Wednesday, August 18, 2010

6 things I've learned the hard way

So for the last year and a half or so, I've been busily trying  bring some new ideas into the organization where I work.  My colleagues and I have helped to create some really interesting projects that have moved the dial in terms of how public engagement tools get used in our provincial government. We've taken lots of risks and gotten some tangible, positive results. I'm really proud of what we've accomplished.

A big part of what I see as our success has to do with how we've come at our work. Inspired by folks who design products and systems for a living like the UK's Design Council , we made the assumption that in the launch of new ideas, highly detailed planning and extensive business cases can be unhelpful. Instead, ideas stand or fall based on how they perform when tested. So, if you have an idea, create a 'prototype', test it, get feedback and improve. Eventually you'll figure out it won't get you where you need to go, or it will show you you are downright visionary (or somewhere in between). Bonus: you won't have wasted piles of time and bucks in coming up with something that may or may not work, or is simply too big to fail.

 As a theory, this seemed wildly practical. Then I had the amazing opportunity to actually do it.

Practice is Painful

Some lessons I've learned along the way:

1) Prototypes aren't as easy as they sound

A designer colleague has this saying that I love: "quick and dirty is okay, but sometimes the dirty tends to hang around." We've had to get stuff up very cheaply and very fast. On the one hand, this wasn't so much prototyping as it was having to execute really quickly. On the other hand, it also meant that our first cuts were live, and we could try and improve on the fly.

The challenge here was that sometimes our users thought we were offering our final draft, not our first or second. Moreover, incentives within our organization to keep projects relatively secret meant that trying out early iterations was a no go.

As a result we endured some reasonable criticism. Happily, from an organizational change perspective, getting criticized can often be just the thing to break down resistance and catalyze the details of innovative projects (read: some of the 'dirty' gets cleaned up).

2) Ego is the enemy

Taking ownership of projects can be a real plus. It helps motivate you to put in the hard work, extra hours and push the envelope. It catalyzes creativity and a team. So ownership can be a boon for productivity.

But when ego starts getting in the way, there's a problem. Signs your ego is a problem? You're more interested in speaking opportunities than in getting your projects done. At night you imagine yourself as the great savior of your organization, a historical  visionary that will lead the way to innovation grace and wind up in a documentary somewhere. You are totally frustrated by the organization's inability to listen to you. You are completely overwhelmed by work because you believe you are the only one who can do the work well. If you're not doing it all, you hoard all the really juicy and interesting tasks for yourself.

This is will cause trouble because: 1) It means nobody else is learning except you; 2) You will burn out when your self-inflated expectations aren't met, and your project and change agenda will fall over; 3)When projects become closely associated with an individual rather than the organization, they are easily dismissed by decision makers, which will also hurt your change agenda.

I've been guilty of some or all of the ego behaviors above, and probably will be again. But what I've found out is that while having a vision of where to go with a project makes you strong, having an ego just makes you brittle. Fight ego off as much as you can.

3)  Something bosses need to hear: "Good, fast or cheap--now pick two."

Real enthusiasm for an idea from the executive ranks can be an amazing thing for a project. But said buy-in can lead to unrealistic expectations from execs. The discussion can turn into: "Great, we'll get a super duper project launched by the end of the week for free!" And depending on the project, you may be able to pull that off.

But if you find yourself in the realm of doing something complex that can't be done by the end of the week, I've found that using a trick taught to me by a systems guy I worked with in New Zealand works wonders. Ask the enthusiastic exec whether they have ever done any renovations to their house (the answer tends to be yes). Then introduce the renovation triangle, which has good, fast and cheap at the three points (this principle often applies to building stuff generally). You then elaborate on how you can pick two of the three--good and fast, but not cheap; cheap and fast, but not good; cheap and good but not fast. This tends to bring some discipline to the conversation.

3) Ideas are 10% or less. Everything else is fast talk and hard work.

I've found that when it comes to innovation, most folks want to be ideas people. And I understand why: it's fun to be brilliant and to be seen as brilliant (see point two).

But innovation isn't anything without action. This is the strength of the design led, prototyping approach, I think. But to keep organizations moving means taking on work people don't want to do, and keeping teams motivated through the inevitable rise and decline of enthusiasm around a project.

So reminding people of purpose and of already achieved awesomeness will help them stay motivated. Simultaneously being unafraid of grunt work helps send the signal that you are serious about making things happen, no matter what.

4) Taking on innovative projects means being regularly terrified and/or depressed. This is normal.

One thing I've learned about in spades is the emotional life of projects. The ramp up stage is full of excitement. Approval elicits elation. Launch is exhausting. Maintenance is full of uncertainty and/or boredom. And conclusions are full of nightmares of the whole thing falling over, ruined careers and general shaming by the higher ups. Sleepless nights can happen the whole way through.

If you don't anticipate or recognize this volatility it can really do a number on you. I've known lots of innovators who hamstring themselves because they are emotionally drained by trying to get things done. But this innovation stuff requires a thick skin and lots of patience. Otherwise, you'll be done before you even get started. Recognize what's happening, and pace yourself.

5) Getting a project out the door means choosing the imperfect. Sometimes the wildly imperfect.

The projects I've been involved with have not be as beautiful as I imagined them to be at the outset. Strange as it sounds, I'd like to make art with the work that I do. But being mature about constraints means understanding that isn't always feasible. It's more important that the project exists than be perfect. Because the next time, maybe you can be gorgeous.

6) Fire. Ready. Aim. It actually does create change.

The last thing I've learned is that this design inspired approach works. It really does. It's laid the foundations for a bunch of change that's helped benefit other parts of our organization. It's also help spark and draw together a community of people that want to do more work on similar themes. And it's starting to get our organization recognition as a leader in a rapidly advancing field.

The next phase will be about consolidating what's been created and building it out so that more people can do more work. We've learned a lot, and we can't lose that. Hopefully it will help make small innovations scale up to make a big difference.

Posted via email from CoCreative