Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Cooperation vs. Collaboration

close-up photo of men rowing in a boat raceEveryone has watched classic courtroom dramas unfold. The prosecution believes the defendant is guilty, but needs testimony from someone with direct knowledge of the crime. They need a witness to cooperate. They need a stool pigeon.

Questions and answers are practiced. The witness is called to testify. But maybe the witness received a better offer (or threat) from representatives of the defendant. Suddenly, to the prosecutor’s surprise, her questions are being deflected and statements contradicted. The courtroom murmurs. “Your honor, I request permission to treat the witness as hostile.” Our stooly isn’t cooperating any more.

Tentative buy-in
Most co-workers and managers are pleasant enough and could be considered cooperative. Cooperation is “nice” in the same way that a blind date might be described as nice. You may well have a pleasant evening together, but it’s not like you’re going to be sending out wedding invitations any time soon. To make rapid progress toward more substantial goals, it isn’t enough to bring a bouquet of flowers to your next meeting.

True collaboration – across functions and departments – is more difficult to achieve. It requires the ability to align goals and resources, and the flexibility to make adjustments on the fly. It involves setting priorities, deciding what to do now, and what can wait – and communicating all of that clearly. Even with the most cooperative people, this is where collaboration can break down.

Why does this matter in marketing and design?

Let’s examine definitions. Cooperation is the process of working together to the same end. Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. The difference is subtle, but meaningful.

Shared goals
Goals come and go. Some are important today, but less important a year from now. If a goal is missed – or met – a new one will be set. In a cooperative workplace, the focus easily turns to tactics over strategy. Colleagues may be friendly and willing to share information, but become misaligned depending on short-term goals. Progress slows.

In this kind of environment, design and marketing are often considered “add-ons.” Little is expected and rarely, if ever, is it considered important in the executive suite.

Shared vision
An organization’s vision doesn’t change whether business is booming or headwinds are strong. It reflects the reason for being – the core promise made to its customers. In a collaborative workplace, the focus remains on strategy even as different tactics are implemented. Colleagues use their common vision as a filter to prioritize work, knowing that long-term results require everyone pulling in the same direction. Progress accelerates.

In this type of workplace, design and marketing are more fully integrated into operations. Their expertise and insights are considered vital, even at the earliest stages of an initiative.

Everyone has a role to play
The most important thing I have to do this week is …? Chances are if you ask six people working for the same organization to fill in the blank, you will get six different answers. Naturally, you say, they all have different responsibilities.

Big picture goals are rarely as clear as leaders believe them to be. More often, for people being asked to collaborate across departments, it’s as if someone dumped a pile of jigsaw pieces on the table and asked them to solve the puzzle – without a picture … or all of the pieces.

Take the time to be clear – and a memo won’t cut it. Get everyone in a room together to hash out the sequence of activities. Honestly assess both the time and people necessary for the outcome you want. In creating a mutually agreed-upon framework, you create the clarity to move forward with confidence – a model for collaboration.

Make adjustments
Cooperation means working together independently. Collaboration, on the other hand means working together dependently.

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Any ambitious project takes time. Over time, availability, workloads, and priorities can change. Project leaders must maintain the flexibility to adjust on the fly, aligning their goals and resources with others in real time.

The world is integrated. Disciplines aren’t – but need to be.

Collaboration by design
Why do designers need to collaborate? Though they may grumble about them from time to time, designers need clients. They need problems to solve. At its core, design is most valuable when it serves a larger purpose. A designer interested only in pursuing personal interests is a fine artist.

Maybe more importantly, why do non-designers need to collaborate – not just cooperate with – designers? The more context a designer has the more likely your project will be successful. We are skilled at synthesizing a variety of inputs into a cohesive whole. We are able to consider a problem from many different points of view. And we can visualize and present options so that others are able to see the possibilities.

Cooperation is pleasant. Collaboration is more difficult, but more effective.

 

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Strategy falls on deaf ears

Design for action

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Resolutions

Fun Happy New Year card design party bottle making toast and colorful decoration. EPS10 vectorA couple months ago, while cleaning our basement family room, our two teenage boys found a mysterious note tucked in a crevice next to the built-in bookshelves. They excitedly reported that this long-forgotten note, written five years ago as a sort of time capsule, was to be opened in 2017.

At the end of their holiday break and the beginning of a new year, they opened the note. What was on the minds of an eight- and ten-year-old boy in 2012? Mostly gibberish. A drawing of Waldo (now you know where he’s been). Some hieroglyphs whose meaning is lost to history. And a declaration by the older brother that his handwriting was better.

New year, same story
This morning, even at 5:00 a.m., the gym where I work out was a little more crowded than it was just a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly, there are millions of people with fresh resolve to lose weight, save money, and spend more time with friends and family in the new year.

Things will probably be back to normal next month.

Resolutions often end up more like aspirations – the difference between a firm decision and a hopeful one. There’s nothing wrong with hope. In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne wrote a note for his friend to read after leaving prison, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

What improves the odds that our resolutions avoid an untimely death?

Find the time
When pressed to volunteer, add another event to our calendars, or explain away a missed deadline or goal, it’s completely acceptable to offer the well-worn excuse: “I’m sorry. I just don’t have enough time.”

What if, instead, we were compelled to state the real reason?

“Would you like to schedule a lunch meeting for next Tuesday?” “I’m sorry. That’s just not a priority for me right now.” You would be well advised to reply more diplomatically than that, but weighing options based on defined priorities is vital to achieving them.

This is assuming you have priorities. And not a dozen or more. That’s called a to-do list. I’m talking about 3-4 real priorities – the kind of things that, if accomplished, will make your year a great success.

It’s the old rule of 80/20. 80% of your success – however that’s defined – will come from 20% of your efforts. It’s up to you to choose your priorities wisely and then vigorously defend the time necessary to achieve them. Eliminate, ignore, or delegate everything else.

Write it down
Most people grow reflective as the year nears its end. Look back. Look forward. What was successful? What could be improved?

Most people have an annual performance review at work. Sit down with the boss. Look forward. Look back. What was successful? What could be improved? Do I get a pay raise?

Rather than waiting until the end, consider writing next year’s performance review today. It’s like a pre-mortem – or a promise – and similar to the note my children wrote in 2012 (minus the gibberish). Tuck it away for future reference.

The same thing could be done at the beginning of a large project. In fact, one of the standard questions I ask of clients when we begin is: By what measure(s) will this project be considered successful?

What are you prepared to do? The key is to be specific. Writing down “lose weight” is not nearly as effective as “stop drinking soda” or “remove all candy from the house.” Break larger goals into smaller ones to eliminate the pressure of an all-or-nothing mindset, all the while getting more specific and closer to success.

Written resolutions act as your shield against distractions, temptations, and the low-priority (or even counter-productive) things that will inevitably pop up. Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Tell everyone
Life is short. In 2010-11, we decided to home school our kids for a year and travel. The world would be our classroom. It helps that my wife is an elementary school teacher – and we’re both planners. But with big plans, big dreams, it’s really easy to give in to doubts and uncertainty.

As we started planning our adventure, we began telling people about it – not to brag, but to hold ourselves accountable. Most everyone was excited by the idea: “I wish we could do that.” And many people offered helpful suggestions and asked questions we hadn’t considered. It was like having a support team and troubleshooting squad rolled into one.

The point is that once we publicized our intentions, forces came to our aid that would not have had we kept our plans guarded. Deep down, there was another little motivational benefit – avoiding embarrassment: “We told everyone we are going to do this. Now, we really have to figure out how we’re going to do it!”

My priorities
When it comes to my business and professional development, there are a lot of things I want to accomplish in 2017. But everything that would make this a successful year can be boiled down into two priorities.

Be more disciplined with my time.
Say ‘no’ to distractions. Add more structure to the work week (e.g., schedule regular blocks of time without interruptions, build a more robust editorial calendar and new business development plan). Spend more time creating content online than consuming it.

Connect with like-minded people involved in the business of good.
Since 1989, Woychick Design has focused on helping tell stories that move people to action. I have worked with non-profits, educational institutions, and organizations trying to make the world a better place. But complex challenges require more people working together toward a shared outcome, which is why I am reaching out to and collaborating with more people than ever before.

Specifics? Reconnect with my LinkedIn network to activate dormant relationships. Schedule two lunch meetings per month. Attend two professional development events per month. Seek referrals and introductions from existing colleagues. Offer assistance to those seeking my opinion and expertise. Schedule regular weekly hours devoted to this priority.

These priorities will provide the most benefit to my clients and my business. When I look at these resolutions twelve months from now, I expect to see a successful year in my rear-view mirror. I hope you do, too.

Related content:
Resolution Evolution

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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?

Powerless

Cartoon drawing shows an employer kicking an employee to the curbI have been working as a professional designer for nearly 30 years. I’ve had the good fortune to work with dozens of clients on thousands of projects. And today, for the first time ever, I was fired from a job.

Believe me, I have made a multitude of mistakes over the years. Who hasn’t? It’s just that in the end, every other time, I have been able to overcome those shortcomings to solve the problem.

Well, that is not entirely true – I didn’t solve those problems alone. Without willing and generous collaborators, a designer has little ability to make a meaningful contribution to an organization’s success.

Unique skill sets
Designers require a diverse collection of strengths. The most obvious is a talent for managing the formal elements of visual communication – color, contrast, composition, and typography, to name a few. Others include:

Empathy – A designer must understand the needs of both the audience and client they are entrusted to serve. This requires an insatiable curiosity and taking the time to ask insightful questions.

Communication – When working with others, two ears and one mouth represents an ideal ratio of listening and speaking. One’s ability to write clearly and participate in constructive dialog is key to moving from many options to the best solution.

Synthesis – The design process looks sort of like a funnel – an initial, broad immersion distilled into a few essential messages and compelling visuals presented in new and relevant ways.

Project Management – Being organized is good, but leading a project is better. A designer must identify who needs to be involved and when to seek input, while adapting to changing conditions as an assignment unfolds.

But most importantly, a designer requires a client or employer who values the utilization of these skills to solve problems creatively. It takes two – or more – to tango.

Building trust
Trust is hard won and easily lost. Some relationships blossom over time. Others are doomed from the beginning.

Some clients grudgingly engage designers, with little planning, budget or time, always at the tail end of projects, and only because they possess the ability to manipulate graphics software.

Some designers mistakenly believe they are artists, not problem solvers, and bemoan their fate while doing nothing to offset the belief that their value lies in superior visual skills.

In most every designer/client relationship, the burden is on the designer to build the trust needed to do the job effectively. Some ways to build more productive relationships include:

Learn from Experience – Good designers have the self-awareness to recognize why some projects turn out better than others. Regularly review and document your process so that future clients benefit from prior experience. It shouldn’t appear you are making this up as you go. The most valuable thing a designer provides is not a new website or logo design, it is giving clients the confidence to move forward.

Small Victories – If you can only succeed under perfect working conditions, you might want to consider a career change. Demonstrate how even a little research paid big dividends, and how your insights saved money or expanded possibilities. Referrals from satisfied customers are the best currency to buy a little credibility in a new relationship.

Diplomacy – Listen carefully and remain patient in all communications. The only way to succeed is by assuming that both the designer and client want the same thing. Mutually defining success and working towards it – together – works better than griping, blaming, or passive aggressive behavior.

Trade Money for Time (or Vice Versa) – When project parameters are stacked against you, or change midstream, be honest in assessing how they impact your chance for success. It’s better to offer reasonable alternatives than to over-promise and under-deliver.

Define Roles – It’s vital to know who will be affected by the work you are doing, who is expected to provide feedback, and when that feedback is most helpful. Many a project has been derailed by late objections from people who weren’t involved from the beginning. Set goals and roles before starting a project, then continue to monitor and confirm those decisions as you proceed.

Honesty is the best policy
Without trust, a client rarely gets a good return on the investment, and a designer is stuck making the best of a bad situation. That combination isn’t good for anyone.

Both the client and designer must be willing to maintain open communication throughout the life of a project. That includes tactfully asking questions that may be difficult, and honestly answering them in a timely manner.

As for the client who fired me? I won’t point fingers. I can only control my behavior. For my part, I could have handled communications more diplomatically in the last week. And, I didn’t press hard enough to identify and account for new players that emerged to influence the project’s direction. Ultimately, I’m not convinced anything could have been done to save the relationship.

The best organizations recognize design as a powerful process and a tool to solve challenging problems. Without developing that trust, designers remain powerless to make an impact.

Behavior Change

Image of target with arrows all around - none of the arrows hit the targetI’m going on vacation later this week – a ten-day family road trip. Planning has been ongoing for weeks. At this point, packing clothes and food is all that remains of our preparation. Without being slaves to a rigid schedule, each day is marked by a goal. That goal is represented in most cases by a destination.

Even accounting for detours and bad weather along the way, shouldn’t our trip – like any worthwhile design or marketing initiative – really be measured based on whether or not we ended up where we intended to go?

Missing the point
Listening to someone evaluate the effectiveness of a given design, you may hear:

“It’s very creative.”
“People really liked it.”
“It helped build awareness of the brand.”
“It increased engagement.”

Applying the same standard to our family vacation, one could say:

“Nice shortcut.”
“We had fun.”
“We saw things we’ve never seen before.”
“It was great to spend time together.”

So, what’s wrong with that? Those are all good things. True. But what was the goal? We could accomplish any of those things without stuffing our possessions into the back of a car and driving thousands of miles.

Too often, I see a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes effective design. Organizations aim too low (“Make it look nice.”) rather than doing work that really matters. If you want to put butts in the seats, double your endowment, improve products and services, or move people to action, you need to change behavior.

The knowing-doing gap
For the professional trying to encourage behavior change and the people they are trying to influence, there is a substantial obstacle. People already know what to do.

After all is said and done, more is said than done. – Aesop

Self-improvement is a $10 billion per year industry in this country because the most likely purchaser of a self-help book is the same person who purchased one previously. Good intentions are undermined by short-attention spans, risk aversion, analysis paralysis, and other assorted distractions.

To turn knowledge into action, we need to focus less on what to do and more on how we can bring ourselves to do it.

Get more specific
The better a problem is defined, the better the solution. To enact a solution, we need to turn an abstraction – the recognition of an idea or truth – into a belief. For example, eating less and exercising more is an abstract approach to losing weight.

“I believe that if I eat less and exercise more, I will lose weight.”

This is a more powerful statement that can lead to a decision. The decision requires specifics. What is the need? What is the desired outcome? Who stands to benefit and why? What obstacles must I overcome? Is this problem actually many problems?

Assuming the belief in the idea remains, specific answers lead to root causes and direct actions. We must continually ask: What is one thing I could do today that will make this idea real?

“From this day forward, I will walk the dog for 15 minutes, twice every day, rain or shine.”

Getting to the root causes of a design or marketing problem requires similar rigor.

Tell a better story
Every great story is fueled by conflict – obstacles that seem insurmountable, villains who seem invincible. The conflict that most often expands the gap between knowing and doing is fear.

“That’s too risky. We always do it this way.”
“What if I fail? What if people laugh at me?”
“We better wait until our path is more certain.”

As a teenager learning to drive, I struggled with the manual transmission. I hated the noise of grinding gears when I missed shifting from first to second. Or, even more embarrassing, when the car stalled out and I had to restart it in the middle of an intersection.

The dominant story playing in my head was: You’re terrible at driving a stick shift. Things weren’t going to get better unless I found something better to replace that story. One day, looking around from the passenger seat, it hit me. There are thousands of people on the road. They may be different ages, different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common. They all successfully learned to drive. If they can do it, certainly I can, too!

In the earliest stages, when people are still considering a behavior change, a story needs to inspire. (You can do this!) Later, once they have made a decision to act, your story needs to reassure. (Everything is going to be okay.)

Great stories encourage us to think and act differently – to create a different reality or future. Creativity is not the ability to write or draw. Creativity is the ability to see – to bring a novel perspective to bear on a problem or issue.

Measure progress
Design and marketing should be focused on outcomes as much as aesthetics. How will we know if we are successful? This should be established at the outset, then tracked and reported on as your efforts unfold and evolve.

Successful behavior change requires a more systemic focus. It requires that design and marketing have access to and influence on other facets of the organization. The bigger the problem, the more difficult it becomes to unlock the results. Breaking your efforts down into smaller parts makes it possible to celebrate short-term victories as you pursue long-term changes. It also encourages adjustments to shore up areas that are lagging.

Project post-mortem meetings are a great way to share knowledge across an organization. What worked? What surprised us? Paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “If you want different results, you have to do something different.”

Time well spent
It is surprising how much time is spent on window dressing and how little time is spent on solving the real problems of real people.

I have warned clients that good design – good marketing – is no silver bullet. It can’t overcome poor products or service. It can’t fix myopic organizational decisions or misplaced priorities. What it can do – what it must do – is spend more time working toward meaningful behavior change. If not, like Sisyphus, we’ll be pushing that same rock up that same hill for eternity.

Time is short. Let’s start being more effective.

Building Capacity

tools arranged in the shape of a houseOne of the most common complaints heard in nonprofit circles involves the inability to scale up successful programs and services – to reach more people and have a bigger impact. In lamenting a lack of success, missed opportunities, or high level of stress, it’s always tempting to fall back on a trusty rationalization: “If only I had more time and money …”

We all have limitations, and a lack of time and/or money is a familiar experience for most of us. Its durability and popularity as an excuse can be attributed to the almost effortless jujitsu that places all responsibility beyond our control. After all, how many people are willing to admit that “I’m just not very good at setting priorities.” Or, “It’s just so much easier to do things the old way than to think of new options.”

Make hard choices
The origin of the word priority is a hybrid of French and Medieval Latin words that refers to a “state of being earlier” or “precedence in right or rank.” It seems almost too obvious, but when putting things in order, only one of them can be first.

Often, people fail to take the time to actually rank the items that land in their in-box for priority or relevance, simply stacking them up like firewood and chopping away at the never-ending pile in a futile attempt to make it disappear.

In his bestselling book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown suggests that success is not predicated on better time management or getting more done in less time. It’s only through establishing a more selective criteria for what is essential, and then systematically adhering to the discipline of eliminating everything else, that we can make our highest possible contribution at work or at home. As McKeown writes: “Multitasking is not the enemy. Pretending we can multi-focus is.”

Having a compelling answer for “Why are we doing this?” guarantees that it continues to happen. Being able to determine “Is this worth doing right now?” guarantees that the most important work gets done first.

Think outside the toolbox
They don’t make problems like they used to – all the easy ones have been solved. Complex problems require more flexibility and creativity than ever before, but we’re constantly besieged by that unprioritized to-do list (see above) and arbitrary deadlines.

Taking time to solve problems creatively is not about singing around a campfire or finger painting (though I don’t see how either could hurt). To be creative, one must possess a perpetual enthusiasm for seeking out “better” and encourage others to do the same. Creativity takes many forms, including:

  • Making something that did not exist before.
  • Taking something that exists and applying it in a new way.
  • Viewing a problem from multiple perspectives.
  • Fearlessly experimenting and failing – and trying again.
  • Knowing who to call on when you don’t have the answers.
  • Considering all obstacles temporary.

I’m sure you can think of dozens of additional ways to creatively solve problems. After all, you’re creative, right?

Just say no
When we think of discipline, it brings to mind images of stern taskmasters, military haircuts, and punishment for disobeying the rules. That’s a pity, because organizational (and personal) discipline doesn’t require 100 push-ups, it requires the courage to say “no.”

Most of us want to be liked, to be polite, to be considered team players. It’s the reason we say “yes” to all sorts of things that are not of primary importance to solving our most urgent and vexing problems. It’s also the reason that our time is constantly being hijacked by others.

When you learn to say “no” – politely, diplomatically, but firmly – to attending another meeting, adding your two cents to a group email, or working nights and weekends, you gain time to focus. After all, time spent identifying what’s most valuable is better than working on what’s not.

Same old routine
Apple founder Steve Jobs was known for his daily uniform of blue jeans and a black mock turtleneck. Albert Einstein bought several versions of the same grey suit because he didn’t want to waste brainpower on choosing an outfit each morning. In addition to adopting a signature style – a personal brand – these men recognized the benefits of establishing a consistent routine.

Research shows that the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. In other words, in a turbulent environment where numerous choices are constantly required, the less effective each subsequent decision is likely to be.

In order to make good choices, it’s beneficial to streamline the process by eliminating things that impair our focus from the most essential task. That’s why good golfers have a repeatable pre-shot routine, and good decision-makers follow a process that enables them to do their best work.

A routine might include taking 15 minutes to organize your day’s expected activities in order of priority. It might be getting a set amount of sleep every night. It could involve only tackling certain types of work on certain days of the week. No matter what works for you, consistently good outcomes are based on the strength of your routines.

You are here
Einstein (the same guy with the grey suits) once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Perhaps more important than both is the ability to articulate a clear and compelling vision of where you are and where you’re going – a definition of what success looks like.

Imagine taking a trip to an unfamiliar location without any maps. Should you zoom in and focus on a smaller area, or zoom out and get a better sense for your surroundings? Without a clear vision, you would waste a lot of time on people, places, and things that move you no closer to your goal. Without clarifying your successful outcome, how will you answer the pleas from the back seat: “Are we there yet?”

I have found that clarity, simplicity, and a disciplined approach to solving (and eliminating) problems are the best ways to build personal and organizational capacity. What has worked for you?

Related content:
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Too Much vs. Too Little

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one above, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.

In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

Are You in the Mood?

I like watching home renovation shows – it beats doing renovation projects myself! The culminating moment of this television genre occurs when the designer reveals the makeover to the appreciative homeowners. Ta-da! Remarkably, no one ever hates it … or maybe they just edit that out in post-production.

Every designer has experienced that sound – an unmistakable, albeit brief, silence that signals a presentation is about to go horribly wrong. Weeks of work will be discarded. An entirely new direction will be requested.

From the client’s perspective, that very same moment is when a bit of trust is eroded: Wasn’t she listening when we spent all that time discussing this project? Why doesn’t he understand what I need? Did I hire the wrong designer?

A cure for the big reveal
Truthfully, many designers feed off the adrenaline rush of presenting their many awesome ideas – conjured out of thin air – to an appreciative audience. Clients are complicit in this process, often preferring to bypass information gathering and get right to the mockups with assurances that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Except when they don’t.

We’ve found one of the best ways to eliminate that awkward presentation moment – and improve designer/client collaboration – is to include a mood board in the creative process.

The mood board foreshadows our vision of the overall look and feel of a brand campaign, publication, or other large marketing communications initiative. It encourages conversation that allows us to acquire insights, uncover stylistic pet peeves, and confirm or adjust strategic points of emphasis. This intervention, early in the process, represents a small investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return. Think of it as rapid visual prototyping that makes the design of all subsequent materials more efficient and predictable.

Most importantly, a mood board bridges the gap between the thinking (strategy) and the doing (tactics).

First things first
Before we begin playing with pencils or pixels, each project must be grounded in a sound communications strategy. We begin by reviewing all existing research, marketing plans, resources, and other relevant background materials.

In a series of conversations, we aim to familiarize ourselves with the project’s stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities. Our goal is to form recommendations based on identifying the gaps between current and desired audience perceptions and behaviors.

At the completion of this phase, we summarize the project in a creative brief. This document outlines the project goals, the findings of our initial meetings and discussions, and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Making ideas visible
Initially, clients may have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of a mood board: “Exactly what are we looking at here?” The mood board isn’t intended to look like an ad or a website or a two-page magazine spread.

As we begin the conversation, first we set the context by reviewing the agreed upon communications strategy. The mood board is a visual reflection of that strategy and uses color, typography, imagery, key themes or messages, and other graphic elements to signal the tone and creative direction for the project. This allows our discussion to focus more revealingly on the big picture – does it feel right – rather than fixate on specific tactics or minor details.

The reason mood board presentations are so productive is that the designer and client are reviewing an unfinished product. There’s room for interpretation. This early peek allows time to incorporate feedback and, along with the creative brief, provides a tangible touchstone for evaluating everything that follows.

A natural progression
Life may be full of surprises, but if I’ve done my job well, a presentation of a full-blown campaign should be greeted with comments like “Of course!” or “You nailed it.” I prefer to find drama on television, not in boardrooms.

By using mood boards, you can help your clients see what you’re thinking, enable them to participate in the creative process, and produce more effective design. That should put everyone in a good mood!

Shifting Sands

 

Paradise BeachAt this time tomorrow, I’ll be strolling on a Caribbean beach with sand gently squishing between my toes. Meanwhile, as on most days, tens of thousands of nonprofit marketing and communications professionals will squirm uncomfortably as the sand shifts beneath their feet, wondering: How are we supposed to thrive in a perpetual state of transition?

As the old saying goes, the only one who likes change is a baby with a dirty diaper. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to bristle when told they can’t do something – like order a super-mega-ton soda – and howl when a favorite social network changes the look of its interface. We tend to be more willing to accept change if we’re calling the shots … except when we don’t know which call to make.

Fumbling through nirvana
Navigating our magical WiFi world in our smart cars with our smart phones sure has a way of making us feel dumber than ever.

When trying to reach a target audience, the multitude of media choices is matched only by the limits of our personal bandwidth. The difficulty in determining what device or behavior will be the next lasting standard can cause indecision.

Quickly adopt the latest buzzworthy tactic (QR codes anyone?) and you risk jumping on the wrong bandwagon, wasting precious resources for middling results. Bury your head in denial and you risk irrelevance in the modern world. As Roger Martin noted in the Harvard Business Review:

By far the easiest thing to do is to see the future as so unpredictable and uncertain that you should keep all your options open and avoid choice-making entirely. The irony, of course, is that not choosing is every bit as much a choice, and every bit as impactful, as choosing to choose.

Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing.

To make more intelligent choices, I believe we need to work on the following:

Ambiguity is the new black.
Have you ever noticed that people are rarely able to predict what will make them happy? This phenomenon is defined by author Tal Ben-Shahar as the “arrival fallacy” – the belief that you’ll be happy when you arrive at a certain destination: “Once I buy this dress … Once I get this job … Once I’m married …” Whether it makes us happy or not, we still need to make decisions. In order to make better ones, we need to develop and hone our ability to quickly and comfortably move between stages of relative certainty.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we, indeed, learn from our mistakes, we sure try hard not to make any. Given two choices, virtually everyone would pick the “sure thing” over rolling the dice. We want to make a choice, and then not have to make it again – at least not for a good long while. We like knowing more than we like learning.

We need to embrace and practice a more iterative, non-linear method of solving problems. Don’t get paralyzed aiming for perfection. Rather, make many little mistakes quickly. As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Building resilience
In both personal and professional environments, we need to improve our capacity to absorb ongoing transitions while still performing effectively. A more resilient system embraces diversity of thought and experience to avoid an “echo chamber” effect. As in farming, monocultures may be efficient, but can cause more harm than good long-term.

Additionally, we can’t wait for the quarterly report or the performance review to recalibrate our efforts. The tighter the feedback, the closer it comes to happening in real time, the better we will adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Process not product
One of the things that’s become increasingly clear, one of the things that hasn’t changed, is that a project’s structure is far more important than whether or not the final deliverable is a website or a magazine or a branding campaign. Process matters.

Developing the skills to adeptly navigate our rapidly changing marketing landscape can help you turn quicksand into a day at the beach.