At the recent Comnet ’17 conference, I noticed Lenore Neier of the William T. Grant Foundation.  A beautiful white scarf with a tiny gold design was draped perfectly around her neck. In the middle of this global gathering of foundation and nonprofit communications leaders, she stood out.

As we were chatting, I complimented her on her great “scarfsmanship. “ She thanked me and noted, “I didn’t really think too much about it—I just did it.” In that moment, she unwittingly shared a powerful insight.

Those of us who practice strategic communications pride ourselves on helping our organizations think carefully so we get our points across to motivate, reframe and ultimately create change. All too often, however, we get into organizational overthink. It can paralyze us.

It begins with what appears to be a simple task—write an email to a donor thanking them for their very generous gift.   The communications team drafts the copy aligned with the organization’s messaging platform and sends it to the development officer.  The development team makes some substantial changes and then sends it to the C-suite, which makes more changes that contradict the first set of changes and then sends it to the staffer in charge of the program that will benefit most from the donation.  More changes ensue.

The once short and crisp email has taken on the characteristics of a sewing project where the seams have been ripped out and re-stitched so many times that the whole garment is misshapen.  The communications team accepts the changes, but now the email has lost its edge and impact—and probably, timeliness.

Here are a few steps to cure organizational overthinking.

  • Be clear about the reason to communicate. Are you simply sharing information or are you trying to motivate some kind of action?  Let the purpose guide the communication, not the other way around.
  • Everyone who reviews or is involved in creating that communication should examine it through the lens of its purpose. When sending a document with instructions to review, offer specific guidance about the kind of feedback you are seeking.  Consider including a short list of questions that you want answered during the review.
  • If they wander down the rabbit hole of micro-reviewing, remind them of the larger purpose and, if necessary, deadlines.
  • If all else fails, do as Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz suggests. Take ownership of the pen (or the microphone or the process.)

Back to Lenore and her scarf.  She could have agonized in front of the mirror, tying and retying it multiple times.  Instead, she selected it, carefully wrapped it around her neck, and was off to learn and connect.  In other words, she just did it—to terrific result.