We are constantly designing new ideas: content marketing programs, ways to practically educate customers, brand ideas, tools that help people get stuff done and more. It’s all highly creative and requires a back and forth between those designing the solution, those who will actually use the solution and the executive stakeholders who fund or otherwise support the initiative.
So much noise is made about getting end-users into the design process and making sure that we are all building something with the user in mind. That is super-critical. Far less noise is made about getting business leaders who may be funding a project involved. Too often creative and designers think in terms of “selling” great ideas to business executives vs. actually involving them to make the final output stronger. “Selling” means you have formed something you feel is the solution and now you want to convince executives to buy your vision. I am a big fan of proactively bringing executives into the process. Just be careful.
Taking this process too casually can be fatal. Asking a senior executive halfway through a project, “What do you think?,” with no context is just begging for an onslaught of critique that may be hard to recover from no matter how off-base the comments are.
A great POV
Katie Dill, AirBNB’s Head of Experience Design has a great POV on critique. First Round Capital has a very worthwhile video of Katie laying out her process. Definitely worth the watch. She caused me to think about the experiences I had had developing creative, innovative ideas within different organizations over the years. I was once in the “sell-the-idea-camp” which is not surprising since I worked in a global agency. I have broader view of collaboration today and enjoy getting non-designers into a room to workshop thinking at the front of a process to capture divergent views (and give people ownership of the solution).
Inspired by Katie, I thought through the key steps I try to keep in mind as I engage executives – colleagues with great POVs and senior execs who may “own” the budget for the solution. Their respective feedback is hugely valuable to making ideas stronger. At the same time, it is all too easy to muck up the process of getting that feedback over the lifespan of a project.
1. Remind us of the problem statement
I may be involving executives at several stages along the process. This can take some time – weeks, months, even. While our team is immersed in the evolution and progress, executives are all time and attention-challenged individuals. By restating the problem statement up front at every checkpoint, I help remind us all what we are trying to solve. A problem statement is not the same as a business objective. A problem statement is an easily understood challenge like how can we equip our sales force to have a business discussion earlier in the “buyer journey” that isn’t all sales talk but genuinely delivers value to the prospect while demonstrating our subject matter expertise in their business?
2. Show where we are in the process
I love Katie Dill’s simple slide of three phases: exploration, conception and refinement. What you need from folks at even these three stages can be vastly different. Nothing is more frustrating than getting broad re-thinks on the problem you are trying to solve or even the idea that may solve it when you think you are well past that and into the refinement stage.
3. Tell the reviewers their role
What do you want from executives? What do you want with them early in the exploratory phase? How about two weeks prior to launch? Too often we fall back into the behaviors around “getting approval.” We certainly need buy-in and approval and clearly acknowledge that executives can torpedo an idea at any time. Still, clearly requesting they play a specific role can help you and also help the busy executive.
- “We need your feedback on our research of the buyer journey. What are we missing?”
- “We have explored 2 strong creative platforms. There are merits to each. We need to hear what you feel are the strengths and any challenges with each direction to move forward.”
- “As you know we launch next Tuesday, can you take a look at our plan one last time and give us your gut feeling about anything we might have missed?”
4. Demonstrate a story or journey
The creative idea or solution is never a simple comp. One could get away with that in the old days of disjointed advertising. Show them the ad mock-up. That doesn’t work anymore. Say we are planning a content marketing program to raise relevant awareness of a new B2B product, deepen engagement with prospects and customers to stimulate both advocacy and preference and maybe even drive measureable demand. It’s not enough to show the 3-part video series at the center of the program. Show the LinkedIn posts that will drive people to the videos, the Tweets that wrap around :06 Vine video-promotions, the summary infographic posted on the blog. Describe the earned media outreach. Illustrate the native ad units that will scale the reach. Point out the user journey to discover and engage with the content leading them to prefer your product or even seek out a salesperson.
Katie sums it up:
“When you show your work, don’t just show one screen or one sketch of a product sitting on a shelf,” says Dill. “If you’re designing with your user in mind, then you’re thinking about how they’re going to experience your product over time and space — it’s a journey. To help your critics understand your product like a user would, share that journey.”
Secret tip: Ask two questions
Sometimes you need executive buy-in at a critical part of the process. That doesn’t mean you don’t want their feedback and constructive criticism. It just means you are close to releasing something and you want to avoid the wild electron executive (who may have missed the last two meetings).
Walk into the meeting with two, very specific questions for the executives. Hopefully you can come up with something you genuinely need help with. By posing those questions either at the outset of the meeting or at the end, you can focus their attention to those matters and away from whether someone is having a spontaneous reaction to your color scheme or video titles.
This strategy doesn’t always work but it often does. And most executives know exactly what you are doing and appreciate the effort to keep a project moving.
Katie's Give and Take list from her presentation on giving good critique: