Shaping the Path

In my first job out of business school, I was the most junior person in IBM’s Corporate Citizenship team. Stan Litow, the hard-charging ex-Deputy Chancellor of the NYC Schools, ran the group and was my boss’s boss.

Occasionally, I got to work directly with Stan, and “work” often meant doing the background research and preparing a draft document or an email for him to send out.

My barometer of success was simple. I tracked:

  1. The speed with which things I produced went out the door.
  2. The difference between what I produced and what finally got sent by Stan.

Naturally, the two were correlated: the closer I got to the target, the faster the end product was sent out.

I came to discover that it wasn’t just getting the content right that mattered. It also helped tremendously if I made it as easy as possible to turn my draft into the final product. This meant things like:

  • Drafting the outgoing email to accompany a file
  • Writing that email to make it sound the way Stan sounded
  • Succinctly explaining to Stan the context behind what I’d done and the recipient
  • Being completely clear what actions needed to be taken

While at the time I was enabling my boss’s boss, these behaviors continue to inform my actions to this day.

To be influential and drive action, part of our work is to make these actions as easy as possible – called “shaping the path” by behavioral economist Jonathan Haidt (Chip and Dan Heath also talk about this a lot in Switch). Shaping the path is the act of removing all friction between a person and the action you want them to take: giving students a printed map if you want them to go to a dorm and get a vaccine, for example, increases the number of students who get the shot.

Once you start paying attention to shaping the path, it’s addictive, especially in written communication (email/Slack).

You’re shaping the path every time you:

  • (email) Write a good self-contained forwardable email when you’re networking
  • (email) In an email, summarize your headlines in one sentence rather than assume that everyone will read the attachment
  • (email/Slack) Transform a paragraph into a numbered or bulleted list that is easy to digest
  • (Slack) Include a clickable link to a file to a colleague rather than a filepath
  • Encourage your team to take a specific action, and then model that action in verbal or written form
  • Use Docusign
  • Turn your Word Doc contract into an online Terms of Service
  • (email/Slack) Put all the information everyone needs in one place, more than once (as in, even after everyone has the calendar invite: “here are the materials for our meeting next Thursday from 10:00 to 11:00 am Eastern time and here’s the Zoom link”)
  • (email) Change the email subject line of an email to make it clearer what it’s about.
  • Are hyper-specific about what would be most helpful, or how you can help, and ask for just that (size of the action, amount of time) and nothing more.

Making everything a little easier for the people you interact with is a sign of both empathy and respect. It shows that you know how busy they are, and that you recognize how much time and energy it takes to task switch.

As a bonus, it’s more likely that people will do the things you’d like them to do and that they will feel great about it, because it was so easy for them.

Too much nonprofit marketing?

Zeenat Potia, who now works at and blogs for Oxfam America, started her career in book publishing.  In her first year in the book business, Zeenat would often be asked at parties whether she was an editor, and she’d say no, that she was in marketing.  But:

“I did not like casting myself as a marketer because their inevitable response would be a smug, quasi-judgmental “ah.”

The premise: the editors do the high-status, high-value work (finding manuscripts, editing them, working with the authors); the marketers are just peddlers.  And look where the book business is today.  What’s the right balance between editorial and sales & marketing?  I don’t know, but I’d guess that it’s in the ballpark of 50/50, not the 90/10 or 80/20 that I’d guess it is in the book business (at least from a status perspective, maybe from a time and effort and honing of craft perspective too).  The goal is to find great books and get them into the hands of readers, isn’t it?

Zeenat makes the right analogy to the nonprofit world: just swap out “editors / marketers” with “program staff / development staff” and you get the exact same equation.  “Program” is where the people who do the “real” work go, the ones with the PhDs who really know what’s going on and what works.  The development staff just run off and package the “real work.”  Ancillary and low status.

This is what gives space for Zeenat’s question.  Marketing is “just selling,” right?  So you should do just enough to be able to do the real work.  It’s possible to do too much marketing, right?

Probably, but I bet that there’s not a single iPhone owner (or craver) out of the 22 million owners in the United States who discusses whether Apple is wasting its money on “all that marketing.”   Same goes for Amazon.  And Virgin.  And probably even Wal-Mart. Same even went for GE in the heyday years of Jack Welch (the story was just different).

When done right, marketing helps us discover solutions to our problems, influences how people see the world, and helps them make decisions.  When done wrong, it’s peddling something someone doesn’t quite need and quickly regrets buying.

Let us not, as a sector, fall into the trap of listening to critics who say that we should minimize the dollars, effort, brain power, and ingenuity that goes into everything but the “real” work (programs).  In so doing, we risk forgetting that our role is BOTH to find solutions to the persistent problems of inequality and injustice and malnutrition and infant mortality and safe drinking water and AIDS and malaria…AND to figure out how to explain to the world that these problems matter, that we have the tools to solve them, and that if was have the tools to solve them, then we must all act.

It’s not easy.  But that’s marketing.

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The answer-outcome paradox

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gap between finding the right answers and getting to the right outcomes.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine was working for a think tank that was hired to consult for the Ministry of Education of a small country.  The team, which was made up mostly of PhDs who specialize in education, was asked to create the blueprint, design, and launch of the country’s higher education system.  I was petrified to imagine a group of researchers being asked to create a living system that would consistently deliver high-quality educational outcomes.

The premise was that the people who knew most (analytically) about higher education would be the best people to solve this problem.

I’m a problem-solving kind of guy, so it’s taken a combination of observation, deduction, and advice from peers and mentors for me to come around to the idea that the analytical skills I’d been trained to develop all my life – from school grades to the SATs and GMATs to the whole system of admission to college and graduate school – aren’t the end game, they’re the starting point.

You’d never guess this was the case by looking at our institutions of higher education, which by and large are run by professors who are mostly in the answer-finding business.  It’s true that there is an occasional nod to things like team-building, communication and influencing skills, coaching, self-reflection, etc., but these inevitably are billed as “soft” skills somehow different and apart from the hard (read: real) skills that matter.

If you’re an “answers” kind of person, it a cop-out to blame poor outcomes on others’ inability to see the solution you saw all along.  If a path not taken – one that you believed in – was the right one, then the first question to ask was what you could have done differently to get your team, or your organization, to that outcome.

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