Do you have an Acoustic Kitty project?

First published in BW Businessworld, 19 July 2021. Read it here.

In the 1960s, CIA’s Directorate of Science & Technology launched a project called Acoustic Kitty to spy on Soviet embassies. The idea was to create a feline-machine hybrid, a kind of cyborg cat. In an hour-long procedure, a veterinarian surgeon implanted a microphone in the cat’s ear canal, a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull and a thin wire in its fur. This would allow the cat to innocuously record and transmit sounds from its surroundings, CIA operatives hoped that they could train the cat to sit near foreign officials and it could secretly transmit their private conversations to CIA operatives. For its first official test, CIA staffers drove the Acoustic Kitty to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a park bench outside the Soviet compound in Washington DC. The cat was released nearby, but instead, the cat wandered onto the street, where it was promptly squashed by a speeding taxi.  

Reportedly, the CIA spent over twenty million dollars for this project and a highly redacted memo concluded that cats are not especially trainable and hence the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to CIA’s highly specialized needs.

Like the CIA, companies too may have their own Acoustic Kitty projects; large projects that seem impressive in Boardroom presentations but are immediate roadkill once executed. These are projects that are blind to the real world, don’t account for how people behave or ignore channel dynamics, something I term as the gap between PowerPoint and Store point.

Consider this example, a story my friend narrated. Accompanied by much fanfare, teams from his company’s global HQ landed in India to launch a global sales tool. But within a couple of months of the tool going live, while business results were lackluster, the ‘traffic lights’ system tracking performance as Red, Yellow or Green, stayed Green – indicating an outcome better than plan. The sales tool seemed strangely disconnected from actual business. An investigation revealed that using the tool required high speed internet, something that Sales teams, who traveled deep into rural towns, hardly had access to. To circumvent this issue and comply with data requirements mandated by the company, Dealers employed data entry operators who were inputting partial data from diaries maintained by the Sales personnel and to avoid defaults, they ensured that data reflected performance benchmarks set by the company. The multi-million-dollar global sales tool implementation was this company’s Acoustic Kitty. (Of course, such things don’t happen in companies where enlightened readers of this column work.)

While no Luddite is a marketer, as marketers and business leaders we need an understanding of both; how people use technology and how they don’t. And sometimes, especially in many Asian cultures, channel partners or junior members on the team may not be clear and explicit in sharing feedback, especially in groups. Keen observation skills and an ability to pick up non-verbal cues is valuable.

To avoid having an Acoustic Kitty on your hands, you also need a sense for execution and to recognize on-ground realities. For instance, in digitalizing sales experience with deployment of AR/VR, while some of these tools work perfectly when reviewed over a 300 MB fiber optic connection in office, they may fail miserably when a salesman, in a remote town, tries to use it via a 4G connection on his mobile phone.

Projects that don’t bridge the gap between PowerPoint and the store point, end up as Acoustic Kitties. Such projects drain resources and are quickly put to rest, because unlike cats, Acoustic Kitties don’t have nine lives.