Let’s Create a Manifesto!

Cynthia CloskeyCommunications, Marketing Strategy

Generating ideas

Snowflake-029 by yellowcloud on FlickrMaybe you’ve been told you’re not a special snowflake, but actually you are. You are a special snowflake. Each of us is special and unique. Each of our companies or organizations is unique, with a certain way we look at the world and our market and ourselves.

But when the world looks at us, we rarely look unique. We all blend together and are not memorable. Why do we blend together? Why don’t we stand out? We blend together because we so often say the same things about ourselves. The things we say are good things — we talk about quality and being partners with our clients. And yet it all blends together, when what we each want is to stand out. How can we do that?

To stand out, stand *for* something. Say what you think … what you really think. Don’t say only what you think anyone wants to hear. What you believe is distinctive to you, and it’s more memorable than the safe stuff that everyone else says.

I maintain that what you need is a manifesto. 

If you know of only one manifesto, it is probably The Communist Manifesto. This is a political pamphlet written in 1848 by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It’s one of the most influential political manuscripts in history. But it’s not the only manifesto.

The manifesto I think of first, the one that’s most memorable to me, is the Futurist Manifesto, written by F.T. Marinetti, an Italian poet, in 1909. It rejected the past and celebrated speed, machinery, violence, youth, and industry, and it foreshadowed events in the 20th Century, like the Russian Revolution. And I think of the Riot Grrrl Manifesto by Kathleen Hanna in 1991.

Manifestos are all around us, wherever someone has been pushed to the point where they will not be pushed any more. A manifesto is your line in the sand. It’s what you see and feel, and it’s your call to arms.

What a manifesto does for you is this: It clarifies. It’s your statement of what you see and know to be true. With that, you can know what you need to do next.

Manifesto How-To

Are you ready to write a manifesto? You can create yours any way you want. There are no rules. You can sit down and pour out what’s in you. That’s so loose though. Here’s my suggestion of how you can home in faster.

As a general process, I suggest you loop through two kinds of steps:

  1. Generate
  2. Distill

Generate a whole bunch of ideas around what you think and believe, then boil those ideas down to related groups. Generate more ideas from what you’ve created, then boil that back down again. It’s a little like making whiskey. After a few cycles, you’ll begin to converge on what’s meaningful, and then you can grab that and slap it into shape. This can work if you’re doing it by yourself. and it can work when you’re part of a group, like in your company.

Generate: Think widely but with focus

Generating ideasStart with generating. You want to think widely, but still focus enough that you’re writing your manifesto and not, say, rules for healthier living or something. 

At Shift, we recently went through this process, and we started with timed writing exercises. We spent an hour or so doing a few of these on particular topics, just 6 minutes each. Each person wrote thoughts on separate sticky notes, or they could doodle. The goal was to generate as many as possible. The first few that come out are the obvious ones. The interesting ideas tend to come later, after you wash out the flotsam.

To give us focus, we did one timed writing for each of three topics about daily work, and life too.

  • Pet peeves
  • Rules of thumb for work
  • Moments of joy at work

But we also included peeves and rules and joy from our non-work lives. This got us thinking about what we find works at work, and what fails.

Then we moved to a more abstract level, to talking about larger truths. Truths about the market, truths about us as a company, and truths about the work we do. So at the end of this, we had a bunch of sticky notes with a bunch of thoughts that mattered to us.

Consolidate: Find connections and disconnections

full-sorted-ideasNext we needed to consolidate. We did that through card sorting, grouping ideas together in loose-related clumps. 

Meanwhile, between the timed writing stints and while we were sorting our thoughts, we talked. We talked about what these ideas meant, why we’d written them down, what went together.

The talking — as you may know from doing similar exercises — helped us as a group to understand how each of us thought and viewed things. It was probably the most important part. So then we had these sheets of idea clouds. We hung them in our office, and looked at them, and worked around them for a week.

Generate: Individual homework

Then we had homework. Each person was tasked with write 10 or so statements about what we believe. People could write words or draw or whatever, but everyone just used words. We wrote 10 statements to force ourselves to think beyond the obvious. They printed their statement out and handed it in anonymously — anonymously, so we wouldn’t be swayed by who had written something.

Consolidate: Recombination

We cut apart the individual pieces of those statements — sentence by sentence — and mixed them up to create four randomly generated manifesto drafts. We read them aloud to hear the ideas. Then we used voting to choose which statements mattered most to us. And as we had throughout, we talked about each piece, which helped us see more in each statement.

Our randomly generated manifestosThis cutting things up and reassembling at random isn’t a new idea. It’s called the cut-up technique, and William S. Burroughs used it in the 1960s to create poetry and novels and other art. You might not think it would work, but it does, surprisingly well. As we read them aloud, we could hear recurring themes and threads of thought.

After we whittled them down to the pieces that resonated most for us, we noticed that there were still several statements around particular themes. So we grouped those together. Then we taped them down so we wouldn’t lose them.

Thumbnail of the Shift Manifesto, draft 1And now we had this very rough first draft of a manifesto. You can read it: The Shift Manifesto.

Go forth & make manifest!

So now it’s your turn. You can use the generate and consolidate method, you can rant into a voice recorder, you can do whatever. But whatever you do, figure out where you stand, and tell the world.