Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Perfectionist and the Jack of All Trades

I've been called a perfectionist, and until recently, I've always accepted that description as a compliment. However as a leader, one of my primary responsibilities is to help prioritize the work of the departments that report to me, and in doing so, it is very important to understand that most nonprofits are under resourced. In a world where there is never enough, either in terms of money or human time, where and how nonprofits commit their limited resources becomes very important. Perfectionists struggle in these environments because by nature, when we start something, it's hard to walk away with even the slightest flaw remaining. On the other hand, marketers routinely leave projects behind when a greater return on one's resources can be found in other places, bowing to the law of diminishing returns. To be both a marketer and a perfectionist has caused a few schizophrenic debates for me over the years, but I've come to learn to focus on core competencies, and to strive for excellence, rather than perfection, in those areas.

I've chosen to write about this today because I've recently worked with two very well respected marketers that I observed struggling with the same issue. The first was a technology specialist who was known for making even the most complicated systems work. He was part of a team that over time found their marketing costs rising while their returns fell (not a good place for anyone). I was brought in to conduct a marketing audit. In my first week with them, I observed this marketer spending 25 hours working on a fix for a technology enhancement that this organization was hoping to roll out to their members. After inquiring, I learned that he had been working on this fix for over a month, and had put in well over 100 hours on it. When I asked him if this particular technology enhancement was worth so much effort, he replied that it was to him because he had never failed to deliver before. From an outsider's perspective, it was easy for me to see that he was chasing perfection to the detriment of the organization. After looking at the demographics of their members, and the usage statistics from the previous technology enhancements the organization had launched, it was easy to project that less than one half of one percent of their membership base would likely use this new feature. So why focus so many resources on it?

At almost the same time, I was advising an organization who had hired a strategic planning and market research firm to audit marketing and membership operations. The organization had selected one of the best firms in the business, but was experiencing cost overruns on projected labor expenses in the early stages of the project. The organization in question was large and complex, and one of the first things the firm did was request financial information in a variety of formats. Once delivered, a new junior member of the firm started analyzing the data sent, but in doing so, she couldn't get the financials to match perfectly between the various formats. She continued to work on the financials in an effort to get them to match to the penny, and in doing so, soared past the projected work hours set aside for the initial phase of the project. When I discovered the issue, I asked her how far off the financials were, and the gap was less than $1,000 on a $40 million operating budget. Even if she had found a way to reconcile the remaining funds, the conclusions from her analysis wouldn't have changed in the slightest. Her fear was that if this data was shown to the board of the directors, she would be held at fault because they didn't balance perfectly.

Perfectionists sometimes lose their way in an attempt to achieve something that might not be achievable, or if achievable, probably isn't worth the cost of the achievement. Perfectionists struggle with concentrating too much on one task, while others (I'll call them Jack of All Trades) struggle with just the opposite - not being able to decide where to focus their attention. During times of strife, marketers can find themselves getting friendly advice from a wide-range of well meaning others - board members, executive directors, senior staff members, artists and even spouses. People love to brainstorm, and send all their ideas to the marketing department. This isn't to say that ideas should be ignored. Great ideas can come from anyone, but the same can be said of poor ideas.

A couple of years ago, I spent some time with a new managing director of a mid-size regional theater. It was his first time leading a company, and he wanted to get it right. The company was known to have serious challenges, and when he started, everyone started sending him helpful hints on how to solve the issues. When I visited, he confided he didn't know where to start, and most important to him was pleasing the board that just recently hired him. So he vigorously pursued each idea that was sent to him from board members, and hadn't achieved much except exhausting himself. Over lunch one day, I asked him what the theater's most important challenge was; the one that if left unaddressed, would result in catastrophy. His answer was quick and clear - the theater's debt. I asked him what would happen if he focused all his energies on eliminating the theater's debt. He was afraid the general operations of the company would falter. He feared that the board would be upset because he wouldn't have time to focus on each issue they brought to his attention. And he was afraid of failure, so he tried to be a jack of all trades in an attempt to be everything to everyone. In the end, he decided to concentrate on dealing with the debt issue, and six months later, had identified a foundation that was willing not only to eliminate the theater's debt, but also wanted to establish a working capital fund for future operations.

Deciding what to focus on and more importantly what not to focus on takes courage of conviction. Perfectionists get lost in single projects, and Jacks of All Trades try to address everything at the same time. I've been both in my career, and over time, have become better at prioritizing. Below is a basic matrix that may help:

In priority, concentrate on solutions that provide the following:
High Impact on Critical Issues/High Revenue Line Items - these should be few in number but receive the most amount of your attention.
Low Impact on Critical Issues/High Revenue Line Items - even a small improvement on a critical issue can result in an excellent return on investment.
High Impact on Minor Issues/Low Revenue Line Items - only spend time on these projects if all critical issues and high revenue areas are performing well.

If you are in a nonprofit, and have the time to concentrate on solutions that will provide a low impact on a minor issue/low revenue line item, then perhaps you are overstaffed (or have reached the holy grail of the nonprofit sector).

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