“The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads, they’re imagining a hundred different things.”
– Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson – Rework
How much time are we spending on planning for great work instead of actually doing great work?
We’re in love with the chase, the big vision at the end of that proverbial rainbow where higher purpose, a healthy bottom line, an enviable internal culture and a pack of ravenous, ultra-engaged customers all melt together in a pot of perfect.
But when it comes down to the execution, we lean into an overly complex, systematic and at times inflexible approach that creates layers of unneeded abstraction between us, our product and our customers.
Terrified that something might slip through the cracks, we devote hours of energy to cyclical planning, to the perfect marketing plan, to hopping on the latest trend train and hoping it leads us to the promised land.
A representation of a great idea is no replacement for actually building it. Worse, we lock ourselves into an idea instead of remaining open to shifting as the market dictates.
Buried in rigid expectations of what a polished product or service or business model might look like (despite not knowing how it will turn out ), it becomes increasingly difficult to pivot or change directions, even as customers are screaming in Vegas neon for us return to the canvas.
Trimming the Layers Between Concept and Creation
The layers we place between concept and creation are often carbon copies and nothing more.
Caught between imagination and vision for a product that people crave, businesses often find themselves paralyzed in this space between abstract and real.
But once a product hits open air – all our concepting goes out with the bathwater as the reality of customer interaction derails our perfect concepts.
When Dropbox’s waiting list for beta users sat idling at around 5,000, CEO Drew Houston compiled a three minute product demo video (as a Minimum Viable Product) to show potential customers how it would work in real time.
At this stage, Dropbox didn’t have a lot of options left on the table to convince investors and beta users alike that file synchronization was a problem that needed to be solved – and that Dropbox was the solution to do so.
Though their customers couldn’t physically interact with the product, the in-depth walkthrough (combined with a healthy dose of geek humor) transformed an abstract idea of how a file syncing solution might work into a product that people could envision using IRL.
Had Drew and his team left their product’s fate in the hands of heavy ‘concepting’ – detailing complex features and specs in dense user documentation, prototype sketches, comps and wireframes – it would have been a steep uphill climb to weed through a growing market already saturated with mediocre file sharing products.
In other words, you don’t learn anything if you don’t launch anything.
The sooner you can rescue an idea out of concepting, off the paper and into the customer’s hands – the sooner you’ll know whether it has wings or ankle weights.
Why Perfect Plans are a Perfect Waste of Time
What happens if you’ve spent months planning for the perfect launch only to discover that you’ve built something people don’t want or can’t use?
The alternative is to skip the cyclical planning, set parameters for starting and shipping, and remain flexible should real-time interaction dictate that a shift is needed.
When Josh Long and Drew Wilson set out to write a book about Wilson’s journey through building and shipping his Spacebox app in a mere five days, the primary expectation was to emulate his expedited build and launch process.
In only 7 days, the two planned to create a website, take pre-orders, document the process, write the book, edit the book, design the book, and iron out all of the publishing requirements needed to ship the book off to print.
Despite all of the initial efforts to set the course with confidence, Josh scrapped the manuscript three days before it was set to publish (with an already established website, people following the journey, and thousands of dollars in pre-orders taken).
An internal gut check pushed Josh to pump the brakes and take the book in a different direction. Had he been rigidly attached to the original outline or plans for the book, he would have missed an opportunity to make a good book even better.
Stop playing Nostradamus, attempting to predict future outcomes that are never guaranteed, and get to work.
Promotion Can’t Hide Ugly
7+ years of helping businesses grow has taught me a very important distinction between reality and fluff:
While there are a thousand methods and strategies for effectively reaching, interacting with and serving customers, there are no substitutes for a superior experience.
Too often businesses give into the promise of hype. Instead of going back to basics to fundamentally define what makes their product or service valuable in the first place, they spin wheels on figuring out how to increase their reach and engage more customers.
They measure, they survey, they quarantine behind closed doors, poking holes in theories to find the just the right mix of magic or marketing juju to make people want their product or service in their sleep.
Attempting to refine the takeoff instead of going right to the source, too many business fail to see what’s right in front of their nose:
The product or service just plain sucks.
It doesn’t deliver, it under delivers, it fails to provide value above and beyond the customer’s investment or an adequate solution to their core problem.
Deep down, people want to care about the businesses they buy from – but not the kind of caring born from sexy, interruption or empty promises.
You can’t tweet away ugly, you can’t slap intention into a vision statement and not own it in everything you do day-to-day, and you won’t hide the fact that your product is mediocre or your customer experience is disconnected and impersonal under a landfill of ad spend.
Eventually, the ugly will shine through, and you’ll be left with a cold reality that can’t be bought or promoted into submission.
You Can’t Measure What You Can’t See
Metrics without context are dangerous.
It’s not that you shouldn’t measure or that metrics aren’t inherently valuable for testing and refining, or for understanding how to adjust the story you’re spinning to be more in line with the customers and communities that you serve.
But no amount of data crunching will ever outshine a truly superior product backed by an even better customer experience.
When you see only in terms of “customer acquisition, loyalty, retention, attrition” and other industry jargon, it’s easy to get lost in the static and forget that real people with real problems are always at the other end of the equation.
Whether it be the local barber finding its way back to the corner spot, the butcher slowly knee-capping the big grocery chain meat counter, or the craft brewer elbowing to the front of line ahead of tunnel-visioned, big beer brands – there is a very real shift happening in multiple industries from “business as usual” to something inherently more “people-centric.”
In this increasingly conscious consumer environment, businesses built to thrive on transactional vs. relational are going to continue to lose customers to the smaller, more agile businesses that focus less on what the numbers are saying and more on what their customers are saying.
You can certainly continue to swim in data, hug the trend lines and embrace the forecasting from industry talking heads as to where the economy will shift, and probably stay warm in the loving arms of faster, cheaper solutions that have kept big business large and in charge for decades.
But as people find less to love about being stuffed between columns and rows of spreadsheets or relegated to being data points somewhere along the adoption curve – will you still be relevant in 5, 10, 15 years?
Time to Stop Bullshitting and Start Building
It’s not that I’m anti-planning or strategy agnostic. It’s not that I believe metrics are useless, ‘concepting’ is entirely fruitless or that structure and process are a waste of energy and effort.
It’s just that I believe even more that the truly sustainable businesses and brands are those built on a foundation of a strong connection to their why, their story, and their people.
I’ve worked with hundreds of businesses over the years that were filled to the gills with good intentions but haunted by poor execution.
Every one of them wanted to tap into the magic – the latest uptick on the marketing trend rollercoaster, the next big social metric that had all the talking heads in a fervor, and so on.
Very few understood or embraced the importance of delivering a superior customer experience that no one can buy, emulate or ignore.
Even fewer embraced the customer as their greatest ally in determining what works and what sucks about their products or services.
So a word of caution to both the aspiring and to the established business:
There is – and never will be – a substitute for being compelling, useful, helpful or valuable.
You can’t plan for, hope for or concept for any of these intangibles.
You simply own them – top down, inside and out.
Brett Henley is the co-owner/writer at We Craft Stories – an independent publishing company. His experience include:
- Hosting a popular podcast, Mindful Podcast, for creators
- Helping businesses expand through great writing
- Storytelling for social Good
Talk to Brett about content marketing, branding, and marketing strategy.