January 1st is a day that a lot of people choose to set new goals for themselves or recommit to old goals that they’ve gotten away from. Now, I’m not saying that you should set goals at the start of the new year. But if you do use this time to think about and set goals (I do), then there is a pair of terms that can help you stay on track: change agents and distractions.
CHANGE AGENTS. This is an exercise in answering the question, “Why now?” That is to say, once you know what your goal is, articulate why now is the time to do it. What has changed in your life to make now the right time? An example might be, “My kids are finally [X age] so I can put more energy into starting a business” OR “I spent the last five years learning about Y and now I’m ready to build on that knowledge and pursue Z goal.” You want to identify change agents so that you can say with confidence “Now is the time.” And when you fall off track, as we all do, you can articulate the change agent to remind yourself why you are well positioned to recommit.
DISTRACTIONS. These often come in the form of sunk costs. Sunk costs are things that happened in the past that we can’t do anything about. Yet they haunt us. They sound like: “I should have done this. Why didn’t I do that?” I really struggle with the distraction of sunk costs. But I find that having a name for them and knowing that they have their own agenda–to distract me from my goals–helps me see them more clearly and find the clarity to move on. Distractions will always be there. The trick here is to train yourself to not let them get in the driver’s seat. Keep ’em buckled up in the back.
Good luck with setting and working on goals if this is something that you do. If your goals feel a little scary, then you have set some good ones! Remind yourself of change agents and call distractions by their name to stay on track.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Check out https://seths.blog/ for some great reads on change management
Making decisions is hard. And even once we make them, having confidence in the decisions that we make can also be hard. Because many of the decisions that we make don’t give immediate feedback that tells us, “You made the right choice.”
It’s often the case with me and the people that I know that making a decision is a form of privilege. So rather than get crippled with doubt about a decision that I’m making or plan to make, I’m trying to channel faith and gratitude. I won’t ignore doubt when it creeps in. That can be dangerous. But I do want to make a connection between doubt and the privilege that allows me to have that doubt. It’s a package deal and a deal that I’m lucky to have.
FOMO – Fear of Missing Out
I’m working on a perpetual lunar calendar and playing with ideas on how to visualize time. While sketching I was reminded of this funny thing about how we visualize time. Digital clocks are about this moment. They tell “snapshot time.” While analog clocks point to a moment but in a larger context, a 12 hour cycle. They tell “continuous time.”
Extending this distinction to perpetual calendars, the ones that hide most of the back plate and show only today’s date through a tiny window are telling snapshot time. It’s Saturday 24 November and that’s what time it is right now.
But the value of using a lunar calendar isn’t in knowing what moon phase we’re in right now. The value is in being aware of where we have been and where we are going. Something like an analog clock is a better visual for this.
When a project has a lot of moving parts, sitting your butt down and making a spreadsheet can really help. Without one, it’s just too hard to keep track of WHAT needs to be done WHEN and by WHOM.
Your spreadsheet doesn’t have to be digital. If using a paper ledger or graph paper is a better fit for you, then go for it. Just be sure to use a pencil and not a pen because tasks evolve over the life of a project.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Project Management for Artists
THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.
I adore this excerpt from Ira Glass’s longer piece called “On Storytelling.” Glass points to something that he wishes he had known when starting out writing for radio: That there a gap. There is a gap between your good taste and the quality of the work that you make as a beginner. Your taste is good enough to tell you that what you are making isn’t really that good. At this point, a lot of people just quit. But Glass urges us to push through. And he says that the only way to close that gap between your good taste and the beginner work that you are making is to make a lot of work.
Last November I attended The Fingerlakes Social Entrepreneurship Institute hosted by The Center for Transformative Action at Cornell University. I had a great time chatting with the social entrepreneurs there and left feeling engaged and inspired. That inspiration manifested in a small change at the time: I changed the name of this blog from Make Better Stuff to Art & Invention. For me, the name-change marked a shift in thinking and writing about stuff to thinking and writing about what it takes to make stuff: the emotional and practical world that artists create, define, and live in.
Then in January of this year, I applied to Seth Godin’s altMBA program with the goal of making more art. But once the course actually started I changed my goal from “making more art” to “helping other people make art.” And that’s a trap we fall into, right? We avoid working on our own sh*t by helping other people do theirs. And that’s not all bad. It’s good and it’s generous, but for me, it’s also a form of hiding from my own work. So I’m just trying to hold a light on that in my life and examine it.
Another push toward making art came in late August when I visited the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine. The campus is what I hope heaven to be: simple modernist cabins built into a tree-lined mountainside overlooking the sea. In each cabin, a different set of tools and materials: hot studios for glass and metal, a graphics studio with ink and roller, a ceramics studio with slip and wheels, a woodshop with saws and clamps, a textiles studio with sewing machines and dyes, and a fab lab with CNC routers and 3D printers . I left there feeling that I needed to go home and create my own space. You can’t make art just anywhere. You really do need a workshop. A place to have your tools out and keep them out. So I’ve done that this fall. I’ve created that.
This fall I’m falling into art. I’m emotionally ready and I’ve carved out the practical space to work.
If you make art, you need to look at the work of other artists. It doesn’t have to be contemporary work, but you need to look at art. You need to study what it’s made of. You need to teach yourself to see and to speak. To find the words for the different techniques that artists use and the choices that artists make. Then use those words to inspire your own explorations or to describe what you are striving for in your own work.
If you write, you need to read.
If you compose music, you need to listen.
If you make films, you need to watch them. Obsessively.
This is an expression from my husband’s late father. An Oklahoman, WWII veteran, and dairy cattle auctioneer. Wise words.
Seeing other people’s problems, and the solutions to them, is easy. But helping those people see their own problems and solutions as clearly is nearly impossible. Advice is only followed when it’s asked for. You can’t give people unsolicited advice. It’s ineffective and it’s also a little insensitive. While the advice giver has good intentions, giving advice to someone who hasn’t asked for it can easily be interpreted by the listener as, “You’re not good enough and you’re doing it all wrong.”
Coaching someone though a problem is a lot more work but much more effective. Even so, the person has to want to be coached. All you can do is say, “I’m here if you want help.”
TAKE IT FURTHER
The Coaching Habit
Early in the design process of your product, service, or system, you want to use tools that reflect what stage of the process you are in. At the start of your process, low fidelity tools like storyboards and paper-prototyping let you create and test out a bunch of ideas really quickly. This rapid iteration helps you figure out where your product needs to go.
Storyboards are especially helpful because they help you create stories about your customers’ problems and their journey to solve them through a series of tasks. Storyboards help you empathize with your customer and they help your team get on the same page about the problems you are solving and for whom. Storyboards also help keep you from drilling down too quickly on features and product details that may seem cool to your team but may not be relevant to your customers.
Want to learn more about storyboards? Check out this fantastic video from HCI prof, Scott Klemmer.
Too many organizations try to grow by subscribing to a “more is better” approach. Yes, the original intent of this approach is a good one–when you are starting out, you need to explore your options and figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But all too often we get stuck in this experimentation phase and “Do all the things!” becomes a de facto strategy. Why? Because making strategic decisions is hard and scary. What if you put all your eggs in one basket and you are wrong?? Better to decide not to decide and see how that goes.
However, you started this organization because you want to make an impact. You want to be the best in the world at what you do. But when you avoid focus, you dilute your impact. Your systems break down. And broken systems don’t scale.
Let’s take “John’s Bake Shop.” John has three locations in one city and struggles to keep up with overhead. He’s told himself that more is better and that in order to reach more customers he needs to give them more options. But what if John turned that narrative around? What if he decided to focus on one retail location and make it the best that it could possibly be on product, service, and operations? Then customers would come from miles around to visit his shop and buy his product. John would hardly be able to keep up with demand.
Yes, it’s true that “perfect” is a controversial word in innovation land. “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough,” they say. And they are right. They are right when it comes to launching. You have to launch an imperfect product in order to learn. But in order to scale, you do need some perfect. You need to have product, service, and operations that run like a well-oiled machine. Well-oiled machines scale. They travel far.