I learn, the hard way, that the core design principle for a grant -indeed the golden rule- is that a grant must have one idea and one idea only. The amount of real-estate (i.e. pages) that you have available to convince reviewers that your ideas are worth funding is very limited. Add to that the fact that reviewers are very busy people who probably read lots of other grants too. Hence, there is no point diluting your message across multiple ideas and, in doing so, weakening your chances of success. That is, “focus” – one of the boosting chances indicators I mentioned in a previous post – is paramount and therefore, the mantra I now follow unyieldingly is this:
“One Idea to Rule Them All”
But how can you ensure that you stick to just one idea? How do you plan your grant so no other sneaky “memes” hijack its limited real-estate (number of pages, reviewers attention span, etc)?
Adhering to the One Idea rule is not easy. It is not easy to do because as the expert that you are, you have too many things that you would like to say in your grant; you have looked at your idea from many angles and have found ways to both support or undermine it. You are trying to pre-empt any and all criticisms, etc. Hence, it is very easy for the grant hacker to turn verbose, write too much unnecessary stuff, ignore important information (remember the course of knowledge?) and fail to focus. Thus, the issue of how to communicate the One Idea without drowning it with unnecessary clutter must be addressed.
The way I do this is quite simple actually, I start small. Really small.
Before starting to draft a grant, I focus only on the One Idea that would underpin the whole project, and I try to do that without being encumbered with concerns about the technical difficulties I might end-up facing, the resources or partners I might need, considerations of competitors or alternative methods, etc. I ignore all of those worries and focus exclusively on the One Idea. To do that, I resort, again, to a bit of design thinking and I use a trick that requires sticky notes.
I use three different sized sticky notes, a design technique I discovered when looking for ways to better distil and communicate my One Idea. I use stickies of the same colour as to minimise the chance that colour preferences might bias respondents answers (see below). With the stickies of different size, I follow this simple process:
- Ideate: I take the largest stick note pad and I write the One Idea as clearly as possible (version A).
- Version: I create a different version (version B) of the same idea, perhaps reflecting a different angle, explained differently or using a different example.
- Test: I then show both versions A & B to several people and get feedback from them. You can indeed show both versions to everybody and get them to tell you which one they like more and why, or you could do a proper A/B test showing one or the other and see for which one people respond better.
- Analyse: I analyse the data collected from the previous step prioritising the useful feedback and discarding irrelevant comments. After this is done, and furnished with a clear indication of which of the two versions resonated better with my colleagues, I choose which of A or B is the winner and discard the loser.
- Prune: I then take the winning version and produce a new variant but, this time, on the middle-sized sticky notepad (and you should keep your font-size constant across the experiment!). This forces you to discard the version you just declared a winner in the previous step and to further jettison useless ballast. This will help you arrive at a sharper One Idea.
Phase Two: From this shaper One Idea I then repeat the process of ideation -but with the middle size sticky notes-, versioning, testing, analysis and pruning obtaining a new winner that is fed into Phase three.
Phase Three: I repeat the process of ideation -but with the smallest sticky notes-, versioning, testing and pruning one last time and, at the end of this third phase I have a refined, high-purity, highly distilled, crystal clear and ultra-concise One Idea for my grant.
That is, by following this simple and fast process you end up striping down all non-essential “fluff” from your One Idea and you would have arrived at the true core, high-octane, One Idea to Rule them All for your grant.
Notice that the entire method might take at most one or two hours! By the end of these two hours, you would get a very clear sense of whether your One Idea is in the right ballpark, which will then merit further development, or whether the one idea is dead in the water, and hence not worth investing further effort in.
The three-sized stickies are another very low fidelity, minimal viable product for your grant. If you gather good input from going through phases 1 to 3, then you will be able to start thinking about further refining the concept behind the One Idea, perhaps with the help of the Grant Hackers’ Storyboards.