Pick one improvement goal, focus on it every day

The experts tell us that organizations can’t improve everything at once. The key to making a big difference is to pick one very specific goal and then pay attention to that goal every day.

I had a chance Saturday to help editors from two student newspapers think about doing exactly that. In critique sessions at the Georgia College Press Association annual meeting, I asked each set of editors, “What is the one thing you’d most like to improve?” These were smart editors, and they didn’t have any trouble coming up with their answers:

  • Newspaper 1: “Better leads and headlines.”
  • Newspaper 2: “Attract more readers. We have too many students who won’t read the paper no matter what we try.”

In both cases, I advised them to narrow their goal. I was very much under the influence of a book I’m reading, “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” by three leaders of the famed FranklinCovey business consulting firm. I can’t do justice to their very detailed improvement program in a blog post, but I’ll try to give an over-simplified version customized for student media.

A central idea of the book is that you should pick a “wildly important goal.” That’s the one thing you could change that would make the biggest difference to your success. Then you narrow down that goal to sub-goals, and you define what MEASURABLE steps you’re going to take every week to work toward the sub-goal. The authors strongly caution that this is difficult to do in what they call the “daily whirlwind” — what you know as the chaos of just getting the paper out.

So in the case of Newspaper 1’s wildly important goal, better leads and headlines, my advice was that the “whirlwind” probably would make it too hard to take extra improvement steps on EVERY lead and headline in the paper during EVERY production cycle. Instead, I suggested a sub-goal of “strong leads and headlines on Page 1.”

How do you work toward that goal? Build in a short meeting during the editing process, after Page 1 stories are selected, and have the improvement team look hard at those leads and headlines. It’s hard to quantify “better writing,” of course, but you definitely can quantify whether the meeting was held and whether each lead and each headline was reviewed and deemed “strong” by the team. Once a week, you review how well you performed this task. Maybe one story arrived too late for proper review. How can you fix that for the next paper? Who, specifically, will work with the late writer or editor? Another task might be “Research headline styles, such as multiple decks, that would make it easier to write strong headlines.” Who will do that, and who will make sure all the people who have a role in design and headline writing are consulted?

After your Page 1 improvement process is solidly successful, you can expand it to other areas of the paper, probably with other teams of people.

Newspaper 2 has a completely different problem. Their wildly important goal might be “Reach more students in spite of their indifference or hostility to the paper.” I asked the editors to elaborate on the problem. “A lot of our students don’t even want to go to school here. They don’t like the college, so they don’t want to read about it.”

Ah-ha. Here’s a sub-goal: “Engage students and do journalism on the experience of going to college here.” Again, there are concrete things you can do. You can staff a table in a high-traffic area and offer students candy or cookies if they’ll stop and write their comments about the COLLEGE, not the newspaper, on a graffiti wall or comment card or whatever. Maybe a dozen one-on-one interviews should be conducted each week. Maybe at least one item in your paper each week should have something to do with student satisfaction.

Once a week, the team meets and each person reports on how they did and what they learned. Then each team member makes specific commitments. It might be, “I will staff the comment table on Thursday, and I will do one-on-one interviews with three students who say they don’t read the paper.” It might be, “We’ve heard a lot of unhappiness about campus maintenance. I’ll work with a reporter and photographer to come up with a story assignment which can meet our student satisfaction coverage goal for the issue two weeks from now.”

It’s critical in this approach to meet at least weekly to review performance, and that the wildly important goal is the ONLY item on the agenda of that meeting. If the “whirlwind” is EVER allowed to override your improvement goal, you’ll slide backwards for weeks. My advice, at least for your first improvement team, is to keep the group small and include only people who are strongly committed to trying this approach.

By the way, I just happened across a video in which Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, a creativity expert, advocates keeping a diary (you can think of it as note-taking if you like) every DAY so you can monitor your progress. Amabile says research shows that people who feel they are making progress are the most creative and productive. I haven’t had a chance to read her book, “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work,” but it’s now on my wish list.

I have read and highly recommend Dan Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” Pink reviews decades of research showing that carrots and sticks are NOT effective at motivating people except in the most boring tasks. Instead, they want to feel they’re growing better and better at an important job. Sound familiar?

The take-home from the work of Amabile and Pink, underscored by the FranklinCovey team as well, is that the wildly important goals need to be agreed upon by the team. Who wants to go to all this trouble for something they don’t really think is important?

That won’t be a problem for the editors I met Saturday. They are passionate about their improvement goals, so I think their main challenge is to keep the goal manageable so it is not devoured by the “whirlwind.”

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About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on February 5, 2013, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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