Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

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

Future Forecast

Photo of old man in turban whose face is glowing in the light of a crystal ballEvery year, it seems, Christmas decorations appear in stores earlier and earlier. As back-to-school sales fade from memory, jack-o-lanterns and witches hang on twinkling artificial trees in the seasonal section of your friendly neighborhood big-box retailer.

In that tradition, I’m skipping right past Thanksgiving and looking to the new year – and the year after that.

People are fascinated with the future. Most want an estimate of a specific future outome at a specific time. When will I meet my true love? Who will win the big game? Will this be a good investment? Lucrative industries sell predictions to eager buyers.

Forecasts, on the other hand, tend to focus on process, patterns, and potential outcomes. They are more useful for developing strategies in a dynamic environment – one that offers a range of outcomes and responses. For example, it may not matter much if it’s 83 or 79 degrees over next weekend’s beach vacation, but it will be good to know if you’re going to need an umbrella and some backup plans.

I’ve observed the early stages of a few trends in nonprofit marketing and design. Each involves multiple behaviors and tactics that together begin to coalesce into underlying themes. None are particularly widespread now – or effectively implemented. I believe all of them will be used increasingly by successful organizations going forward.

Over the next four months, I will delve more deeply into each of the following topics:

Building Capacity
There is never-ending pressure to be more productive at work. And yet complex problems require people to think and solve problems more creatively than ever. There is an inherent conflict between these truths. Limited by time, money, and imagination, organizations will need to learn how to build capacity – both to scale up successful products and services and to do more with less.

Perpetual Beta Mode
We are all works in progress. Somewhere along the way, however, businesses evolved to a much more rigid way of working, with a goal of getting to the “finished” product as soon as possible. While there are benefits to having deadlines and targets, eliminating experiments and a tinkering mindset sacrifices big ideas on the altar of risk aversion. Future leaders will recognize that perfection is overrated.

Data Visualization
We may be in the age of Big Data, but it is rarely used in ways that bring clarity to complex issues. People aren’t rational. They make decisions and process information based on a jumble of experiences, instinct, and emotion – backfilling decisions with data because it sounds better. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Designing Experiences
Organizations that are determined to help and delight their audiences will grow faster than those that do not. Designers will spend less time making artifacts – logos, publications, websites – and more time applying creative thinking to the ways that customers interact with an organization and the world around them. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need advertising, they need to be designed better.”

As we turn the page to 2015 and beyond, I hope these forecasts help generate ideas and strategies for a better-designed future … which I’ll be working on just as soon as the leftover turkey is gone.

What trends do you see emerging?