Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Making Better Decisions

When our boys were much younger, sometimes my wife would ask me to watch them at home while she went to a doctor’s appointment or ran errands. With my laptop, I can get work done virtually anywhere, so this was not a problem – or was it?

Almost invariably, I would lose patience after one too many distractions from my diminutive “clients.” My frustration was that in trying to simultaneously get work done and be caretaker for my children, I was doing neither task very well. And, in truth, only one of these two can actually be done “later.”

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

Simplify to gain traction
It’s easy to blame employers, colleagues, or fate as reasons behind our never-ending list of daily tasks. However, as we struggle to assess an overwhelming number of choices, we often make no choice at all. If this were a lunch buffet, we’d be the ones waddling to our seat with a calorie-laden tray in each hand. It’s unhealthy.

Just last week a colleague, after being asked by her new boss to describe the top 10 qualities of all great communications programs, shared her list with me. As lists go, it was well organized and comprehensive – in fact, a little too comprehensive. Beneath each of the numbered items on the list were five bullet points (making it a 60-point list). This is hardly a recipe for establishing priorities, but it’s understandable.

In the book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath explain:

Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material. They see nuance, multiple perspectives — and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they’re often tempted to linger there. The tendency to gravitate to complexity is perpetually at war with the need to prioritize.

I suggested to my colleague that what her boss wants is not what he needs, “I’d give him your list and then say: But [fill in the blank] is the MOST important quality. Then prioritize your work around that directive.”

After all, while Moses had a list of Ten Commandments, Jesus came along and simplified things. The most important commandment (essentially) is: Love your neighbor as yourself. This simple phrase has guided the actions of good people for centuries.

Move from abstract to concrete
Many non-profit marketing folks aren’t fortunate enough to have a directive as clarifying as the Golden Rule. More likely, they’re saddled with a committee-authored mission statement that provides neither a clear purpose nor a way to measure success. Let’s look at an edited example from an American university:

We are dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields. Our mission of providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs is inseparable from our mission of developing new understandings through research and creativity… We seek to serve persons of all racial, ethnic, and geographic groups, women and men alike, as we address the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy. In the twenty-first century, we seek to assume a place of preeminence among public universities while respecting our history and traditions.

So, to recap, this school teaches many different things to many different people in many different ways in hopes of being well regarded sometime in the next century. As Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In contrast, the following university has chosen to prioritize:

Our goal is to be recognized as one of the top five public research universities in the country.

As marketing professionals, our primary mission should be to clearly identify the purpose of the organization we serve, moving from an abstract concept to a concrete goal around which to evaluate the choices we’re faced with every day.

Invest time wisely
The high-stakes uncertainty of stock market investing provides a reasonably good analogy to the current marketing landscape. A diversified portfolio of investments – rebalanced from time to time depending on age and family situation – is common practice among investment advisors. Similarly, marketers have a variety of communication channels available to achieve their objectives.

Action expresses priorities. – Mohandas Gandhi

Where you invest your money – and your time – says a lot about what you value, your tolerance for risk, and your goals. You wouldn’t place as much trust in a stock tip from your flaky brother-in-law as on the successful track record of an established company, yet many marketers seem eager to chase the latest trend.

When shaping your marketing portfolio, “all of the above” is not a choice. Invest your resources proportionate to the activities that best support your goals. That means your budgeted time can’t add up to more than 100%, and some projects should be abandoned.

A disciplined approach
A relentless focus on goals and priorities is necessary to make better decisions. When in doubt, ask yourself these three questions:

How can I make this less complex?
Our neighborhood print shop has a tiny complaint form on which there is a 1/4″ square and instructions to “write legibly” – humorous, but effective.

How does this support our primary goal?
One goal. One purpose. One measure of success. If you’re struggling, return to the previous question.

Is this the best use of my time?
Honesty can be painful when we have to disappoint people we like and pass on projects we may enjoy working on. If you never say ‘no’ you have no priorities.

What techniques do you use to make good decisions? I’d love to hear about them.

Related content:

If It Won’t Fit on A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision Making
A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed

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