Content marketers, more than most business professionals, have a difficult relationship with decision-making and creativity. Thanks to the myriad of mar-tech programs now available, our role is more numbers-driven than ever. But while data around marketing best practices and content effectiveness can certainly help to shape a team’s creative strategy, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to execution. As creatives, marketers are only limited by our imaginations and available resources.
This is both our blessing and our curse.
Creativity can run rampant in marketing campaigns. Brainstorming sessions yield great (but endless) ideas and feedback. Procrastination can derail a project, and so can perfectionism. So, how do you choose the right idea when there are so many possible paths? When is it time to pull the trigger or pull the plug?
Answering these questions lies in understanding the creative struggles that can either drive or stall forward progress and decision-making—and then striking the right balance between them.
“If it wasn’t for my OCD, my ADD would never let me get anything done.”
I’ve said this many times throughout my career. I don’t actually have attention-deficit disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, nor do I mean to make light of these serious conditions. But I do have a short attention span that competes with the anxiety I feel when projects are left unfinished or when I know I’m about to miss a deadline (again).
This, I’ve learned, is something I share with most “creative types.” Years ago, my alma mater invited me to speak on a panel for an event called “Careers in English.” There were six or seven other panelists, all former English majors who worked in creative, writing-related fields.
When I made the comment about my competing “OCD” and “ADD,” every member of the panel shook his or her head and mumbled, “Me too.”
Urban introduces three characters who live “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator”:
The Rational Decision-Maker, who “gives us the ability to…visualize the future, see the big picture, make long-term plans” and who “wants to take all that into account and have us do whatever it makes sense to be doing right now.”
The Instant-Gratification Monkey, who “only cares about two things: easy and fun” and often snatches the wheel away from the Rational Decision-Maker, steering us into the Dark Playground, “where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening.”
The Panic Monster, who “is dormant most of the time but suddenly wakes up anytime a deadline gets too close.”
This, Urban says, is why deadlines are such an important part of the creative process. Deadlines contain the effects of procrastination because the panic monster—the “only thing the monkey is terrified of”—gets involved.
To be fair, there’s also a growing body of research showing how deadlines hamper creativity, and that time wasted is often time well spent. While we’re finding ways to distract ourselves from the work we should be doing, we’re often working without realizing it. We’re thinking, ruminating, and making creative connections we might have otherwise missed.
But we can’t stall forever in the name of creativity. For the sake of productivity, we also need flexible deadlines—or perhaps patient “panic monsters”—to keep the procrastination in check. Otherwise, our Rational Decision-Makers can’t do what they do best: make decisions and get things done.
Where the procrastinator has trouble figuring out where to start, the perfectionist doesn’t know when to stop.
This can manifest in two different ways:
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, talks about the first type of perfectionism—a phenomenon he calls “pre-crastination”—in his New York Times op-ed, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.”
A chronic pre-crastinator, Grant finished his graduate school dissertation two years early, wrote his college papers weeks in advance, and completed his professional writing assignments as soon as they came across his desk. Then one of his “most creative students,” now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, designed a series of experiments to prove to him that procrastination leads to more original and creative thought. Tasked with coming up with new business ideas, one group got started right away; the other had to play Minesweeper or Solitaire first. In the end, her research showed that procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative than those who immediately got to work, according to independent ratings.
Thus, Grant’s New Year’s Resolution for 2016 is to overcome his overachieving tendencies and procrastinate a bit more. As he explains:
Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. My senior thesis in college ended up replicating a bunch of existing ideas instead of introducing new ones. When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns…What I discovered was that in every creative project, there are moments that require thinking more laterally and, yes, more slowly. My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking—but I was also missing out on its rewards.
On the other side of the perfectionism spectrum are those who, regardless of when they get started, have trouble finishing, because they see endless ways to make the final product better. This leads to even more procrastination and stalled decision-making. After all, it’s hard to pull the trigger on an idea, or to call a project “done,” when you’re fighting the urge to tweak and retweak, aiming for the perfection you might never achieve.
Overcoming perfectionism doesn’t mean marketers should run with campaigns that aren’t well thought out, or publish mediocre content for the sake of “getting it done.” But perfection and excellence are entirely different things.
How can you spot the difference between the two? By getting a little perspective. Sometimes that means stepping away for a while and coming back to a project with fresh insights. For example, Grant forced himself to put aside his first draft of the above-mentioned article for three weeks. When he came back to it, he could clearly see how it could be better—not perfect, but better.
Another great way to get perspective is to seek feedback from others, who may see excellence where you only see imperfections. And this leads us to the next potential rabbit hole…
Collaboration is key for marketing teams. While great ideas usually start out as solo acts, groups of talented people who all share the same goal—create innovative content and excellent campaigns—can help to refine and improve ideas.
Brainstorming with others can help us to get “unstuck” when we’re unsure how (or whether) to move forward. Productive feedback provides fresh insights that can help us determine when to pull the trigger on a great idea, or when to pull the plug on a project that just isn’t working.
The beauty of collaboration is that everyone has a different perspective, different insights, and different ideas about how to approach a problem. So when you can reach a consensus about whether an idea is ready to make its way into the world, it probably is.
The problem comes when everyone doesn’t agree. We’ve all experienced this. We started out with a great idea, until a dozen other people put their fingerprints on it. The end result was either a watered-down product or a confusing tangle of ideas that required us to go back to the drawing board altogether.
Overcoming this barrier to decision-making requires marketing teams to have plenty of cooks in the kitchen—people who can offer support and productive feedback—but to ensure there’s a head chef on duty: someone capable of listening to everyone’s ideas, taking what works and discarding what doesn’t, and then making a final judgement call about when to move forward.
For marketers and other creatives, making decisions—knowing which creative path to pursue and when to press “publish”—lies in finding the right balance between these three dichotomies: when to procrastinate and when to be productive, when to strive for perfection and when to focus on progress, when to brainstorm some more and when to make a judgement call.
The “right balance” varies from one team/leader to the next, but if you find yourself unable to get momentum or make a decision, chances are, you’re leaning too far in one direction.
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