Weeding the Garden

By Dan Woychick

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 Is this a necessary activity/feature or an outdated habit?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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