Don't burn your stool
Analyzing how an org works, plus a picture of a drunk cat
Oh hello, oh hi!
A lovely day here on the high plain of Mexico City.
I was showing my friend Evvie this letter’s last issue, the one with the silly doodles of filing cabinets, and she was very kind and said “how did you get so good at this” and it reminded me of a thing i saw once
I was raised by cartoons and Tang!
And while that’s not strictly true, it is the case that it’s always a strange experience here at Delightful Enterprises.
Some days you get useful marketing resources and funny animal memes from me, and other days you get latchkey kid psychiatry and hand drawn office furniture, a combination of creative choices which resembles this other thing I saw once
No cats were injured in the creation of this meme.
Moving on to new business.
I recently started a new marketing project I wanted to tell you guys about.
It’s with a global non-profit.
They have a newsletter production problem. Creating newsletters is taking too much time. They think their marcom team isn’t working up to its potential, and their executives are being pulled into the content creation weeds. They also want to re-asses how their content marketing sub-org is structured.
Their question to me was, basically, how do we fix this process, and what mix of people and skills do we need to meet our goals?
So I want to share a bit about how I approach challenges like that, below.
Oh and also, to tell you not to see Amsterdam. Public service announcement. Not a good movie.
It’s good to see you, but don’t see that,
Oh Euclid, where are thou?
A good starting point for thinking about any organization is to consider, for a moment, a triangle.
This humble polygon illustrates a humble framework.
People do the work.
Processes make the work efficient.
Tools help people use processes.
These are, reductively, the shared variables in any and all orgs.
This particular∡PPT comes courtesy of the late Harold J. Leavitt and, happily enough, a cursory google will reveal all manner of articles about why Harry J’s tool can be useful for analyzing multivariate systems.
I mention this by way of recommendation.
I like this framework. Mostly, I like this framework because it’s barely a framework. Rather, it’s really just a simple mnemonic device that reminds you to analyze an org’s most important variables so you can understand how work actually gets done.
Should go without saying that you, when managing any one org, would ideally prefer the people and processes and tools each do equal work.
No person unable to perform their duties, no process inefficient or unmatched to the persons, and every tool providing a comfortable, glove-like fit to the people’s productive hands.
To proceed geometrically from our non-collinear premise, that would mean the org functioned not unlike an equilateral triangle: all vertices are the same degree, all sides the same length.
That’s the dream.
Sweet sweet Euclidean harmony.
This is, of course, not how anything works
Every organization I’ve experienced is in some way unbalanced.
The key is to understand exactly how, or why, and help the org take appropriate measures to ameliorate the problem.
Because if the problem doesn’t get ameliorated, or if the problem is misdiagnosed in the first place, then a whole cascade of unfortunate, further problems occur.
If you’d prefer a more tangible, homespun example, consider a stool.
You’ve got a leg for people, a leg for processes, a leg for tools.
If the tool leg is too short, then it doesn’t matter how sturdy its fellow legs are. Same with people and processes. If any one doesn’t perform, they degrade the value of the whole.
Then the stool tilts, somebody falls off the stool, then they’re embarrassed, they don’t trust the entire stool, now stools are the enemy, burn it all down.
People burning stools is what we want to avoid here.
Here’s an example
I was recently hired to help an org sort out a content marketing problem.
This is a thing I think I’m fairly good at. I started out in a newsroom, I’ve built newsrooms, and I’ve built processes to help newsrooms (or content studios, or marketing departments) work with other types of business-y rooms, e.g., sales and product development. I've built brand content departments. And ofc like many of you I’ve hired and firedand used many tools.
This org’s specific content marketing problem is newsletters.
The executive team thinks the creation process is taking too long, and that it’s too disruptive to other departments, and requires too much supervision from the executives themselves.
They’d like to increase their newsletter production, and improve other distribution channels, but they’re too busy putting out fires with the current process.
There are various and sundry other connected challenges, but that’s the crux of it: their people are frustrated, their process is frustrating, and their tools aren’t making the job any easier.
IOW their triangle is tilting towards isosceles and everybody wants to immolate the stool.
Let’s do some interviews
One sensical place to start, when commencing a project like this, is with the people.
Best way to do that is with interviews.
Stakeholders go first. Get a hand on the org’s strategy.
What is the org’s mission, what are the activities essential to that mission, who are the people trying to accomplish it.
Later, I’ll cross-reference this information with what the employees say during their interviews. Do they understand the mission? Do each of them think it’s the same? Do they all know where they’re marching to, and why, and how.
Back to the stakeholders. How are you judging success, what are the metrics, when and where do you review them, and how do you make decisions based on that data. Cross-reference those answers with employees, too.
Then what’s the org chart, what are the roles, what are the responsibilities, and how are you measuring employee performance.
This is all very usual: the why, the what, the how, the who.
You just want to understand the stakeholder’s mental model of their org.
But if you stop there, you only get a static sense of the org as an immobile, unmoving thing, trapped in amber like a business casual Jurassic Park.
Where are you going, where have you been
Here’s a wonder of an obvious nature: people respond to stories.
If you can tell a story about how an org arrived at its current predicament, you can highlight how specific problems came to be and help people understand how best to solve them.
So in interviewing people, you need to layer on when.
You can do this for the org, at first.
What was the org, what is the org now, and where is the org going, what’s keeping it from getting there. Asking questions around when will help you understand how the org evolved (purposefully, accidentally, erratically?) and why it evolved that way (circumstance, bad luck, by design, etc.), which gives you insight into decision-making patterns.
This is also a helpful line of questioning with staff.
Who were you, what are you now, where are you trying to go, what’s keeping you from getting there.
Now you’ve got a sense of movement, of incentives, of desires, of blockers, of competition.
This reveals fluidities and frictions within an org. Is a specific tool causing problems? Is a repeated personnel interaction causing problems? Is an employee’s frustration with a process undermining success? Maybe somebody doesn’t want to be in their role. Maybe they do want to be in their role, but they feel blocked from success by factors out of their control.
All things to look out for.
Btw these are the same questions
Here’s a thing worth pointing out.
If you’re a longtime reader of this letter, you might recognize that some of these interview questions are the same questions we ask when using the 12-step brand and content framework.
What’s your purpose, what’s your vision, what are your values, what’s your goal?
Like with the 12-step framework, we’re trying to get a sense of what makes you, you.
But, in this case, instead of coming at the problem from outside the org trying to create a marketing strategy, we’re coming at the problem from inside the org, trying to diagnose why that org isn’t marketing effectively.
Every creative problem is really just a question. Your job isn’t to provide an answer. Your job is to ask more questions until the answer, providentially, reveals itself.
We’re getting a bit long in the email tooth here, so allow me to share a few tools I use during this initial getting-to-know-you phase of a project, then I’ll tip my sombrero adios.
When interviewing employees, I like to borrow a tool from brand-building: the empathy map.
Gains are the benefits an employee receives for accomplishing her jobs. Gains include functional utility, positive emotions, opportunities for advancement, all of that.
Pains are obstacles or blockers to work. Pains can be workflow problems, personal problems, personnel problems, tool problems, all of that.
Jobs are a riff on the Jobs to Be Done concept. Simply, what are they trying to accomplish. Are they trying to solve a problem, finish a task, meet a long-term goal, move into a new position?
I use this as a personal note-taking device.
And, when I speak about an employee to a stakeholder, I refer to the map while telling a story.
Here’s an alternate and more complex version I created in Google Slides, go wild.
Another tool I quite enjoy is the Team Model.
It’s a simple method for illustrating team strengths and weaknesses.
You select a set of criteria important to the org, then you rank employees on those strengths.
Here’s an example for a marketing agency:
As you can see in the example above, this hypothetical team only has one employee who’s good at organizing (or self-directing and prioritizing) her work.
That weaknesses suggests a path to improvement, whether it’s training, bringing in additional team members, getting a project manager, or hiring with the team weakness in mind.
Related tool and concept: the Team Alignment Map.
Another tool you may be familiar with is the swim lane diagram.
Swim lane diagrams are a type of flowchart. They diagram a process from beginning to end, revealing which employee is responsible for which tasks. They’re kinda like circuitboards for people.
Swim lanes can be good for identifying bottlenecks and blockers. I find them overkill for most content orgs, but they do help me visualize certain challenges I may want to address.
I hope this has been helpful.
I’ve got to head across town to my Spanish class now.
This is me tipping my sombrero.
Let the subscribe button hit you on the way out.
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I am kidding, mom.
I am being diplomatic, people.
I once fired a guy because, when we were on a camping trip to test out some camping gear, this guy started a fight with some other campers and then those campers physically attacked us and I was like dude.
When everyone knows the strategy, and when everyone knows what they need to accomplish to effect that strategy, then they’re more able to take spontaneous action within their boundaries. That’s really what you want from your employees. You want them to think for themselves within the constraint of organizational strategy and the definition of their role. Anything less and you’ll spend more time directing, rather than supporting.
Jobs to Be Done was developed independently by several folks, including Anthony Ulwick of Strategyn and Profesor Denise Nitterhouse of DePaul, and was popularized by Clay Christensen, who also popularized the concept of “disruptive innovation”, which describes things like how Uber destroyed a perfectly serviceable taxi industry while not making any money whatsoever.