Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Improvisation by Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

Designing Experiences

Blurred people walking in front of SALE window displayTwo weeks before Thanksgiving we confirmed the guest list. We would be providing a feast for 14 people. Suddenly, the dining room chairs looked a little shabby.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we drove to the fabric store to purchase materials for reupholstering our chairs. The aisles were cramped with bolts of fabric stuffed in bins and spilling off shelves. There was little rhyme or reason to the store displays. An impatient crowd gathered around the cutting table, trying to win the attention of a harried store clerk.

Despite this, we pressed on, crisscrossing the store until most of our supplies were found. We made our way to the front of the checkout line though a gauntlet of candy, toys, and other irrelevant merchandise.

“How much is this batting?” asked the woman behind the counter. “I was hoping you could tell us. It was in the scraps bin, but it wasn’t marked.” She replied, “You will have to take it to the cutting table to be measured.” Helpfully, I offered, “I’ve got a tape measure. I can measure it for you.” “No. They have to do it.” We left the cart at the cash register.

What is design?
Opportunities for design are all around us. In the preceding anecdote, there are easily a half dozen instances in which better design would improve the customer’s experience at relatively minimal cost. By design, am I referring to logistics? Store environment? Customer service? Yes, all of the above.

At its core, I believe design is about making things better. This can happen in a variety of ways, most of which have nothing to do with a company’s logo or tagline. The guiding principals of good design include empathy, curiosity, and intelligence.

Empathy is vital to developing a keen understanding of the audience, recognizing opportunities for improvement, and adapting to unpredictable environments. Curiosity includes a tendency to challenge accepted wisdom, take risks, and explore new uses for materials and technology. Intelligence helps us navigate complexity, consider multiple options faster, and turn creative ideas into concrete solutions.

Design is a two-sided coin. The best ideas must meet customers’ needs while also serving an organization’s interests. The two don’t exist in isolation. To design better, we need to clarify problems, dig deeper, and collaborate with a broader cross section of people on both sides of that coin.

Design is a process, not a product
People familiar with the term “user experience” – or UX – design commonly associate it with website or app development. It really could apply to any product or service.

The design process is a virtuous circle of observation, creation, and adaptation. Observation involves identifying users and understanding their goals and motivations. We translate our research into themes and opportunities and create prototypes for testing. Finally, we collect feedback and measure results to make improvements.

UX – or human-centered – design considers everything that affects a user’s interaction with a product or service. It is as concerned with how things work as with how they look. It is about making what you do more useful, usable and desirable for your users, and more efficient, effective, and valuable for you. A host of organizational problems would benefit from this approach.

Design is marginalized when it is seen as a series of isolated projects – an invitation to an event, a logo, a website. By the time a designer is usually consulted on projects like these, the opportunity to make a significant impact is minimal. Designers make their most valuable contributions when thinking and working systemically.

Multidisciplinary teams
The most urgent problems tend to be large and intractable. To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that created these problems is unlikely to solve them.

Divergent thinking is a method used to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Designers happen to be very good at this. The method is enhanced by bringing different disciplines together – people with different perspectives. Together, they are able to gain insights and recognize patterns of behavior that would be difficult to obtain working independently.

This synthesis – an ability to see things not readily apparent to others – enables multidisciplinary teams to design better experiences, products, and services.

Investing in design
Design is an integrative discipline. The fastest growing companies align their business and design strategies. It is powerful when employed to solve complex problems in collaboration with leaders throughout an organization. Absent a deep belief in its value, however, design becomes a relatively inconsequential tactic.

So, rather than chasing the next viral hashtag, or obsessing over the headline kerning on a sales flyer, smart companies take the advice of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian:

Give your customers excellent products, excellent service, and excellent value. Then let them do your social media work for you. They’re a lot less expensive than social media experts and a lot more reliable.

Investing in your customers’ experience means taking advantage of a designer’s most valuable skills. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need better advertising, they need to be designed better.”

Related content:

Designing Services that Deliver
Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence

Data Visualization

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to the outer regions and the words "You Are Here"Big Data has a tendency to make us feel very small. The digital universe is large and getting larger, doubling in size every two years. All those numbers taken from everyday life have changed the way we live, as companies use algorithms to offer customized services and experiences that were once unimaginable.

This newfound power to recognize and predict patterns in human behavior presents opportunities and challenges. We have access to more information than ever before, but can we make sense of it?

Math for dummies
Mathematics plays a vital role in our quest to understand the world we live in.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo

Unfortunately, most of us only read words and pictures. We like stories.

The rapid growth of available data has been matched by a similar growth in attempts to translate math into a language we understand. Complex subjects are summarized by making the math visual. Behold, the rise of the infographic!

Problems without solutions
The popularity of infographics as a way to quickly educate an audience hides one very inconvenient truth – they are incredibly difficult to do well. Unlike a mathematical formula, you can’t just plug in some numbers and produce an answer.

Charts, diagrams, and illustrations all have the power to convey vast amounts of information. If a graphic doesn’t bring clarity to the chaos, your reader must decide whether or not to spend time digesting it. (Hint: They won’t.) If it’s as easy to digest as a Twinkie – and just as nutritious – you’ve missed the opportunity to enlighten.

Short stories
The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention. Designers are up against it when attempting to quickly display loads of dense information in a single, compelling graphic. One must understand both the audience and the story you want to tell them. Do they have two hours, two minutes, or two seconds to get your point?

Under the direction of the most skilled practitioners, a great data visualization has a clear narrative. It provides context in both logical and unexpected ways and leaves the audience richer for the experience. Such a deft touch is uncommon.

Far more common is the jumbled collection of anecdotes, arrows, and armies of gender-neutral figures against a backdrop of colorful, oversized numbers. The infographic is supposed to say something, but seems designed to distract.

It’s as if someone took random pages from a handful of sources, stapled them together, and called it a story.

Distilled insight
A primary goal of data visualization is to make information more accessible, understandable, and usable. Though the amount of information is increasing by the day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise.

No matter how much data exists, correlations and insights do not magically appear by themselves. Data is only as useful as the people interpreting it.

An abundance of information requires inquiry and analysis to extract meaning. An ability to edit is more important than the choice of bar graphs or pie charts. Designers have the skills to help determine what is necessary and what is not. The trick is in bravely drawing and defending that line.

Big outcomes
Modern life is enriched by data in countless ways. However, there is a shortage of people who can both tame the data and tell you what to do with it. Data visualization is one way to bring focus to what’s important and prompt behavior change.

Before you jump on the infographic bandwagon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my information suited to an infographic?
    Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Choose the best method to clearly communicate your message, not the trendiest.
  • Am I trying to do too much?
    It’s your job to deliver the needle in the haystack, not just scatter the hay. The most common pitfall of the infographic is including everything. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • What is the story?
    Focus on the idea, not the numbers, and your design choices should become much clearer.
  • What is the desired response?
    Life is not theoretical. Any data visualization is only as valuable as its ability to prompt thought and action.

To paraphrase the ancient mariner, there is data, data everywhere, yet scarcely a drop to drink. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Related content:

How a Civil War Vet Invented the American Infographic

Spurious Correlations

Clarity vs Memorability: Which is More Important to Data Visualization?

Favorite Links – March 2015

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

Eight Ways to Say No With Grace and Style
We need to learn the slow “yes” and the quick “no.”

The Future of Web Design
Even digital pioneers didn’t see this disruption coming.

Collaboration-palooza
Nonprofit organizations desire to collaborate more than they actually do.

10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings
Try them all! You’ll be climbing the corporate ladder in no time!

Perpetual Beta Mode

Illustration by Tom Fishburne. People sitting at a table thinking about different types of lightbulbsI coach my son’s sixth grade basketball team. If there’s one thing I know from watching youth basketball, it’s that there is a very slim chance that five players will do exactly what they’re supposed to do at any one time. It’s a fluid game.

Despite that, my boys want to learn “plays” – a set of instructions that determines who does what in hopes of putting the ball in the basket. They want certainty. My most difficult task as a coach is to provide structure while teaching them to read and react to dynamic conditions on the floor.

Middle schoolers are similar to CEOs in one way – they are accustomed to working in a linear fashion. Projects have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more important that work is handed in on time than done well. And recess is always right after lunch.

More organizations are starting to see the folly in adhering to a rigid system of working. In its place we are finding a more adaptive approach, one where continuous learning moves the organization closer to its goals.

Perfection is overrated
Nobody wants to be the “logo cop.” When I am asked to help with a new identity or brand refresh, clients will often regale me with stories of crimes committed against their logo. “How can we stop it?” they plead.

Seeking brand consistency is a worthy undertaking. And while consistency has value, it should really be considered the floor – not the ceiling – of achievement.

Do your logo guidelines document all the things “thou shall not do” to the logo? Time spent getting every last detail right remains an often fruitless effort to exert control over people. Instead, invest in setting a clear and compelling brand strategy – a foundation from which people can identify relevant stories for your audience.

A brand and messaging guide should serve as a launching pad, not a stop sign. Establish recognizable patterns – absolutely – but accept and encourage variation and evolution as the natural state of your brand.

Small bets
Solving problems is easy if you have a formula, but it only works when all the variables are known. In rapidly changing times that’s rarely possible. Key information is missing. Opportunities are fleeting. Solutions fail.

We cannot solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Agile project management is rooted in software development, but its methods are now being used broadly. Why? It promotes adaptive planning, ongoing improvement, and a rapid and flexible response to change. Done well, it accelerates execution.

Similarly, designers are taught to solve problems through observation, idea generation, and rapid prototyping that responds to user needs. It is an iterative approach that produces solutions that traditional methods cannot. Done well, it accelerates ingenuity.

Both methods address uncertainty by placing many “small bets” – ideas that can be tried quickly and cheaply. This practice reduces the risk of missing the mark and increases the chance for true innovation. Small bets reveal what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve your ideas.

Minimum viable brand
The Industrial Revolution may be a distant memory, but the transformation of production methods and processes continues unabated. And today, it’s not just about manufacturing. Any service that can be turned into a cheap commodity will be. Want a logo for $99? Done. Want a website that designs itself? Sign up here.

The speed and agility of the marketplace almost guarantees that whatever big idea you’re working on has probably already launched. “Wait and see” turns into “missed the boat” in the blink of an eye. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean people will want it.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if your letterhead is the perfect shade of white, or if people like your Facebook page. It is necessary, however, to rally colleagues around your brand’s strategy.

At a minimum, this would articulate your brand promise (what you stand for), what separates you from competitors, who you seek to engage (your audience), and what you want to say (key messages) and show.

If these basic brand elements are clearly understood and communicated within an organization, you can launch ideas quickly, on demand, with fewer resources.

Beta is better
Perpetual beta testing is useful for measuring performance, understanding user preferences, and previewing new ideas. It embraces change as necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It also guarantees that the most time and money will be spent on the most effective ideas and projects.

Traditional organizations move slowly, learning little, as they seek certainty in an uncertain world. Modern organizations create, listen to feedback, and continue to improve.

Related content:

Is It Time to See Brand Guidelines in a New Light?
What Are Little Bets?
Start-Ups Need a Minimum Viable Brand

Illustration (above) by Tom Fishburne

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:
The Relevance Filter
Information vs. Understanding
Google: Ten Things We Know to Be True