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

Improvisation by Design

Carefree children having fun on a playground.Recently, I attended a workshop called “Improv for Creatives.” The event was billed as a way to learn and use the techniques of improvisational comedy in professional settings. The ability to negotiate, persuade, and network effectively all benefit from an agile mind and active listening.

To begin, the workshop leader asked, “How many of you have ever done any kind of improv?” Only a few raised hands. He continued, “How many of you ever went to a playground as a kid?” Everyone raised a hand. Anyone who has ever walked up to another kid on a playground and asked “Wanna play?” has participated in a form of improvisation. What follows is not scripted, and requires two (or more) people to collaborate on the spot for a mutual goal.

Truthfully, we are improvising all the time – in conversation, at play, and at work. When was the last time everything went according to plan?

Adjust your heading
A friend of mine was telling me about a weekend trip to a resort on Lake Superior. He spent one morning in a kayak. The tour guide led the group along the shoreline and then out into the lake until the shore was barely visible. He couldn’t see cabins or lighthouses, just distant hills, trees and water.

As they returned to shore, the tour guide couldn’t point them in the direction of the resort. It wasn’t visible. So, he aimed the group between two hills in the general direction of their destination. Every ten minutes or so, the guide would point out a newly visible landmark and the kayakers would adjust their heading until they landed safely back at the resort.

Working on any large project is a similar exercise. In order to move forward, we must improvise by finding intermediate targets when we can’t see the finish line.

Halfway home
In most organizations, there are only a few large-scale, difference-making initiatives undertaken each year. Maybe less. These are the kinds of efforts that have a chance to move the needle, expand impact, and serve as a beacon of success.

A plan is hatched, resources aligned, and steps are taken. After months have passed, progress may stall or assumptions lead you astray. You’ve gone too far to abandon the effort, but it’s not evident what to do next.

Long journeys require resiliency – an ability to take stock and redirect, to focus on the little picture without losing sight of the big picture. Like the kayakers – or an improv comedian – it’s important to pay attention to one’s surroundings, seek guidance to move forward, and adjust as needed to get home.

The destination
When facing uncertainty, what do you aim at? The reason so many good ideas fail to scale is not because the end goal is too ambitious. It’s because the tricky part is often identifying the next step to take, not the final one.

Designers are well-suited to contribute to teams that are tackling tough problems. The design process is inherently iterative, giving designers an advantage in keeping a team on course or pointing them in a fruitful direction. Designers are accustomed to scanning the horizon, evaluating options, developing prototypes, and learning along the way. Successful designers are always improvising.

If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify an intermediate point that represents forward progress. Adjust and repeat. Or, if you need a guide, call a designer.


Favorite Links – June 2016

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. This eclectic list features some of our recent favorites:

The New Digital Divide
Stop distracting and annoying your customers. Start listening and helping them do what they want to do.

The Future of Design is Emotional
The first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?”

Found Palettes
A collection of color palettes inspired by photography.

Do You Take Yourself Seriously?
Spend less time dreaming and more time doing.

What Do Millennials Really Want at Work?
The same things the rest of us do.

Panning for Gold

photo of a creek with a gold panners pan in the foreground with dirt and flecks of gold in itIn 1848, James Marshall discovered gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley. As news of the discovery quickly spread, the influx of prospectors and dreamers reshaped the American West, By the end of 1849, the non-native population of California grew from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000.

More than $2 billion worth of precious metals were extracted from the region during the California Gold Rush, yet very few people made any money off the gold itself. Clever entrepreneurs made fortunes selling pick axes, pans, and shovels, as well as blue jeans, secure banks, transportation, and mail delivery.

Get-rich-quick schemes didn’t die on the American frontier, they have only grown more pervasive across the country in the decades that followed.

All that glitters
Marketing folks seem especially prone to chasing the latest trend – most of them driven by the promise that “there’s gold in them thar hills!”

25 years ago there was a rush to build websites for every type of company and organization. Designers asked clients, “What do you want your website to do?”

“I don’t know, but everyone else is building one,” they answered.

While the internet is not a passing fad, untold resources were spent as much to keep up with the Joneses as to meet any business objectives. Was that money well spent?

Same old song, different tune
Remember when digital advertising was going to rule the world? Ultra-targeted audiences. The ability to track results. But as online advertising continues to grow, so do questions. The biggest question involves click fraud. How effective can a campaign be if a client is paying for ads that are never seen?

The next big thing was going to be content marketing. More content exists than ever before, which makes it ever less likely that someone will find your needle in their haystack. “What I really want right now is another piece of content from my favorite brand,” said no consumer ever.

No one cares about your hashtag. People are far more likely to be interested in following the exploits of their favorite celebrities. What do consumers value? It sure as hell isn’t a contrived marketing slogan trying to pass itself off as a “conversation.”

Question everything
We all have biases and make assumptions. As Richard Stacy, a social media consultant wrote:

If you are facing a new problem and you don’t know what to do about it, you will do one of three things: you will either do what everyone else is doing, what some expert tells you to do, or whatever looks like the easiest and cheapest thing to do. Usually these all work out to be the same thing.

The antidote to both the path of expediency and the gold rush mentality is to pause and reflect. Asking the right questions is the best way to expose bad ideas. Questioning a good idea strengthens it.

Necessary assumptions
Scientists use a technique called Occam’s Razor as they develop new theories. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

A necessary assumption is something that is required for an argument to be true. If the assumption is false, then the argument cannot be valid. It stands to reason that the more assumptions one must make, the less likely a theory will survive increased scrutiny.

In the book, How to Kill a Unicorn, author Mark Payne suggests a powerful question to ask when evaluating which ideas have potential and which are simply distractions.

What must be true for that to work?

Reverse brainstorming
After numerous new ideas or solutions are suggested, the best way to focus efforts on the best ones is to conduct a sort of “premortem” by imagining all the ways that your decision could end up in disaster. Looking at it another way:

What must be true for that to work?

Let’s take a real-world example – QR codes. Those little black-and-white boxes were ubiquitous for a while, and then, almost as quickly, seemed to disappear. Were they an idea worth pursuing?

The theory goes something like this: There are hundreds of millions of people with smartphones. Marketing people want to reach them. A QR code provides a quick way for your audience to access information about a product or service. Let’s use QR codes!

What must be true for that to work?

  • Your audience must know what a QR code is.
  • It must be simple and convenient to use.
  • Using it must provide something of value that isn’t easily attainable by other methods.
  • Your audience must want to receive your message.
  • Your audience must know others who have happily and successfully used QR codes.
  • It must work flawlessly, every time.

Did you notice a few unlikely assumptions there?

Gaining foresight
There is often wisdom in being late to the party – or even declining the invitation. Sure, some decisions end up being bad ones in retrospect. But many more can be avoided by being just a little more rigorous in questioning what everyone else is doing. Just ask your mom.

By considering diverse perspectives and summoning a little more empathy for your audience in the decision-making process, you can get a clearer peak into the future.

Just as importantly, this newfound vision will free up time that was spent panning for gold to use on more productive endeavors.


Temptation Nation

The cookie monster looks into the oven while he waits for the cookies to finish bakingIn a windowless room, a child sits at a table staring down a lone marshmallow, his face a mask of concentration. Will he eat it right away? Or be rewarded with two marshmallows for waiting? Studies have shown that those who are able to delay eating the treat generally fared better in life.

Poor Cookie Monster. In a clever new ad for the iPhone 6, the beloved muppet demonstrates the phone’s hands-free, voice command feature while mixing up a batch of cookies. As you can imagine, he’s not very good at waiting.

This intersection between the iconic marshmallow experiment and the smartphone highlights one of the biggest obstacles to success in nonprofit marketing – a lack of self-discipline.

Get your fix
Have you got a lot on your plate today? Who doesn’t?

Check your email. Prioritize your tasks. Make a list. Answer a phone call. Impromptu status update with an office colleague. See what’s happening on Facebook. Get a cup of coffee. Review your to-do list. Text your spouse about picking up the kids after school. Follow a link to a BuzzFeed quiz: Am I more like Hermione or Yoda? Respond to voicemail. Prep for project team meeting. Refresh coffee. Check email again. Break for lunch.

Feeling productive?

It’s not difficult to understand the temptation. Easy and pleasurable distractions provide little doses of dopamine throughout the work day. It makes your brain feel good. Tackling tougher problems requires a different mindset.

Learn willpower
Self-discipline and willpower are often equated with deprivation. In fact, studies have shown a positive correlation between self-discipline and more happiness, more financial security, and better academic performance.

If you would rather go to happy hour than the gym, you’re not doomed. You can learn from the habits of self-disciplined people:

  • Avoid temptation. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, avoid the candy store. It’s better to limit how often you need to use self-control.
  • Get enough sleep. Healthy habits reduce stress and increase resistance to less healthy choices.
  • Break it down. Big goals can be discouraging when progress seems slow. Self-disciplined people understand the importance of setting mini milestones. Jim Hjort, founder of the Right Life Project, says the “perception of velocity toward goals is more important than the distance from those goals.”
  • Follow through. Do what you say you’re going to do – on time. This helps build trust, and colleagues are more likely to come to your aid on the rare occasions when you need it.

What versus why
Full disclosure: I started this blog post about two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’m immune to the daily challenges of getting things done. Procrastination? At times, yes. Distractions? Ever present. Do I have higher priorities? Without a doubt.

When good intentions go astray, it’s often due to a lack of direction. What are the highest priorities? And how does my work fit within that framework?

A mere 7% of employees today fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals.”
– Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Strategy-Focused Organization”

It is easier to concentrate on the most important task if you’re certain what it is. Very few people, on their own, can figure out how their job supports an organization’s strategy.

As the message trickles down from the top of the org chart, people may know what to do, but not understand why they are doing it.

It starts at the top
Leadership is about setting a course – and setting an example. After the strategic plan is released, too often the execution falls flat.

Organizational discipline requires leaders who consistently apply time and resources to top priorities. It also requires an ongoing commitment to provide context for internal audiences:

  • How are we making a difference?
  • How will we expand our impact?
  • What levers are we pulling to increase our effectiveness?

This should be a two-way dialog, not a top-down mandate.

It also helps if leaders are skilled at identifying, hiring, and promoting self-disciplined people. Time spent managing and improving processes is more productive than wrangling those who have difficulty staying on task.

Focused passion
The nonprofit world needs more people who have boundless enthusiasm for solving complex problems. The more disciplined the pursuit of solutions, the bigger the impact will be.

Anyone want a cookie?

Favorite Links – March 2016

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. This eclectic list features some of our recent favorites:

Hey, You Want Nonprofits to Act More Like Businesses?
Then treat us like businesses.

The New York Public Library’s New Digital Collection
More than 187,000 maps, photographs, illustrations, and more – all free for anyone to use.

As Digital Advertising Grows, So Do Questions
It will surpass TV next year to become the No. 1 medium – but is it effective?

If The World Were 100 People
A great example of how to bring an infographic to life.

Leap of Faith

Photo of a cliff diver doing a backflip into the ocean at sunsetA friend of mine graduated from high school when she was four years old. She wasn’t particularly precocious. In fact, she had lived a similar number of days as our classmates. It’s just that she happened to be born on February 29 – Leap Day – and her birthdays don’t happen as frequently as most. Oh, to be an anomaly!

What can we learn from a Leap Year that applies to design any time of year?

Solving a problem
In Ancient Rome, there wasn’t enough information to make calendars very accurate. Early astronomers began to suspect that the Earth does not orbit the sun in precisely 365 days. Adding one day every four years was a corrective measure that kept the calendar in balance over time.

Many design problems mirror the evolution of our modern-day calendar. At the beginning of a project, a designer may not know enough to offer a better solution. First, we must establish a set of goals and determine what we don’t know. Through acquiring insights and exploring options, we design a way to meet or exceed those goals.

Design is most valuable when it is functional. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Always improving
There are few things more bland than the company newsletter. At one time, there was a reason for it to exist. But in most cases, people have long since stopped asking why it is needed or what might be a more effective way to share bad snapshots from company picnics.

Designers never stop asking questions. Is this necessary? Is it effective? What if we try …? Why do they …? To avoid just going through the motions, it’s critical to build in time to refine and improve designs.

The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose that the earth orbits the sun. Julius Caesar popularized a calendar with 365 days and 12 months, with a leap day added every four years. 15 centuries later, Copernicus produced a mathematical model of our solar system. By 1582, Pope Gregory’s revision of the Julian calendar began to be recognized as even more accurate.

These days, deadlines are measured in days, not decades, but a successful design process is an iterative one.

Getting noticed
The most powerful use of design occurs when a company uses it to separate itself, its products, and its services from the competition. This is only possible because there is so little good design out there or conversely, so much that is bad or mediocre. Isn’t it ironic that if the general level of design were better, this powerful strategy wouldn’t work?

The previous paragraph was written almost 30 years ago by the legendary designer, Saul Bass. It remains true today.

The Leap Year is a curiosity, an outlier. It wasn’t created for strategic advantage, but it does get noticed. In addition to serving a functional purpose, good design stands out. In an undifferentiated market, that’s incredibly valuable.

Making the case
Ask a designer, and there is no doubt about the value of good design. It’s a self-evident truth. Others are less willing to take that leap of faith.

Galileo was branded a heretic by the church. For centuries, his scientific discoveries were rejected. Likewise, designers must justify their costs and efficacy to leaders who seem to take their cue from H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies that champion the power of design. And more consumers are interested in choosing products and services that solve problems, make life easier, continue to innovate, and stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design.

Related content:
Why is the extra day added in February?

Doing Good Better

Doing Good Better, a book by William MacAskillMany people want to make a difference. The desire to help others is seemingly embedded in our DNA and a key component of many religions. We choose careers and donate time and money to worthy causes in hopes of making the world a better place.

In his book, Doing Good Better, Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill uses real-life case studies to illustrate how these decisions are often based on assumptions and emotions. Through these stories, he shows that our best intentions may lead to ineffective – and sometimes even harmful – outcomes.

MacAskill is a prominent figure in the “effective altruism” movement – a philosophy that applies data and a scientific method to charitable decisions. While trying to figure out which career would allow him to have the greatest impact, he discovered that the potential for change was often hampered by a lack of information and our own personal bias.

Instead, MacAskill and his colleagues developed a practical, data-driven approach that suggests each of us can make a tremendous difference no matter our available resources. Effective altruists believe we must do good better.

Questions and analysis
In weighing one choice versus another, effective altruism ask five key questions:

  • How many people benefit, and by how much?
  • Is this the most effective thing I can do?
  • Is this area neglected?
  • What would have happened otherwise?
  • What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided. His more rigorous and analytical approach is often counter-intuitive. For example, he argues that one might save more lives by becoming a plastic surgeon rather than a heart surgeon, simply by donating money earned to worthy causes. After all, a heart surgeon can only operate on a finite number of hearts in a career.

Defining ‘better’
The book defines ‘altruism’ to mean ‘simply improving the lives of others’ and ‘effective altruism’ to mean ‘doing the most good with whatever resources you have.’

I wanted to like this book. In the course of consulting for nonprofit organizations, I have often found faulty assumptions and misunderstandings at the root of less-than-effective outcomes. So, an approach that promises to improve decision-making – to let our better altruistic tendencies shine – was appealing on its surface.

The book makes the case that charitable efforts should be measured and judged for effectiveness, and that improved understanding will help us do good better. However, despite MacAskill’s persuasive arguments, my enthusiasm began to wane the more I read.

Lack of humility
It’s clear that MacAskill, in setting out to make a difference in the world, has the best of intentions. He has done his homework and wants to share his insights in support of those goals. In doing so, however, he can’t help but reveal his own biases, no matter how much evidence he collects.

I believe most people aim to treat others well, sharing whatever time and resources they can. And each of us hold some causes more dear than others. A concern with doing the MOST or being the BEST is often driven by ego as much as a commitment to a cause.

With the wisdom of experience, recognizing that ‘good enough’ is a reasonable and authentic goal should not diminish one’s altruism. Our charitable impulses are rewarded by making us feel good, a fact that the author does not take into consideration.

Not all of us can be doctors, pursue advanced degrees, or contemplate helping others as an intellectual exercise. And yet, if you are not counted among these elite difference-makers, in order to do the most good with whatever resources you have, MacAskill essentially implies that you should just support the causes he considers worthy.

Subjective evidence
In war-torn Africa, an emergency surgeon with limited resources must perform triage by assigning degrees of urgency to wounded patients. MacAskill uses this story to illustrate both the harsh realities and benefits of asking critical questions. How serious is the problem? What happens if we wait to treat it? What are the chances of success if we act now? Those who work in health care know how difficult it can be to accurately answer questions like these.

To determine which charity or cause is most worthy of support, MacAskill uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY), which is a measure of health across time. QALYs are based on gained health outcome. For example, assuming two patients will live to the same age, is it better to cure a man of blindness at age 20, or cure a woman of cancer at age 55? QALYs are supposed to provide an objective answer.

When “data-driven” decisions are fueled by subjective or even speculative answers – how good would success be? – it really undermines the whole premise.

Cultural bias
One altruist cares deeply about Arctic wildlife endangered by climate change. Another volunteers countless hours to help the homeless in her community. And another donates money every year to buy mosquito nets to help stop the spread of malaria in Central Africa.

According to the book, only the third person is “doing the most that they can with the resources they have.” This is a preposterous assertion.

By broadly framing its methodology and implications, Doing Good Better oversells effective altruism as a practical tool and comes off looking more like a promotion for, the charity evaluation site launched by the movement’s founders. The website doesn’t hide its bias:

We believe that there are many organizations that do great work but don’t meet our criteria or work on issues outside the scope of our research.

How do we do good?
The question is worth asking. Doing Good Better is a good read – MacAskill is an engaging writer who poses many provocative questions. There are enlightening stories and observations that would be helpful to anyone who cares about helping others. The chapter on ethical consumerism – many product purchases don’t help the intended beneficiary nearly as much as a direct donation would – is particularly eye-opening.

Those who donate time or money are likely to be more effective altruists if they think critically before taking action. Those who are looking for a way to measure effectiveness should keep looking.

Favorite Links – December 2015

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. This eclectic list features some of our recent favorites:

Print is the New ‘New Media’
20 years into the digital revolution, print is making something of a comeback

How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea
Coming up with creative ideas is easy; selling them to strangers is hard.

Why Simple Brands Win
By simplifying the customer experience in a complex world, these brands win customer loyalty, which drives business results.

How the Mad Men Lost the Plot
The arrival of Facebook and Twitter appeared to threaten the advertising industry’s very existence. So what happened next?

Trick or Treat

A collection of colorful Halloween candy organized by typeEvery Halloween, children walk neighborhoods dressed in costume in search of sugary snacks. Jack-o-lanterns, spooky skeletons, the crunch of leaves underfoot. For one night, it’s all good fun – all treats, no tricks.

Many firms are taking a similar approach to offering pro bono services to nonprofit organizations – gathering for one night in a whirlwind of design, costumes optional. The Nerdery, a Minnesota-based web design company, hosts 24-hour website makeovers in several U.S. cities. Students at the Un-School of Disruptive Design aim for social change in its intensive, one-day workshops.

The energy and good will generated by these events is undeniable. But is it possible that they are more trick than treat?

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I believe design firms should offer the same level of thinking and service to nonprofit and pro bono clients as they do for the ones who have an adequate budget.

Some might consider this opinion uncharitable.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Something is better than nothing.”

True enough.

Believe me, I understand the allure of the design blitz. Take the creative shackles off. Think fast. Don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. It doesn’t hurt that this model often results in good publicity for the donating firm or individuals either.

Treat the cause
The problem is that one-day giveaways create a misconception about the value and power of design. Design as surface decoration is like giving a hungry family a handful of miniature candy bars when they really need a way to put food on the table next week, and the week after that.

If it’s actually possible to complete a project in 24 hours – to “rebrand” an organization or redesign its website – then what are the for-profit clients paying for? What’s taking you so long?

When you shortchange the design process – discovery, strategy, design, and implementation – you can treat the symptoms, but rarely the cause. You end up with short-term solutions for long-term problems.

There are many things you can do in 24 hours. Solving complex design problems isn’t one of them.

Let’s aim higher.

Favorite Links – September 2015

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. This eclectic list features some of our recent favorites:

The First Question to Ask of Any Strategy
If the opposite of your core strategy choices looks stupid, you’ve still got work to do

What Really Matters: Focusing on Top Tasks
How to spend your limited time working on the things that matter most to your website visitors

The Design Firm is (Walking) Dead
But design couldn’t be more alive