Herding Cats

by Dan Woychick

As the sun rises on the western frontier, a quiet but confident manager directs his charges through rugged terrain. The days lead to weeks, the seasons come and go, and our hero concludes another successful campaign – only to begin anew the next morning. Meanwhile, back at the office, the hairballs are piling up, the litter box needs cleaning, and Princess has shredded the drapes again.

Anyone who has worked in the non-profit realm can confirm the difficulty in getting everyone on the same page, much less moving in the same direction. In fact, research shows fewer than 1 in 7 employees can state their company’s strategic goals. Cathleen Benko, the report’s author, notes, “If you can’t articulate the strategy, you can’t make smart decisions about which projects to take on.”

Furthermore, in another study, less than half of respondents say they understand the steps their organizations are taking to reach new goals. Is it any wonder no one knows what the marketing department is up to?

Continuing education
Despite the likelihood of inadequate budgets and overworked staff, perhaps the most underappreciated deficit in non-profit marketing is the amount of time available for internal communications.

Is there a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you and the projects you’re leading? Everyone has war stories about egregious violations of logo standards and eleventh-hour requests that defy the laws of physics. In fact, the time spent putting out those fires is one of the reasons it’s difficult to be seen as more than an order taker.

There is no quick fix presentation to win over internal audiences. It’s an ongoing process, better performed in small groups, or one by one. But be sure to start at the top. Without visible endorsement at the executive level, your efforts face a nearly insurmountable challenge. Everyone needs to understand that marketing is a priority.

Just as you shape compelling messages that elicit responses from external audiences, you must educate colleagues about what you do, how you do it, and why it’s valuable. In the presentation below, we counseled one of our clients to apply many of the same branding principles used for the organization to shape internal perceptions of the marketing department.

Provide structure
Defining the process by which projects get produced is a key to establishing your expertise and authority. Build trust in your leadership by assuring colleagues, “When we’ve been successful, this is how we’ve done it, and this is how we’ll do it for you.”

A piecemeal approach to marketing is never effective long term. It signals to others that there is no plan, no method to your madness – anything goes! Most often, people are asking or expecting you to be a tactician: “I need an invitation for my fundraising event by next Friday.”

Taking your time at the beginning – as carpenters say: measure twice, cut once – is important to diagnosing the root cause of the marketing problem. Some may even squawk about all the questions you’re asking. To them you might reply: “In medicine, to prescribe without diagnosing is considered malpractice. In marketing, it shouldn’t be common practice.”

Giving structure to your work helps guide expectations and timelines, and leads to more consistent outcomes. Broadly, it should look something like this:

  1. Project assessment – diagnose the problem
  2. Strategic recommendations – prescribe a plan
  3. Tactical execution – create the work
  4. Project review – refine as necessary
  5. Creative extension – roll out related material

Tacticians treat symptoms. That invitation will make your colleague feel better, but will it treat the cause of their problem? Strategy is not about what you will create, but how you will meet specific goals. Your most valuable deliverable is not the invitation, but the confidence to move forward.

Focus feedback
One of my favorite articles on project management is named “The $50,000 Comma.” Citing the creation of an annual report as an example, several different scenarios illustrate that when you make a change has a bigger effect on your project’s completion date and budget than what you change. In other words, include the right people at the right time.

If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.
– Charles Kettering

It’s important to gather broad input early, but grow increasingly specific about what type of feedback you seek as the project moves along. Never ask open-ended questions: “Do you like this? Let me know what you think.” Instead, frame your request for approval: “We agreed on XYZ (strategy and goals). Here’s how this project addresses those issues. Have we succeeded?” This approach leaves far less room for people to express opinions on tactical choices – color, photos, font size – and focuses their attention on more relevant concerns.

Tame the beast
Cats are generally warm and friendly, but can be unpredictable and difficult to control. Human beings aren’t that much different. By following the practices described above, it is my hope that you and your “herd” can build a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. Happy trails!

Related content:

Close the Gap Between Projects and Strategy

Time For A Project Pre-Mortem?

Make Meetings Work: Fight the PowerPoint

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