The reason that marketing budgets exist is so that organizations can make investments that will build in value over time. Managers, Directors, and VPs are constantly being asked to make decisions about where they should be investing their company’s money, and what the payoff will be. We, as consultants, get a unique perspective on this decision-making process, and there’s one specific phenomenon that costs businesses significant potential value every day: Projects over People.

Projects are the fun stuff – they come from an executive’s flash of inspiration, or they’re an exciting campaign that was pitched by an agency, and sometimes they’re an answer to a problem that came up in the last planning meeting.

Wherever they come from, projects are easy to plan for. They have a specific beginning, middle, and end, and their scopes can be (ideally) well defined.

But how many of those projects really build value for the business? Think back to the last year of initiatives that your company launched. How many of those left an impact that you’re able to build on this year? Certainly some, definitely not all, and I’d be willing to bet that none of them fully lived up to their originally imagined potential.

The great irony of budgeting is that most companies are so quick to find project-based solutions while, at the same time, declaring publicly that “people are our greatest resource”. They declare at AGMs and in the press that the key to their success will be the team, and that their culture will help to drive innovation forward. Then, when it’s time to translate those words into dollars and cents, they buy software, media placements, and outsource a project to a creative agency before giving their teams the ability to develop themselves.

Sure, some of those projects will solve the problems that they were targeted at, but who will carry on that progress when the software is out of date, or the agency moves on? In order to take advantage of any momentum that you build, it’s the people inside the company who will have to carry it on. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on that common sense – there’s also hard data that backs up the idea of people over projects: First, a study by the US Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce found that the average productivity gain from workforce education (8.6%) was more than double the return from upgraded equipment (3.4%).

Then there’s the engagement and motivation of the people running your company. Middlesex University found that 74% of employees felt that they were underachieving because of a lack of development opportunities, meanwhile a Carnegie study was able to quantify employee engagement and showed that those who were receiving development opportunities were, on average, 202% more productive than those left to fend for themselves.

In effect, we’ve all been buying shiny new car parts that promise short terms results without first taking care of the engine.

It’s that engine that will be responsible for using the software that you buy or sustaining the success of the marketing campaign, so every dollar that’s spent on high-quality development turns immediately into an asset that appreciates over time.

In the fast-moving world of digital, there are three ways that we can all be investing in our people and their development:

1. Courses

These are the easiest and the most obvious, and several excellent organizations have sprung up to meet the needs of digital training, given that it moves too quickly for traditional institutions to keep up. Courses have the advantage of drawing on outside expertise, they give your team a broadened perspective, and they may even come with credentials like a certificate of completion.

I have a few favourites that I recommend, and I happen to be biased towards the first because I’ve been leading a course there on nights and weekends since it opened here in Vancouver:

There has been a rush of online training that’s popped up over the past few years, but the quality and specificity have been unreliable. Fortunately, there are a few good ones out there, including:

2. Workshops

If you read between the lines of the productivity data, you’ll find that the results aren’t just about the cold, hard skills that your team picks up. It’s about the engagement of the team, and the way that they develop together. That’s where workshops come in. This is one of my favourite parts of what we do, and we’ve found that the most valuable sessions all have these three elements in common:

  1. They address a need or desire felt by the majority of the team
  2. The workshop is built collaboratively by drawing on the experience and existing expertise within the team
  3. The session leaves a legacy by pulling together what was learned in the room and producing a clear, simple set of lessons and actions for the team

We’ve been fortunate to lead hundreds of workshops with thousands of companies over the past decade, and some of the most memorable results from any of our engagements came not from the lessons that we were leading, but from the conversations that they started. For example, in a session put on by Destination BC, several craft breweries discovered that they had common goals and built a plan to collaborate on what became the BC Ale Trail. In another, the businesspeople of Golden BC collectively decided to focus their efforts on a common story that they called Golden Rules, which has resulted in countless micro-collaborations and an Instagram hashtag with over 30,000 uses in Golden alone.

When done well, workshops come with all of the benefits of an instructor-led course, and layer in the opportunity for a team to come together to learn from content built specifically for them, and they may even leave with a whole new set of ideas.

3. Training Programs

The best version of employee development is one that empowers those employees to become advocates inside the organization and gives them the tools to pass that knowledge on to the people around them. Well-designed training programs are much more than a workbook or a session – they consider the needs of the team that they’re built for and give them a variety of ways to learn, including hands-on exercises, peer-to-peer collaboration, and lessons that meet them at the level where they are currently.

When employees receive the type of training that makes them feel empowered, they pass on that knowledge, and the materials themselves become useful well beyond the originally intended audience. Digital skills, in particular, can benefit just about everyone inside the organization, so building advocates who can multiply the reach of their training will also multiply its impact on the company.

The result of investing in people first, before projects, is that you will have laid a foundation that you can build from. Projects that are launched by people who are educated and engaged will inevitably have a much higher rate of success, create better returns, and result in a virtuous cycle.

If you or your company are interested in making an investment in your own development, we’d love to talk. Shoot us an email at or call us at 1.604.505.0444.