Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

After the Post-It Notes Are Gone

A wall filled with yellow and pink Post-It Notes shot as a close-upLate last year, I attended a design thinking workshop. There were about 30 people in attendance, all interested in exploring ways to respond in the wake of the presidential election. As the facilitator noted, there are as many ways to get involved and take action as there are people.

It was a lively morning. Stories were told. Ideas were shared. And, of course, by the end of the workshop, the walls were covered with Post-It Notes.

As my small group was wrapping things up, one person asked: “How can we maintain this momentum? I would love to see something come of this effort.” We exchanged business cards and made vague promises to follow up. In January, I initiated a group email. One person declined, one never responded, and I had a beer a few weeks later with the fourth member of our group.

And that was that.

From idea to execution
I have participated in dozens of design thinking exercises and brainstorming sessions and, sadly, experiences like the one above are not uncommon.

Today, more than ever, when organizations face wickedly tough challenges, they may turn to a problem-solving technique known as design thinking, or human-centered design.

The process is well-defined and intended as a collaborative exercise. It begins with empathy – seeking out and understanding the needs of your intended audience. Once the challenge is defined, ideas are generated – the more the better. Prototypes are built and tested as the process moves closer and closer to the best solution.

Except when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with the design thinking process, there is often too much thinking and not enough doing. Despite the increase in recognition of design thinking from the press room to the board room, why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise?

Probably because that messy iterative part of the process – after the fast and fun idea generation session is finished – is really hard to do well.

An uphill battle
The most common mistake that leaders make is buying into the notion that a lack of good ideas is restraining an organization’s growth and innovation. Usually, it is the follow-through that is lacking.

Design thinking, like Six Sigma or other common business processes, is reassuring to executives. It offers the promise of a tested methodology – a step-by-step process that leads to a desired outcome.

When a new process is initiated, leaders often assume that the biggest hurdle has been cleared and turn their attention elsewhere. In fact, the toughest challenges remain.

It takes real commitment to fend off resistance when strategy turns to tactics, resources are redirected, and new ideas clash with the status quo. Long after the idea generation stage, it takes highly-determined individuals – with ongoing, explicit engagement at the highest levels – to overcome organizational inertia.

Design thinking is, by definition, iterative and open-ended. In an impatient, results-driven environment, people are tempted to jump at the first plausible solution – and look no further. Most people don’t have the security, authority, or attention span to embrace uncertainty.

What’s more, it’s human nature to seek out the familiar. Studies show that most people are more proficient at completing short-term, immediate tasks – doing what we are told to do – rather than thinking of new ideas and executing them.

Define and clarify the problem
Design thinking isn’t magic. It’s a method for solving problems with the user in mind. When design thinking attracts the attention of business executives, if executed poorly, it runs the risk of undermining rather than reinforcing the value of design.

It’s easy to get excited about new ideas. Two additional techniques familiar to designers might help transform those good ideas into better outcomes.

One way to refocus and test the viability of the discovery – or idea generation – stage of an assignment is to draft a one-page creative brief. This includes:

  • An executive summary that provides the context for the assignment.
  • The purpose of the project – what is the current state and how do you want to change it?
  • A defined target audience – prioritized, if more than one.
  • Specific objectives. What do you need to do to make this project successful? By what measures will this project be considered a success?
  • A timeline. Nothing happens without a deadline.

The creative brief refines and prioritizes project goals and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Think more effectively
Despite the absence of evidence that brainstorming is an effective method for generating more and better ideas, it has become a time-honored technique. Its value may be more about bringing the team together. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of the process.

Design thinking exercises provide a similar value.

Research shows that individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas. Groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Is it possible we have the creative process backward?

Instead of convening to dispatch a pile of Post-It notes at a project’s inception, maybe we would be better off gathering as a group after working independently. This sounds a lot like a critique – a staple of my days in college art and design classes.

In a critique, fellow classmates (or project team members in a business setting), offer constructive evaluation and analysis to push the best ideas forward. This provides more structure to propel an open-ended, iterative process toward a conclusion.

Think and do
Designers are uniquely suited to contribute when there are problems to be solved. They can visualize options as well as analyze and synthesize information. Designers learn how to think that way through practice.

When design thinking is trotted out as a cure-all for the world’s problems, it can undermine the value and contributions of designers. It over-promises and under-delivers.

As Helen Walters, a writer and researcher of innovation, notes: “Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.”

Can’t See the Forest

Close-up of pine tree branchI haven’t received a paycheck for most of my professional career. Just this morning I submitted a proposal to a prospective client for a project that would pay the bills for the next few months. Maybe they will hire me. Maybe they won’t.

If they don’t, it won’t be because I’m not a good designer. The project timeline and even the estimated budget likely won’t be the deciding factors either. Not really.

Stepping back from the mysterious and occasionally pseudo-scientific criteria for evaluating competing proposals, what are clients really buying from any consultant?

There are two things – capacity and objectivity.

Send in the cavalry
When an organization needs additional capacity, it’s for one of two reasons.

They need additional horsepower to launch an important new initiative.
With day-to-day tasks keeping internal staff busy, it’s counter-productive to add more responsibilities to an overloaded calendar. The laws of physics apply. There is only so much space and time in a given day. As a colleague at a major university noted: “Our creative director is very talented, but she’s also way over-extended. How can you think big picture when you’re under water?”

A project requires specialized skills that don’t exist in-house.
Having market researchers, designers, or copywriters on staff doesn’t make much sense if the need isn’t ongoing. But if successful outcomes are important – and why are you undertaking the project if they aren’t? – you don’t want to leave these tasks in the hands of amateurs.

Hiring to increase capacity comes with expectations for cost-effectiveness, timely communications, and flawless project management. The work needs to be of good quality, but the relationship really hinges on how well the consultant delivers on those other things.

Tell me the truth
In the early stages of a branding project, I met with the in-house marketing staff to share what our team had heard in conversations with other stakeholders. They nodded and asked: “Will you share this with the president? If we tell him, he won’t listen to us.”

Why do companies pay consultants to tell them what they already know?

Often, when people have been staring at a problem too long, they seek out a fresh pair of eyes. The concept of “beginner’s mind” refers to having an attitude of openness – a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject – even when studying at an advanced level. An unbiased third party has no vested interest in titles or “the way we’ve always done things.”

But fresh eyes alone are not enough.

If I’m planning to tackle a weekend home repair project and run into trouble, I’m going to call my older brother. I may have an idea about how to proceed, but he’s been working as a carpenter for 35 years. His level of expertise far exceeds my own because he’s encountered similar situations dozens or even hundreds of times. With experience comes an ability to recognize patterns, sidestep pitfalls, and provide much-needed perspective.

Clients hire consultants whose observations and recommendations are based on hard-earned experience they can trust. And consultants need the courage to (occasionally) tell clients things they may not want to hear.

Making a choice
There is no shortage of consultants that can help solve a temporary capacity problem. Capacity is needed when there is work to be done.

Objectivity, on the other hand, is far more difficult to find – especially as it relates to a specific assignment. A trusted advisor’s objectivity helps solve problems.

When I have lost out to another firm or individual for a consulting gig that I thought was a good fit, usually the explanation goes something like this: “Our team carefully reviewed your proposal and unfortunately your key strengths didn’t quite overlap with what we were looking for.”

You want the cold hard truth? Translation: They didn’t trust me.

First Contact

photo illustration of flying saucer at night with beam of light shining on single person standing below itMy oldest son is a sophomore in high school. Last fall he took the PSAT – a preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – and scored quite well. As in, 99th percentile well.

Almost instantly, hundreds of colleges are interested in him. The response time is impressive. He gets dozens of emails every day and he’s getting more printed mail than I’m getting bills, so it’s a lot to absorb.

What’s less impressive is the mind-numbing uniformity. More than half the emails he receives appear to be stamped out in a college recruitment factory.

With no photos, logos, or anything compelling or memorable to stand out from the crowd – in the way that his test score does – these colleges invariably open with a compliment on his academic abilities and move on to the offer:

You’ve been selected to receive Backpack Secrets of the Nation’s Top Scholars.

I’d like to give you access to Big Picture: How Your Favorite Movies Can Predict Your College Major.

That’s why I want to give you Best and Brightest: How America’s Top Scholars Choose Their Ideal College.

I’ve chosen you to receive an exclusive guide, Your Best School: How (and Why) to Choose a College on the Rise.

That’s why we want to send you 7 Key Questions: Finding the Right Fit in Your College Search.

Reply now!

As if.

sample of a generic college recruitment email

Sample of a generic college recruitment email

Savvy consumers
My experience is that kids are cynics. They know when they are being sold something. The attempts to “engage” fall flat. Last week, my young scholar reported with bemusement that online ads featuring Derek from [Blank] State University keep popping up in the margins of his web browsing.

It’s the place where Derek began his adventure!

Our apartment together was like a design studio!

Derek designed sneakers in Germany when he studied abroad!

My son’s takeaway: “They want me to think he’s cool, so I could be cool if I go there too.” He’s not buying it.

Be distinct
It’s a hard job marketing colleges to young students. Almost all of those emails are trashed with barely a glance. Almost all of the mail quickly ends up in our recycling bin.

For my focus group of one in this early stage of the recruitment process, what makes an impression to match the gaudy test score? Or at least makes him pause for a second or two?

Good design and good writing.

One email began:

We have learned that you recently suffered the indignity of squandering several hours answering dozens of irritating multiple-choice questions. Sorry about that.

Another had nothing but a giant photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: Peel Here. Of course, he eats about a half dozen clementines per day. Another began with a curious illustration and the opening line: Why can a fly climb on the ceiling, but a human can’t? (See below.)

What are my early impressions of college recruitment marketing? If you really want to attract the best and brightest students, you’re going to have to step up your game. Delivering a generic first impression is a great way to get your young target audience to tune you out.

Photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: "Peel here."Illustration of dark silhouettes walking upside down on the ceiling of a classroom. Today's Lesson: Lord of the Flies is written on the chalkboard

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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.

 

Related content:

Framing the story

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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Judging Design

Bronze statuette of justice, with focus on the blindfolded faceI recently returned from Nashville, where I was honored to serve as a judge for this year’s UCDA design show. The conversations between the judges and show facilitators prompted me to think a lot about how we evaluate – and value – design. What is design excellence?

Since 1970, the University & College Designers Association (UCDA) has served as an advocate for designers working in academia in North America and around the world by delivering relevant programming, benefits, and inspiration.

We saw a lot of good work across all categories among the nearly 1,100 entries in this year’s show. We also saw a lot of professionally-executed work that begins to blend together when it’s covering a table thirty yards long.

Making the cut
For this show, we didn’t choose the good work. We didn’t choose the professional work. There are a lot of good designers and a lot of really good work that never makes it into a design show.

The work we honored for excellence stood out from the crowd because it was conceptually strong, visually fresh, with flawless typography and evocative imagery. Additionally, the award-winning designers possessed both the vision and skill to get that work approved by whomever was signing the checks. That’s a high bar to clear. Around 170 pieces were selected for the show, roughly 16% of those submitted.

Best in show
One piece, a fundraising brochure, was awarded the “best in show” designation. When I opened this piece, my heart fluttered just a little. It’s the kind of reaction most designers have when they see something unexpected – unlike anything else, yet completely appropriate for the task at hand. The perfect fit.

The blessedly brief copy played off the vibrant photo-collaged images to create a rhythm and pace that draws the reader in and pulls them through. Instead of the usual blah, blah, blah and numbers everywhere, this piece was designed to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience of donors. It said, “You’re valued.”

Judge’s choice
Each judge was also asked to highlight an entry that was a personal favorite. Mine was a collection of work from the in-house team at a university in the Western United States.

I admired this entry for the variety of high-quality work submitted and the number of people who contributed. From a trade show booth to a strategic plan to publications and simple icons, every last pixel was treated with exquisite attention to detail.

More than the consistent use of a typeface or colors, it was this refusal to settle that made each piece stand out on its own, yet hold together as a consistent and engaging “look.” To pull that off across such an array of work is incredibly difficult, and well worth celebrating.

Aesthetics versus outcomes
For me and my fellow judges, the difficulty in reviewing so much work in a single day was one part stamina and two parts context. The UCDA design show is similar to almost all others in that there is no good way to fully understand how well a piece or campaign fulfilled its objectives. We are confined to judging the aesthetics of the design.

Design is an integrated discipline. No matter how thoughtfully a designer attends to even the smallest details, the work doesn’t live in a vacuum. Its success relies on a host of collaborators, clients, and audience response.

A successful outcome is only marginally influenced by the aesthetics. A lunar module may look wicked cool, but if it doesn’t get off the launching pad, burns up in re-entry, or the mission doesn’t deliver enough knowledge to justify the cost, the designers aren’t going to win any awards.

Move people to action
The inability to separate a designer’s contribution from the myriad other factors and people involved leaves us at a disadvantage. Instead of focusing on successful outcomes, we end up citing things like building “awareness” and increasing “engagement.”

Designers consider the value of good design to be a self-evident truth, kind of like it’s better to be rich than poor. I would certainly rather see more beauty in the world than less, and aesthetically pleasing design is worth celebrating. But the more relevant question is: What did this cause people to do?

Design is most powerful as a verb – an action word. Did the design help put butts in the seats, increase donations, or change behavior? At the end of the day, that’s the measure of design excellence.

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.

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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.

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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?

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?