3 reasons to mostly ignore your competition

By Brett Tilford
Published on February 3, 2012 under Culture, Leadership

Competition is a good thing: pushing us to go a little farther or higher than we might have on internal motivation alone. But there’s a dark side to obsessing over the competition. Below are three reasons to mostly ignore them.

When we focus on our competitor’s work, we’re no longer focused on ours.

It really doesn’t matter whether we’re dealing with a familiar task or exploring new challenges. What matters is our ability to focus on the context and constraints of whatever we’re doing. When viewed from this perspective, it’s clear that obsessing over the competition is a huge distraction. Your client needs you focussed on effectively solving their problem — not concerned with how company X goes about their work. If they wanted your competitor to handle this issue then they would have hired them.

When we focus on our competitors, we become cheap imitations.

One of Seth Godin’s insights in Linchpin is that fact that the era of mass industrialization — with generic companies, producing generic products, for generic people — has ended. In other words, small business owners  reading the e-Myth and attempting to turn unique people into automatons and their processes into assembly line tasks are about 30 years too late. We’ve all seen those folks. They’re the two person operation whose website portrays them like a multinational corporation; or  the small non-profit who, rather than emphasizing their mission, portray themselves as some global organization like the Red Cross.

This is the problem with chasing the competition: you begin to market yourself as who you think you should be rather than who you really are. If people want to be associated with your competition — that’s their business. You keep being you – it’s your best shot at success anyway.

When we focus on our competitors, we lose our own standards.

Every organization has its own cultural flavor. Far from being something to hide, it’s something to emphasize! It’s ridiculous to internalize the standards of our competitors and judge ourselves accordingly. Instead we need to focus on who we are and our own standards of what “good work” looks like for our organization. Otherwise, we’re doomed to be the schizo organization who says we’re about one thing, while judging ourselves by the standards of something (or someone) else entirely.

So please, ignore the competition and get to work.

Lead to another

By Stephen Boudreau
Published on January 25, 2012 under Leadership

One thing does, in fact, lead to another.

The type of work we take. The type of people we work with.  The types of decisions we make. They all lead to other experiences similar to them.

As a business owner, the application is pretty clear. When I consider taking on a project — an employee — or are making any decision, I don’t just think about this one moment.  There’s the road ahead and my decisions guide the path.

Saying yes to something is allowing it to become part of my identity.

“Yes, this is the type of work i do.”

“Yes, this is how I make decisions.”

“Yes, I renegotiate deadlines that I agree to.” 

“Yes, these are the types of people i surround myself with.”

Decisions transcend the moment they are made. Willfully or not, they begin to to craft our identity both within and outside ourselves.

When making a decision let’s take time to ask ourselves if this is a decision we want to make again. Merely asking the question will help us make better choices.

Peddlers of hope

By Brett Tilford
Published on January 23, 2012 under Leadership, Marketing

There’s a question non-profit leaders and marketers confront when sales are slow or year end gifts are on the decline: will we appeal to cynicism and fear to guide our constituents or will we appeal to hope and beauty?

Of course, there’s an overwhelming ethical dimension to this question. Which is why it may be appropriate to call this both a question and a temptation. The brute fact is that people in a panic can be steered more easily because they’re looking for a leader. Someone with answers. Someone to show them the way.

Leaders know this. Marketers know this. And that’s why it’s oh-so-tempting to appeal to these emotions in the midst of a dry spell. But in the end we need leaders and marketers who, even in the midst of crisis, appeal to the best parts of us.  Leaders who model integrity, cherish ideals and tell beautiful stories. Stories that inspire and motivate us to action beyond ourselves. Stories of a better a future where  people have access to clean water and a solid education for their children. Tales of re-connection and renewal with God, ourselves and our world. Not pie-in-the-sky stories about having everything we’ve ever dreamed by tomorrow morning. We know that ain’t happening. But rather, leaders pregnant with the possibility that tomorrow could be a little better than today. In short, we need peddlers of hope.

Of course, the pragmatist in all of us may not be convinced this is an effective path – we need more than poetry and ideals to go on! But let me pitch it this way. In the short run this decision comes down to the integrity and core values of an organization. But in the long run, it makes good business sense for one simple reason: cynicism and fear aren’t long term strategies. Non-profits in it for the long haul are looking for so much more than a random one-off gift from someone terrified by our e-appeal, they’re looking for a long term relationships with donors who care deeply for the work the organization is doing. For that relationship to occur there’s going to have to be a positive message put forth:

Not just who we’re against, but rather who we’re for.
Not simply what’s wrong with the world, but how we can fix it.
Not merely that the sky is falling, but how we’ll go about picking up the pieces.

In other words, a scammer will use any message to get money from folks because they’re only interested in the short run: the one time gift or purchase. In contrast, a leader building for the future knows that eventually people will sniff out the “fear and cynicism” game. That’s why their message is built around ideals like hope, love, truth and beauty.

Strategy is not a feature

By Stephen Boudreau
Published on January 19, 2012 under Leadership, Strategy

Without strategy, we’re at sea without a rudder.

Wherever the wind blows, that’s where we’ll drift.  And it’s not just us, but our clients will inevitably follow.

If we want to be leaders of influence – strategy cannot be a feature. We don’t charge extra for a fresh scoop of strategy. It’s essential to creating professional work and earning the trust of our clients. To put it in the context of this article: strategy is the rudder which turns projects (and relationships) one way or another.

A word of warning: our ability to make strategic decisions lies not with our technical proficiency, but with what lies between our ears.

As a designer, it’s not my ability to draw a red box that makes me valuable to a client. Lots of people can draw red boxes! In order to earn trust with a client, I need to know when and why a red box is (or isn’t) appropriate. I need to be able to articulate and defend my decisions.  I need to know which decisions are the most valuable to our clients.

Like any other skill, strategic thinking needs to be learned and honed. And it’s a worthy endeavor — cultivating a strategic mind will refine all aspects of our professional life. When we learn to make better decisions, we produce better work.

The best place to start is to learn from others. The paths we tread daily have been walked on by others. The challenges we face are not unique. When we surround ourselves with experienced professionals we are apt to learn from their wisdom, from their successes and even (perhaps especially) from their mistakes. This inevitably allows us to learn from our own.

I have found that my ability to make better and more strategic decisions is directly proportional to my ability to ask the right questions.  Asking the right questions is a byproduct of experience — both my own and applying the wisdom of others.

If we are serious about helping our clients, we need to be thoughtful and strategic advisors. I promise, we won’t always be right. But that’s no excuse for setting sail without a rudder.

The artist vs. the designer

By Brett Tilford
Published on January 17, 2012 under Design, Strategy

One way to conceive of the difference between the artist and the designer is that the artist is focussed on self-expression, while the designer is tasked with solving a problem.

In other words, when the artist enters her studio she’s simply creating and expressing for the sake of the act itself. She is compelled to make for the sake of making. This is not the case with the designer. The designer enters her studio tasked with creating towards some end. In the industrial design world that may mean making an office chair lighter or improving the safety of a toy for children, while for the web designer it may be improving the number of click throughs to a donation form or deciding how best to structure a signup form for luddites.

Obviously, many young designers take issue with this perspective. They fancy themselves artists with benefits – aka – a paycheck. They want to blaze new trails, upend tradition, and go where the creative urge leads them. And while this would make for good art, assuming their talent, it doesn’t make for good design for the simple reason that it’s forgotten the problem it set out to solve.

Bad clients vs bad decisions

By Stephen Boudreau
Published on January 11, 2012 under Design, Leadership

Most “bad clients” can typically be traced to a compromise you, yourself, made. It’s time to stop blaming clients for our own mistakes.

Whether your a designer, developer, project manager or all of the above — it’s important to have a set of standards that will not be comprimised. This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky platitude or an idealistic dream, it’s tried-and-true wisdom that can transform working relationships.

Something I did — a compromise I made — informed the client, “This is how we will work together.”  An unrealistic demand, given in to.  Giving away work at no charge.  Allowing scope to creep without consequence.  Giving away responsibility, when I should have stepped up.

Every decision we make has a consequence.  When we have wisdom in our standards, holding to those generates positive consequences.

When we compromise our standards, boundaries of a relationship are redefined.  We make it more difficult for clients to have appropriate expectations. We implicitly tell them we cannot be trusted with responsibility.

There will always be folks who are more difficult to work with. Clients who require more hand holding or repetition …  But if you find yourself repeatedly complaining of “bad clients” or “bad vendors”, the first place to point the finger is likely yourself.

Design solutions

By Stephen Boudreau
Published on September 29, 2011 under Design, Leadership, Marketing, Strategy

I love sports.

The  theatrics of great competition is exhilarating.  But when I watch these professionals at work, what I’m observing is the final step of a process.

Your favorite NFL team doesn’t just show up on Sunday and run around the field based on a series of gut feelings.  They are executing plays that were crafted by professionals and executed by design.

Design is a term that used in various contexts.  A good architect designs a home with a sense of style, purpose and safety.  A pair of shoes is designed to both provide comfort and project an identity.  A commercial is designed to communicate and motivate.  These things don’t just happen, they are the outcome of expertise and experience.

So what about web design? All of these dot-coms we visit daily — what part of that experience constitutes “design”? There are so many misconceptions that the purpose is often lost on even the smartest of business professionals.

One reason for confusion stems from a priority on style over solution.

Design isn’t (just) about mastering a specific style or aesthetic. It’s not defined by fonts, dropshadows or gradients.  These are tools used when crafting elements of a design solution.

Web design accounts for why, how, and even where people interact with information. Web design drives people to a specific outcome.  When you load up your favorite website, what you experience is the final step of a process.

Design is as much about what people want to do and how they do it — as what they see and how it looks.

In football, coaches don’t call the same play on a 3rd-and-1 as they would on 3rd-and-25.  It takes a combination of wisdom and experience to know what to do.

A professional designer must master the principles of design in order to help their clients make the right call.

Mother nature vs. strategic partnerships

By Chris Mechsner
Published on September 14, 2011 under Leadership, Strategy

Last week I received an email from one our clients, South West Transit Assocation (swta.org). They are a regional association for for mass transit organiztions (think city busses and trains).  When I opened my inbox,  nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to read:

“Everything, and I mean everything, on our 3 acres including the SWTA offices have been decimated by fire. There is not a building or tree left standing!  I need Ascendio’s help with the database since it is still housed with you. Are you available?”

Over the years, Ascendio has received dozens of distress calls from our clients for one reason or another. Some more severe than others, but this situation by far takes the cake.

Foremost, we are relieved that everyone with SWTA is safe and sound. However, there are numerous important items that have been lost. Houses, office space, equipment, records — all gone. This level of devastation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for SWTA to serve their members.

Step in: Ascendio. It’s one thing to receive a distress call.  It’s quite another to answer it.  A part of our strategy with SWTA (and all our clients) is a plan for backup and restoration of data that interact with the systems we develop and deploy.

Without such plans, your wandering aimless and helpless against life’s storms. We are serving SWTA during this difficult crisis – and are able to do so because we had a plan.

I challenge you to evaluate your strategic partnerships and ensure they are committed and capable of serving your organization in both the good times and the bad.  This type of service comes though professional aptitude and experience. It comes by working with leaders who are capable of making the right promises and then delivering on them.

If you feel compelled to help those affected by the fires, I encourage you to reach out to learn how you can help.

Stir up some controversy

By Brett Tilford
Published on September 14, 2011 under Non-profits

Pardon the analogy, but if controversy is a light, then we’re the cockroaches who scatter at it’s glow.

Controversy is powerful: it causes people to take sides and to speak up when they may have remained silent; it sparks conflict – which can be both wonderful and terribly destructive. With this in mind, we’re right to approach controversy with some caution. No need to stir it up unnecessarily.

But sometimes it’s necessary. It’s time to take sides, speak clearly and make people uncomfortable. So if you’re going to take a stand, then heck, take a big stand. This is especially true for non-profits whose work truly matters. I feel the controversy drummed up around something like the Burger King Whopper Sacrifice campaign, while clever, is a waste because it centers around something that doesn’t ultimately matter: getting more hamburgers into the bellies of folks who probably don’t need them.

But if you’re empowering entrepreneurs through microfinance, digging wells to provide clean water, or spreading a religious message that’s making the world a better place, then it’s important to take a stand and not shy away from controversy.

The substance of your story

By Brett Tilford
Published on August 16, 2011 under Culture, Leadership, Marketing

People tend to think in terms of narrative.

We can’t help it. We connect ideas and read meaning into areas where there may actually be randomness.We don’t like the idea of randomness – it’s scary because we can’t control or understand it.

This is why stories are our saving grace. They help us make sense of the world by giving things their place – like a voice on the wind saying, “Here’s what’s important. Here’s what matters.”

I’m intrigued by the idea of organizations having stories and that somehow their effectiveness on this planet is tied to their ability to tell that story. And not just tell it, but tell it in a way that enriches people’s lives. The outline of those stories is found in their core values (i.e. honesty, generosity, creativity) but the plot unfolds in their every day actions.

The way they handle conflict and speak to prospective customers.

The freedom they give employees to create.

The originality and design sense in their product line.

The quality and substance of their website copy.

All of these types of actions come together to form a running narrative in our minds.

Jones Soda does a great job of this. They’re quirky and irreverant: they put images of their customers on labels, have an energy drink titled “whoopass”, and sponsor UFC fighters and surfers. Clearly they’re not trying to be the next Coca Cola – instead they’re appealing to a niche crowd who likes the story their telling.

Field Notes is another company who’s website design and copy combines with their physical product to tell a consistent story. This is a narrative about premium notebooks made from high quality materials – a product your father and grandfather might have bought back in their day. A day when things were made to last by people who could be trusted. Or as they say, “An honest memo book, worth fillin’ up with good information.” Brilliant.

Most organizations are content to tell a haphazard story that’s full of contradictions. Their mission statement says they value simplicity, but their product is reminiscent of a rubiks cube. They claim to value clarity, but you’d never know this by reading their product return policy. They claim to value “integrity” but you go ahead and try to unsubscribe from their email list – fuggedaboutit. 

Figure out your core values, live them out, and communicate them consistently. That’s a story worth telling.

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