(Or, how to think about strategy)
Trying to get things done and pursuing a long-term goal can be daunting. You are aiming at an eventuality that is still quite far off. You have a sense of where you are going but don’t know quite know how to get there.
You see the mountain top, the main goal you are trying to accomplish, but you are still far off. You have started by doing it badly, but that’s just step one of hundreds of steps to get there.
Is there a way of thinking, a way of acting, that allows the actions we take to build on each other, to gain momentum, and build into a giant snowball racing furiously to our destination?
I think there is, and it’s a combination of strategic thinking and aiming for the domino effect.
Usually people’s efforts are haphazard, they are busy tied up doing a thousand and one things, but none of it is proactive, they are simply reacting to their environment. They end up expending energy in numerous directions, and achieving relatively little, running and running but staying in the same place.
But imagine if you could reduce or at least hone your efforts so they all work together to provide better results faster, building on each other to move you to the new place you desire.
That is the idea of strategy. Of achieving superior results with the same level of activity but just better directed. This is essentialism, this is the one thing, this is make less, work more.
Good strategy takes a look at the facts as they are. What are you really trying to achieve, what are the real problems in your way, what can you tackle and solve, in what order do you tackle them and what cohesive set of actions will you take to get there?
The domino effect is illustrated in the book ‘The One Thing’. Gary talks about lining up your dominoes. Each domino is an action or a mini goal. You place your goals in the right order, knowing what the one thing that would make everything else easier or move you closer towards your goal. You line that one thing up so that doing it will knock down the next thing that would make everything easier or move you closer to your goal. And so on and so forth.
Overtime, domino hits domino, and you build momentum with the energy growing and transferring with each action and toppled target.
For this to work, you need to have a sense of the interconnectedness of things between where you are now and where you are going. And you have to respect the order in which you are doing them. If you tackle the wrong domino, you will have wasted effort and need to double back to fix it.
It is like the designer or client that so eager to jump into the aesthetic design of a product without tackling the domino of strategy – who is it for, what do they need, why should they care. Or the fitness chaser running around in the gym without sorting out her nutrition first. Or worse still, a builder crafting the most gorgeous building without setting a proper foundation first.
You must strive to tackle your dominoes in the right order. In that way, each step you take would improve your odds of success.
When you let your moves stack on each other, each action creates a result that becomes the seed of the next action. So, with my business for instance, taking the time out to clarify a service offering – brand, design, digital – makes it easier for me to communicate and sell services. Taking time to define work processes for each service, makes it easier for me to work and replicate the process with clients. The design process includes me making mockups and prepping the products to look a certain way, which makes it easier down the line to showcase work done on the website, which then act as case studies and feed into content, which then feeds to sales and more work and growth for the company.
In that way, each move is made to make the subsequent moves easier, and the results of each move serve as the beginning of the next move.
To accomplish this, you have to be able to hold a vision of a desired result or situation, and then hazard a guess, a hypothesis of the possible ways forward, and then track a path that will lead you eventually to said goal.
Making your moves stack on each other can be weird territory. When you start, you don’t know anything, you are exploring options and looking for something that resonates, that grips your attention. And then you find it, and you keep working on it, you start to garner some recognition, some attention. Your moves start to give you a position that you can leverage to the next thing.
Sometimes it is easy enough, you can track your path fairly clearly, you have a good enough idea of what is needed, and the conditions are stable. Sometimes it is much harder than that, because the fog is thick, and conditions are constantly changing. You may not be able to identify all the dominoes, but you can work to increase your odds of success.
This is where you have to be woke to what you are trying to achieve and look for opportunities to move closer to that. Sometimes, you need to side step and tackle things obliquely. Sometimes it might even mean slowing down on the thing that has gotten you here, so that you can invest in the thing that will take you there.
But keep this idea in mind, hold a long-term view of your vision, connect the dots backwards and let each action become a stepping stone, and each lesson another arrow in your quiver, your moves will build and propel you to your destiny.
When you absolutely must get things done.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, two books I read in 2016 really changed my approach to life, and my work. They represent two concepts that work together to provide a powerful one – two punch combo that supercharges your ability to get things done.
The first book was “The One Thing” which I have written about. The One Thing offers the idea that only one thing really matters above all. On the macro level, there is the One thing you choose to make your life all about. In the day to day, there is the One Thing you could do that would make other things easier or unnecessary. It’s all about defining your vision and lining up your dominoes and whacking away at the first one until it falls and topples the next one with topples the next one and so on.
The second book is Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Deep work is the ability to focus on a hard task, to really concentrate for a long enough period of time. According to Newport, it is a skill that is becoming increasingly rare in a world filled with easy to access distraction. It is also a skill that is becoming incredibly important and useful in a networked world that needs you to learn skills quickly to thrive, and that allows you to affect millions with just your phone. We are too distracted at our work or at our businesses to give the right amount of effort and focus on the key tasks or projects that would make a definite difference. Doubly so for creatives or knowledge workers who need to expend considerable mental effort to produce good work.
There is a feature of the iPhone (and most other phones I would imagine, I’m hopelessly lost to the Apple hype train) that is irrefutably the best feature of the phone. It is not the above average camera (Samsung kicks its ass in my opinion), it’s not the design and how sleek it looks, it’s not the fact that it makes me look cool when I whip it out. It is the airplane mode function. With a swipe and a tap, I can turn the device from a portal to the infinite distraction machine that is the internet into a shiny paperweight.
Deep Work is the reason my phone is on airplane mode at least 50% of the time. This book is the reason I am many times unreachable, much to the chagrin of my friends and clients (I am so sorry guys but let me explain). It is also the reason I have been able to work on my business and my brand consistently over the past 18 months. It is the reason my design work has gotten stronger, the reason I’m learning faster and the reason my general productivity (the ability to get things done) has doubled or maybe even tripled.
It is also the reason I am less stressed and haven’t tried to hug a kitchen knife.
You see, regardless of how urgent and pressing everything feels, ultimately only a few things really matter. Out of the 100 or so different things you do or get asked to do today, probably none of them actually move you forward in any meaningful way towards a better life or better experience in 5 years. But if we know where we want to go, we can focus on the things that matter and move intentionally towards our BHAGs.
When you combine those two ideas, you are able to focus on what is most important and devote the kind of time and attention that it deserves. It is doing Deep Work on your One Thing.
In the midst of life’s noise, you can take the time to figure out what you want, count the cost, define the key activities and line up the dominoes. Now is the time to cultivate empty space, to block out some time that you can pay attention to the things that really matter. To learn the new skill, to work on the new business idea, to make some art, or simply to give back or build relationships. This is the time for Deep Work.
If I get anything done, and get it done well, or even quickly, my first step is always to switch the phone off. None of that ‘I’ll just put it face down’, that doesn’t work. Psychically I’m still attached, I’m still wondering about who’s trying to get in touch with me. It has to be off, and then finally I feel shut off from the world enough to allow my ideas and creative energy to bubble up to the surface.
Give it a try. If it’s too hard, put your phone in the drawer or the laundry basket or wherever. Just practice being cut off from your phone. See what that does for what you are working on.
When last did you give your full attention to a task? It feels very tempting to multitask. The pleasure of scrolling through our Instagram feeds, or losing hours of time to YouTube is very compelling and addictive. But if you are to get things done, if you are to move steadily to that BHAG, its very useful to learn how to switch off.
Even if it is just to think. From the moment we wake up, notice how we are mentally highjacked by our feeds. My first impulse when I wake up is to check my messages. First Whatsapp, then the Inbox, then Twitter (never Instagram until I’m mentally ready for that kind of mental and emotional assault). And just like that, my day can get highjacked by the needs and demands for others. Live like this enough days in a row and soon you are swept up in a fog of distraction, mediocrity and dissatisfaction. We all need space to think, to connect with ourselves, to heal, to spend some time in reflection or in the quiet pursuit of an interest or a craft.
The ability to go deep, both in your craft, in work and in your life will produce many benefits. It is a required resource in the marathon of pursuing your BHAG and cultivating a happy life. If you can isolate your main thing, and steadily devote time to it, you will stop feeling listless and more focused. And as you get better at it, that momentum of actually doing things will propel you to do some incredible things.
This is a slight rant on something I have been experiencing in the past few weeks.
I started out in this design/design business thing self taught. I learned to use the software and I’ve been sloughing away at it ever since. In the 7-8 years I’ve been doing this, I have probably designed up to thousands of pieces and artifacts – logos, mailers, flyers, websites, etc. Over time I have gotten good at delivering visually pleasing work quickly and within the chaotic constraints of the typical client service business.
For most creatives, the most exciting part of our work is the actual creative part, making the thing, the logo or the booklet or the poster. Many times I have fallen into the trap of becoming nothing more than a tool for the client, a pixel pusher. Do this, do that, move that there, without much regard for my opinion or ideas on what works. That was entirely my fault. I did not understand the value I brought to the table nor could I communicate that effectively.
In the chaotic landscape of client services, things tend to be frantic. Everything is always due yesterday. There is often not a good enough understanding of the connection between design output and business objectives. Design becomes a last minute exercise quickly producing pieces of communication without any form of strategy or intent.
This is a mistake.
Sure you can get a nice looking design out of a competent designer working this way. But creating design that actually works, design that clarifies your intentions and aims your efforts, design that sets u up for greater success beyond the project at hand, that is something else entirely. That is the love child of good process and talent.
The Design Method outlined by Eric Karjaluoto in his book goes as follows: Discovery – Planning – Creative – Application. Newbie designers and most clients are happy jumping right into the creative. However they miss out on the many benefits of engaging the first two steps.
Discovery allows you to fully understand the problem at hand, it gives you context. Ideally, the designer should be able to immerse himself/herself into the world of the client and understand how the business works, what the problems are and how the audience interacts with them. Discovery has the benefit of helping the client understand what’s really going on with the business. Are there gaps in the communications? Do you understand what you really do? Do you understand what you are selling? Do you have objectives, and do you know how you are going to achieve them?
Planning helps connect the insights from discovery to the nitty gritty of execution. It provides a plan of action of what needs to be done, targeted to whom and by when. It gives purpose to your efforts and ensures you don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
Respecting the process transforms a simple brief for a website for a bus company to a holistic communication solution geared at increasing online sales. Instead of just a website, the client is steered towards adopting online marketing, referral campaigns and developing e-commerce solutions. A directive to design new labels for a budding craft beer brand now turns into the task of the defining and refreshing company brand in light of their new investment, offerings and aspirations. Instead of just labels, the brand is rewarded with a deeper understanding of itself and a roadmap for handling communications moving forward.
Rushing through the design process to the production bit might be satisfying in the short term, but you miss out on a ton of value left on the table in the long term.
Over the past few years, in my quest to become a better designer, I have been faced with two related ideas – the need for a good process, and consideration of the larger context.
A good process allows me as a designer to work in a way that is systematic. It helps me walk clients through the project from start to finish. I am also able to cover all the important points consistently, and the process allows me to build consequentially. Stage 1 provides a foundation of understanding around the project and goals, the next stage builds a framework to organize execution, and so on, until I get to designing outputs that are firmly rooted in insights and strategy.
As a designer, every design, every action taken sits within a larger context that will ultimately influence the success or failure of the project. If one jumps directly into design trying to make something cool and aesthetically dope, we end up with nothing more than superficial solutions. To have real impact, the work of the designer starts way before he puts pencil to paper or opens up that blank Photoshop canvas.
You have to ask yourself, ‘what is the client trying to achieve?’ – More sales? Increased awareness? Or are they simply trying to communicate to a specific audience? Considering the intent of the design project increases the chances of designing something appropriate and on target.
Engaging in this exercise can seem very time consuming. All you want to do is jump right in and do the fun stuff. But the step back is crucial. If you can define what the brand you working on is all about, who their audience is, what their key messaging is and their objectives are, you can set out a creative strategy framework that would allow the brand to be deployed beyond the specific output you are presently working on.
As an entrepreneur or business person, you may find yourself in need of a design output – a logo, a profile, a brochure, a website, or a full CI (Corporate Identity). It would do a world of good to clearly define your brand first. Your company or product sits in an ecosystem with multiple competitors, multiple audiences and numerous external forces. It is important to define clearly who you are, what you do, why you do it, who you do it for and who should care. It is important to know what is unique about you and the value you bring so you can consistently speak to that and with every subsequent release of communication you can reinforce your brand and build equity over time.
Understanding your brand and intent has the powerful effect of helping to direct your efforts in the day to day running of your business and its development. With a clear sense of who you are and what you do, you know how to focus your operations and work in line with your brand and maximize your returns. You won’t split your energy into pursuing things that seem interesting or opportunistic but are out of brand character. It will help you build a stronger more focused business over time.
Live with intention.
About 5 years ago, I wrote about the idea of looking at life as a design problem. As a designer, solving problems, or creating approaches to nebulous situations fascinates me. I enjoy balancing a mix of contradictory ideas to find a workable whole. The mindset and toolkits of the designer are uniquely positioned for innovation. They allow those who use them to create something remarkable.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about ‘life by design’ – the idea that you can intentionally design the kind of life you want to live. Not a new concept at all, it’s the core idea of personal development. But I’m wondering what happens when you apply design techniques and thinking to life and growth.
I think that is my personal theme for the New Year. 2016 was a good year for me, despite the shit storm it was out there. I spent more than half of it pulling back, learning, digging deep and setting up foundation for the things I want to do next. It has shown me glimpses to the great power of planning; of strategy and letting your actions build on one another.
Sometimes we find ourselves in tough places, where external conditions are so strong that it seems near impossible to live the life we want. But still, there is some sort of way out. Being a designer means looking at what we want and taking stock of the situation at hand, and fighting until we find some way to make it work. There is a loophole to exploit; there is a different way of reframing the problem. The solution may have to be hard earned, but we will find it.
On a long enough timeline, you can innovate your way out of any problem.
Which means that no matter how bad things are today, something can be done, you can move from point A to point B. You can take action such that over time, you will grow into and live the life that you desire.
It starts with intention. To design anything, you need a brief, something to focus your efforts. Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? What do you want to have? What do you want to give? What obstacles do you face? Take a honest look in the mirror and take stock of yourself, your desires and your present situation.
Sometimes the solutions are obvious and simple. It’s getting ourselves to take action that is the tough part. You can design change into your life by transforming your environment to suit your new goals. You can set up your routine in such a way that it supports you and propels you forward. The company you keep, the media you consume, the habits you develop all drive your outcomes in seemingly innocuous but powerful ways.
More often than not, the solutions are not obvious. You will have to explore and experiment and endure the process. The more you ask, answer and tinker, the more you will learn and the answer will emerge.
It’s a proactive way of looking at the world. You acknowledging that though there is a lot we don’t control in the world, we are ultimately responsible for what we choose and what we do. Life is not a linear path, it meanders. It’s full of ups and downs, back and forths. It’s messy. But we are up to the task. We will live by design.
Coming up with ideas is fun. Executing them…not so much. Especially if you have a lot of inertia. You know, having a lot of ideas and not ever doing anything to make them a reality. And its true, making things happen can be hard, its messy. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio? Most times it’s a glorious chaos of paint and brushes everywhere, half done experiments and sketches, pieces of inspiration. Any form of creation requires a fair amount of mucking around, of doubting yourself, of false starts and detours…and of course…failure.
But if you embrace that mess, all that remains is the work. You just have to do the work. Execution isn’t pretty, it is quite messy, sometimes painful. Its banging your head against the wall for days on end looking for answers. Its long nights at the office or at your desk. But that’s where the real fun is. In stretching yourself and growing, wrestling with creation until it yields and you are rewarded with the rewards and the lovely side effect of deeper self knowledge and experience.
I made a piece of graphic art to remind myself of this concept, Check it out here.