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

Making Better Decisions

When our boys were much younger, sometimes my wife would ask me to watch them at home while she went to a doctor’s appointment or ran errands. With my laptop, I can get work done virtually anywhere, so this was not a problem – or was it?

Almost invariably, I would lose patience after one too many distractions from my diminutive “clients.” My frustration was that in trying to simultaneously get work done and be caretaker for my children, I was doing neither task very well. And, in truth, only one of these two can actually be done “later.”

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

Simplify to gain traction
It’s easy to blame employers, colleagues, or fate as reasons behind our never-ending list of daily tasks. However, as we struggle to assess an overwhelming number of choices, we often make no choice at all. If this were a lunch buffet, we’d be the ones waddling to our seat with a calorie-laden tray in each hand. It’s unhealthy.

Just last week a colleague, after being asked by her new boss to describe the top 10 qualities of all great communications programs, shared her list with me. As lists go, it was well organized and comprehensive – in fact, a little too comprehensive. Beneath each of the numbered items on the list were five bullet points (making it a 60-point list). This is hardly a recipe for establishing priorities, but it’s understandable.

In the book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath explain:

Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material. They see nuance, multiple perspectives — and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they’re often tempted to linger there. The tendency to gravitate to complexity is perpetually at war with the need to prioritize.

I suggested to my colleague that what her boss wants is not what he needs, “I’d give him your list and then say: But [fill in the blank] is the MOST important quality. Then prioritize your work around that directive.”

After all, while Moses had a list of Ten Commandments, Jesus came along and simplified things. The most important commandment (essentially) is: Love your neighbor as yourself. This simple phrase has guided the actions of good people for centuries.

Move from abstract to concrete
Many non-profit marketing folks aren’t fortunate enough to have a directive as clarifying as the Golden Rule. More likely, they’re saddled with a committee-authored mission statement that provides neither a clear purpose nor a way to measure success. Let’s look at an edited example from an American university:

We are dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields. Our mission of providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs is inseparable from our mission of developing new understandings through research and creativity… We seek to serve persons of all racial, ethnic, and geographic groups, women and men alike, as we address the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy. In the twenty-first century, we seek to assume a place of preeminence among public universities while respecting our history and traditions.

So, to recap, this school teaches many different things to many different people in many different ways in hopes of being well regarded sometime in the next century. As Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In contrast, the following university has chosen to prioritize:

Our goal is to be recognized as one of the top five public research universities in the country.

As marketing professionals, our primary mission should be to clearly identify the purpose of the organization we serve, moving from an abstract concept to a concrete goal around which to evaluate the choices we’re faced with every day.

Invest time wisely
The high-stakes uncertainty of stock market investing provides a reasonably good analogy to the current marketing landscape. A diversified portfolio of investments – rebalanced from time to time depending on age and family situation – is common practice among investment advisors. Similarly, marketers have a variety of communication channels available to achieve their objectives.

Action expresses priorities. – Mohandas Gandhi

Where you invest your money – and your time – says a lot about what you value, your tolerance for risk, and your goals. You wouldn’t place as much trust in a stock tip from your flaky brother-in-law as on the successful track record of an established company, yet many marketers seem eager to chase the latest trend.

When shaping your marketing portfolio, “all of the above” is not a choice. Invest your resources proportionate to the activities that best support your goals. That means your budgeted time can’t add up to more than 100%, and some projects should be abandoned.

A disciplined approach
A relentless focus on goals and priorities is necessary to make better decisions. When in doubt, ask yourself these three questions:

How can I make this less complex?
Our neighborhood print shop has a tiny complaint form on which there is a 1/4″ square and instructions to “write legibly” – humorous, but effective.

How does this support our primary goal?
One goal. One purpose. One measure of success. If you’re struggling, return to the previous question.

Is this the best use of my time?
Honesty can be painful when we have to disappoint people we like and pass on projects we may enjoy working on. If you never say ‘no’ you have no priorities.

What techniques do you use to make good decisions? I’d love to hear about them.

Related content:

If It Won’t Fit on A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision Making
A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed

Are We Our Own Biggest Problem?

Recently I asked a few dozen colleagues a simple question: In the current marketing environment, what is the single biggest problem you face today? Bear in mind that this survey was intended as a qualitative exercise, so I won’t break down the numbers into excruciating detail, but undeniable trends emerged. Nearly 90% of the answers fell into two broad categories:

  • We can’t do everything we want to do or should do.
  • Others within the organization don’t understand what we do.

I’d argue that the two are related.

No time. No money.
OK, there is no silver bullet here. Every nonprofit seems to be understaffed and inadequately funded, and that’s not changing. But, there are other issues exacerbating the situation.

As one person wrote: “The proliferation of channels makes it overwhelming for single practitioners and smaller organizations to keep everything fresh and up to date.” Others expanded on this theme, highlighting the difficulty in knowing which channels are the most effective use of limited time and money.

Sounds like some research would be useful here. Oops! Remember? There’s no money available for that. And yet, some organizations still manage to produce effective marketing. How is that possible?

You can’t always get what you want
I’m willing to bet that if I asked the same group of people which factors are present when they’re most successful, one answer would be similarly common: Clear goals and priorities.

All projects are not equally important, even though they are often treated that way. Part of the blame can certainly be assigned to an organization’s leaders if they don’t provide clear direction. But, as a group, marketing people have to get better at setting expectations and defining project parameters.

Remember the old adage? Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick any two. If you want the project done well – quickly – I can drop everything else I’m doing, but it won’t come cheap. On the other hand, I can finish this project fast for a relative pittance, but it won’t be very good.

The soul-sucking truth is that too often we are implicitly being asked – or voluntarily committing – to do work that won’t be very good. We’ll do each project as well as we can, putting in long hours in hopes of turning lemons into lemonade, but work ethic isn’t the issue here.

We know there is a process that leads to the most successful outcomes, but when we work without clear goals and priorities we are setting ourselves up for failure more often than not. And that leads us to the related problem.

They just don’t understand
If you’re regularly asked to make decisions without adequate information, juggle too many responsibilities, or provide explanation for failing to perform miracles, you may work in an organization that doesn’t understand what you do – or what you’re capable of doing given appropriate support and direction.

Maybe I’m naïve to think that one should tackle this problem at the top: Boss, I’ve identified the biggest obstacle to doing our work effectively. Will you help us find the time – and work with me – to address it?

One of the survey respondents, who is relatively new at his job, is working to educate his organization about what marketing is and how it can help them. He’s planning a series of lunch meetings and presentations over the next year. I’ll be interested to hear how this effort shapes perceptions. Fortunately, he has the support of a “very smart boss.”

In our experience, when nonprofit organizations launch new initiatives, the most often overlooked element is internal communication. So much of the focus, understandably, is on external audiences, that one’s own colleagues are an afterthought. Just remember, internal communications and education must also be good and cheap, so it may take a while. Be patient, but persistent.

Own your own fate
Examining problems from a new perspective can prompt insights – and more questions:

  • In order to do your job better, what if what you need isn’t more time or more budget (face it, that’s not happening anyway) but more understanding?
  • If you’re able to start each project with clear objectives how does that change things?
  • What becomes possible if you know which projects are the most important to achieving organizational goals?

Face it, if these are your biggest problems and you spend no time trying to address them, then who’s really at fault?

Of course, there is one possibility that is almost too depressing to contemplate: You may have leaders that expect fast/cheap work – and can tolerate the trade-offs – because deep down they don’t believe marketing really makes a difference. If, reluctantly, you determine this is the case where you work, either find an enjoyable hobby or look for a new job. Life is too short.

To be continued…
I’ll be writing more about this topic in coming weeks, but what are your thoughts? If these are the biggest problems we’re facing, is all hope lost? Is this simply our lot in life? Or do you have plans in place to address these issues? I’d love to hear about them.

Related content:

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong

How to Break Through Bureaucracy to Keep Projects Moving

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.

Related content:

What Motivates Us To Do Great Work


Legacy Issues

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Last month, on the road to our Wisconsin cabin, I fiddled with the radio dial trying to maintain a clear signal to the end of the baseball game. At the same time, I adjusted the visor to block the glare of the setting sun, kept the accelerator at a steady 63 MPH, and ignored passing traffic as I stayed vigilant for deer darting from the ditches.

Responsibilities and Distractions
Just as I needed to continually shift my attention from one task to another while driving, for many in the non-profit and higher ed world this time of year can be particularly hectic, with maybe a week of relative calm in mid-October before the rush to the end of the calendar year.

Unfortunately, this cycle of “busy-ness” usually repeats itself until years go by and all the good intentions are buried with last month’s budget report. But what is everyone busy doing?

Missing the Big Picture
Even acknowledging that many are doing the jobs of two people doesn’t explain why so many non-profits favor tactics at the expense of strategy.

What needs to be done this morning? Or this week? If everything is equally important, you’re suffering from an imbalance of short-term, tactical thinking. It’s all distracting all the time – too much noise and not enough signal.

Is it possible that people secretly like, or are comforted by, this constant, daily churn? Do we seek distractions? One thing’s clear – being busy keeps us from staring at a blank piece of paper and making hard choices.

No one remembers the press release that recapped the company picnic. Not one person. The same could be said of countless other tasks that fill our daily to-do lists. But rather than leaving us depressed at the insignificance of our jobs, this news should free us to prioritize – to carve out more time for the things that really matter.

As we get older, we tend to spend less and less time on the things we say are important – time with family and friends, favorite hobbies, exercise, healthy food. Just as we can and should make choices that simplify our daily existence away from the job, we should seek to do the same at work.

Fewer distractions, and better focus, should make us more effective in our work – and keep that signal loud and clear.