No Strategy: Work Smarter
It feels good to agree when someone asks for your help with a project or marketing initiative. When you say yes, you fill coworkers with joy, relief, and a sense that their request is valuable. At the same time, you get to be the agreeable, collaborative, easy-to-work with, always-willing to-help colleague who never causes conflict. Sometimes, that’s the perfect outcome. Everyone wins.
Other times, the gratification of saying yes paired with the chance to avoid conflict overwhelms better judgment. Meaningless work well beyond what is reasonable or useful piles up and steals time and resources from influential, important work that can make an impact and move an institution forward. In higher ed, staff, resources and time rarely keep pace with demand for services and support. Discernment in what you do and don’t do can keep you from wasting energy on unfocused, trivial, generic marketing and communications.
That’s why you need a solid “no” strategy. Fortunately, saying “no” doesn’t have to mean being obstinate and unhelpful. With a little strategy, it’s possible to say no, stay focused and still enjoy the benefits of saying yes.
Put Strategic Purpose First
Deciding when to say no and when to say yes requires a solid understanding of the institution’s goals. It’s critical to articulate the connection between a specific initiative and a strategic outcome. Evaluate projects from their strategic potential and ask—always—how a specific project or effort will move the organization closer to the strategic outcome. If the answer isn’t crystal clear, the project (as presented) probably isn’t worth pursuing. Using some sort of strategic assessment tool can help immensely in this process, and provides documented consistency in how projects and proposals are evaluated.
Assessment can also identify opportunities that might not be evident at first, allowing you to adjust project specifics to make it more strategic—shift a publication to the web so it directly supports lead generation for graduate programs, or refine the messaging of an ad campaign to better support other concurrent efforts. Most people appreciate good counsel, especially when it makes them look smarter and more strategic. And keeping the interests of the university at the center of all marketing and communication efforts helps everyone work toward goals that matter.
Build Tools and Solve Problems
Templates, training and documentation can be wonderful things for publications, web pages and sites, talking points, advertisements, planning documents, presentations and a long list of other frequently requested materials. Instead of managing several small one-off projects, develop tools that help others help themselves. Make templates and tools useful and beneficial to others, not simply convenient for you. Recommending others use low-quality, poorly supported templates will convey a sense of “not important enough.” Offering high-quality, well-documented materials that empower others to do better work will help in ways—reputation, trust, confidence—well beyond a specific project. “No” is easier to deliver when the alternatives are just as good.
Provide Service Alternatives
Instead of issuing a “no” proclamation without explanation, offer different options that get others where they need to be without exhausting your time. Build a list of freelancers, vendors or other departments on campus that might have better-fit services to help manage capacity, retain focus and still deliver. One advantage of the “here’s a vendor” approach is that it forces a more objective evaluation of a project. If a project is only worth doing if it’s free, perhaps it’s not worth doing after all.
Do Great Work
Perhaps the best, most powerful way to say “no” is to do the kind of work that sets expectations high. Exceptional quality and proven outcomes demonstrate the kind of investment, attention and thought that goes in to successful projects and initiatives. With a body of work as evidence, the answer isn’t “no, ” it’s “to be successful, this project/initiative will need this strategy, these resources, and this time.” If your evidence is solid, your direction will be trusted.
Despite the negative connotations that come with the word, saying “no” can be the first step in genuine collaboration and excellent, strategic outcomes for a university. Clarity, focus and conviction will always produce more than distracted but busy activity.
Tim Jones is associate vice president of marketing at Clarkson University, in New York.
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