Shifting the Focus from Project to Process:
Marketers are good at handling projects
When the boss asks “can you get this done by that deadline?” they’re handing you a project. An activity that has a clearly stated goal, a defined start and end point.
Most Marketers are good at getting projects done. Which is just as well, because it’s a survival skill in a marketing team. Some marketers function best when focussing on the complexities of one or two big projects. Others have the (to me miraculous) ability to juggle the details of multiple projects simultaneously.
And then there are the ‘oh-by-the-way’ projects. The ones that suddenly appear out of a blue sky like a sidewinder missile. Whether you work in-house or at an agency, you’ve probably experienced them. They explode on your desk and threaten to disrupt everything else. We may not like the chaos they cause, but we’re tough, so we handle it.
The rest of the organisation thinks of marketers as being ‘flexible and adaptable.’ Perhaps the sidewinders are a back-handed compliment – they know we’ll come through. And most of the time, we succed. But I know quite a few marketers who would prefer to deliver creativity without the surrounding chaos.
Experience ‘gets more stuff done’
In marketing, the default method that we learn on-the-job is linear. We start planning now; get it done; check results; move on to the next one. Projects may overlap, but each one is treated this way. As we gain experience, we become more efficient. Start planning now; switch on experience to get it done quicker; check the results. The sooner we complete an activity, the sooner we can begin the next one.
The recognition that we’ve done a good job is that we get more to do. The list lengthens, the pressure piles up, and the stress increases. But working longer hours is, at best a short-term solution. Trying to run faster is an impractical strategy. These are the paths to burn-out. Just like everything else in life, even experience delivers diminishing returns.
Time for another question: “is there a better way?” Digging for solutions, I find two root causes that we can address: the first is that linear approach; the second is the way we treat resources.
There are many activities in Marketing that are repeated. Some on a regular basis. The length of the cycles can vary, of course. For example: daily social media posts; weekly reports; monthly newsletters; quarterly campaigns; annual trade shows. And then there are activities that are repeated irregularly. Another Case Study, White Paper, web page, Landing page, banner Ad, you name it. The clue is the word ‘another’. These are activities with huge similarities from one instance to the next.
Whether regular or irregular, the advantage of experience is that these things become a routine. We get used to them, and we get better at them. What’s weird is that we still treat each instance of these activities as projects – even though they recur again and again. We continue to focus primarily on ‘getting it done’. Again and again.
I need a new way to describe this issue of ‘sameness’, so that I can show it to you in a new light. So that we recognise it as a problem. So we can find a totally fresh idea for solving it … Let’s try this:
Have you ever finished doing something for the first time and thought:
“if I had to do that again, I’d do it completely differently.”
That’s the shift of focus: from project to process.
That shift is actually a significantly different approach. From focus on completion, to focus on method. And that shift introduces a completely different set of yardsticks for evaluation. If you check a project implemented with a linear focus, you can expect questions like: was the deadline achieved? What was the success rate? And you might even get a question about the quality of the output.
If you check a project implemented with a process focus, there will be different questions. Like: how much time and effort did it take to achieve the results? Are the results of consistently high quality? How much resource was wasted? How do we improve the efficiency and effectivenes of production? That’s what process thinking is about.
And that shift in focus is vitally important, precisely because the standard approach in linear thinking is to complete an activity without stopping to question the amount of time and effort applied.
The attitude to resources
Ask a marketing manager what resources they have and most will answer in terms of the value of the budget. But why? Isn’t this way of thinking curious? Surely the most important resource is time. (Which is not so much finite as constantly disappearing.) Next in importance is staff skills because they are both specialised and in short supply. Tools (like systems and software) are valuable because they are (or should be) a multiplier that maximises the output of the available staff.
Spending vs investing budgets
The primary use of budget – in the sense of discretionary cash – is the targetted acquisition of rare skills that are used intensively for short periods, such as agencies and experts. When you compare the expenditures on staff salaries and agency skills, against the purchases of consumables – whether intangibles (like trade fair space, advertising) or tangibles (like print and promo) – the consumables are actually a small part of the total.
As a group, marketing managers tend to watch financial expenditure carefully. But there’s an opportunity here to make another small but significant shift in mental focus: from budget expenditure to resource investment. Yes of course budget and staff resources have to be consumed to generate operational results. But they can also be consciously invested, too. When you invest budget in further development of the operational infrastructure, or improve processes, the ROI you get is an enhanced multiplier effect.
Why do we treat staff time as a sunk cost?
Marketing managers may watch the finances carefully, yet they seldom put the same attention on the use of staff time. Agency time is an exception because it is invoiced and therefore visible. But staff time is often treated a sunk cost. Hmmm. In my view, that’s dangerous because skilled people are the biggest cost element in marketing. They are also the most valuable asset, because the volume of their output can be magnified via systems. If we ignore the way we use that human asset, we miss the opportunity to improve the ROI from it. So how about we find a better way to think about the way we use staff time?
Let’s be clear – I’m most definitely not advocating top-down direction or micro-control of staff by managers because it would be hopelessly counter-productive. Most marketers have deep experience of just one subset of the entire scope of marketing. CMOs usually win responsibility for areas outside their original field of competence because, along the way, they have ably demonstrated their ability to delegate and get people to work together. So, although CMOs might be able to suggest better processes for an area they know, they are usually unqualified to suggest improved methods for any others.
Compulsive filling-out of timesheets or slavish adherence to policy documents are equally soul-destroying and counter productive. Instead, I’m in favour of CMOs delegating the role of monitoring processes; of designing and implementing better processes. Challenge your staff to take on a bigger, wider role that offers greater scope to apply their experience and initiative. Challenge them to become process owners. They will thank you for it.
This hand-made toy car was inspired by the Lotus model 18 that won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1960
- a one-off work of art
- purpose: pure fun
- created, as much as designed
- all parts hand-made
- made with available tools
- simple assembly
- hand finishing with wax polish
- time and effort were not counted
- price of inputs was not a factor
- end value was never an issue
- customer satisfaction: huge
Fifteen years later, the highly popular Ford Capri inspired these toy cars, which have been carefully designed for batch production
- purpose: a robust toy an at affordable price point
- produced in hundreds per month, over ten years
- custom templates, jigs and tools for each production step
- combines shaped parts and bought-in components
- assembly steps defined for minimum effort
- finishing methods designed for consistently high quality
- time and effort calculated
- all inputs carefully costed
- delivers profit for both manufacturer and retailer
- distribution via wholesalers and high street toy shops
- customer satisfaction: measured in repeat orders
Those significant differences in practice
The difference between the linear and circular models of thinking is immediately visible when we contrast the two toy cars in the photos.
The first car is a one-off, hand-made object. It was made for fun, with available materials and tools. And that philosophy is terrific, if what you’re making is a present for a two-year-old.
The second is designed to be sold. Produced to deliver a profit to both manufacturer and retailer at a specific price point. It has to be robust and withstand hard play. And meet safety laws about non-toxic finishes, as well. Every aspect of manufacture and assembly has been carefully designed to minimise waste, and deliver consistently high quality.
Once we know that an activity is likely to be repeated, we have the option to treat it as an instance of a process. And to make the time to find a different way to get the job done; one that uses less resource; or takes less time; or delivers a btter quality of result. Or maybe even a combination of all three.
With that comparison in mind, it seems strange to me that today, in the 2020s, marketing is in some ways one of the last outposts of the hand-made mentality in high-tech Business-to-Business. We still tend to treat projects in a linear fashion, without counting the hours of effort. We praise and honour certain skillsets for their high levels of experience and expertise. The irony of this is particularly apparent in the field of marketing automation – which takes enormous pride in the the high levels of artisan skill required to design, implement, operate and optimise methods such as SEO, eMail, landing pages, websites or learn new techniques like AI.
As Marketers, we need to move our profession forward and into a new era. Don’t get me wrong – I share the expert’s pride in quality. But linear thinking confers a hand-crafted, steam-punk flavour – even to contemporary subjects like marketing automation. The artisan mentality is all a bit too retro. The reality is that, marketing must become a lot more savvy: about the volume and value of the resources it consumes and invests; about the ROI it delivers to management, business stakeholder and customer.
Circular rather than linear
Normally, the best way to increase efficiency is to reduce the number of actions needed to complete a project. But there are at least two highly effective models that bend the linear approach (Plan, Do, Check) into a circle. By adding a fourth step for review and correction, the linear start-stop, start-stop becomes a feedback loop for continuous improvement.
Two models that replace linear thinking with circular thinking are: PDCA and OODA. Both are decision-making models that highlight the importance of analyzing a situation accurately, checking that your actions are having the results you intend, and making changes as needed.
William Deming developed the Plan-Do-Check -Act cycle as a result of his pioneering work in quality management. It’s been widely used in manufacturing and production environments for decades. It is equally relevant and applicable to marketing.
The OODA cycle (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) developed by US airforce pilot John Boyd is also based on a closed loop and continuous feedback. The origin is military. Simplified and applied to marketing, the OODA concept can be summarised as “the faster you can accurately respond to changing customer needs, the more repeat business you will generate”.
Handling a project vs owning a process
Whereas linear thinking focuses almost exclusively on the result of a project, process thinking expands the scope to include the way it is achieved. The illustrations in a cookbook might grab our attention by showing what the end result looks like. But we need a good recipe to get the essential details: the ingredients, the method, the cooking time and temperature. It’s a defined sequence of actions that leads to a predictable outcome. For marketers, Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle serves the same purpose as a cookbook.
In the Plan stage of the cycle, standardisation means easier, more accurate estimation and allocation of resources. Standardised operations also make it easier to manage growth, scale operations or roll-out to new locations or teams. Simplified tasks reduce the time needed for onboarding, training and execution. Both standardisation and simplification come into play when regulatory requirements have to be met.
In the Do or execution stage of the cycle, uniform procedures lead to a consistent quality of output. They minimise the likelihood of mistakes. They facilitate communication between the players in the team. Each knows their role and the sequence that leads to success. Standardised operations often result in lower operational costs, too.
Reporting and checking the results of a process is simpler because thers a clear yardstick for comparison. With fewer errors in production and less wastage, the measurement of ROI becomes more accurate, which in turn delivers more reliable data for decision-making.
Deliberately allocating time for the review and feedback stage of the cycle (Adjust) empowers staff to work independently. Which means in turn that management can define parameters for ‘performance on target’ freeing their time for strategic activities.
How to shift the focus …
Want to be a Process Owner? You seldom need to ask for permission. Start with the activities you own already, the decisions you can control without reference to anyone else. Your own planning, work sequences, the use of your time, the choice of steps that are needed to get stuff done.
Identify the recurring projects on your to-do list; the ones that come up weekly or monthly. Which projects go smoothly? Which ones soak up time and effort? Name the specific steps that consistently cause headaches and stress. Quantify the aggravation. Sometimes a frequent small headache can add up to more time than an infrequent big headache. Figure out ways to correct them.
The next step? Quietly extend the concept to your interactions with others on the team. The who-does-what stuff. The when-and-in-which-sequence stuff. The agreements on quality standards – and this works in two directions. If you receive ‘stuff’ from others in a way that causes you more work (incomplete, piecemeal, late, whatever) then address the issue together and work to resolve it. Similarly, you can get feedback from the people you supply ‘stuff’ to and help make their working life easier. Finding ways to ensure smooth hand-overs saves time and avoids re-work.
… and become more effective
Becoming more effective is a long-term goal. It won’t happen overnight. Ask any quality expert or production engineer and they’ll point out that every process displays some degree of variation. Sometimes it goes smoothly, sometimes it’s an uphill battle. On rare occasions every step along the way is like wading through wet concrete. And then sometimes all the components fall smoothly into place. In practice, trying to improve processes is often two steps forward, one back. And we simply have to be grateful for that net gain of one step forward towards greater consistency, as and when we get it right.
There can be huge scope for individual creativity in process optimisation. Simple checklists can be a starting point. Looking for steps that can be completely avoided is a good one. A and are many opportunities for creativity in
One of the biggest advantages that comes from being aware of effort as a key resource, is that you’ll become more realistic about estimating how much resource it takes to ‘get stuff done’. This leads gradually to more accurate planning, which in turn is one of the primary causes of expectations – among your own colleagues and managers, with external partners, or among clients.
Another aspect of time is the amount of elapsed time it takes to ‘get stuff done’. A major source of friction is the difficulty in co-ordinating people and resources across groups. How often can you get together to collaborate. Daily, weekly, monthly? Multiply this by the number of groups or teams in a project, and you have a major friction and source of delay. A project that is run within single a department led by one manager operates at a completely different rhythm and level of efficiency compared to the same size project that requires the resources of two different departments led by managers with unrelated objectives. Extend that idea out across companies (channel sales, business partnership development) and you’ll find the programs that require constant management input just to maintain momentum.
As estimating becomes realistic, planning becomes more accurate, so colleagues become more confident about deadlines. When you can accurately indicate where project scope increased and how much additional resource is required, the greater the likelihood of getting those resources. Staying in control of expectations helps reduce stress caused by external pressure.
Process owners don’t run – they walk
The most effective sequence for process improvement is to simplify and standardise. Do this before trying to automate. If you start with automation, you just create greater quantities of low-quality stuff quicker.
- – Simplify
The first step is to look for processes that are similar; and then to identify the simple tasks that are used repeatedly across mutliple processes.
- – Standardise
Next step is to look at the way those tasks are performed and if necessary to standardise them so that they are all handled in a consistent manner.
- – Automate
Quanitify the tasks: which ones are use most frequently; which ones consume the most resources; which ones will be easiest to automate. Start with the sweet spot that ticks all three boxes.
Process owners think in terms of strategies They ask what are we really trying to achieve here? Is this activity really necessary? Is there a better way to achieve the objective? They look for ways to increase efficiency or effectiveness. They assess, adjust, and optimize processes. They focus on improving the efficiency of the tasks they are responsible for. And by simplifying it, they get more of it done with less effort. Welcome to marketing in the 2020s.