Sunday, June 7, 2015

Navigating the “swamp” of a packaging project gone awry

It happens all the time, good intentions combined with strong instincts, and a desire to act quickly, conspire together to create quite a mess.  That exact setup was the reality I stepped into on a recent client trip.

I have had the pleasure over the past few months to start working with a wide variety of engaging clients as I started my consulting business, (to see more on Levisay Consulting, click the link on the top left of this blog’s homepage.)  Ranging from a tech startup, a logistics software company, a telemedicine company, a vineyard/winery and a global pharmaceutical firm, it has been a fun and challenging, “pivot” in my professional career.  The range of business models, organization structures, p&l dynamics and business issues is extraordinary. It is certainly “sharpening my saw” regularly and it “feels” great to be building new skills at this point in my career.

A few weeks ago I had a client call, frustrated and challenged with a packaging project that was his responsibility.  The project had been underway for a number of months, and had become stalled amidst a cloud of competing opinions and agendas.  As is often the case with any “subjective” topic (and candidly this happens all the time across the board), everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert, and no one is ready to make the final call.  There were competing groups, everyone by now getting frustrated with the project and “digging in “ on their favorite designs.  That was the situation that I entered as an “outside voice” that might be helpful….. yikes!

By the time that I got involved, there were 30+ designs being discussed, emanating from a variety of design firms and designer “friends”.  While I was asked the simple question, “Bill, which design do you like?” I was smart and cagy enough not to fall for that bait!  Rather than adding my voice to the cacophony, I asked to convene a live meeting of ALL stakeholders and lead a “little decision process.”

A Touch of Discipline

What was clear to me, working outside the company and project, was that a “touch of discipline” was needed immediately.  I gathered the group together, with plenty of time to work through this project, and started by taking a few steps backward.  I had one of the senior folks refresh all of us on his view of the strategy for the company.  While nothing was on paper (as of yet, I am working on that one next!), he had a clear idea and was pretty eloquent on what the next 3-5 years looked like and what key strategic priorities would be the focus for the team.  With those captured on flip charts, I then asked for someone to share the packaging design “brief.”

Well, to put it mildly that question was met with silence and stares.  OK, no “brief,” so I asked the packaging project lead to share his thoughts about where they needed to go.  Laced with market-based insight, opinions and a desire to “act fast,” the drivers of the project were still muddy across the room.

Design Principles

Rather than let the meeting break down, I started a process where everyone in the room, privately, put together “their” list of “design principles” for the project.  As they did that work, I opened up excel on my laptop and started building a worksheet.  (more on that later)  once everyone had their list I asked everyone to share their lists, and not surprisingly there was significant overlap and alignment.  We had a bit of debate about what each “principle” meant, and pretty quickly came up with a list of 6-7 agreed on “design principles” for the project. 

Rank & Multi-Vote

Once I had them in my excel worksheet, I lead the team through a weighting exercise and had everyone rank the “design principles.”  I captured the “votes” on a flip chart and the debate ensued.  Wide ranging opinions about what should be most/least important came bubbling up through the process, no wonder that the project had stalled!  To clear the logjam, I had everyone “multi-vote” their top 2/bottom 2 “principles.  The list became clearer quickly and we had an agreed on list of “design principles”, in order of priority.

Weighted Scoring

Now the tedious work really began.  I quickly completed an excel work sheet with the 6 “design principles” as rows, with a “weighted” value for each principle so that the sum of the 6 “design principles” equaled 100.  Once completed, we put each design  (yes all 30) through the “design filter” and gave each a score (1-5).  Everyone’s score had the same “weight” and I randomized who scored first and which “design principle” I started on.  While slow and tedious, two hours later we had weighted average scores for each of the 30 designs.

Clarity and Decision Making

While no one liked the tedious process, the output was startling.  The scoring process “sorted” the 30+ designs into three distinct buckets:  there were 3-4 designs at the very top, 6-7 designs at the very bottom, and a bunch in the middle.  Once we agreed that we could eliminate the bottom designs (a very quick call), we turned off the excel worksheet and did a “fast flash” through all the middle group to see if there were any that “needed” to be kept in the running.  Interestingly, 1-2 did pop up for a variety of reasons and we added them to the “top bucket,” so we had 4-5 designs to really work on.

Design IS ultimately subjective

Keeping in mind the retail reality for this product category, we pulled all of the top designs up on the screen at once, and discussed (time boxed to 30 minutes) the pros and cons of each one, whether there were any production realities/challenges that one or another might cause, etc.  Finally we had 2 of the top list left, and quickly the group ALL gravitated to a single “winning design”; one that they would “be proud of”, and would “represent their brand” in a winning way, etc.

Well the proof will ultimately be seen in the market, and I will need to wait a few months/quarters until the new packaging hits retail to see how well my “little process” really worked.  It took about a full day to work our way to the final decision, after the project had “wandered” for weeks and months.  I share this story and the specific steps so you all might try it in your worlds.  While I used it to help guide a packaging project, the idea and approach is applicable in almost any situation where there are a variety of opinions / voices/ approaches for a project.  Rather than waiting for the project to stagnate and the team to “meltdown,” try bringing this approach into the process on the front end, I am confident that it will help you guide the initiative to a successful conclusion.  Good luck!!

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