Archive for April, 2007

Build by Pictures

Another interesting insight to share. This is related to my previous post about Piercing Clarity.

In the beginning of large projects, teams feel uneasy about what they are doing. They don’t fully understand the problem and want to get their hands around it. A common coping mechanism is what i call “Document Explosion.” When you know little about a problem, the most common solution is “write up a doc on that.” A month later multiplied by 10ish team members yields literally hundreds and hundreds of pages of documentation.

So with all this documentation, does the team understand the problem better?? If you say yes, you have missed the key word in that statement: team. In my opinion, the answer is no. Each individual might have a better grasp of the individual problem area that he or she worked on, but the team is no further along. Sure, they might feel they are farther, “look at all those docs, we certainly understand the problem now” but in reality, the docs are just a symbol that represents a right of passage.

I voiced this concern a few days back and got a really interesting suggestion. Use pictures. Now i don’t mean mspaint doodles. I mean diagrams. Build diagrams that clearly communicate knowledge to other team members. Once you have built the diagram, then you can link it to more descriptive words. This clicked for me. People remember pictures not paragraphs. If you are able to construct a concise diagram of a problem, you can easily communicate your research to others. Of course you will need to flush out the diagram with descriptions, but for the other team members, you have given them a pictorial anchor from which they can remember and digest your work.

Just Ask

So often at work and in life you can find yourself frustrated with people. You wonder what they are thinking. you wonder if they are working on anything. you wonder if their work is going to mesh with yours. I tend to do this a lot. I start to worry that things aren’t getting done. i worry that we are falling behind.

This seems obvious, but when confronted with this situation, you should just ask. Just ask the person what is up. let them know what is on you mind. find out what is on theirs. It doesn’t need to be a huge deal, and probably won’t be. I am definitely trying to get better at this, but realize that there is a ways for me to go.

More and more, i am realizing that communication is about 80% of life. Everything is about the way you communicate. Your writing, your public speaking, your lunch-time conversation. Achievement in life has a lot to do with talent, discipline, and drive but these things are almost all for naught if you can’t communicate effectively.

For me, I believe that I am most effective as a communicator when i think about things ahead of time. Sometimes my off the cuff comments come out wrong. My words are guided by emotion rather than by rational thought. This is another thing to work on. I need to be better at stepping back, thinking “is this really what i mean to say” and then speaking. when i do this, i find that i am about 100% more effective at resonating with my audience.

Next time when i feel confused or am not sure what is going on, i just need to ask. It usually that fixes the problem

Piercing Clarity

Innovation is hard. Really hard. There are a lot of papers, books, lectures, podcasts, journal articles, and more on this topic. I can’t possibly do justice to any of the great thought and advice that has been given over the years; however, today i had a conversation that helped to “sum up” what i think is a key take-away on this topic.

There is a phenomenon in the circles of innovators that goes by many different names. “30 second elevator pitch”, “the one thing”, “conceptual model”, “product mantra” to name just a few. Although i recognize that each of these things is slightly different and unique, they all share something in common.

I will call that commonality ‘Piercing Clarity.’ As i try to gleam all that i can from those much more experienced and smarter than I, this seems to be a common theme. One should drive for piercing clarity on all aspects of Innovation (and perhaps life? :) ). Every level of the project should be so clear that you can describe it in a matter of seconds, not hours, not minutes.

This, of course, is extremely challenging. It requires you to distill a concise statement from a project that is undoubtedly complex and abstract. Like all things, accomplishing this task requires dedication and good people. As i have observed so far there are two traps that people fall into when trying to achieve piercing clarity.

Trap 1 – Lack of Commitment:

Sometimes people let things get too big. Your project is a big nebula. You don’t know where it starts, where it ends, or even how big it is. When you try to describe it you say things like, “well, its kinda like this” or “it will do this, and this, and this, and…” or “all of these things are important”. If you try to do everything, you will do nothing well. Take heed from the timeless words of Antoine de Saint-Exuper: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Trap 2 – Detail Overload:

This is the trap that i too often fall. When i have an idea, i find myself designing some aspect for the system before i even have a clear vision of what the system is supposed to do. I say things like “oh, you could do it like this” or “yeah, i can totally do it this way” or the worst of all “thats easy”. I need to be better at catching myself when i fall into these traps. Do i really understand the problem? can i describe it without reciting some detail? is there a big picture here?

Hopefully, over time, i will be able to learn and add to the thoughts that i have started here. For now, I will try to redouble my efforts to avoid pitfalls, and always drive to piecing clarity.

Forget Your Role

At work this past week, our team was planning out our activities for the next month. As we were finishing the excercise, it became apparent that there would be a bottleneck around one particular job function. we started brainstorming about how to correct this problem. all of the suggestions were along the lines of “well, can we reschedule this”, or “can this particular thing wait?” after about 5 minutes of this, i couldn’t take it any more.

I spoke up and asked, why can’t we all pitch in to help fix the problem? People seemed a little surprised by this. They agreed with me for a moment and even wrote it down, but then sure enough 20 minutes later, we had reverted back to a job function bottle neck.

In an organization that divides its work up by job function (that is, most organizations), it becomes so common for people to ‘forget’ they are capable of doing anything besides their own assigned role. Perhaps this is attributable to two different things:

1. They just don’t want to volunteer to take on any more work
2. They honestly believe they aren’t capable of completing tasks outside of their role

In my opinion, this is a travesty. One of the most interesting things about my job is that i have found a niche where i can experiment with different roles. I can approach different tasks from different perspectives. For one project i am an engineer, for another i am a mentor, for another a project lead. If i didn’t have this flexibility, this variety, i would get bored really quickly.

This doesn’t really seem to be true for many people. they seem to be content working within a specific job on a very specific problem. While i understand the larger organization, likes this type of compartmentalization, it seems to me that individuals would desire to be exposed to more than just the same problems day after day, year after year.

For my part, I love working on different types of problems all the time. To someone who is comfortable working solely within one role, i would suggest this: step outside. find a new side project. you may be surprised at how liberating it is.