When Doing a Crappy Job Is a Good Thing

Open Web Vancouver 2009 Day 2 -20090612-7I hear this plea from nonprofit communicators all the time: “There is way too much stuff to learn and do in this job. How do I cover all the bases when it’s just me and there is no additional help in sight?”

At a recent conference, in response to a similar question, I replied this way:

Choice A is you pick one communications channel like your email newsletter or Facebook or your blog and really nail that channel for, say, a month or two — really focus on it, learn what you need to know, incorporate best practices, and get your system in place so it’s easy to maintain — while phoning in (or even ignoring or doing a crappy job on) everything else during that time. Cycle through all the channels that really need your attention until it feels better.

Choice B is keep doing a half-hearted or lame job on everything, all the time, but at least you get something done everywhere you are supposed to be.

I strongly recommend Choice A. With that approach, by the end of a year, you would have upgraded your performance on all of your communications by giving each channel some concerted focus and energy. With Choice B, you are still doing a lame job on everything at the end of the year.

Yes, it’s  tradeoff. Choice A comes with risks of failure on those communications channels you are ignoring. Something bad could happen on Twitter while you are ignoring it to focus on Facebook. But Choice B comes with pretty much guaranteed failure across the board.

When I said this out loud, half the people smiled, relieved to have a solution that gave them permission to be pragmatic and to catch their breath. The other half gasped (appalled that I would suggest they do a crappy job on anything) or sighed (knowing their higher ups would never consent to the approach). Hint: If your higher ups don’t really pay that much attention to communications anyway, they probably won’t even notice. Just do it.

What do you think of this choice?



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  • Valerie F. Leonard

    This is very timely for me, Kivi. I don’t work in a nonprofit, but I serve as a consultant to nonprofits. Your advice is universal. I maintain several websites, blogs and new social media channels for my practice, personal use and civic engagement. I have been so busy that I have only focused on the new social media, and have not updated my websites and blogs in a while. I have spent all day updating websites and blogs, trying to catch up. I feel much better after reading your article. Thanks for giving us room to breathe.

    • Glad you feel better. Sometimes you just need someone else to say out loud what your heart is already telling you!

  • graphicsmith

    This is great advice because it creates a focused plan for improvement. Yes some things are going to suffer for a short while, however over time there will be noticeable improvement on all fronts. This plan reminds me of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues where he picked the 13 things that he needed the most improvement on and assigned them a week and for that week that’s what he focused on. At the end of the cycle he started again at the beginning and steadily increased his mastery.

    • That reminds me . . .I had a plan like that as a New Year’s resolution and it’s fallen by the wayside!

  • Hannah

    Your last sentence made me laugh, because of the truth behind it! Sometimes I will suggest a communication piece and then try to get it approved even if the boss doesn’t really understand the importance of it. I’ve started to just jump out there and do it without approval and I don’t hear any complaints! What’s that saying…..it’s easier to ask forgiveness later….. 🙂

  • joyceschneider

    Really good advice….if you can stand the discomfort of leaving the other stuff unattended. As smart as the choice “A” is, and it is sound advice, it is difficult to execute as that nagging voice from both “within” and “outside from others” who complain about your not attending to issues that need attention, can be overpowering, and hard to silence. I guess if one builds up their ability to stay focused, put on a great fitting pair of blinders, and learn to ignore the outside protects, action plan “A” can be an effective choice. i am willing to try it again…..this time i hope i will succeed as i will be posting up a copy of this blog of yours, enlarging it so it is easy to see, and keep it on my bulletin board! Thanks!

    • Let me know how it goes! I know it’s hard. But you can pick this discomfort or the ones that comes with just being so-so at everything.

      • joyceschneider

        Good rebuttal! Love it, Kivi! Thank you for this little “kick in the butt” to stay on the “best course” of action!

  • Jennifer Watson

    This is GREAT advice – and applies not just to communications, but to broader organizational priorities too. I work in international development and we simply can’t be all things to all people at all times. To even try is to ensure that our focus is so fragmented we do little good for anyone – instead of a lot of good to those we can most effectively help. This is important: “and get your system in place so it’s easy to maintain…” I’d rather miss a blog deadline or a couple of facebook posts to update my editorial calendar and ensure my content plan is aligned with strategic priorities, or to spend time reviewing my Google analytics so I know exactly which content is driving donations – because that is systemic change that makes my comms efforts more efficient, more effective, more scaleable and more sustainable.

  • Tara Collins

    And here I’ve been praying for a sink hole to open up and take away all that is slowly falling through the cracks anyway…Just today I was throwing my hands up, abondoning much of what needs to be done, just so I could start fresh. And then I read this. Whew, now I can get to the gut-check planning I so desperately need to do. Thanks for the permission slip to slack off (and get organized), Mom!

  • Thanks Kivi. I think the problem is when other departments expect the communications department to use all these channels and may not be receptive to ignoring any channels even for a short period of time. Any ideas on how to get around that?

    • It’s all about priorities and quality of work. You can’t do it all, so lay out the choices. They give you more help, or you have to cut something.

      • Lisa S


  • Doug

    Check your use of the word lame – very insensitive.

    • Parker

      I want to second this – ‘lame’ is a very able-ist word that insults people with physical disabilities by equating being ‘lame’ with being crappy. Like most slang, many of us have built the habit of using the word without thinking about how it sounds and feels to others. Think of ‘lame’ like you would the word ‘retarded’ – I doubt you would have used that word in this article.

      • I hear your concern. If 100 people say to me “he’s lame” I will think those 100 people have bad ideas, made bad decisions, or told a really bad joke. I would not once think they were referring to a person’s physical disability. The only time I hear the word used that way is in reference to “lame duck” presidents (a metaphor I assume you hate) and when a horse goes lame — again in neither case referring to a person’s physical condition. While this is my experience, I understand that it is clearly not yours, and I am sorry for any pain my use of the word has caused.

  • Marta Lindsey

    Amen to choice A! It’s a great strategy because here’s what happens: when you work on one channel, what you need to do with your other channels becomes clearer without you even having to tackle them (yet). I’m working with a nonprofit where once we started defining the target audiences for Facebook, we had major realizations about that our goals for the e-newsletter needed to be.

    I think anytime in our challenging (but wonderful) field of nonprofit communications when we can truly focus and do some hard, brain-challenging work in one area, it improves everything we’re doing. Job satisfaction goes up, too, as you start to finally feel like you’re not doing everything poorly!

  • Jennifer Brown

    I needed to read this today! I have been thrown into this, and its been so hard to focus on everything… from a complete redesign on a website to new brochures, to commercial advertising to trying to maintain the FB and Twitter worlds, I’ve been stressing about the stressing I do stressing out over not giving equal attention to all of these things…. I’d be lying if i didn’t say it was nice to read that I’m not the only one!

    • You can’t do high quality work when you are stressed out all the time. Yes, adrenaline rushes can be helpful, but only the in the short-term!

  • Molly Ola Pinney

    Thanks – this is awesome, Kivi! I’ve spent the past couple of years systematically focusing on different aspects of my organization and as a result it has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. Stronger programs, more donors, and more in-person training visits to our International partners. One of the places that I always look to for learning how to refine those donor communications is here, to your blog! Thanks for being a great resource!

    • That’s so nice of you, thanks! And glad to hear it’s worked for you!

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