Take Your Eye Off the Ball

Keep your eye on the ball!

I have coached youth softball for the past five years, and have uttered those 6 words more times than I can count. Particularly when the girls were very young, it was important to help them push past irresistible distractions like building sandcastles in the infield and picking dandelions in the outfield, and to focus on the one thing that matters most. The ball. Hit it, catch it, dodge it… whatever the case may be, but zero in on doing that one thing right.

As the girls get older though, the game gets more complex. Of course, “keeping your eye on the ball” is still critical, but stopping to first “take your eye off the ball” becomes arguably more important. How many outs are there? What is the score? Does this pitcher like to throw change ups? Should I take a pitch so that my speedy teammate on first base can steal second base? Are the infielders playing deep? The list goes on and on…

It no longer is enough to just do your one job and swing away… it is important to understand the context, the competition, and the potential scenarios to inform how to take that swing. It will always be important to execute in the moment, but first stepping out of the batter’s box and seeing where this moment fits within the broader game should inform how we take that swing.

In the vast world of innovation, we are much like that batter— eager to step up to the plate and take a big swing. But do we force ourselves to first step out of the moment and make sure that we are taking the best possible swing at the optimal time?

Before we start writing a new concept or idea, do we thoroughly research what work has been done before?

As we look to rapidly launch a product into a new market, do we fully understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of our competition?

Do we learn from our mentors, coaches, and experts before we storm forward, or are we in too big of a hurry to take the field?

As we look for new ideas, do we allow ourselves time to study trends, to brainstorm new approaches, and to look at the problem from a different angle?

Do we pause, reflect, and reevaluate our approach as we go along, or do we let our addictions to activity distract us from our big picture goals?

Particularly in the overwhelming pace and pressure of 2017, it is easy to want to just step in the batter’s box and swing. And in the short run, that approach may allow for some quick results and some good numbers. But in the long run, champions are born from fully understanding the gravitas of the moment, understanding the game within the game, and anticipating (and creating) the future.

We all want to take some big swings—we just need the added discipline to step back first and understand our context, our competition, and our scenarios. And maybe even allow ourselves a moment to build a sandcastle or pick some dandelions along the way.

Playwright. Work Righter.

If you’re like me, you spend late nights browsing through quotes from German Playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Show of hands?

Perhaps this will persuade you to at least give it a try. Von Goethe once famously said: “There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.”

Some things true in the early 19th Century are still just as valid today. Sure, we’ve perfected the hunting and gathering of data, but facts aren’t insightful, until you’ve added your imagination to them.

In other words, ours is not to analyze . . . but rather, to understand.

And of course it helps if you’re trying to understand the right data in the first place. But as David Duchovny reminds us: “The Truth Is Out There” and it is probably busy revealing something about consumer perceptions and behaviors – the foundation of every marketing enterprise from demos to concepts, and digital content, to ads.

With the truth we can create the right message for the right audience and place it where it will best breakthrough the noise.

I’m a big believer in meaningful creativity, versus just incense-and-aroma-therapy-candles creativity, because if you’re not tying creative solutions to broader business goals, you’re merely indulging in a hobby at your client’s expense.

That’s why we need to insist on getting reliable truths that reflect real people. At Upstream, we like to keep in mind that truths aren’t actually about platforms, they’re about humans. And if our ideas can tap into those insights, we know they will work anywhere.

It naturally follows that the simplest ideas have the most impact. Taking the complex and making it easy to understand is the blueprint. And if you understand who your audience is, what motivates them, and what their priorities in life are – you’ll be able to create something that resonates.

I’ll give von Goethe the last word on this again: “If you want to understand the poem, you must go to the land of poetry. If you wish to understand the poet, you must go to the poet’s land.”

Of course, Faust would agree, the devil is in the details.