I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).
These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.
But Plans Change…
Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.
I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.
Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome
Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.
This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.
[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…
Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.
There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.
If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.
But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.
And, it turns out, much victory.
Getting big things done would be easy if not for having to manage people, right? But you can’t pull off big things without great people. Teams move big missions forward, not individuals.
This means your people are more important than your calendar. Your people are more important than your action items. Your people are more important than your bottomline.
Why aren’t you investing more time in them? Because it takes time and effort? Invest now and reap the benefit later. If you’re so busy you can’t personally acknowledge the people you’re working with, you’re too busy doing too much that doesn’t matter. Value and respect your team enough to plan and schedule time with them*.
*Managing by walking around doesn’t count. You’re just interrupting people trying to get stuff done.
Mrs. Blankenship surprised me a few months back with date night tickets to see Herbie Hancock in concert. I spent a good portion of the evening occasionally reading over the shoulder of a gentleman in front of me as he carefully, confidently typed an exhaustively venomous email to a friend about the show.
Photo credit: from the liner notes of Maiden Voyage
On and on (and on) he went. Hancock had “forgotten his jazz roots” and was “trying to be too hip”. He should “never allow that electric bass on stage” and has to “leave all this weird synth keyboard stuff alone”. Every time the band stepped out of the neat confines of his imagination, another three paragraphs of missives would erupt.
This Purist was relentless, because, by definition, that’s what Purists must be.
He didn’t actually want to see Herbie Hancock; he wanted to see an idealized/idolized version of Herbie Hancock—an era frozen in time like a fossil cradled in amber. He wanted the young prodigy pianist who was sought out to join Miles Davis’ second great quintet. He wanted BeBop. He wanted Blue Note. It didn’t matter what Herbie had been up to for the last 48(!) years, The Purist wanted The Summer of ’63.
If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
—General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the Army
Purists are passionate, but their passion will build boundaries that stifle, strangle and eventually kill off innovation. When you set such strict standards, you must logically and consistently adhere to them. You force yourself to follow them to their logical conclusion(s) or risk excommunication from other standards bearers. You dig in your heels. You demonize anything that stands in opposition to the standard. You will not be moved. In that kind of culture, “other” becomes lesser and “that’s not how we do things” becomes mantra.
Amazing things can happen if you let smart, talented people have some room to run. The same things that are happening now will happen if you don’t.
[Personality tests bypass] the process of learning via set of clever labels. If you want to understand someone, my advice is to sit next to them and solve a very hard problem together. You will learn who they are by watching how they think.
—Rands, Fred Hates It
When I first moved to Boston in July of 2007, I had a 25-30 minute commute by foot from my apartment door to the office I was working at every weekday. Twice a day I passed 68 and 70 Gordon St.—two stately, Victorian homes with “yards” that were no more than 15′ square.
70 Gordon St. was full of well-kept tall flowers, blooming plants, and climbing vines. It was the beauty high-point of my morning commute. The wildflowers on the sidewalk side of the yard grew so tall and lush that the gardener kept them from sprawling out onto the concrete with thick twine lassos. I imagine it was difficult for her to walk through her own yard.
68 Gordon St. was full of weeds and bare patches of New England dirt.
Left to its own devices and the whims of its owner, 68 Gordon St. would remain a neglected, overgrown, ugly excuse for a yard. But a completely natural, oddly unexpected thing started to happen each week. Tiny spots of color started showing up in the 68 Gordon St. yard. A wildflower here and there, obviously smaller than its neighborly counterparts, but there nonetheless, growing between the weeds. Splashes of beauty, brought about by a little wind and long periods of proximity.
I don’t know that there’s a specific timeline at work here, but sooner or later, things start wearing off on you if you’re in proximity to them for long enough. If you want to grow and learn in any field, the quickest way to some form of success in that regard is to learn from others. Put yourself around what you want to be. Be near. Be in it. Behold what you want to become. I don’t say this with a goal of emulating. I think the greater goal has to be to contextualize it all. Make it your own. But if you want to make beautiful art, put yourself in the company of people making beautiful art. If you want to be an Olympic short track speed skater, don’t waste your time at the local rink thinking about it, go find world class skaters. Get to learning. Simply being around people who are trying new things and creatively learning will rub off on you. It’s inevitable.
If you don’t know anyone doing what you want to do, go get a library card. Start checking out the mass of wisdom and knowledge that’s available to you every day, free of charge.
This principle doesn’t always play out in the beauty-from-ashes manner; the opposite can be true as well. If you’re an optimistic, good-natured kind of person and you exist everyday in a work environment or social circle full of cynical complainers, they will eventually wear you down to a sliver of your former (or future) self. If you’re deeply motivated and full of ambition, sit in the company of the wrong personalities for too long and you’ll find yourself thinking the status quo looks appealing. And then you’ll die. It just might take another 40 years.
Both sides of the proximity equation have the potential to embolden you to greatness (or at least to next-ness, which is highly underrated.) Being in proximity of charisma, skill, beauty, and wisdom will craft you into something to be reckoned with. Conversely, being in proximity of lackadaisical, cynical, wet blanket types can push you forward in a search for more fulfilling work and life.
Or it can break you.
When it comes to what you keep close, and what keeps you close, choose carefully. Choose wisely. Choose for the long term while living in the short term. You’re losing or gaining your creative soul with every step you take towards or away from the people and attitudes in your periphery.
Great things in business are not done by one person, they are done by a team of people.
If HR is simply a support function, interchangeable with something as inane as paying the water bill, you are not a cool place to work. You will not be a magnet for talent or maintain a motivated staff.
You’re just minding the store, putting out fires, and waving at people on their way in and out of the building.
New ideas can alter the balance of power because they challenge the existing. Most of us are seeking some kind of equilibrium, so we tend toward resistance. If you don’t find the path of least resistance before you try to instigate disruption, prepare for a fight.
If you’re not willing to fight, why did you come to work today?
Ryan Singer wrote a great short post on hiding your design process versus designing in the open. All the comments are intriguing, and I especially loved this one from Ryan:
[Regarding the fear of being micromanaged as a designer], the question is whether or not you want to learn. If you see design as a learning process, then you will want steady feedback to tell you how you are doing.
The first difficult thing most designers have to give up is the fallacy that their first draft should be finished and pixel perfect. Designers need the constant feedback loop. Designers need direction. They need help. Cooperation. Collaboration. They do not need to hide. And they don’t need to waste time crafting every detail of their version of a perfect first draft all at once. Design needs room to breathe and change, because everything affects everything.
The fear for the director is becoming a hovercraft. But if you don’t engage, you’re not really directing are you? You’re just managing. Those aren’t the same thing.
The designer’s fear of showing work early and often and the director’s fear of micromanaging are both rooted in pride. So what are you more concerned with? Being embarrassed or doing seriously amazing work? You can’t have both.