Real Artists Ship. Great Ones Collaborate Along The Way.
While Steve Jobs’s death brought out the expected outpouring of grief, reflection, and inspirational quotes, adding to the pile of effusion is not a goal of mine. Yet, as I randomly watched various YouTube clips of his speaking engagements during my holiday break, the following video struck me as unusually insightful.
At first it seems like commonplace advice. Yet, Steve Jobs is probably considered one of the most efficient, action-oriented, and results-driven business personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the guy who said, “Real artists ship.” This is Apple - the biggest “startup” in the world, and consciously non-bureaucratic. Yet, two points are very clear when he talks about managing people.
- Every week, Steve Jobs met to discuss the overall business for three hours with his team.
- During the week, Steve Jobs met with various project and department leaders to get updates, strategize, share ideas, nudge, and prod.
Since Apple is as much a marketing as a technology company, Jobs’s viewpoint on how we collaborate as marketers is worth examining more closely.
Fast Company’s December 11, 2011 article, “Why In-Person Socializing Is A Mandatory To-Do Item,” pushes the issue even further. Author Kevin Purdy explains how we are hardwired to do our best work when we converse and collaborate. Trying to eliminate too much face-time can actually have a negative effect on productivity - despite management fads, social media, and collaboration software suggesting otherwise. However, much of today’s discussions about collaboration in marketing typically centers on cloud and social networking tools rather than the more fundamental principles of what creates an effective collaborative environment.
Is “we should collaborate more” an obvious insight? Unfortunately, not necessarily. While I could reference many historical evolutions (dictatorships to collaborative democracies, the evolution of science, proprietary to open source software, etc.), we can take a look at one - how Internet marketing has evolved over time. It began as a one way broadcast channel through static webpages, but it was a HUGE insight (enough of a novelty so that we had to call it “Web 2.0”) to simply have two-way communication and collaboration on the web. Enough of a novelty that we have an industry called “interactive marketing” (versus “traditional marketing”). It means that collaboration may be essential to organizations, from societies and businesses, but not so obvious that we do it instinctively and effectively from the start of our endeavors.
It’s tempting when you’re in an action-oriented industry like marketing to skimp on collaboration. Even then, it’s easy to just focus on deliverables like a machine – cranking them out to get the work done, the reports created, and the client ROI established. However, think of your marketing team like you’re going on a mountain climb. Would you gather your team at the base of the mountain, point to the summit, tell your team you need to get there, assume they all have mountain climbing skills and experience, and start hiking? Maybe you walk together, maybe you don’t, but you just hope you all get to the top. After all, you still set a goal and expect a result. But what is lacking?
In other words, if you have a goal, a team, and an expected result, why would you bother to talk and collaborate? Why would you check in regularly with each other? Analyze different routes together? Plan when to take breaks, rest, and eat? Talk to each other along the way? Those are just intangibles. But which team do you think would get to the top of the mountain faster and more efficiently? And with more confidence and knowledge, especially if they had to climb other and bigger mountains in the future?
So, how do you add more collaboration while staying results-oriented? Collaboration can be very intangible and hard to pinpoint when it’s lacking. Three specific areas are worth examining to self-assess.
Are We Having Weekly Meetings or Check-ins? Even the best teams and people can go astray without regular check-ins. Priorities shift, different people have different ideas on where to go, and entropy creeps into an environment quickly. Just as we check in with clients regularly, we need to do so with ourselves.
That means not just tactically, but strategically. Key project team members should always be intellectually engaged with the business, not simply reporting on a bunch of dry deliverables and metrics – which equates to checking in and checking out as part of a boring 9-5 job. In addition to tactical discussion, weekly meetings or check-ins should cover:
- What’s everybody’s load?
- How are we approaching our clients?
- What obstacles exist?
- What new trends are we hearing about?
- What networking and educational events are coming up?
- How is our work helping advance our agency’s business?
- How are we advancing our clients’ business objectives?
- How are we evolving and following these objectives on a week-to-week, and month-to-month basis?
In other words, when Jobs said “talk about the business,” he means to take it up another level. Meet not to discuss your to-do list, but to discuss business strategy and (when appropriate) the business’s vision and mission.
Orientation. Whether it’s a new role, a new client, or a new market, it’s essential to spend time collaborating to orient oneself. That means a meeting room, a whiteboard, and some upfront time to talk. For example, when someone is brought onto a team, it’s tempting to just hope their experience and a review of a pile of documents will get them up to speed. A new client will hopefully be so much like previous clients that we can just get started on deliverables. Or a new vertical or business direction will probably go somewhat like the others, so let’s just get started. Unfortunately, in the race to get started, the car stalls.
As a simple example, writing an article doesn’t seem that hard, especially with so many experienced writers ready to produce one on a dime. When I used to edit a magazine, one of my earliest mistakes was to assume a writer (especially an A writer) would take my rough direction for an article and produce something great in about a month. Here’s the business objective, get me the result. That never happened, and I suffered multiple disasters where writers had gone so far astray from my original assignment that I had to rewrite at the last minute. That wasted time, angered writers, angered myself, and angered my editor and publisher. All of that disappeared when I spent more upfront time orienting the writer about the article topic, including them in the editorial process, and checking in with them along the way. That saved time and produced better results.
Applied to marketing, orientation simply means to sit down and talk about strategy, approach, and ideas related to the new task at hand. When a new team member comes on board, it’s an opportunity not only to educate them about clients and processes, but also to reexamine one’s own strategy and approach to work. That new team member should have valuable input and experience that is different from your status quo, and that input should be made welcome. For new clients, it helps for key team members to sit down and strategize about the client’s business from a fresh perspective. Not only does this kind of routine strategy session flesh out more, higher quality ideas, but it also keeps the marketing team’s thinking fresh. Even if a new client seems like many others, there may be a few nuanced differences. Maybe one of those differences is what will make a stunning, successful marketing campaign. But if you don’t discuss, debate, and get excited about that new client, your service becomes like fast food – low quality output, done as quick as possible, with very little thought. Upfront, proactive orientation prevents that from ever happening, and can get you intellectually excited about new projects.
Dialogue and Debate. This element is hardest to define when it’s lacking. You can’t force people to like each other, converse with each other, and get excited during the course of their work. True dialogue and debate about the business or clients means allowing and encouraging time for rigorous disagreement and opposing points-of-view about strategy and approach. To get to this point, there needs to be a lot of respect and trust. Team members have to feel that their viewpoints are welcome, that discussion is not a waste of time (or pulling them away from putting out fires), and that debates result in better serving clients or the business.
In a recent brainstorming session for a client, we brought together team members from design, content strategy, and search to all discuss a concept. While previous meetings had still approximated and headed toward a decent result, the cross-departmental discussion raised the bar a few notches by clashing together startlingly different viewpoints about the same topic. This dialogue and debating brought out a wealth of great ideas, rather than just a few good ideas. And you can bet that discussion and debate led to a better marketing deliverable to our client than by simply limiting the discussion to one team or a few people.
I hate to sound cliché and say, “If Steve Jobs says it’s good, then it’s good.” But I think Steve Jobs intuitively understood (quicker and better than most, to be sure) how great ideas are produced, generated, and sustained over a long period of time. Similar to how democracy, science, open source software, or the Internet evolved, people work best when they collaborate – mixed with a results-oriented mindset. Don’t become bureaucratic, but don’t send your team up a mountain and say, “See you at the top!” Talk, interact – that’s not only part of the fun, but it also leads to better marketing – and better results.