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Recently, several conversations I’ve had revolved around process in what is most often described as the ‘discovery’ phase of a project. More often than not, I’ve been asked to describe my own, which is mostly: ask questions, verify what that’s telling us, create hypotheses to test theories, make decision and execute against that.

What’s really important about this process is the first two stages. There is a need to learn before either a strategy or plan or goal or narrative – just about any outcome you care to name – can be constructed and then tested.

It’s just that this Learn, Question/Validate, Hypothesise, Test process is mostly cyclical. It produces a host of possible futures from which one must be selected. It’s a constant across all stages of the projects I undertake. It’s what I learned as a scientist. Only once an idea reaches execution does it stop (well, perhaps take a back seat is a better way of thinking about it).

Flexibly rigid
There’s a problem that’s recurring: people want something that’s concrete. They want a process that can be applied to all situations, that reduces the uncertainty and can be replicated with ease. They want a ‘workshop’ that will produce the same outcome each time it’s delivered.

Really, this boils down to wanting the ability to say what the answer is before any questions have been asked.

If you already know where you’re heading, then just get on and move towards your goal. This is akin to getting a brief that asks for a Facebook advertising campaign. Inside, a little part of me dies when I hear this. The thinking is usually paper-thin – and wet – so is easily pulled apart once you start poking around. It’s the first step to failure (unless your metrics are soft; those that contain the word engagement, for example).

Okay, it’s entirely possible to put frameworks in place – such as using empathy, journey or experience mapping techniques – to constrain thinking. Constraints are a good thing. Yet, those constraints won’t – or shouldn’t – give you the same answers each time.

Determining what is the right thing to do can’t be made from cookie-cutter thinking; repeating what worked last time or copying what someone else has had success with just doesn’t work. It’s why reading about the 15 habits that made someone successful and adopting them yourself doesn’t guarantee success. Context is removed and the application is applied without considering any nuance. It may be that it’s not doing something that makes a bigger difference rather than layering on more ideals. Process, then, can occasionally muddy the waters.

I’m reminded of a quote from Socrates, which he used when referring to the written word and its rigidity for learning compared to the spoken word. In the Phaedrus Plato has him describing how writing can appear intelligent yet writing gives the exact same answer to those who interrogate it. Spoken words are tailored based on feedback from the audience; nuance is introduced, thinking is shaped, answers coalesce.

The experience shapes the process rather than the other way around.

Process is necessary
It is, very much so. We can’t be making it up as we go along and pretend that things we’ve learning before won’t work again. However, as with all things in life, when you learn something new that makes things easier why would you continue doing the things you did previously?

I have a simple process. It’s not groundbreaking or different to anyone else’s. What I don’t have is all the answers, which is what most processes I come across are designed to give before the problem has been identified. Therefore, if you want a content strategy, it’s done like this: Exhibit A. Need a viral idea? Oh, we have a method that can spit those out ten-a-penny!

Much better to remove the shackles that the recent commodification of ideas has put upon us and work out what might work and why. This require graft. Hard graft. There are elements of experimentation, yes, because there is no definite way of knowing. If there was, we’d be able to automate it. I’d suggest that this would just bring us even larger waves of mediocrity in our creativity, but that’s for another post.

One process to rule them all? No. It’s most likely that one size thinking fails all.