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Digital productivity coach Deb Lee zeroes in on marketing & design teams

All of us at 11 min read
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In our quest to learn first-hand about the building blocks of teamwork, collaboration and productivity for creative teams, we spoke to many marketing and design practitioners who specialize in getting things done. But Deb Lee offers the reverse perspective: she’s a digital productivity coach who’s worked with many marketing and design teams.

In many years running her own company, Deb has witnessed plenty of the obstacles that impede productivity, and it’s her job to help teams knock them down.

Just as the digital era is disrupting marketing in such profound ways, it is also disrupting the fabric of how people work together and stay focused. We used to get distracted by birds twittering outside the office window; now we get distracted by Twitter chirping in another browser window.

To help your team conquer the evolving challenges of a changing work environment for marketing and design teams, we asked Deb to share some of her thoughts and experiences. Our conversation touched on refining goals, sizing up trends on the horizon, her personal productivity boosters, balancing structure with a “nebulous creative vibe,” and more.

Simplify goals and reduce distractions

As someone who works with people to help them become more productive, you’ve spent plenty of time with marketing, design, and creative teams. At a high level, what would be your top recommendations for these teams that want to collectively get more done with their teams?

I would say if you want to get more done with your teams, you need to keep it simple. Pick one or two goals versus 10 or 50 that you want to really focus on and get buy-in. Figure out, why are we really trying to achieve these things? And once you get clarity around that, then I would say, look at your workflows, are they solid? Are they wonky? Are there any inefficiencies that are built in? 

Keep in mind that as your company grows and changes, or maybe even pivots, that you need to look back at those workflows and really make sure that they still fit. 

So 2020 is of course a big milestone, bringing us into a new decade. Being that you keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening with trends in productivity, what do you see as the biggest keys for productivity for the decade ahead 2020s where creatives are concerned?

I think no matter what industry you’re in, we probably will look at distractions and how they pull us away from what we really ought to be doing. Creatively or strategically, we get distracted by bright shiny things, innovations that other companies are doing, and we get sidetracked a little bit. So, I would say if we can rein that in, and really focus in on our core businesses and strengthen that, then we would be in really great shape.

Creatively or strategically, we get distracted by bright shiny things, innovations that other companies are doing, and we get sidetracked a little bit … If we can rein that in, and really focus in on our core businesses and strengthen that, then we would be in really great shape.

We know you’re a fan of technology and the impact it can have on productivity. What are some of the major shifts you’ve noticed in recent years?

I’m not sure that I’m seeing a major shift, but rather a renewed interest. There is this continued focus on finding the holy grail of tech, if you will, that will propel departments and organizations forward and keep them effective and efficient. So I don’t think it’s a change. But I think people are looking more than ever at apps and things like automation to button up some of the manual tasks so they can put their teams to better use.

Team productivity and personal productivity aren’t entirely different

What do you see as the key nuances when you’re talking about personal productivity versus team productivity?

Personal and team productivity might seem like they’re very different, and in some regards they are, but there’s a lot of overlap. 

I think about sports. In an individual sport like tennis, you’ve got my favorite player, Roger Federer. He’s on the court, he’s probably playing a really inspired opponent. As he tries to strategize and figure out a winning plan, he doesn’t have the benefit of having teammates like, say, a sport like football or basketball where you’re collectively driving the ball down the court. And even there, there are moments of personal glory or personal productivity. You might be the one spiking the ball in the end zone or dropping the game winning dunk, right? But you couldn’t have done that without your teammates. 

As I circle back to Roger, on the court, he couldn’t be there on his own without his coaching team. So off the court, there are things happening that prepare him for that experience. And of course, he’s got supporters and that coaching team in the stands, cheering him on, and the glue that holds those two things together is that shared goal, right? Whether we’re talking team productivity or personal productivity, you’re never truly alone. 

So whether you’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting and getting a little bit of help, or you’re doing it collectively and collaboratively, I think that shared goal is what bridges the gap. 

You work to help others become more productive. But we’re curious to know: For you personally, what are some of your go-to techniques for motivating yourself at a time where maybe you feel less productive?

Yeah, there have definitely been moments, I won’t lie. One of the first things I do is actually talk it through to myself. I often want to figure out, why are you not getting going, what’s the problem? But that can sometimes take a while to tease out, so I focus on what’s the next step, or the first step I have to take to get moving again because if I start thinking about the next 10 things, it’s just too overwhelming for me. 

So, next step, I visualize myself attacking the project or the task. I watch myself in my mind’s eye just being a rock star – I am knocking it out, and just slaying left and right. Before I’ve even started anything, I allow those feelings to just wash over me. I sit with them, I get comfortable with them. I want to feel that and I want to feel that now. So that usually sort of propels me forward and gets me moving. 

Another thing is changing your scenery – leaving the home office and going to a place that has good eats and wonderful coffee. Or even setting a timer and giving myself permission to just work on something specific for five or 10 minutes, and giving myself permission to either move on or continue after these small increments of time. 

Usually one of those things will or maybe a combination of those things will work for me depending on the day. But I would say visualization is at the very top of my list.

The right culture fuels productive collaboration

In your experience consulting and working with various people and organizations, are there any key cornerstones in terms of how the team is structured, how they communicate, how they operate, when it comes to those groups that are really clicking together and producing extraordinary work?

To get that click or that synergy, I think that team members need to get to know each other outside of work. So sure, that might mean happy hours and things like that. But that also means getting those opportunities in the workplace as well. So it’s not just, drive, drive, drive, let’s get to that goal. Maybe they are coffee meetings or water cooler moments where you can talk about what you did last night. 

The right culture can encourage that kind of interaction because as you get to know each other, you get to know each other’s quirks and tendencies. And it provides for a better and more productive team when you really do have to put your nose to the grindstone and drive towards that goal. So I think opportunities to get to know each other both inside and outside the workplace is really, really crucial.

Creatives tend to have a distinct style of working. When they want to produce something special, they might need a little more of a specific situation to bring out their best work. In your journeys, do you notice this with creatives, and is there a different way that maybe you coach or advise them?

Sometimes we work with folks who are very creative, and just have wonderful ideas just flowing from every corner. It can sometimes feel very nebulous; the ideas are just pouring in. There’s not a real structure, it’s just sort of as it comes. I try to encourage that, because that’s producing really great work. But I also encourage putting a little bit of structure around it. 

And I go back to strong workflows. When you are at your best, is that in the morning or in the evening? Know yourself and when your creative juices are really flowing. Then it’s about very gently applying a little bit of structure and making sure that the process makes sense. Once you’re in that zone, what are the steps you’re going to take to continue producing and continue that flow? So: a tiny bit of structure, but yes, allow that nebulous creative vibe to continue as well.

Know yourself and when your creative juices are really flowing. Then it’s about very gently applying a little bit of structure.

When someone is not in their most productive work state, they might not readily say what’s holding them back. In fact, they might not even know what’s holding them back. So, as a leader, what are some steps that you would advise to try to suss out those hidden barriers and pain points?

Well, there’s something to be said about face-to-face communication. It gives you the ability to look at the other person, whether it’s virtually or sitting over coffee, and genuinely chatting through something. I think companies do need to create that culture where team members can say what they think is going really well, and say what they think needs a bit of adjusting or fixing and not feel as though that’s frowned upon. 

I know meetings get a bad rap for being a time suck, and they can be, but we can get creative with them. We can do walking meetings – ‘I’m walking to a meeting, come join me, let’s walk.’ That could be a five minute walk or a 10 minute walk, or you could do a 15 minute standing huddle. So we’re not seated, and it’s informal, just throwing out some things that we might’ve put in a parking lot for future sit-downs, or maybe things that we’re just hashing out right now. 

A culture of open communication is vital, especially with those team members who are remote. So definitely use those video conferencing tools to bring them in and welcome their voices because they do have ideas. You may not see these people every day, personally and face-to-face, but they have thoughts that they can share. 

A culture of open communication is vital, especially with those team members who are remote.

Productivity Pointers from a Pro

“Technology is meant to help us become better at what we do,” Deb says on her company website. “Unfortunately, it can also be the source of angst, profuse sweating, and the undeniable urge to scream and throw things, especially when money and business are involved.”

We’ve all been there. Technology is essential to a successful business operation today, but becomes far more effective when leaders pair it effectively with the human element, embedding simple practices that can get lost in the digital deluge like face-to-face communication, introspective reflection, or chatting with teammates over a stroll. This is especially vital for fostering the kind of creative energy needed for innovative and extraordinary output in marketing and design.

You’ll find plenty of other tips for striking the right balance and driving your team toward greater productivity in our new interactive experience, our guide to better creative teamwork, featuring insights from a dozen experts in the field.

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