Posted by Tom Gable
We just returned from an African adventure, including a week in three different isolated camps in Botswana where we armed ourselves with cameras and bounced and careened through rugged terrain in search of game. The morning drives would start at dawn and the afternoon drives hit the road when the weather started cooling around 4:30 (it got to 115 degrees one day). We extended the searching into cooler night drives where we tracked leopards and other carnivores using infrared lights.
What amazed us were the abilities of the guides to find rare animals after seemingly random searching on dirt and sand roads, trails through the bush and even off-roading through scrub brush or twisting back and forth among islands of green amidst barren plains to look for leopards and lions resting in the shade. We got as close as five yards to cheetahs, leopards and lions, including one lazy, impala-filled male who rolled into the shade of our stationary Range Rover to take a nap, unperturbed by the steady clicking of cameras.
During one excursion, we noted more distinctive trees on the horizon than in most drive areas and our guide seemed to be following a pattern. At the end of the day, when relaxing at camp over dinner, I probed into the secrets of this king of the leopard-hunters and found lessons we can all use in problem-solving and generating creative ideas for our clients.
Start with the big picture: thousands of acres of brush, jungle, open plains, swamps, watering holes and islands of green (the client industry). Then, define the goal: finding the one male leopard known to frequent the area (differentiating a disruptive new product).
The guide started with looking for environmental indicators: fresh tracks in the sand along the roads (competitive and trend data). Animals used the roads because it was easier and safer than venturing into the bush, where predators lay in wait. The guide used his own version of a Gable PR exercise we call “The Flip Side”: what’s there, turn it over and what’s not there.
He saw baboon and hyena tracks, which indicated that the leopard wouldn’t be in this area (tough competition). He noted the direction and took an alternate route, going perpendicular to the road, noting new tracks and then took a parallel road to the original (pursuing more data). He found more hyena tracks, so he narrowed the quest further and took a new angle (new market niche; new positioning). As he eliminated bad options, he soon found the breakthrough: fresh leopard tracks and no hyena or baboon tracks (the ah-hah moment in brainstorming).
With the search area narrowed further, he started looking for certain habitats known to be favored by leopards (favorites of the target). He eased the vehicle along the edges of the possible locations and looked for something that might stand out – differentiators such as different shapes and colors, or a leopard tail curving down from a tree branch. Leopards are well camouflaged but their shapes are different than brush and bush. He spotted a lump in the shade next to a green bush with ears sticking up then saw a sudden flash of red color as the leopard yawned. Success!
I liked the process: analysis, logic, narrowing the focus, creative thought, constant refining and patience. Our guides kept circling and trying new routes. The roads and trails – however primitive and rugged – provided some structure so they could proceed within a pattern. The approach offered freedom to explore but not randomly so it could be pursued strategically and repeated.
The same process works for PR professionals. Start with the big picture. Set a goal. Narrow down the search strategically. Eliminate the things that won’t work, for a variety of reasons. And bring in colleagues and strategic partners if needed for new ideas. Think like the leopard-hunter and you might just be rewarded with a rare and magnificent discovery in creative development and problem solving.