Keep It Simple


In their book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World (Amazon), Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt define simple rules as “shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information.” They help us simplify complex systems and decisions so that we can move more quickly through our daily lives at work and home.

“Never go on a second date with someone who only talks about themselves” is a simple rule. Triage procedures used in emergency rooms and on battlefields based on pulse and respiration are simple rules. Nonprofit marketing and fundraising have simple rules too.

If at your nonprofit, you have a hard time making marketing and fundraising decisions or get bogged down in the endless communications choices, creating some simple rules can help. Sull and Eisenhardt offer three different kinds of rules to provide frameworks for making better decisions: Boundary Rules, Prioritizing Rules, and Stopping Rules.

Boundary Rules are the “In or Out” or “Yes or No” or “Always or Never” rules.

Instead of weighing every conceivable factor, boundary rules hone in on the essential elements and are a great way to translate broad policies into practical guidelines on what to do.

Nonprofit social media policies are based on boundary rules. When do you delete a comment from your Facebook page, for example?  Many nonprofits say they will delete posts that contain profanity, spam, personal attacks, promotion of illegal activities, and so forth. Those are clearly stated boundaries that are easily enforced.

Here’s another Boundary Rule that I use and recommend to communications directors all the time: Never spend time creating a piece of content unless you can use it in three different ways. Building content repurposing into your work flow is essential to both your marketing success and your productivity. This rule helps you focus on content you can use in many different ways over content that is too niche.

Prioritizing Rules help you rank alternatives.

Think of them as built-in criteria for decisionmaking. Once the choices meet the criteria of your Boundary Rules, what next? That’s where Prioritizing Rules can help.

Every time your to-do list is way too long (in other words, every day), you use Prioritizing Rules to make choices about what actually gets done that day. Unfortunately, many times these rules are subconscious and emotionally easy to enforce, even if they don’t make sense strategically. Here’s one:  The squeaky wheel (or loudest or highest ranking staff member) gets the grease, even if a different, quieter part (or person or project) really needs the attention for the whole machine to reach peak performance.

Spend some time thinking about the Prioritizing Rules you actually use, versus what they should be.

Think about your goals and primary target audiences. What rules can you create so that the “important” comes before the “urgent” as much as possible?

For example, here are some productivity-related Prioritizing Rules:

  • Only check your email a few times a day, or at certain times of day, so that you can focus on important work.
  • Use time blocking in your calendar, so you avoid multi-tasking and focus your attention on only one project at a time.
  • Establish “office hours” where you welcome drop-in conversations, as well as “closed door” time where you can work uninterrupted.

Stopping Rules do just that – they tell you when to stop looking at alternatives, or when to stop doing certain kinds of work and to change course.

The three questions in my “Quick and Dirty” Marketing Plan are a great example of Stopping Rules.

  • Who are we communicating with?
  • What’s our message to them?
  • How do we deliver that message to those people?

If you can’t answer those three questions, I say you shouldn’t move forward with a communications idea. You stop the work until you can answer all three.

Your content creation and review process should also include Stopping Rules. Reviewers only get three rounds of commenting.  Assign the final decision on wording to a particular person at the start of the process, so they can stop the editing process and publish the piece.

Sull and Eisenhardt also suggest different kinds of simple rules related to processes, or how to do things better. They include How-To Rules, Timing Rules, and Coordination Rules. We’ll look at those in tomorrow’s post.

I’d love to hear about the Boundary, Prioritizing, and Stopping Rules you use at your nonprofit. Please share in the comments!