In the summer of 2019 (15 months ago at the time of writing this post), I saw a problem with how we were tackling projects and began talking with my teammates about a proposed approach.
The problem: estimates for every new project were growing higher and higher. A $20,000 project that we finished three months ago was estimated at $25,000 today, $30,000 3 months from now, and so on.
The cause: somewhere along the way, we stopped planning. At the time, I likened it to hopping in the car for a road trip with a destination — but no map or smartphone. We’d start the journey excited that we were off to New York. Weeks later, we’d arrive in Alaska.
At the time, and in the nine months following, I preached that we needed to relook at how we tackled any initiative. I recommended that we break work down into a few steps:
- Understand the overall ask. What is our partner asking us to help them achieve? Do they want to establish a brand? Do they want to increase the number of leads? Do they want to cut down on the amount of dust covering neighboring businesses from their construction site? Write the ask down. Come back to it throughout the project to both ground and guide your efforts.
- Break down the requirements. Break the requirements down into small, bite-sized, and understandable tasks.
- Determine the path of least resistance. I used to ask the team, “What’s the direct path from A to B? Start with that, and don’t be distracted by the what-ifs along the way.” Develop a hypothesis and sketch/prototype a proposed solution.
- Validate your work. Check with teammates and the client to ensure you’re on the right page.
- Rinse and repeat on 3 and 4. Keep running through your tasks, testing small and validating along the way.
- Polish and assess. When done, evaluate with your team and the client that you got everything in your scope. If we missed anything, tackle it now. Do we need to polish the result? Do that now.
What I was asking the team to do, going back to our road trip scenario, was to start by mapping out the legs of the journey. Progress one leg at a time, staying the course, rather than just focusing on the final destination. I was admittedly frustrated over those nine months as I didn’t see the abrupt transition I’d hoped for. Albeit, my message was probably much clearer in my head than I was able to communicate at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, the work we were producing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was really quite good. But it was over-architected. Because we didn’t properly blueprint the work, it became really easy to justify why we needed to add any good idea or consideration along the way. If we were asked to build you a house, we built a sturdy house. But then we ensured that a Porsche, Tesla, bicycle, and skateboard were in the garage — along the way, convincing ourselves that variety and futureproofing were needed. For the luck of the client, we didn’t charge them for what was in the garage, those were little easter eggs that unfortunately they didn’t really need or use.
But then, something unexpected happened. A pandemic hit. Once the “holy crap, what do we do?!?!” feeling passed, I quickly realized that we had found ourselves in an opportunity.
In the business world, COVID-19 created two things (well, three, but enough has been written of uncertainty): a sense of panic; and a sense of urgency. The pandemic forced us into the approach I’d tried so hard, for the better part of a year, to unearth and instill in the team. We were forced to deliver more value with less time and money. Our clients no longer had the luxury of weeks and months of planning, concepts, testing, then production — their businesses simply couldn’t wait for our typical process.
COVID-19 has forced a transition of our business from that of a service vendor to a true strategic partner. Helping our clients, and teammates, to hone in on what’s important and of value. We must now get laser-focused on the core of an ask, develop and validate a hypothesis, deliver a minimum viable product (MVP), get to market, and work with them to evolve on it based on consumer behaviors.
The beginning of the shift in our approach became a realization a couple of months into the pandemic when a retail client was looking to re-staff some physical stores. They had a vision of setting up curbside pickup, initiated by customers shopping their website. In 10 days, we were able to understand the problem, agree on a solution, then get them up and running in-time for stores to open. We kept it simple, and it worked! Customers were rapid to adopt, and store sales began to rebound.
This week we had a website that the client needed in less than 24 hours. Without skipping a beat, some key members of the project team had a huddle, where we prototyped a solution within 45 minutes that met the requirements. The prototype was passed to the designer and developer, who worked together to complete the task within another 4 hours. After a review, the team added some polish the next morning and had the site done and ready for launch — a fantastic feat from a talented team.
The world of marketing had become so focused on stunts and awards that, entering a global pandemic, had lost sight of how to help businesses solve problems and achieve goals. Our industry is being tested to re-consider how we can provide the right value to our partners: delivering smart, simple, and customer-focused solutions that allow their business to pursue its mission. Simplifying our approach to cut out the bullshit and focus on the leg of the journey is the best way that we can provide that value.