Showing posts with label strategy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label strategy. Show all posts

24 November 2012

On knowing when you're finished.

I wrote a post for the UC blog this week about something that I've been mulling over for a while. Fenske told us once in grad school that knowing when our work was done was as valuable a skill as the specialized crafts we were learning over those sixty weeks. This wisdom popped into my head a few months ago, when I was up late working on my first proposal and was plagued by self doubt. Instead of continuing to stay up all night, tweaking and re-reading and comparing it to past proposals written by the peers that I look up to so much, I made a decision that it was ready to send in its current form, and went to sleep. So here it is on the site, and cross-posted below.

I recently co-ran workshops at a couple of graduate schools in Stockholm. At the end of one of the sessions, a series of questions from the students evolved into one of the themes of the day: Knowing when your work is finished is one of the most valuable skills.

This was very helpful wisdom to hear as a student several years ago, and it’s important for everyone in the strategy world to take to heart. Because intellectual labor is intangible and expansive – and strategy is about making things without a defined “right answer” – we can get trapped in a cycle of perfectionism and hesitancy. Knowing and deciding when your work is ready is a powerful way to avoid being paralyzed by ideas staying in our heads for too long.

Opbeat’s much-shared F**k It, Ship It image encourages the same behavior – stop worrying about failure and learn to love the Launch button – but comes from a different place. Deciding and trusting when something is ready, rather than resigning yourself to the fact that there are dozens of additional things you could add to your work, is a powerful choice that requires skill, understanding of your own mastery of the subject matter, and an ability to pull yourself out of the storm of self-doubt that can prevent you from seeing the work from a higher, objective level. Deciding when your work is done isn’t easy, so here are four ways to help frame things.

1. Know your skill level, and tweak your judgment accordingly.
I wrote my first ever strategy document in 2004. I rewrote it 15 times before it was finished. There is a starting point in any craft in which you’re learning, and it’s sometimes necessary to do things many times to grok the craft and learn how you do your best work. The more mastery you have over the thing you’re making, the easier it is to pull yourself out of the weeds and realize when you’ve got it. But even if you don’t have the sufficient hours behind you, you can use your understanding of the context, time constraints (more on this next), and audience to make decisions within the parameters you are given.

2. Use your time wisely.
However much time you have to do something, it will take that much time. Because project scopes vary greatly and you don’t always get to choose how long you spend on certain things, you have to let your skills in the subject matter inform the intensity you put into the work, based on how much time you actually have. Let’s use the example of audience research. Over the past year, we have worked on projects with three-week research work streams (the most fun), and ones with three-day research work streams. With only three days to learn about a group of people on the Internet, you don’t have the luxury of getting lost down a bunch of rabbit holes. So, you force yourself to see behavioral patterns, motivations, and archetypes more quickly, and decide when you have an intuitive grasp of that group online – supplemented with all of your existing knowledge, of course. The result will be something that is appropriate for that project.

3. Resist the paint war.
A high school art teacher once described a dangerous tipping point in paint mixing. When you keep adding more and more of each color to get the perfect shade, eventually you end up with a muddy brown-gray mess – and you’ve wasted a whole lot of paint. When you stay up all night pushing pixels around until 4AM, or trying to cram every interesting link and quote you found in your research into a deck, you can get into a never-ending cycle that increasingly binds you to the work itself rather than your mastery of the material. When you have sufficient comfort with your process and your craft, eventually you recognize the point at which you’re good to go – you have made yourself a miniature expert in that one area and can riff on it freely. Conan O’Brien put this advice perfectly in his Guide To Creativity in Fast Company last year:

My formula has always been I’m big on preparing. Prepare like crazy. But then just as you’re heading out, half an hour beforehand, forget all of it. It’s there. It’s in your reptile brain. Go out but feel loose enough to grab opportunities as they come up.

4. Remind yourself that the Internet is never finished.
Like a city, the Internet is a dynamic and ever-evolving place that is forever being built upon and modified – there will always be things you can do to improve something. The Internet as a whole has gotten more keen on this reality, which is why we don’t use “Under Construction” banners on our sites anymore. Similarly, with strategy we don’t ever want our work to be the last thing, but rather a contributing factor along the way – a starting point rather than end point, to frame and begin conversations. Keeping this in mind will make it easier to put a stake in the ground about what the end of this project looks like, and in turn where to start the next iteration.

21 August 2012

On tangibility and engineering inspiration

Every now and then, I think about how few of my blogger friends from ~2006 write consistently anymore. I have always blamed it on the fact that as we've become responsible for a lot more over the years, we have had less time to ruminate and get our thoughts down. I have noticed for a while that the more overwhelmed I am, the less frequently I feel inspired enough to start diving down rabbit holes.

A little over three years ago, I saw Zach Klein and Casey Pugh talk about physical computing and Arduino at a Creative Mornings. It was fascinating, and I thought about it all the time over the years.

My Daft Punk helmet from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

Cue to a few months ago. My friend Jim and I led a project at work to make a small GE fridge smarter (you can read Jim's awesome blog post about it here), and hired a phsyical computer to build it. The entire time, my head was spinning as I watched him solder things together, move wires around, and type endless strings of code. I was simultaneously furious and jealous about the fact that I didn't understand what he was doing.

Getting there!

So I signed up for an Arduino class at 3rd Ward. With so little time on my hands, I needed some kind of structure if I was to ever learn.

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform.

I have thought about so much stuff over the past few weeks I've been taking the class. I have made little LEDs turn on, seen how tweaks in code could fade them in and out at different speeds, and can now understand the tiniest bit about currents, resistors, actuators, and pulse wave modulation (any Arduino expert is probably laughing at how beginner-level I sound). And now I can't stop thinking of all the things I want to connect an Arduino to.

220/366: I made something that did something!

Now to my point. Two things I realized as a result of taking this class --

1. It's ok to make inspiration come to you.

I can't afford to let my mind wander all day long anymore, waiting for interesting thoughts to come together and form an idea. Putting structure around activities that I know I will find interesting has done wonders for my extracurricular thoughts – I've been thinking about all sorts of things since pointedly seeking something like this out.

2. Tangibility is important for strategists.

For the past six years, I have worked at strategy-only companies – ones in which we only do strategy, and outsource production to partners. I love this for many reasons, but one byproduct of it is that you're removed from the tinkering energy that working at a full-service shop can expose you to. We are "making things" more and more at Undercurrent (mostly in the name of curiosity and experimentation), but I am still a few degrees of separation away from stuff like hardware laying around, photography studios, and prototypes. As a strategist, you spend a lot of time in your head, and being at a strategy-only company only intensifies that.

My physical computing box

That's why Arduino has been so great. As I mentioned in my Hackers post, I have a pure love of technology and the Internet, and I'm just plain interested in it. Learning how to use this platform not only has me buried in code again, but I'm also physically touching wires and turning knobs - it brings a delightful balance and feeling of I-made-a-thing-that-does-a-thing to my days.

Arduino celebrates Christmas in August.

I'm planning to take more circuitry classes at 3rd Ward to keep the inspiration and tangibility up (like Intro to Circuits and Electronics). I'll be writing a lot more about 3rd Ward in general and these classes too, so stay tuned for that. I guess this was just a little kick start into what feels like hanging out with an old friend again. :)

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