Three Plumb Lines for Collaboration

In our creative services and product development practice, we talk a lot about working together. We even launched a side project last year with Elliot Strunk called Make Good Work Great. The project focused on speaking engagements and workshops to help people learn to collaborate (better or for the first time). We’ve found after decades of experience, working together usually produces better outcomes.

After several months of little activity, we’re ramping things back up with a few speaking engagements and a product or two. More on those at a later date.

In the meantime, here are a few plumb lines I keep in mind when starting to collaborate with someone new.

1. Avoid the word “No”

No, is rarely needed when working with getting projects started. When comedy students are learning improv, one of the first rules they learn is the word “no” is a killer. What makes improv amazing is the performers’ ability to keep going. Collaboration works this way in the beginning. Let an idea, any idea, be heard. Who knows where it might lead you.

2. Be a good finder

The easiest thing to do to an idea that isn’t yours is to shoot holes in it. Rarely are ideas 100% bad. Sometimes it’s the smallest kernel of a terrible idea that leads to an amazing outcome. Trust your partners. They obviously think their idea has value. Look for the good in it and proceed to number 3.

3. Propose alternate solutions

If you don’t like something or recognize it’s not relevant, offer alternative ideas. Try “How about…” or “What if we…”. This provides constructive feedback and reduces the risks of egos getting out of line. The last thing a team needs is for someone to get defensive and disrupt momentum.

When I keep these precepts in mind, my collaborations go smoother and produce better.

The Power of Two Way Doors

Recently, Jeff Bezos published his annual letter to shareholders. You may have heard about it. It seemed to get some hype for a few days and rightly so. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead. I’ll wait.

What did you think?

There are many nuggets you could pull out. Being obsessed with customers, sure, that’s a good one. Having a “Day 1” mentality, absolutely. How about “disagree but commit”? It’s a comment related to this philosophy I’d like to dive a little deeper into.

Jeff talks about the concept of reversible decisions. Here’s a quote:

Never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process.

I love the word picture of a two-way door here. There are very few marketing or product decisions that are irreversible. This should take the weight of perfection off your shoulders. Embrace the unexpected. Embrace experimentation and learning.

This week I led a discovery workshop where we set an expectation up front that to achieve their goals, they would need to accept that some ideas weren’t going to work. We showed them this was ok because we can always adjust or reverse our actions to get the results we want. The change in atmosphere was palatable. The leadership team loosened up and didn’t try to come up with perfect solutions. As a result, we left the session with a quiver full of actionable concepts to explore and test.

Until next time.

Outcomes Over Deliverables

A recurring theme this year is helping our collaborators and clients think less about deliverables and more about outcomes.

I had a friend in middle school named Chris Morris. Teachers used to give him the hardest time in math because he never solved problems the way it outlined them in the book. He’d start working out the problem and find a side door method to derive the correct answer. It drove teachers crazy. They were so focused on the steps in the book, they’d deduct points from his grade. One day, like a scene from Good Will Hunting, Chris solved an extra credit problem no one had solved all year. The teachers never bothered him again.

The work we do day in, and day out, is often too nuanced to get hung up on a specific set of deliverables. This is one of the main issues with RFPs. Typically they’re so rigid and specific to what is being delivered that they lose sight of what the project is seeking to accomplish. It usually comes down to priorities. Do we want something done a certain way or done to produce our desired outcome or benefit?

If by contrast, you focus on the desired outcome(s), then it’s easier to embrace unpredictability and work towards the best solution.

Team morale plays a role here as well. Most teams want to know they did work that mattered or moved the needle in some way. Spending too much time on specific deliverables can suck the joy out of the work.

Don’t get me wrong. Projects and initiatives have scopes of work that produce deliverables. But going into a project, it’s potentially limiting or counterproductive to lock in specific deliverables before starting to work. Like our friend Chris, once you start working on something with the outcome in mind, the right deliverables reveal themselves.

Until next time.

Start Right and Finish Strong

In the last two weeks, I’ve kicked off three new projects. Two were digital product related and the other one related to marketing and branding. Chances are, you work on projects as well, so I thought I’d share a few things learned over the last few years.

Try these two pages from Honestly’s playbook. They may help your next project get off to a good start and finish strong.

Project Kickoff

Once we have the start date, signed contracts, deposits, and other details out of the way, we schedule a project kickoff. I used to combine this with workshops or other discovery related meetings but found it added too much complexity.

The project kickoff now gets it own slot and is focused on relationships, logistics and alignment of expectations. Here is what a common agenda looks like:

  1. Team: We introduce team members across collaborators and what role(s) they play
  2. Scope: We review scope and set expectations to embrace change, unpredictability and priorities
  3. Timeline: We confirm schedules and solidify important milestones
  4. Approach: We discuss and agree on an approach that mitigates risks and ensures success
  5. Logistics: We put important dates and meetings in everyone’s calendars, sync up on workflows and settle on project tools

It’s good to block out an hour for project kickoff but it usually takes about 45 min to get through everything. You’ll be amazed how much trust and confidence is built by finishing the first meeting early and starting out ahead of schedule. This small win starts to build momentum.

Project Retrospective

When I started leading creative projects, we called these postmortems. The term never sat well with me. It always felt cold and lifeless (Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.). I was glad when we started calling them project retrospectives or “project retros” for short.

The concept is simple. After a project period or phase ends, schedule 30-45 minutes for everyone to discuss how the project went using this three-question framework:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t go as well as hoped?
  3. What can we do to improve working together moving forward?

That’s it. This forum empowers people to provide candid input, give praise to other team members and focus on solutions to make the next project go better.

It’s cool to see a team well-tuned for the next project after a good retrospective.

There you go. Two project investments I’ve found worthy of the time. Do you do something similar? If not, try these and let me know how they go.

Until next time.

Informed Simplicity

A significant part of the work I do these days is focused on creating simplicity. The kind of simplicity I’m talking about may be different from what you have in your mind. The type I’m referring to is informed simplicity.

Let me explain.

Ask any child to draw a picture of their home and you’ll get a simple picture. My four-year-old, Matthew, did one the other day. The page was colored with green crayon for the grass, a yellow circle with lines coming out of it for the sun, and a brown box with a triangle on top for a house. Oh, and there were five stick figures in the yard. Two big ones (me and Sherry), two small ones (he and his brother), and our dog. It’s a simple drawing. But it’s simple because that’s all he knows and all he can do.

Now, look at Piet Mondrian. He’s one of my favorite modern artists. His most famous paintings are simple. But unlike Matthew’s drawing, he applies informed simplicity. It’s by choice. Piet takes the complex and subtracts all the parts that don’t work or get in the way. What’s interesting is Mondrian was an impressionist early in his career and later on developed the clear abstract style called De Stijl or “the style”.

Coco Chanel’s famous quote comes to mind.

Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.

This applies to software features, design, marketing and especially copywriting. It also applies to relationships and strategies.

The hard part is knowing what is the right thing to remove. This is a big part of my job and a lesson I’ll always be learning.