Using Survival Psychology to Build a Resilient Brand with Jonathan David Lewis

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NamesCon 2018 saw over 1,100 attendees over three invigorating days of keynotes, talks, and workshops. Here, we revisit one of our keynote sessions.


Jonathan David Lewis, Partner, VP, Strategy Director at McKee Wallwork + Co, took to the NamesCon 2018 keynote hall to discuss survival psychology, and its place in building a resilient brand in these turbulent times.

A rugby team flying from Uruguay to Chile in 1972 found themselves in a horrific plane crash. Survivors reacted to the aftermath in different ways. Some wandered out into the snow—and certain death. Some just shut down, unable to function. Others realized that they had to stay focused on staying alive, even if just for the night.

They had to stay alive for two months, bringing back one of the most harrowing tales of survival ever. There’s no difference between these crash survivors and you: we all have predictable reactions to unexpected challenges and disasters. However, most won’t make it. This is...

The 10-80-10 rule.

Ten percent of us can deal with disaster and help others deal with it. Eighty percent will be deer in the headlights. The other ten percent will do precisely the wrong thing. The tech industry is moving and changing so quickly that it’s hard to know what to do. “Uncertainty is just a lack of information,” said Lewis. “On the other hand, there’s a mountain of ambiguous information.”

Seven factors affect growth in business, the last four of which are internal to that business, said Lewis, “but we learned the hard way.” Here they are:

  1. Economy

  2. Industry disruption

  3. Competition

  4. Lack of alignment

  5. Loss of focus

  6. Loss of nerve

  7. Inconsistency

The Harvard Business life cycle starts at inception, moving forward to survival, growth, and expansion; and ultimately to maturity. Each of these steps is also a goal, and achieving those goals triggers internal crisis opportunities. Lewis pointed to Apple, which foundered for years when Steve Jobs left. After the the iPhone took over the world, Apple grew to a position of dominance.

Resilience can be savage

When Jobs passed away and Tim Cook took over, Apple struggled in the maturity phase: slowing down older phones, selling loads of dongles, basically not living up to the “Think Different” credo that the Cupertino company popularized. (Lewis’ unofficial advice is that Apple stock is about to fall as they reach this new tipping point.)

Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” also deals with hardship and one group’s attempt to climb a summit. Shortly after getting rescued by another climbing team, Krakauer’s group chose not to help a similarly-imperiled team further toward the peak. Journalists weren’t impressed with that decision, but Krakauer argued that above 8000 meters is not a place that people can afford morality. Lewis broke it down thusly:

“The resilient survive.”

The internal health of your company will allow you to face the ever-changing chaos out there, said Lewis: “You and I have all these preconceived notions of success,” he said, based on assembly-line thinking. Below are three new principles for success as outlined by Lewis, and they are rooted in resilience.

Uncertainty beats security. In today’s stormy seas, what if the answer isn’t to get better at bailing out water? What if the answer is to get out of the boat and learn to swim? “Companies and people look at the pace of change as a challenge, an obstacle, a hurdle… We like to look at it as opportunity: Get on the offense. - Mark Parker, CEO, Nike

You have to make room for healthy conflict in your organization. “You have to be willing to get awkward, to get weird,” said Lewis, adding that the key to making that weirdness work is to approach it with kind truth and institutionalize permission to fail.

Flexibility beats efficiency. We should embrace our creativity, our humanity more, said Lewis.  “Ambiguity is… not something to be feared but something that is a given… We never have complete and perfect information. The best way to succeed is to revel in ambiguity.” - Grant Hammond, ‘The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security’

There’s harmony and conflict in a jazz band as it plays. Jazz revels in ambiguity—indeed, jazz cannot survive without ambiguity. Today’s tech companies are more like orchestras, which have a very different dynamic. Orchestras are about efficiency, while jazz bands can improvise. Permission to fail is built into that.

Connection beats craft. Trying to comprehend new models in marketing can lead to internal chaos, and nobody is immune to that. “How do you create something of value when it feels like nothing makes sense,” said Lewis. Successful business leaders will be the ones who can merge some of these apparently-clashing paradigms into new and useful entities.

Maybe your company needs an anthropologist or an architect. Maybe it’s sabbatical time.

Getting that new expertise can be brought in by new hires, or unlocked from within your own team. Meanwhile, document what you and your team is doing so that all the institutional knowledge you earn is itself resilient.

“This new economy, it isn’t about size anymore,” said Lewis, noting that the biggest companies are the most vulnerable. The survivors will be the ones who can innovate from within—parking and stoking the passion to create is key. “Connect the dots between what feels like a pain point now to ‘We’re gonna be the next Uber’.”


Key Concepts

  • Leadership
  • Curiosity in new technology

Take Action

  • Make sure your team feels safe in experimenting. You may not yet know what you don’t know.
  • Think beyond product and deeply define your company’s identity.

As partner and strategy director at McKee Wallwork + Company, Jonathan David Lewis led his firm to be recognized by Advertising Age as a national leader in branding and marketing, winning the Southwest Small Agency of the Year, national B2B Campaign of the Year, and national Best Places to Work awards.

Twitter: @JonathanD_Lewis
Web: jonathandavidlewis.com
linkedin.com/in/jonathanlewis11