The Most Important Thing

This time of year is when most business leaders are setting objectives and plans for the following year. It’s a fun time because fresh ideas are in the air, optimism is high and possibilities are as infinite as a west coast sunset.

One concept I love talking about with clients is the idea of prioritization. A few months ago, I ran across this quote and video in Inc. Magazine from Sheryl Sandberg.

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” ~Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO
Great advice.

The Reflection Summary

This summer I launched the first cohort of the Honestly Apprenticeship. More details to come but so far it’s been great.

In addition to regular projects the apprentices have to complete, I ask them to write a weekly reflection summary. The reason we call it a “reflection summary” (hat tip Seth Godin for the moniker) is because it’s meant to be contemplative. It’s not a list of things they did. This writing is for deliberating on what they’re learning and experiencing.

Sure, these are useful for me to see how their thought process and skills are developing, but the purpose for the writing isn’t for me at all. It’s also not for building authority or an audience. It’s not content marketing. It’s more than that.

It’s for them to articulate what’s going on in their brain and heart. It’s for them to remind themselves of the progress they’re making and to learn more about themselves.

If you’ve never done anything like this, I encourage you to try it. See what you discover about yourself. You may be surprised at what you find.

Collaborative Bake Off

Thought I’d share with you a process we use to develop creative concepts for clients. As a collaboration exercise, it’s one of my favorites because it includes individual focused work in addition to group work. I’ve found this combo (of group work and individual work) produces better creative.

Most of the projects include two directions from which the client will choose one for us to develop a campaign, product launch, etc.

Here we go…

0. Prep

Before kickoff, there should be time allocated for research, customer and stakeholder interviews, etc. Sometimes you don’t have much to go on, but try to learn as much as possible before getting started.

1. Kickoff (45 min – 1 hour):

We begin with a kickoff meeting. Attendees include our team plus the project owner and any relevant stakeholders. In addition to “starting right”, one goal is to get the client’s ideas captured. They are always going to know more than we do. We want to mine their brains for any hidden knowledge we can.

We’ll also use this time to ask questions and clear any confusion about strategy. It doesn’t matter how creative your concepts are if they’re not on strategy, they’re not going to work.

The last part of the kickoff is to do a litmus test to find out how far we can push the creative outside the client’s comfort zone. If we don’t push the limits and present something that’s a little scary, we haven’t done our jobs.

2. Debrief (30 min)

After the kickoff, our team will regroup for a few minutes to make sure we all heard the same things and are on the same page. We’ll then finalize our internal timeline and set a deadline to get all our concepts into the document by a certain time. From here, we break away to think and explore.

Over the years I’ve experimented with different time frames for the brainstorming period. I’ve found it interesting that shorter is usually better. By holding ourselves to a condensed time frame, the pressure gets ideas flowing quickly.

3. Brainstorm (3-4 days)

Let’s say we give ourselves 3-4 days to post ideas. One of us will create a Google Doc and each team member will post their ideas in that document. The format includes a concept name, description (50 words or less) and links to any supporting visuals. It’s important to have everyone write down their ideas. If you can’t articulate it clearly in a few sentences, it’s not a fully baked idea. The goal here is to get as many ideas on paper as possible for us to choose from later.

4. Bake-off (90 min)

After the brainstorming period is over, we come back together for a group work session. This phase has one goal, to decide on the two directions. We typically block out 90 min and get in a room with a whiteboard and big monitor. The first 30 mins of the workshop is used to pitch concepts. Everyone gets a turn to cast a vision for their ideas to the group.

After everyone takes a turn, we discuss, debate and remix each other’s ideas. We then agree upon and choose the two strongest concepts. The concepts have to be on strategy with the brand and goals and be broad enough to build a campaign around. A lot of times good ideas that are too narrow or channel specific get absorbed into the winning concepts.

The remaining time is spent brainstorming possibilities as a group within the chosen directions. It’s at this point most concepts start to mature and reach their potential. At the end of the work session, we create a list of deliverables and divide up tasks.

5. Build (1 week)

Now that we have the directions set, we work independently again, bringing in the others as needed to review, contribute and proof. At this point, a lot of the hard work is done, and it’s about bringing the concepts to life and showing how they live in context with the overall business objectives.

6. Present (45 min – 1 hour)

Finally, we present our concepts to the client. They’ll choose one, we’ll complete a tactical roadmap and get started on implementation.

Of course, there are times when the process changes due to timeline, budget or scope. However, this collaborative model has proven effective and provides tons of value to the client.

The 1% Plan

If you’ve hung around here much, you probably know my relationship with golf is a passionate one. It was my first profession and one I still think about from time to time. Even though I’m out of the game for the most part, I still stay in touch with my golf coach and take a few lessons here and there.

Over the last year, I’ve been an observer on a coaching system he’s developing. One of the key elements of his research is measured practice. From here, students can see the incremental improvements over time. It’s important for them to see the small gains. Playing at an elite level for golfers who are already aspiring professionals isn’t about huge leaps. The gap between making it on “The Tour” or toiling on mini tours is not one “Grand Canyon” sized chasm, but a series of three-foot spaces.

The key to successful marketing or product development is the same. This is why progressive enhancement and lean practices are so effective.

Success and failure are built on 1% improvements or declines over time. Each compounds like interest in the aggregate. This concept is nothing new. Everyone from Andy Andrews to Zig Ziglar has written about it at some point. However, we usually apply it to personal endeavors like fitness or art.

In addition to these, let’s look at how we can apply marginal gains to our next product launch or feature build.

The Cycle of Importance

I learn as much from kids as I do anyone. Their ability to simplify complex issues, ideas and problems is astounding to me. Too often as adults, or at least this one (me), we tend to overcomplicate matters.

Here’s an example.

I was driving with my kids in the car last week. My seven-year old told me he was thinking and wanted to tell me about an idea he had. Of course, I was intrigued and said, go for it.

Here it is, philosophies from a seven-year-old:

The Cycle of Importance

What’s more important than nothing? Something.
What’s more important than something? Anything.
What’s more important than anything? Everything.
What’s more important than everything? God.
What’s more important than God? Nothing.
And it goes on and on and on…