How to Take Stock

How do you know you’re still working on the important things? Since the beginning of the year I have been on a steady trajectory of projects, conferences, and trips that all fed into the “important things” for this season like helping to run a young business and paying bills. I didn’t have to worry about major deviations or course corrections. I had an outline from the beginning of the year, and I was just filling it in with my own hard work. I probably was too rushed to appreciate it at the time, but it was a rare season of “flow” where I got to go down the path set before me.

After my return from Germany, though, I realized that I was finally at a point that I needed to start planning and choosing projects again for Vintage 56, the ministry, and myself. We were almost done wrapping up some of our biggest projects, and I needed to make some wise decisions about how the next season would play out for my team.

See, one of the best (and most challenging) things about my job is having two great creative teams (with some of the same people) looking at me for direction. Don’t get me wrong; they can be independent and self-directed when necessary, but they still look to me to define the overall goals and which tasks or projects will help us achieve those goals. Like I said, though, we’ve been filling in an outline from the beginning of the year with only minor projects in-between. It was time for me to do my job as Creative Director and lead not just client projects, but our creative direction for the company as a whole. I set aside Friday morning to avoid the office, and sit outside with nothing but my sketch pad, pens and pencils, coffee, and a pipe.

The following is a full account of what I did, as a creative and a leader, to take stock of all of my projects, create a handful of stories, and setup some great projects for my team. This may not work for everyone. It may not even work from me in six months. As a framework, though, I think it might be useful to leaders and creatives alike:

  1. The first thing I did was ask myself what I thought was important to the ministry, the company and me. I wrote down all the major ideas, projects, or tasks that came into my head. I just listed everything we were already actively working on, things I knew immediately that we needed to do from our backlogs, and the things that had been nagging at the edges of my consciousness for the past week. Importantly, this was not a task list (that’s what Basecamp and OmniFocus are for) or a someday/maybe list (all of these things should matter in the next month). It was just an unorganized braindump of what I thought was important.
  2. After that initial braindump, I started adding some quick tags for organization. I added a column to the left quickly tagging each item as Generals (the ministry), Vintage 56 (the company), or personal (including writing, speaking, and work for Rebekah). This took five minutes to decide on the three tags and tag each item. The key is to be quick and not create too many tags.
  3. Next, I added another column of tags for what “type” of thing each line represented. Like before, I tried to be quick and just created the tags as I needed them. “Donor development? That’s a pretty big ongoing project. I’ll write ‘P’ for project. We need to finish up that client project that’s 90% done; that’s not really a project anymore, so I’ll put an ‘F’ for Finish Up.” That’s how it went in my head, at least, and it took another five minutes.
  4. Now that I had tagged everything in one list, I really needed to look at the items for each area (Generals, Vintage 56, and personal) individually. I just made a list for each area and moved the items to their new lists. At the same time, I brought over the “type” designation of each line and differentiated between major projects and minor projects; I did this just to make sure I wasn’t setting myself up for failure by giving myself too many major projects in one short period.
  5. Finally, I started to think more “strategically” about each area by reading through each list and looking for the main theme in each list. Any team works better when they can see one or two overarching goals for what they are working on each day, even if there happen to be a variety of projects on they way to those goals. If this were a story about Vintage 56 in mid-2011, what would be the plot? What would be the climactic scene? What are the projects, or conflicts, we must overcome to reach our climactic scene? What projects on this list won’t get us any closer to that goal?
  6. Based on the overall themes and goals, I finally started editing my lists. I added a few things from the backlogs that I now realized contributed to the goal. More importantly, I removed the items that didn’t affect the goal and put them in the backlog. Every writer will tell you that editing is the hardest part, but it’s necessary. Some things might be great projects for Vintage 56 in a few months, but they would only slow us down or distract us today.
  7. After all of that, my lists were looking good and I was ready to let my teams see them. I posted each one in Backpack (one of our greatest assets for the ministry and the firm) in their simplest form. For Generals and Vintage 56, I added them to the existing backlog pages as a “Current Projects” list with the themes as a mission statement at the beginning so that everybody could be motivated towards the same main goals. For my own list, I added it to my personal Backpack page with a mission statement as well.
  8. Finally, all of these lists had different actions associated with them once I posted them. For Generals, the list became the basis of our next Scrum sprint, and the overarching goals became our Scrum mission statement. For Vintage 56, the list was more than could be handled by one team or one sprint, so it became the agenda for our weekly partner meetings where we decide what part of the creative world to conquer next. Finally, for myself, it became a list that I can compare to OmniFocus during my weekly review: “Are these projects from OmniFocus in the list? Why or why not? Should I remove stuff from OmniFocus, move projects from the list to OmniFocus, or both? How am I doing on finishing these important goals?”

In total, this little adventure of resetting my priorities and taking stock of an ever-changing situation “set me back” exactly one morning and two cups of coffee. I met up with everybody that same day for lunch, and we started talking about the things we wanted to build with a refreshed vigor. Since then, we’ve launched a new sprint at Generals focusing on the items from the list, we’ve started brainstorming two new (highly secret) projects for Vintage 56, and I found enough time to write this increasingly massive article about the whole process. Mainly, though, we are all operating with a renewed focus that will carry us nicely until the next half-day reboot is necessary (probably after I return from San Francisco).

I can’t say that everybody needs to do something like this very often, but I do have a few key recommendations:

  1. Keep a backlog of things you want to work on. It can be a someday/maybe list, if you’re really into GTD. In general, though, I like the idea of a backlog from my software development days because backlogs are things that really should be done. It’s not wishful thinking or dreams; these are projects that really matter, just not today.
  2. Have a list of what you’re currently working on. If we do everything that comes along without keeping track, we undoubtedly spend a lot of time doing things that may not really matter. We need to be honest about where we spend our time.
  3. Finally, schedule an appointment with yourself to take stock and evaluate what you need to be working on. When we do client work, we get into the bad habit of coasting through months of client work and going completely idle afterwards without ever stopping to look at our bigger goals. This isn’t smart for us as people, and it’s not smart for our businesses. As a leader and a creative, it is our job to step back and evaluate what is really important at least a few times a year.