When starting a new project, we sometimes overlook process. At the beginning of anything new, be it a project, friendship, or new adventure, we can let the initial surge of momentum get the better of us. By establishing process in our research and execution while forging new paths with our work, we can hone in on what’s most important, making sure the most important message isn’t lost – all while laying a foundation for improving our work with each new outset.
Recently, I received some insightful advice from someone on the team that grounded me: whenever you get overwhelmed with a task, or uncertain about how best to approach your role on a team, count on the “discovery / game plan / execute” process formula. With it, even the most seemingly insurmountable projects can melt into something far more manageable – sometimes, as the old saying goes, you just have to trust the process.
Step One: Discovery
A few years ago, I was on a team engaged in an exploratory project to develop a campaign for a flower delivery brand. Our project stakeholder had initially suggested that we look into research around gifting behavior, as ostensibly, most of the brand’s sales were gifted bouquets from one person to another. We spent a few weeks combing our usual research hubs for information on this subject, but all of our resulting campaign ideas fell flat – and we weren’t sure why. Sure enough, our entire research charge, campaign idea, and project ended up pivoting when we discovered something that broke us away from gifting: though people aren’t always comfortable with it at first, people really enjoy buying flowers for themselves. As a result, our campaign was all about self-care – and the client was in love with it.
In our initial research stages, we were very quick to admit we’d hit a wall. Why? Perhaps we hadn’t cast a wide enough net. Or maybe we’d just allowed our ideas to live scattered amongst our heads instead of uniting around one singular concept powerful enough to build a campaign from. But realistically, hitting a wall doesn’t mean a research direction was all wrong – it just means you may have needed to shift gears, and allow more time for the discovery phase of the research process.
Discovery covers a lot of necessary ground in projects of all types. Most of the research legwork occurs in this phase, as any other resources gathered later are typically to supplement an existing area. And collecting information by engaging in a discovery deep-dive often allows us to define the scope of our work in terms of what we’ve been asked to do, and the most effective path to achieving it.
Designers, you aren’t forgotten in this stage: allowing enough time for the discovery phase of a project is also important for incubation to occur. Similar to discovery, preparation and incubation are joined components of the creative process, and are imperative in allowing creativity to flourish. Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, identifies incubation as passive, background processing of materials collected during preparation that allows ideas to crystallize. And according to Adam Grant of the Wharton Business School – in a TED Talk on original thinking and procrastination, no less – as long as work is delayed with the intention to come back to it, procrastination “gives us time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.” Putting the pencil down and removing oneself from a working environment fosters an open, wandering mind that could provide new and interesting approaches to problem-solving. In order to account for this part of the discovery process, the bottom line is simple: give yourself time.
Step Two: Game Plan
So you’ve done your deep dive, and you’ve probably collected a handful of valuable insights along the way. Now what? Even the most creatively organized individuals and organizations benefit from mapping out a plan of action. For our purposes, we’ll call it a game plan.
In terms of a more formal approach to completing a project, like the way we’re trained to write academically (paper outlines, anyone?), the game plan is the stage we’re usually most comfortable with. Without a precursory discovery phase to strengthen our direction, it can also be the hardest to do. But creating a plan doesn’t have to be hard – we all operate differently, and luckily, there are thousands of project management or planning methods available in both traditional and digital forms – something that accounts for every type of project, and every type of person.
In the start-up world, many game plans begin to materialize through walls of colored sticky notes, or by outlining a roadmap using a whiteboard and colored markers. Digital project schedules can come into being through charts, boards, or even graphics. There’s something aspirational and almost artistic about drawing from the research void and bringing a game plan to life, whether for yourself or for a team. The most well-articulated game plans also tend to be the most useful for our own purposes – so it’s usually a safe bet if we run them by the people we can trust to give us honest feedback.
Step Three: Execute*
You’ve made it this far! All that’s left is to execute.
(Well… sort of.)
Of course, actually creating something – be it research, design, or strategy – is typically the most visible part of any project, but the process doesn’t necessarily end there. Execution also tends to be the best opportunity to stare your work in the face and evaluate it: Is this directed toward the right audience? Is it articulated in the most effective way possible? Did it achieve the goal we originally set out to complete? This lays the groundwork for iteration – the asterisk behind execute. This phase makes our process a cycle, and with every completion, our work gets closer and closer to the best version of itself.
Iterating as a component of execution isn’t limited to cross-checking research and insights. Interaction design methodology includes “rapid (or spiral) prototyping” to provide a cost-effective way to address the difference between what a user says they’ll do (pre-execution) and what they’ll actually do (post-execution). Design is often iterative by nature, too – who’s ever heard of a logo that was created in perfect alignment with a client’s needs, hopes, and dreams on the first go-around? It’s up to us as responsible researchers to continue spinning our work into versions that improve upon themselves with each additional cycle completed.
So, why would process matter to me? I’m a (engineer / advertiser / entrepreneur / other), not a researcher!
The point to all of this – to establishing a process in the work we do – is to formalize how we operate, to hold ourselves accountable, and to set ourselves a success precedent to use moving forward. Process allows us to strive for better versions of our own work, and to see the improvements with each pass at tackling a problem. Though this process is geared toward research no doubt, we think it’s always worthwhile to consider how process can help you and your business achieve your goals, and work toward the best version of what you can offer. After all, if it’s worth doing the first time, it’s worth aspiring to do it better the next.