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Stop doing what you’re supposed to do

Stop doing what you’re supposed to do

January 14, 2020   |   Design Thinking, Identity

What are you supposed to be doing right now?

Probably not reading this article. I’m a distraction. I’m the kid your mom warned you about, the one who will keep you from doing what you’re supposed to do.

But isn’t there something you’d rather be doing? Something you want to do?

I know, you’re an adult and you gave that sort of thing up years ago. You have responsibilities. I sound like fun and all, but you really need to get back to what you’re supposed to be doing.

But do you? Really?

Let me tell you a story real quick. I’m with a client the other day – nonprofit – to discuss their online systems for class registrations and fundraising, and to tell the truth, it’s not what I want to be doing so I’m pretty cranky.

They’ve shown up very prepared. They always do. They’re serious and competent and have to be accountable for every penny they spend. So in the research they’ve done, they’ve prioritized their budget and what’s practical for now. But then the say something that gets my attention.

“This is what we can do until we get the system we want in three to five years.”

And all of the sudden I’m excited to be there, because I get to derail the entire conversation.

I love being the monkey wrench.

Because we are looking at months of work and no small sum of money for something they’ll want to replace in three years, which means something they’ll want to replace the moment we start working on it. So I ask them: “Is this what you really want?”

And now, there’s this chewy, weighted, and confused silence. None of us gets asked that question often enough. We’ve all learned to ignore what we want to focus on what we’re supposed to do.

Which brings me to a dismal failure of mine. Sometimes you can’t just be the monkey wrench. You have to aim it at the right spot, and when you miss, it’s what we call a good learning experience.

I’m with a client – nonprofit again. Similar room of focused, busy people who deal with difficult issues every day on a tight budget with intense oversight. We’re working on a communications strategy, something we always build by listening to the people in an organization.

It’s a cliche, but your organization is your people. If they feel like they’ve had a say in your communications, they’ll take ownership of them. Better yet, if your communications take into account why your people are there and what they want to achieve, they’re motivating. Getting mission to align with what your people want to accomplish in the world turns communications into strategy and makes your mission that much more achievable.

But, and this is a big but, it’s hard to get people to tell you what they want. If you just ask they’re going to tell you what they think they’re supposed to say. And this is a monkey wrench moment, where we play games to get more intuitive responses and real insight.

In this case, a game where we embody different constituent types and take a tour of their facility like we’ve never seen it before. The goal is the break people out of their normal thinking patterns, to try to give them fresh eyes on the same old tired things they see every day.

So we’re playing this tour game. No, let me correct that. I’m playing this game. They’re having none of it. They are dead silent, following around on this tour like angry middle schoolers in detention. Or more accurately, angry nonprofit staff who think their time is being wasted with nonsense instead of doing what they’re supposed to be doing right now.

And instead of being the monkey wrench and working them out their stuck place, I starting doing what I’m supposed to do – get us to the end hoping I learn enough to do the work for them.

It’s a failure of leadership. I pride myself on my ability to distract, to get grown ups to play like kids. Play and laughter help you escape what you’re supposed to do and entertain what you want to do instead.

And that’s what we need to hear. When we know that, we know how to create communications that have grown organically from the organization and are about achieving strategic objective. If your people are excited about what they’re doing because it’s what they want to be doing, they won’t just do it better, they’ll communicate it better.

What I should have done in that moment was improvisation.

I’ve mentioned an improv game in a previous article that shows people the power of saying “yes, and,” versus “no” or “yes, but”. This helps people see the importance of exploring ideas and building on them, that by opening yourself up to a process, you can develop ideas very quickly and at no cost. It’s amazing what you can discover when you do that.

Quick recap of the exercise – two people team together and plan a vacation. There are three rounds. In each, one person suggests where to go and their partner responds. First round, that partner says “no” to every suggestion. Let’s go to Brazil. No. No plan made, no idea explored.

That’s not what happened during our touring game. What happened during the tour is an example of round two. The partner says, “yes, but.” Let’s tour this facility as if we’re seeing for the first time. The response I get in this case – literally – is, “Yes, but we have seen it all before.”

That was my cue. I missed my cue. I’ve been on stage since I was three (another life, see my other blog) how did I miss that?

That was the moment I should have stopped the tour and done this exercise. Because in round three the partner says, “yes, and.” Let’s go to Brazil. Yes, and let’s go to the beach while we’re there. And see Christ the Redeemer in Rio. And I see there are $399 ticket specials that include two nights hotel stay. Whoa, we can do this!

You see the difference. I see the difference. But the moment is past and that’s why it’s a learning experience. That’s why we approach them differently next time. Because I want to help them communicate what they want.

Which brings us back to the first nonprofit and a room full of quiet tension and possibility. A room that was just asked what they really want.

We start exploring, prototyping exactly the system they want. We find the company that can build it. Can they afford it? Very probably not, but something else really powerful has happened.

In developing the idea, we put down on paper what it can accomplish. It can increase staff capacity by eliminating the need for manual entry of client data. It can improve the client experience by streamlining the registration process and creating a portal that provides comprehensive records and student portfolios. And by tracking specific metrics, automating report generation, and showing long-term program benefits, it can substantially increase fundraising ability. The list goes on.

And when a certain funder sees that list, they’re so impressed that the organization gets a grant to do the work. One month later.

Getting the system they want now is suddenly a possibility because we allowed ourselves to envision what we wanted. We created the opportunity to compress their development cycle and advance the organization faster than they thought possible. We’re looking at the very real possibility of having that system in place for their fall programming 2020.

All because we decided to say “yes, and,” letting us explore what they really wanted. You just have to give yourself permission to do that. Because sometimes, and this is one of those time, what you want can help close to 2,000 kids get better programs in your service area.

And that’s what I want.