the simplest ways to solve a problem is to ask a question that no one’s asked before. Why has a question not been asked before? It could be that no one’s been stupid enough to ask it. Rory asked a rail company, “Why don’t people like standing up on trains”. No one had an answer.

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