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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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.

Weeding the Garden

Between rain showers, I spent this past weekend helping my wife tend to our garden. Though I built the raised beds and patio in our backyard, most of the regular maintenance falls into her very capable, green-thumbed hands – and that’s a good thing. If it were left to me, weeds would be overlooked, changing light conditions ignored, and the garden would slowly deteriorate – inevitably if not intentionally – due to other competing priorities.

Every nonprofit marketer or designer I’ve met has too much to do, but little is done to evaluate which tasks are worth doing. Should I be weeding the garden or building a new bed? It’s time to examine how we spend our time.

An unexamined life
Much of our life is unconscious repetition. Wake up. Brush teeth. Get dressed. Similar behavior exists in the workplace. Send a news release. Place an ad. Update the website. Even though it’s less stressful, running on autopilot is no way to live or work.

The best organizations perform ongoing assessments and make changes when necessary. They manage conflict, seek out the best information available, and make small bets on new initiatives.

When choosing how to spend your limited time, it’s helpful to do the following:

Document your process
Many people love the excitement of jumping into a new creative assignment so much that they never stop to ask: When we’ve been successful, what did we do right? Every project should begin with clear, realistic objectives and time-tested guidelines to ensure that success can be replicated.

For our firm, it’s the creative brief that provides the foundation to both proceed with the assignment and measure results. Contrary to the notion that process stifles creativity, I’ve found it helps us see problems with fresh eyes and spurs important questions before beginning. Just like with a golfer’s swing or a surgeon’s operating room protocol, consistent outcomes are rooted in a strong process.

Question everything
Even (or especially) when you’ve done something hundreds of times, it’s good practice to poke your assignment full of holes before moving ahead. By what measure are we evaluating this? How will this project help meet our communication objectives? Is this a necessary activity/feature or an outdated habit?

Last week, I met with a client to review its 32-page, biannual printed magazine. Among the questions we asked: Does it need a traditional table of contents? What could we do with that space instead? Do readers find the listing of contents useful, or is it simply a nod to convention? We plan to find out by asking a small sample of readers to review two new options.

Improve incrementally
An iterative approach to improving results is common when direct, measurable comparisons can be made, as with A/B testing online ads or direct mail packages. However, even less quantitative methods can help offset limited anecdotal information.

Be patient. A common mistake is to change too many things at once, leaving uncertainty over which changes caused the improvement. Try comparing only two ideas for best results, and allow time for refining prototypes based on audience feedback. No matter what you’re trying to improve – cost efficiency, outcomes, or even the need for the project itself – an iterative process produces the best possible solution.

One of our clients indicated “several” people had complained about the size of the text on their new website. However, she was convinced the problem was the font, not the size. Rather than change both at once, we changed the size and solicited feedback, which helped us improve the user experience while avoiding unnecessary changes.

Manage priorities
Wishing the weeds would go away is no plan for a healthy garden, and complaining about how busy we are doesn’t get to the root of the problem. To build an efficient work environment, encourage questions that challenge the status quo and adopt a systematic, analytical approach to your projects. With any luck, you may even be able to enjoy a little time outside this summer.

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