In this episode of my Impact Thinking series, I explore the idea of taking a holistic approach to Impact-building. You won’t have an Impact simply by deciding it, let’s be rational. What you can do, however, is to think about what will help you get there. So here is the thing: you need to build a Christmas Tree. Sounds interesting? Keep reading.
Impact strategy: Build a Christmas Tree!
Impact Series – Episode 4
I spend a lot of time talking about strategy-building in my line of work.
Luckily for me, these discussions are extremely varied and can take place with very different types of profiles. Researchers, entrepreneurs, executives, directors, or Chief something Officers, the panel is large but in every case, my interlocutor is someone in charge and capable of deciding. For themselves, at least.
To me, the topic is very exciting. Not only because it helps float someone’s boat, but also because thinking ahead is fun and exciting. Yet, to most of my interlocutors, strategy brainstorming can be rather abstract, intangible and difficult to apprehend. At first anyway.
So, I’ve thought about ways to make the whole thing easy-going and fun, and I have developed a few concepts to make big ideas easy to remember and use. The first concept was about defining ‘Impact’ as a matter of Smashes, Bangs, and Wows. Another concept rather focused on the importance of finding a Cause. And a third concept was that of the 4Cs, or how to make the most of your Impact Capital.
In this article, I explore a fourth idea which I use regularly to illustrate the importance of strategic Impact Thinking: my ‘Build a Christmas Tree’ concept.
A little bit of background.
To put things very simply, ‘Build a Christmas Tree’ illustrates the idea that making an Impact is a process.
The point is not to merely to get your big picture, in other words. It is to shape your big picture, in a way that encompasses the main pillars of your work. Your wanted Impact, for starters. Your skills, to continue. Your message. And your various strategic actions.
The Christmas Tree story.
Now, I can hear you, what does this have to do with building a Christmas tree? Well, the answer is a little story that I usually tell when I explain the idea of Impact Thinking. This story, unsurprisingly, is that of a Christmas Tree. But let me explain.
We all know what having a Christmas tree is about. Joy, happiness, festivity and all that. But in reality a Christmas tree only becomes a Christmas tree after you have put your heart into it, and after you have worked toward making it, well… a Christmas tree.
At the beginning, your Christmas tree is nothing more than a basic tree. A cut one, in fact, which will soon die if no one takes care of it.
But then you start caring. You inspect it, you decide to write a story around it, with your family and friends. And you come up with an expected outcome, i.e. that this tree is going to be the cornerstone of your family’s Christmas spirit.
You then bring the tree home. You push your furniture around and give it a nice place where it will be seen and loved. You get the decorations from the attic, you call the kids – who get excited by your call for help and by the promise of a merry Christmas period. And then you start unwrapping.
Joy builds up, mommy pulls some warm Christmas cookies from the oven and even brings some milk (because of dunking, of course). The tree gets some love and care. And then, eventually, the little ones will ask some help to get the Christmas star to the top. Ultimately, the magic operates, and what used to be a random tree turns into the Christmas tree of your dreams.
The Christmas tree story is my favorite way to describe what Impact Thinking is about because it shows that making an Impact is about creating a process.
In retrospect, the tree became a Christmas one because you took decisions and organized the common effort towards obtaining a result.
You organized the resources available to you. You got people on board with a strong message (it’s Christmas guys!). And you coordinated efforts (or helped the kids to act on their own). At the end of the day, you turned the whole thing into something bigger… and Impactful.
Ultimately, though, the tree-building afternoon wasn’t just about having fun. First, the result positively impacted your family, which was the purpose quite obviously. Second, it built on people’s skills. Third, it transmitted a message of peace and cohesion. Fourth, it involved planning and acting purposely. This is precisely what Impactful strategies are about.
Building your Christmas tree.
So how can you build your Christmas Tree, then? Well, as I just emphasized, several elements are important and should be considered in turns.
As I explained in one of my other Impact Thinking articles, the first step when building your Christmas tree is your ability to identify a problem to solve, a beneficiary to help, and ultimately an inspiring cause to for fight. But beyond finding a cause, you also need to think in terms of wanted Impact, in terms of skills, in terms of message, and in terms of actionable strategy-building. Rings a bell?
The Christmas Star: the ultimate piece of an Impactful journey.
Once you have identified a cause worth fighting for, the next step is to clarify what Impact you ultimately want to achieve, in the medium or in the long term.
It might sound silly, but the best way to make an Impact at some point is to decide now what you will change sooner or later.
In our little example, the ultimate goal is to bring the Christmas spirit into the house, so the wanted Impact is illustrated by the star on top of the tree. Difficult to set up, but hard to move away as well, the star is that permanent objective you keep in mind as work progresses.
When building your Christmas Tree, therefore, keep your final goal in mind. Follow the Northern Star, let it be your guide, and keep going until you get there.
Next: your skills.
Once the major goal is set, you need to think in terms of doing.
Simply put, what can you do to make things change and happen? Or perhaps should I say, what are you good at doing? Are you the only one capable of doing it? Why are you better than others? What is your expertise going to bring to the project? To what extent is your expertise going to be decisive in shaping the change you want to bring?
This is a lot of questions. I know. But these need to be asked, because your skills are always instrumental, whatever Impact you hope to achieve.
Is my little Christmas story a little naive? Let me get the heavy artillery out and let’s talk about Maslow instead.
The Maslow Pyramid is one of the (rare) things I’ve always remembered from my years studying economics and sociology. The idea is very simple: from a sociological perspective, everything happens when a specific pyramid of needs is put into place.
At its basis come the fundamental physiological needs (understand having access to primary food and water), followed by safety needs (understand, personal security expectations of all sorts) and by a feeling of appurtenance. Once all these steps are secured, things then work up until the top of the pyramid.
The idea makes sense from a mindset perspective, and it works for everything you do. If you tried to build a pyramid (or whatever edifice, really), you would need to start from strong and reliable foundations which would need to last forever. Right?
Well, the same logic applies for whatever Impactful project you have in mind.
Your tree needs strong foundations. In our little Christmas story, all it takes a bit of ingenuity and DIY to make the tree stand durably. But without such basic skills, your Christmas spirit wouldn’t stand a chance. In your case, by extension, the point is to make sure that you have what it takes to make your Impactful project stand in the long-run. Think about that…
The trunk: your message!
The third element of your Impactful project is the trunk of your tree, and it is super important. Why? Because the trunk represents the message you will need to convey in order to materialize your Impact.
Remember that Impact Thinking is a way to turn a linear growth rate into a hockey stick growth rate. In the first case – as in most cases, in fact – the growth potential is linear because more results requires more investment, whether in terms of capital, time or manpower. Adding a dose of Impact Thinking to your equation, in contrast, exponentially increases your result potential. For more on this, read also my notes on developing your Impact Capital.
Said differently, thinking in terms of Impact is the best way to gather people around your cause. When you talk about the Impact you want to make (instead of merely trying to sell some stuff), you have a chance to inspire and to get people on board. That means more passion, more involvement, more cash, more time and more arms. And more Impact eventually.
To get there, however, any Impactful project of yours will need an Impactful Message. The point about making things change is not to just try, it is to make it happen. To do that, you need to preach and convince with a compelling story (and argument).
Hence, in the same way that a tree without a trunk is not a tree, an Impact project without a clear, articulated and inspiring message will never become an Impactful project. Period! So, do you have an Impactful Message?
The branches: your past and forthcoming actions.
The last element of my ‘Build a Christmas Tree’ concept is the branches.
There are two ways to look at the branches. figuratively, you might want to say that the branches of a tree are the extensions of its trunk, hence the branches could be described as a way to extend the message, one way or another.
Well. Yes. Of course. But no.
I have another way to look at this. We are not looking at a cut tree anymore, remember? We are trying to build a Christmas Tree. And what that means is very simple: the branches represent an opportunity to strategize.
Let’s get back into our living room for a second. What kind of Christmas Tree do we want? Do we want traditional tinsels or do we prefer some lights everywhere? Do we want little figurines and items of all sorts in that tree, or do we want it simple and empty? Said differently, how do we turn our cut tree into a Christmas Tree that everyone likes?
Whether your point is to decorate a tree or to change the world to serve a cause, the whole idea here is to build a strategy which will get you closer to making your message practical and your Impact visible.
So? Think in terms of tangible actions and actionable ideas. Do you have a goal? Good. But how do you make it happen? What is your next action? How is that action getting you closer to your wanted Impact?
The bottom line: the Christmas Tree, or how to develop a holistic approach to Impact Thinking.
If your goal is to make things change – at whatever level – adding a dose of Impact Thinking into your equation is probably a good idea. Having said this, the idea is easier said than done, and unless you start acting this might just remain wishful thinking.
The question, therefore, is to figure out how to make things happen.
The issue is relevant and complex at the same time, hence thinking in terms of big picture makes sense. But shaping your big picture should be your goal, however, and to that extent developing a holistic approach to your Impact strategy is essential. Build a Christmas Tree!
About Antoine Martin (Ph.D.)?
I am an Impact Thinking advocate and strategist. My journey with Impact began in Hong Kong in 2018 when I was tasked with developing an Impact strategy for academics.
Since then, I have developed a framework for Impact Thinking and coached academics, entrepreneurs and business teams on what Impact strategies can bring to their projects. I regularly write, speak and consult on the topic, please get in touch for more information!