As we reached the end of 2018, ThinkShout’s strategy team was reminded by clients (and ourselves) how the rush of year-end appeals and fundraising efforts was a recipe for burnout. So our strategy team came up with a refreshing idea: why not open 2019 with a blog series on how to do more with less. So far we’ve covered how asking more questions can provide faster and more consistent community insights; how to reclaim your communications calendar; and how to effectively run lightweight, data-driven retrospectives.
I love this series because I believe the most important thing about strategy is to distill. It’s tempting to think that the role of a strategist is to deliver a pile of great ideas for every project — all the more so when working with mission-driven organizations that serve multiple stakeholders — but the aim of a strategist should be to refine your work into a single, standout idea. So while editing your recommendations into the smallest possible set isn’t necessarily easier, it will save you heartache and produce better results.
As we settle into the new year, I find myself revisiting three lessons for creating impactful work that’s aligned with your core values. Even if you’ve learned these lessons before, it’s worth reviewing them before you blink and find yourself staring down the year-end calendar for 2019.
Ten ideas is easy. One insight is hard.
During initial research it’s important to get ideas on paper as quickly as possible. If it’s easier to come up with ten decent ideas than one good one, doesn’t it stand to reason that you shouldn’t be fussy in getting those first ideas out of your head?
In the spirit of this blog series, we recommend you be kind to yourself at this phase. These early ideas, notes, and connections you are making weren’t destined to be perfect anyway. You can (and will) always cut. This is about gathering material you’ll later shape into something beautiful.
One of my favorite writing instructors once told me, “you have to kill your darlings.” What he meant was to look out for your favorite lines, the phrases that seem most clever at first. If you fall in love with those early ideas, you might block something superior. So while I don’t advise you wear out your delete key right away, I do think it’s healthy to look at everything with suspicion and liberally move ideas off the front burner to a holding space. Remember that any single piece of data isn’t yet an insight, no matter how interesting it may be.
How you keep ideas moving is a matter of personal style. This year, try a few different techniques for surfacing, organizing, and evaluating these kernels. Something that works for me is to write uninterrupted for a dedicated block of time every morning when I’m beginning a project, to see what bubbles to the surface. From there, shifting to index cards or a notebook or a note-taking app (my current favorite is Bear) is a great next step. Ethan Marcotte has a great post on how he writes conference talks, which includes some techniques that are worth stealing for the early stages of your strategy work. Whatever you do, keep the ideas flowing.
Challenge yourself to come up with ten pieces of material to refine. Maybe it’s an emerging trend you catch from interviews. An unexpected sentiment among your youngest constituents. A previously unseen pattern in your traffic data. This phase of a project is your time, and for a moment you are an audience of one. This time usually is (and should be) brief. Use it wisely.
Flip the script
When you sign up to work for a mission-driven organization, either on staff or as a consultant, by extension you sign up to work for its values. You try to live them in your daily life. You communicate them to the people around you. You do everything in your power to increase the impact of your organization through your efforts.
Emerging from the above generative process, hopefully you have a decent stack of not-quite-ready ideas. You’ve thought about the competition (“everyone’s going left, we’ll go right”); you’ve re-evaluated past approaches (“we believed our community cares about X, but they make decisions based on Y”); you’ve considered a shift in key messaging. Now is the time to start paring these considerations down to what will generate the most impact — and compatibility with your values is the first checkpoint.
Your values are likely designed to be affirmative, shaping a vision for the world that your work brings into focus. For the moment, though, let’s discuss how your values can get you to “no.” No is a powerful tool. No helps you look at a decent idea and put a line through it. No helps you say, “maybe next time.” After all, your organization (and to a greater extent your audience) won’t afford you the chance to plan and execute around all the possible yesses.
At this point, I lay out the values in front of me (on paper, screen, mental billboard, whatever works for you), and think of them as the other voice in a conversation. This is an invitation to interrogate your initial ideas. If your organizational values themselves are worth their salt, it should be clear what doesn’t align.
Move quickly through this part. No insight is precious enough to warrant divergence with organizational values. If you find that certain values are unclear or prematurely disqualify good ideas, that brings up an entirely different conversation, but for now let’s trust that this important filter will get you from a stack of decent ideas to a short list of aligned, powerful ones.
One of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on started with what seemed like a dream scenario: another vendor had provided multiple strategy decks that combined for over 200 pages. Without a doubt, it was a wealth of information, and it soon became clear that with so much to process it was next to impossible to determine what was most important. We should have known — what looked like a head start turned out to be a lot of noise with no clear signal.
After you’ve gone through the process of weighing your ideas against your organization’s values to ensure they’re aligned, it’s time for the last leg. Do the important work that might pain you personally (“but I loved that idea!”), and embrace the fact that every edit is one less thing for others to edit later on.
It’s important to develop a personal style for determining what leaves your desk (and by developing a personal style, I mean crib liberally from others). One writer I steal from as often as possible is Avinash Kaushik (Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google for the last dozen years). He writes about how to “go from insights to out-of-sights.” In this short essay, he provides a rubric of four evaluations:
- Is your idea novel?
- Is it actionable?
- Is it credible? And,
- Is it relative?
That’s a pretty strict list, and if you have an insight (sorry, I’ll still use that word despite Avinash’s disdain for it) that passes all of those tests, you’re in fruitful territory. For the ideas that don’t pass, find a different home for them. They might come up again later, or in a new form, or even for a different client (if you work with mission-driven organizations as a consultant).
If the above rubric is too strict or time-consuming, try simply asking yourself “so what?” for each insight. How does the insight change what your client or your organization is doing today? Can the insight unlock a new way of working for someone in the organization? What would be the first change the organization makes based on the insight?
This process will take a little longer, and might involve more collaboration internally. If the project can afford it, I recommend this as a time to test your ideas with other team members. You’ve been in the weeds for a while and can use some fresh eyes. If you can equip other members of your team with these same filters, there’s a good chance that together you can refine one or two into truly meaningful, actionable work.
I’ll wrap with an admission. If all of this doesn’t seem conformant with our January series about taking it easy on ourselves, well, that’s because it doesn’t. None of these posts really do. In reality, it’s a way of making life easier — and more impactful — for everyone around us. Isn’t that our job as strategists?
So the next time you find yourself gearing up to share work that tries to address all audiences at once, with a pile of insights that your clients and co-workers will have to make sense of themselves, stop yourself and carve out the extra time it takes to do a little less. The work will be better for it.
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