A Weird Ritual

I stumbled across the short form creative brief by way of a tweet from @jmspool and I had to share it. It reminds me of something we built at dojo4 when I was CEO there, but it includes a Very Important Addition.

Technology and design work is expensive, far too expensive to do without some anticipated return (unless you work in a sector that allows you to light bricks of technology dollars afire on a hot summer day “just for the ambiance”).

When I was at dojo4, upon signing a contract with a customer, I tried to capture a couple sentences about their anticipated return on a 3″ by 5″ notecard. I pinned the notecard to a corkboard where everyone could see it (and I mean everyone: our employees, our guests, our other customers). We called the notecard the Project Compass.

The project compass was intended to be a guide, an arbiter in times of uncertainty. Whenever a question arose about project scope or direction, we could look at the project compass for clarity. A typical project compass might be “Redesign the website and add a feature allowing customers to create and manage their own profiles.”

Astute readers may notice the above compass doesn’t describe a return on investment at all. That’s quite common, unfortunately. It is HARD to achieve clarity about a project’s anticipated return. Often, a project’s sponsor has already done some initial analysis and design and is giving implementation experts the output of the initial analysis (“Redesign the website”) instead of the input (“Increase signups and improve retention”). Sometimes the sponsor can’t articulate what they hope to achieve. Just as often the implementation team can’t hear it.

At dojo4 we assumed imperfection in our project compass. Every project required a compass to move forward, but we agreed (and said out loud) that the compass might change. We even asked @anthonydimitre to draw us a classy graphic explaining exactly how this process would work:

dojo4's Project Compass, circa 2011

dojo4′s Project Compass, circa 2011

We usually dove into implementation as soon as a compass was written and pinned to the corkboard. For the minimum-viable-product startups dojo4 worked with, “implementation” was practically synonymous with “changing the compass”. But “implementation” also always meant “charging hard toward maximal features in minimal time”.

The little black “No” in the middle of the illustration above is what we envisioned happening if the project was discovered to be out of alignment with the compass. We’d look at stories and check them against the compass and change one or the other as necessary. But delivering code at breakneck pace to customers with rapidly changing goals was totally orthogonal to thoughtfully reviewing and making adjustments to paper-based project artifacts. So, our project compasses often went stale.

This is common in every kind of project everywhere. Sometimes it is a problem; sometimes not. When a project sponsor and all the project’s implementers have fantastic rapport and constant engagement, they can happily forget whatever they wrote in the brief three months ago. They’re grooving. But sometimes, the project sponsor and the implementers will carry divergent ideas of the project’s purpose all the way to launch day. I know at least a few people who’ve changed careers after pulling a week of all-nighters to deliver something that nobody wants.

That was precisely what the project compass was designed to help us avoid. But a corkboard full of stale project compasses didn’t help anything. Which is why the short form creative brief caught my eye. The document itself resembles the project compass — more verbose, still quite brief. But unlike the compass, the short form creative brief is imbued with longevity through a “weird ritual at the start of every meeting”:

One of the team members, always a different person, would read the exact same document out loud, word for word. The document, about three–quarters of a printed page, contained a tiny creative brief about the design they were working on. Reading it out loud was how they started every design meeting, whether it was a brainstorming meeting or a design review….[then] the project’s leader would turn to the group and ask the same question, “Everyone agree that this is what we’re working on today?”

Many times this exercise has no obvious impact: Everyone simply nods and the meeting moves forward. But occasionally, someone asks for clarification. They ask because they’re new to the project; or they ask because they’ve been assigned a task that doesn’t seem aligned; or they ask because they sponsored the project and no longer agree with something in the brief. When someone asks, the group discusses and updates the brief as needed.

Ritual is the perfect word for this exercise because the magic only happens if you do it religiously. You read the brief every time. You read the brief even when it feels silly to read the brief. Even — no, especially — when the meeting is about something urgent or tense. Because reading the brief puts the project’s critical facts right where they belong: At the forefront of everyone’s mind, in consensus terms freshly aligned with the effort actually underway, for the entire duration of the project.

I suspect the shape of the brief (or compass) is not nearly as important as its frequent review. Of course, it should contain enough information to explain why project participants keep meeting and working together, instead of playing pinball or hoarding shoes or visiting every county in Texas. That could be one terse sentence. The important thing is that the brief continues to explain where the group is headed, even if the group changes direction.

At Mozilla we use etherpad for planning meetings and taking notes during meetings. I have begun adding a “theme” to the top of etherpad agendas as a gentle way to remind people of the big reason we’re having yet another weekly meeting. For example, on Mozillians.org right now, the big reason we’re having yet another weekly meeting is to discuss the Curated Groups feature that we’ve been working on all quarter.

After reading up on the short form creative brief, I think I may take a moment at every meeting to speak our current theme out loud, too. Does everyone agree that this is our focus right now? Are there any questions about what it means?