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.

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.