Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

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

Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.