I have a baby son called Felix. He’s small and cute. I’m aware of the subjectivity of the latter part of that statement, but it’s not up for debate. When you have a kid, you’ll understand. If Felix looked like Hoggle from the movie Labyrinth, I’d still say he’s cute. That’s just how it is. So let’s move on.
Now Felix is very enthusiastic about life, but to be brutally honest, he doesn’t really do very much of anything, except eat, throw up, poo, and, very occasionally, sleep. He has a limited capacity to communicate. And yet, over the six months, I’ve been getting to know him, he’s given me a fresh new perspective on how I think about my job.
I’ve got this
When Felix was very very small, we had regular calls from health visitors, to make sure that he was doing ok. The first time this happened, the health visitor asked a number of questions about his food intake and other regular ‘habits’ (I’m sure you get the idea). When the health visitor left, I decided to make a chart that documented everything that went in, and out, of Felix. When the health visitor returned, I decided, I would be armed with the most complete and accurate information available, which gave me confidence that the expert would be able to provide the most appropriate advice and care. And it seemed to work.
It’s in my nature to be analytical. The way I tend to approach problems is to pick them apart, to try to look at them from every angle, rather than rely on pure intuition. So this process felt very natural to me. My crude, hand-drawn chart was nothing special, but it was quantifiable, easy to understand and fit well with the logical part of my brain. Knowing that I’d captured data that another person could draw insights from and turn into recommendations provided me with a comforting sense of control.
What I would come to learn was that this approach would most likely never work as well again.
Who’s the Daddy?
Beyond the first few weeks, once Felix had grown out of his fairly structured (although still exhausting) newborn behaviour, which consisted largely of sleep, interrupted by 2 to 3-hourly changes and feeds, the sense of pattern and predictability started to diminish. It became abundantly clear that Felix doesn’t care about my chart. He only cares that when he’s hungry, he wants to eat. And when he’s not, he doesn’t. And forget about predicting sleep patterns. Like many (all?) babies, he’ll occasionally resist sleep despite being exhausted—and instead whip himself into a frenzied, screaming spiral of self-destructive, sleep deprivation-induced sleep deprivation.
I can make all the plans I like, based on his past behaviour, what I’ve read about baby habits, and what baby formula manufacturers recommend. I can make up a feeding and sleep schedule, carefully crafted to be the very best for his needs, and it won’t matter one tiny bit, because to a large extent, he’ll do what he’ll do, and that’s that.
In my career, I have often approached new projects in a similar way: with a check-list of questions and activities gleaned from what I’ve learned from past experience. What worked well last time, and how can I replicate that? What didn’t work? What have I been wanting to try? Maybe if I attempt to recreate, as closely as possible, the precise environment that worked so well in the last project we did, things will follow the same path? And most importantly, what can I do to avoid nasty surprises, failures, and mistakes?
Turns out (and yes, it seems quite obvious in retrospect), it just doesn’t work that way.
Planning for resilience, not failure avoidance
Ed Catmull, in his fantastic book “Creativity, Inc.”, which is full of insight and wisdom on working with a creative team against the backdrop of the origins and development of the company Pixar, argues that mistakes, in and of themselves, aren’t something to be feared. They’re actually an inevitable part of any process where you’re trying to do something new, and that by trying to prevent failures from occurring, we risk restricting ourselves creatively.
“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”
“If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them—if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line—well, you’re deluding yourself.”
Out of context, that second quote might lead us to throw up our hands and say: “Que sera, then! What will be, will be. Bad things happen, so why worry?”. While I endorse the principle that worry is a waste of time, I don’t think Ed is suggesting that we don’t prepare ourselves well, but instead, he’s warning us that trying to exert full control over an unpredictable environment is at best a delusion, and at worst could hamper originality. After all, no two projects (or babies) are the same. The pursuit of trying to prevent things from going wrong by planning for every eventuality is misguided and a likely waste of resources. Does this mean that we should stop planning? Of course not. Just be less surprised when, despite our best efforts, things still go wrong.
The pursuit of trying to prevent things from going wrong by planning for every eventuality is misguided.
Toes not heels
While we can’t control what surprises a project might throw up, we can help our future fire-fighting selves by spending our time and efforts, pre-project, preparing to be in the optimal position to handle problems effectively. This means adopting a stance whereby we’re on our toes, expecting the unexpected, not our heels, resting on the perceived security of a rigid plan.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In the context of a project, you might equate the sharpening process to preparedness (i.e. planning), but I prefer to think of it as less about planning the job itself, and more about optimising the tool (in our case, that’s us). The sharpening of the axe I relate to the sharpening of our skills and our abilities to be adaptable, and to a certain extent, act on instinct.
Instinct plays a huge role in creativity. But to be able to trust our instincts, we need to create opportunities to exercise that muscle. I feel that having a suite of tried-and-tested processes is a great way to carry forward what we learn from each project and to become more efficient. But we need to know when to break with that structure. If we rely too much on it and don’t leave ourselves space to be creative with our processes, we’ll become rigid, and never learn to think on our feet.
It might mean building into each project frequent opportunities to review what we’re making, and to test our assumptions early, and often. It might mean arming ourselves with a broad enough skill set to be able to change course rapidly, to take different approaches to solutions. It will mean forging a healthy relationship with our clients, whereby they trust us to point the ship on a slightly different bearing if needs be, and that we try our best to justify that trust by conditioning ourselves to be capable of handing unavoidable change without sinking the ship.
As nice as this all sounds (to me at least), such a fluid approach won’t suit every project. With the best will in the world, when we are in the midst of producing complex products that solve a number of diverse problems, we still need to keep a sturdy grip on the reins when it comes to scope—making sure that we are still building what we set out to build. And inescapable factors such as budget and resource will define the parameters within which we have flexibility.
So what does this mean for the way I approach projects? Here are a few principles I hope will help me be more resilient:
- Accept that avoidance of failure is impossible. Problems and mistakes are inevitable, and, provided we learn from them, are an opportunity to become continually better at what we do.
- Look to structure our processes to be resilient and adaptable rather than attempting to cover every possible outcome.
- Avoid blame-culture at all costs—it can breed a hesitance to take risks. But try to help cultivate a close-knit team culture where we communicate, aren’t shy to constructively point out things that don’t seem right with each other’s work, and equally, speak up when we need help.
- Help to develop a method of working that isn’t reliant on following the same, strictly linear path. Rather, build a toolkit full of tools and techniques that we can apply responsively.
So, Felix, thank you for being a constant reminder that I’m not, and never will be, the master of the world both inside and outside of your little nursery. And I don’t want to be. Where’s the fun in that?