Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

From Idea to Impact

Ideas To ImpactPicture an incandescent light bulb. Place it floating over a human head and most people will immediately understand what you’re trying to communicate – the birth of an idea. Good ideas are celebrated in our culture – as well they should be – yet in business settings there is a fundamental misunderstanding of where they come from, how they are developed, and what makes them valuable.

Design for show
A growing trend over the past few years – the “uninvited redesign” of famous brands – adds to the confusion, spurred on by media outlets covering creative exercises (A Hyper Cool Rebranding for American Airlines) as if they were successfully implemented assignments.

It’s undeniably fun for designers to work without the pesky weight of a real client or creative brief, but mocking up a nice logo or a beautiful website takes only a few hours. Implementing a design strategy across a large organization requires an ability to marshal resources, coordinate people, and adapt and refine ideas over and over again. That is significantly more difficult.

Getting out of our own way
Ed Catmull, in his recent book, Creativity, Inc., wrote about Pixar’s efforts to increase the chances that good ideas make it to the finish line:

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.

Without an ongoing effort to push creativity toward implementation, all the imagination in the world is about as useful as a bald man’s comb. Here are a few ways to make your ideas more valuable.

Permission
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla – the one thing that keeps most individuals and the organizations they work for from generating and implementing good ideas. It’s not allowed.

Now, it’s rarely spelled out so explicitly, but conditions exist – fear of failure, censorship, heirarchy, budget and time constraints – that discourage candid conversations in the workplace. And let’s not pretend that those obstacles are all imposed by someone else. We are usually our own worst critics, far more debilitated by embarassment or lack of confidence than by any organizational chart.

We can’t learn from our mistakes if every effort is made to avoid them. We need to give ourselves permission to take risks – to make mistakes. In order to do so, we must construct an environment in which our fragile ideas are nurtured and given room to grow. Johnny Appleseed would have quit a failure had he spent his days wandering across parking lots.

Persistence
Some prefer to imagine creativity jolts to life like a bolt of lightning, a convenient fairy tale perpetuated by stories of Mozart composing fully formed symphonies in his head, or Jackson Pollock flinging paint into manic masterpieces overnight.

Despite the myths, creative work is never a single burst of inspiration. It is the product of a lengthy process that requires an ability to remain focused through multiple revisions – to negotiate an uncertain path around ever-present obstacles. Creative work is as much about logistics as art, as much about fixing things as creating them.

Thomas Edison, working diligently on one of his many inventions, succinctly summed up his iterative process, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Perfection
Designers like to be in control. In elementary school, I played saxophone in the school band. One day, some high school students brought an assortment of instruments to our music class, offering them up as a sort of musical petting zoo – try one or try them all. The only one I attempted? The saxophone.

I never became an accomplished musician, though I would have been better had I been willing to take more chances. Coaching my son’s youth basketball team, all of the drills we use are intended to encourage our players to practice at a speed that makes them just a little uncomfortable. Breakthroughs come from bold ideas tried first as short experiments or at a small scale, getting outside one’s comfort zone and learning quickly.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to wait for things to be perfect before sharing them with others. If you personally identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged or critiqued. This instinct discourages sharing – and improving – unfinished ideas. By regularly collaborating with other smart, creative people, excellence is an attainable goal. Perfection is not.

Persuasion
Even the best new ideas are rarely welcomed with open arms. Inevitably, those who are threatened by them will offer fierce resistance. Developing an ability to win friends and influence people – through marketing, charm, arm-twisting, or logic – is a common strategy for getting ideas approved.

Even better is a system in which participants provide feedback that elevates the discussion (and the end result) without being prescriptive. When working with young designers, I never say, “Make that bigger” or “Change that color.” Instead, I ask questions like “Have you considered … ?” or “I’m curious about this choice …”

An environment in which candor and analysis is both sought and welcomed is incredibly valuable. Without it, creativity is stifled. Ideas are persuaded to become great when they are challenged and tested.

Running the gauntlet
It’s no wonder that so many designers and organizations have difficulty shepherding good ideas from conception to completion. And with so many opposing forces – many of our own making – it’s understandable why people are tempted to take the path of least resistance.

Coming up with ideas is easy. Implementation is hard. Because the world is teeming with urgent problems, we need to adopt better habits, design better systems, and develop better processes so that more of the flickering light bulbs over our heads turn into impactful, megawatt solutions.

Related Content:
Why We Need to Rebrand the Word Failure

Favorite Links – July 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Lots of good stuff recently – here are some favorites:

Help Leaders Be Less Useless at Strategy
Harvard Business Review

How to Develop a Brand Guide for Your Non-Profit Organization
The Fundraising Resource Group

Shortcuts for Better, Faster Design Research
Fast Company Design

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and the Importance of Play
M. Landers Blog

Make it Clear

Opaque eyeglassesIncreasingly, with each generation, people twist words beyond recognition to avoid discomfort or inconvenient truths.

The U.S. military uses “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, not torture. Some politicians want us to believe that their wealthy benefactors are not greedy tax dodgers, but “job creators.” And if a professional athlete tells a reporter his protracted contract negotiations are “not about the money,” you can be quite certain that it’s all about the money.

Because of the constant misdirection, we bristle at bureacracy, complain about complexity, and object to obfuscation. If we find out – or even suspect – a government official or corporate titan has been hiding something from us, we are outraged. We demand an investigation. We expect answers.

Publicly, we encourage authenticity, admire honesty, and celebrate “straight shooters” – mean what you say and say what you mean – but do we model the behavior we hold in such high esteem?

If “incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession,” as Kingman Brewster, Jr., the former president of Yale, once said, then the behavior of some of our marketing and communications colleagues might best be described as “very professional.”

Glossary of terms
Yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, I laughed out loud. Curious, my wife asked what was so funny. I shared with her a short profile in the business section in which there was an astonishing volume of jargon.

As a public service, I will attempt to provide translation for the dizzying array of terms used in the story:

Behavorial marketing agency = advertising agency
Visual design = design
Customer experience design = web design
User experience architect = web designer
Content strategy = thinking about which words and images to use on a website
Business intelligence = research
Empowered consumers = the people we are trying to sell things to
Business-to-person (B2P) = the relationship between a business and its customers
Forge connections = get people to click on things
Engage consumers = get people to click on things
Offline experiences = the real world (sans electronic gadgets)

Conjuring clarity out of chaos
While I understand that part of advertising a product or service is putting it in the most favorable light, taking such extraordinary effort to distract and dazzle seems to betray a lack of confidence that thinking, writing, and designing have value without fancier titles.

I believe effective designers and writers communicate better by focusing on clarity and simplicity – distilling things to their essence rather than constructing obstacles to decipher. In other words, we get rid of the bullshit and make your organization, products, or services easier to understand.

Transparency provides people the confidence to take action. As a profession, we should be less concerned with coining opaque jargon, and more concerned with creating effective communication.

Related content:
Euphemisms – A comedic rant by George Carlin
Truthiness – The Word by Stephen Colbert

Bigshots vs. Slingshots

David vs GoliathNo matter what anyone tells you, size matters. It’s a daunting challenge to compete against organizations with more people, more locations, deeper pockets, and a lengthy and successful track record.

Being recognized as a “big name” is a tremendous advantage, and the most valuable benefit of that familiarity is trust: “I’ve heard of them. They must be doing something right.” Whether searching for deals online, comparing products on your supermarket shelves, or listening to your teenager’s excuse for getting home late, nearly every choice we make, every action we take, is processed through a “trust filter.”

Blunt instruments
Big companies operate at a dazzling scale. McDonalds spends $1 billion annually on advertising. There are only two countries on the planet where Coca-Cola doesn’t sell its drinks – Cuba and North Korea (due to U.S. trade restrictions). If Walmart was a country, its annual revenue would make it the 25th largest economy in the world.

The big brands’ ability to broadcast – in the broadest sense of the word – means they can flood the market with every possible means of communication. They don’t need to worry too much about “building awareness.” In fact, they really don’t need to know who their customers are, what they prefer, or where they live. By virtue of sheer size, these giants’ customers are everywhere and include nearly everyone.

A common mistake of smaller organizations is to misunderstand their place in the market, pursuing tactics (“We need billboards.”) or strategies (“Let’s get more people to mention us on social media.”) similar to the big guys – competing in an arena that they just can’t win. It’s like a battle between a cigarette lighter and a flamethrower. You’re toast.

The wedge
When trying to split a slab of granite into smaller pieces, a stone mason uses the sharp end of a chisel. When trying to solve a complicated case, a detective will ask increasingly pointed questions. Working toward precision with the blunt end of a tool is like using a sledgehammer to swat a housefly – your attempts may succeed, but not without great difficulty and unintended consequences.

In order to make an impact, an organization needs to use the narrowest end of the wedge – a well-defined brand promise – to gain leverage. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, maximum leverage comes from a razor-sharp focus – knowing who you are, what you do, and who your audience is.

The one advantage you have over a bigger competitor is an ability to focus on a segment of the market that they cannot possibly serve as well as you – to serve a group of people in ways that larger competitors can’t match. So, instead of spreading a few seeds in a vast parking lot and hoping something sprouts, smart organizations choose to concentrate efforts on only the most well-suited plots of land.

Every single large company was small at one time. What often gets lost when marveling at large-scale operations is that the biggest brands deliver on a well-defined brand promise better than anyone else – every day – again and again and again.

Being small is no sin. Being small and undefined is a recipe for mediocrity.

Promises, promises
What promises do you make to your customers? What promises can you keep? It’s not enough to nod to your competitors and say, “We can do that, too.” It’s not enough to claim location as a competitive advantage. To move people to action and inspire loyalty, a brand promise:

  • Must convey a compelling benefit.
  • Must be believable and defendable.
  • Must be kept every single time.

With its everyday low prices, Walmart promises you will save money and live better. Coca-Cola promises to inspire moments of fun, optimism, and refreshment. McDonalds promises to deliver quality, service, cleanliness, and value.

It doesn’t matter if you order a Big Mac, a Happy Meal, or a Shamrock Shake. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. People choose McDonalds because it consistently delivers on its brand promise better than its competitors.

From a distance, big brands may seem to have insurmountable advantages by virtue of their size. Looking closer, you’ll see that their most remarkable advantage is the million little ways that they keep promises for each customer they serve. As it turns out, it’s not the size of the organization that matters, it’s the quantity and consistency of the promises kept.

Related content:
Not Busy, Focused

Favorite Links – May 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Help Me, Please: User Testing, Customer Service, and Treating People Nicely
Interactions

The Most Underrated Skill for Creatives? Empathy
99U by Behance

Facebook’s Dwindling Reach: Stop Whining, Think Differently
Shelly Kramer

Achieving Transformative Scale
Stanford Social Innovation Review

 

Art or Science?

Venn Diagram showing the intersection of design, business, and technologyDesigners are forever moaning about the perceived value of what they do. When big decisions are being made, MBAs sit at the head of the table while designers are lucky to get a spot at the “kiddie table.” The problem lies with the widespread perception of design as “artsy” – a tertiary tactical skill, not a reliable method for making strategic decisions or solving challenging problems.

Scientists need empirical evidence. Business people focus on the bottom line. Lacking the data to definitively demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, designers are often miscast by the other two as providing “window dressing” – valued for creativity, but not integral to success.

Getting over that hurdle is difficult. Isolating cause/effect relationships in design can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and businesses are skeptical of fields with anecdotal, not quantitative proof. However, isolating the effects of any of the myriad decisions a business executive makes in an average year is equally troublesome. Life – like most forms of measurement – tends to be messier than we would care to admit.

Facts vs. Feelings
Despite evidence to the contrary, people trust facts. They prefer to know things. Two plus two equals four. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. How much does that cost? When will that be finished? Guessing wrong on a school exam adversely affects your grade. Guessing wrong in business can cost you your job.

However, some things stubbornly resist measurement – like the future, art, or emotions. When did my wife fall in love with me? Was it when we met walking dogs through a neighborhood park? Was it when she drove past my house with her sister and confided, “That’s the man I’m going to marry”? Was it our first kiss? Prove it.

We make decisions every day with uncertain prospects for being right, for getting a good “return on investment.” We make decisions based on history and patterns of behavior, regularly using intuition and instinct as guides. And when pressed to explain our choices, we might say it was a “gut decision” or “it just felt right.”

But trusting and acting on “feelings” is usually considered too dangerous in a business setting. Risk aversion, the fear of being wrong, sends us in search of numbers. This evidence, intended to bolster confidence in our decision making, often has the unfortunate tendency to simply confirm existing beliefs or theories.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative
Acknowledging the need for justification, the Design Management Institute commissioned a study: What is the real value of design? In the report, one chart demonstrates that a carefully chosen index of “design-centric” companies yielded returns 228% greater than the same investment in the S&P 500 over the past ten years. That seems conclusive! Except that data can be arranged to support almost any position.

Numbers can be powerful and persuasive, but they can also be used to bolster weak arguments. Both quantitative and qualitative research reveal important insights – quantitative research tells us how many; qualitative research tells us why – but they work best used together. The DMI report reveals this truth (and its bias) in the research study’s subhead: An exploration into why companies that lead with design outperform the market.

The ability to trust that our answers are correct – that they are worthy investments – depends on what questions are being asked, who is asking, who is answering, and why they are being asked in the first place.

The value of synthesis
Qualitative or quantitative, we can always collect more data – even if we don’t know what to do with it. Just because consumers liked your offerings yesterday doesn’t guarantee they will behave the same way tomorrow. All data looks in the rear-view mirror.

An influx of information won’t inevitably lead to breakthrough products or services. The ability to interpret and humanize data – to connect the dots into a meaningful narrative – is the most valuable skill a designer has to offer. Good designers have the ability to solve problems that haven’t been solved before, to see patterns where others see chaos, and to distill the essential from the extraneous.

Computer algorithms are able to predict what you will like given enough online behavior to analyze. The ability to empathize with an audience while synthesizing known information and experiences makes designers the closest thing that exists to a human algorithm.

Investing in results
Successful outcomes are nearly always a group effort. Divvying up credit for individual performance is about as easy as quantifying how much flavor the carrots, potatoes, or onions contributed to a bowl of beef stew – not that it will stop people from trying.

Executives seeking return on investment don’t trust design. Don’t feel bad, they don’t trust untested ideas or new technology either. Just as the team with the best record doesn’t always win the championship, the best design (or idea, or technology) doesn’t always win. Executives trust successful outcomes.

Design is a worthwhile investment when it is welcomed at the head table as a valuable skill. Treated as an afterthought, its dubious value is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is design an art? A science? A business? At its best, it’s a little of each.

Related content:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – The Ultimate TED Talk

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)

Favorite Links: March 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Write Your Brand’s Obituary
Harvard Business Review

How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
Brain Pickings

Principles for Making Things for the Web
GitHub

Global Navigation is Less Useful on Large, Complex Websites
Gerry McGovern

Stop Planning

Photo of a businessman staring at a complex mazeA new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen

The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?

Nonlinear truths
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.

Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.

Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.

Hybrid thinking
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.

Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”

By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.

Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:

  • Empathy for the end user   Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.

After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.

  • Multiple perspectives  Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.

  •  Trial and error  We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”

Moving forward
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.

To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.

Related content:
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)     
Building Strategic Capacity by Design

Favorite Links: January 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity
Slate.com

If a Tweet Worked Once, Send It Again
(and other lessons from The New York Times social media desk)

Nieman Journalism Lab

Brené Brown on Vulnerability, Human Connection,
and the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Brain Pickings

What I’ve Learned from Giving Directly to People in Need
GOOD