Diagnosing the system, then using success as a surgical scalpel


In yesterday's blog I wrote about the dilemma of personal change. Specifically, not being sure what to do when a personality trait both helps you and gets in your way. Essentially, you want to retain the benefit of the trait, while mitigating the downside, and that's not easy to do.

In thinking about the "helps you" part I go back to this nice note a customer sent me. It was a thank you for "the professionalism, dedication and care that you and you staff have given to the marketing of (campaign). It has been and it is an honor and a privilege to work with you and the people in the Office of Public Affairs."

It occurred to me that although sometimes we have creative differences about method, customers universally have found our office to be immediately responsive to their needs and very well able to grasp the nature of the challenges they face. My part of the effort has long been to take on their cause as a kind of crusade, helping them bust through the bureaucratic barriers that can cause frustrating delays. Sometimes it literally feels like being a character in a TV show, huge hacking sword in hand, cutting away at the low-hanging tree limbs that impede progress.

So I guess you could say, as somebody said in a comment on the blog, "broaden the problem to include the customer" and they will value that you're a hard charger on their behalf.

Thinking more about that note, it reflected a campaign that everybody left feeling good about. The customer relationship was good, the communication content was good, and we even got to be innovative - incorporating branding, new media and social media:

1.  We created ONE simple but bold visual + tagline and used it across everything

2. We used QR codes for the first time (they let me program it using a free online tool!)

3. We wrote a public service announcement in-house, got approval almost immediately, recorded it pretty much the same day, and then made it easily available online, free

4.  We created downloadable print ads of varying sizes that any outlet could take and run with

5. All of this is easily shareable via Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How did we do that?

The answer has to do with culture, a factor that is routinely overlooked when it comes to designing better work processes. (I know that sociology degree would come in handy sometime.)

Very roughly, culture is "the way we do things around here." It is a set of behaviors that derive from shared values - beliefs about what is right and wrong.

* On one extreme, if the organization believes that "the role of a communicator is to make the customer happy," then the norms associated with those beliefs will tilt towards letting the customer dictate the content of the communication.

* On the other extreme, if the organization believes that "the role of a communicator is to create impactful communication," then the norms will have to do with producing work that is solid from an audience perspective, whether the customer likes it or not.

In the case of the project that worked well, the customer was made happy by seeing the communicators create impactful communication. He was joyful to be part of the communication process, but he also stepped back and said, in effect, "I am a subject matter expert but they know their craft." 

Similarly, we said, "we know communication but he knows the program itself and can tell us if we're not portraying it accurately." We discussed and collaborated but there was clear "role distinction" (to borrow a sociology term) and a division of labor. 

It also did not hurt that the customer and his supervisor were both native New Yorkers like myself. So apart from the organizational values that created shared norms for the project, we shared a direct, "take no offense" communication style geared only toward achieving results.

If I could replicate the processes that created success in this project in the future, here's what I would do:

1. At the initial meeting to kick off the project, spend sufficient time that the goals of the project are clarified and that the roles are clear.

2. Make sure that the project team is comfortable with one another - that there is a good working chemistry. Replace team members if necessary.

3. Hold separate internal meetings (apart from the customer) to discuss new ideas to be presented rather than presenting them at customer meetings first. (This is how advertising agencies operate.)

4. Create small successes to engage and delight the customer and create forward momentum for next steps - rather than delivering all products in one shot at the end.

5. Respond to all emails, phone calls, and inquiries from the customer immediately, even if it's just to say "we'll call you back by X time." And then do so. Follow up with them if there's been a lag. Quietude does not mean that nothing is happening.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to look to the individuals who comprise a system when asking about its overall functioning. One thing I've learned over the years is that when there are challenges, it's likely that there is something going on in the system that needs course-correcting. And that the best way to actually make those changes is to look for examples of success in the context of that particular organization, and then copy that.

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!


Photo source here