I have been on small teams and very large ones, and what’s interesting to me is that no matter what size the team, I always found myself struggling with the split between “doing the work” and “writing and thinking strategically and creatively.” This is why people in workplaces schedule retreats—sometimes to strengthen the cohesiveness of a group of people who work together, and also to create space away from the daily to-do lists so people can see the big picture, think ahead to the future, re-assess their strategies, refresh their visions, and so on.
It is obviously tougher to find the time for creative thinking when you are part of a very small team, with very limited organizational resources. I have written before about how to set priorities accordingly when you find yourself in that situation, but I can’t emphasize enough how tough it is to actually do that. This is especially true of highly productive people—some people I know, the better they are at multi-tasking and serving different role functions, the more is expected of them, until they are almost imprisoned by their ongoing success and output.
In my experience, most communications people I’ve met are fundamentally creative people. They like to think about new ways to engage and connect with people—through compelling messages, creative storytelling, and across multiple platforms, and they are thrilled when they are able to do so. Maybe there are some people who get super-jazzed over updating a staff list on a website or scheduling a meeting, but I don’t know many people like that, do you?
As I said, I went through these struggles myself when I was a part of an organizational communications team, and I have a different window into this set of issues now that I’m a consultant, because – duh – people hire consultants for things they themselves don’t have time to do. In a less time-strapped world, consultants are brought in as facilitators, as people who provide fresh perspectives and access to knowledge that you want in order to move forward with your work and feel like you’re getting somewhere. Consultants are almost like personal trainers or coaches—if you wanted to run a marathon and it was your first time doing one, you’d want to get some expert advice on diet, training regimen, how to vary the length and intensity of your runs and when to do that, wouldn’t you? (At least, I hope you would.)
That would be the ideal consultant-hiring scenario, but in many cases—and I know this, having done this on the client side many, many times—consultants are hired to do work that needs to get done, urgently, but no one has the time or wherewithal to do it. One of my very first freelance jobs, years and years ago, I was hired to edit the board book of a foundation. All foundations have to present at least some of their proposed grants to their boards, and many foundation staff simply didn’t know how to do that well. Descriptions of proposed grants were soggy with jargon and dense with text. No board would really be able to tell what they were approving or not approving, without a mighty struggle. And I knew this to be the case not just at the foundation that hired me as a freelance writer and editor, but also at many other foundations, too.
Ideally, organizations with that type of problem would address it by investing in their staff—by offering guidance and kind critiques and editorial assistance in-house to improve the board process and make it less of a giant headache. But many organizations can’t, or won’t, invest in the internal changes needed to improve that process and as a result: it’s call in the consultant time.
So now maybe I’m going to surprise you and say that this is not a post about how organizations use consultants. This is actually a post urging you to keep your visionary dreams alive. Meaning: if you are the sort of person who longs for more time to write, to think strategically, and take in the big picture, don’t let yourself get buried completely under the minutiae of day-to-day tasks. I know this is easy for me to say and hard for you to do, but I am saying it anyway because I am worried about what happens to people when they let their visionary/creative skills wither or get dusty on their mental shelves, and focus almost entirely on getting that performance review or press release or blog post or board memo done, dammit. Most people in jobs with a kabillion responsibilities and tasks attached to them don’t realize that if the creative and visionary parts of their souls are not nourished on a regular basis, their happiness and sense of fulfillment in their jobs are in peril. (I think the technical term for this is “burnout.”)
At the very least, if you can, schedule a day or at least a half-day in your work week, every week, of unstructured time. And if lack of structure makes you panic at first because you’ve forgotten what the heck to do without back-to-back meetings or overdue expense reports, then set some modest goals for that unstructured time. Like, re-visit your strategic/communications plan (if you’re got one) and think about where you are right now in implementation. Or, maybe you need a plan, period? How might you cause one to materialize? Read three or four articles that seem to be trending lately in the business or nonprofit sectors. Think ahead to what you want the shape and impact of your work to feel like in five years. Most importantly, prepare to forgive yourself if you set big-picture goals during these times and you don’t, like, get them done immediately. The point is not always to get things done. Sometimes, the point is more about freeing your mind and getting you to a place where you can feel productive and satisfied with the work you do.
And, if you have a close work colleague, see if it’s possible to spend some of this time with them. I was fascinated by the recent New Yorker article about the two programming gurus at Google who are responsible for some of Google’s biggest successes and breakthroughs. Even now, when they have very different jobs at Google, they still spend every Monday coding together. Coding is absolute Greek to me and always will be but I loved this idea of set-aside time for people to share ideas and work through problems together. I recently bid on RFPs with two other consulting groups and the thing I loved the most about the experiences was the sharing of ideas and thoughts. (Consulting can be lonely, although solitude can also be wonderful, too.)
In short: keep dreaming.