Vision and Validation

I’ve always been fascinated and afraid of how easily people can get ‘stuck in their ways’, by which I mean: do and believe things based on past experiences, despite the rapidly changing present.

But the longer we’re alive, the more pressure there is to be increasingly sure about things. If life- and work-experience didn’t increase how sure we were then what they hell have we been doing all this time? Personally, it’s a matter of pride. Professionally, it’s an expectation. You can’t climb the career ladder and not become more certain, can you? No. We’re all really good at pretending this is the case.

I’d argue that even a generation ago, this wasn’t as much of a problem, because the world changed more slowly, so by the time people were completely out of touch, they were close to retirement anyway.
These days, change is so fast and complex that being stuck in our ways becomes a plague much, much earlier. It’s now a problem for 30 year-olds, not 50 year-olds. A new present arrives with horifying abruptness and before we’re even half way into our careers, we can be faced with a dilemma: stick with what we’re good at (even if it’s no longer the best way) or be willing to relearn, as our field of ‘expertise’ melts into the connected world.

This is definitely true in the intersection between the marketing and product/service design industries. Lots of people who are ‘good at marketing’ now want to be ‘good at developing services and products’.
But mutating crudely from one mindset to the other is a gross disrespect to what is unmistakably a very different beast. But we want to do that stuff, right? So is it okay to gently bend our understanding until new wisdom can be hammered in convincingly?

I faced a version of this dilemma after leaving my role as Strategy Director at Poke. I left Poke being ‘pretty good’ at what I did, so there was some temptation to find somewhere ‘similar-ish’  where, by definition, I could fit in immediately and continue to be ‘pretty good’ at things; to feed my ego by continuing to be someone who knows what to do.

But ‘knowing’ is an oxymoronic concept when nothing stands still. And although I had helped to develop products and services at Poke, we inevitably approached those challenges through a lens designed for very different types of project. That’s not a dig at Poke – they are supremely talented and have some great success stories in this area – but you can’t re-build your company and processes overnight because a different kind of opportunity arises.
When I left, I decided to admit that I didn’t ‘know’ how to do that stuff — not properly. So instead of knowing, I decided to learn. And that decision brought me to Made by Many.

At Made by Many, I have no title. And all the things I used to ‘know’ are challenged on an hourly basis. Reassuringly though, it turns out that Made by Many are learning too. Something they have blogged proudly about:

“The hardest lesson we’ve learnt so far is how to learn. We are still learning, but I think the difference now is that we see rapid learning as being a core part of the offer.”

This excellent post, by Tim Malbon, exposes some raw truths about Made by Many’s belief system:

“It sure is hard to see your ideas as hypotheses to be tested, instead of the utterly genius solutions that you’re so certain they are. But, unless you can learn to be less sure of your own individual ability to come up with the right answer then you’ll struggle to make things that other people actually want.”

That realisation is as refreshing and exciting as it is unsettling. And it’s quite a change from the usual culture of a creative company. Lean is not just a buzzword, it’s a philsophy that impacts everything you do. [great little example here]
In Tim’s words, it’s helped MxM to “remove ego from teamwork and replace it with evidence.” And that’s something makes bucket loads of sense to me.

In fact, what I’m tackling on a personal level mimics what Made by Many try to do as a business: find the balance between vision and validation. Between what our experience assures us and what we are yet to learn.

Vision means seeing things that others don’t (yet). Leaping to ideas built on fragments of experiences that are sometimes too abstract to pinpoint. It’s not magical — it’s just hard to explain, so we use words like ‘creativity’ to make sense of it. This is what lots of creative companies are built on. When the thing you’re creating needs to excite people for a very short amount of time, that’s great. But not if you want to make something millions of people *use* every day.

Validation is the part where you see if anyone gives a crap. And I don’t mean mean showing consumers some slides and asking them if they like what they see (that only works if their ultimate interaction will be similarly passive). Validation – in terms of products and services – means putting an actual prototype into people’s hands to see what they do with it. Something that is only achievable (and affordable) by rethinking the way your company works and how long it spends getting to that point. Ego is a toxic presence in this process.

As the dust settles on my first few months at MxM, the conclusion I’ve come to is that the holy grail (process-wise) is to find harmony between vision and validation. Taking either of these as an absolute view would be dangerous.
A world forged only by sensible validation will get boring quickly – even though its efficiency is appealing. (And of course, you need ideas to validate!) I am a passionate supporter of removing ego and validating early and iteratively. But I also believe in leaving room for some vision-injections. The best (most interesting, effecting and long-lasting) work will come from people that get this balance right.

And that’s exactly the balance we have to find personally too.

The dilemma of whether to keep believing things that you have built your confidence on, or admit you need to rethink some stuff, is one that millions of people face daily. And it’s when too many people indulge tired beliefs that entire industries get stuck in their ways. If you find yourself in this position, I urge you to acknowledge what you don’t yet know. It’s the fastest way to find out.

12 comments tagged: ,
  • http://twitter.com/DigitalSignals Ed Richardson

    Interesting thought piece Andy, nicely summarised.

    I went through a similar mental evolution when I moved careers from a technology deployment background into creative digital media. It took me a few years to adapt my thinking and then find my full confidence once more. This took working out what elements from my previous knowledge were transferable and what I just had to learn from scratch.

    It’s a far more rapid process now, we need to evolve thinking quickly and that in itself takes confidence and a few lessons learnt from mistakes.

  • http://invisibleinkdigital.com Invisibleinkdigital

    Good thought piece Andy. I always assumed that, like me, strategists / planners were plagued by self doubt. I think as you point out, that as we progress up the career ladder, we become more skilled in masking these insecurities.

  • http://twitter.com/CraigElimeliah Craig Elimeliah

    Brilliant post. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/neilperkin neilperkin

    Nicely put. For me, I like the idea of designing with vision, and optimising with feedback. Wrote a bit about it here:

    http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/2011/01/design-with-vision-optimise-with-feedback.html

  • http://twitter.com/Asi_Sharabi Asi_Sharabi

    Nice 1

    We have an ongoing debate about it internally at Sidekick – we call it conviction vs. validation and how to find the right balance between them. Lean is good but sometimes being too dogmatic about it , especially at early stages can be a bit dangerous. Sometimes users/people will not get your vision at early MVP stage especially if it’s a new way of doing things so validation is a great tool to get feedback and iterate but “User feedback is bad at telling you what to build. It’s great at telling you what you fucked up” – (Phil Libin, CEO of @Evernote:disqus)

    One more thing. Lean is a buzzword and increasingly overused (as buzzwords tend to). The introduction of Lean to the digital marketing context (Poke style) isn’t necessarily the right fit. Most marketing people don’t want validation – they are too lazy. And they don’t like the truth. And they don’t have the time.  If digital marketing agencies will have to validate all of their ideas –  if we go by Strurgeon Law (that 90% of everything is shit)  – most of them will go under… 

  • http://www.nowincolour.com/ Andy

    Thanks for your comments guys. It’s worth reading Neil’s post on this, which echoes some of Asi’s points. It’s a great quote Asi—and definitely how I feel about it. I just wrote this in the comments on Neil’s blog:

    “Clearly both sides are necessary. And I don’t think there is just one way of achieving the balance. It requires a little creativity to fluidly jump between each mode of working so neither of these processes ends up in the driving seat. That’s where people should sit.”I think it’s when any process starts making decisions for people that we lose control. And it’s in process where insecurities are most easily buried (at the expense of the work).

    As always, it’s in the comments where the subject comes alive. Thanks for chipping in. I feel the need to do some follow up posts to get into the guts of the subject (this post was fairly top-line and philosophical). Maybe you guys should join me ;)

  • http://twitter.com/jamescaig James Caig

    Bloody love this, Andy.

    The confidence to remain uncertain is hard won, especially when those around you demand certainty. Becoming is harder than knowing.

    I think keeping a personal credo like this helps immeasurably with work. Even blogging requires the same balance of vision and validation, I think – willing to bet this post started as a few germs of thoughts and coalesced into something more coherent as you started writing. 

  • http://twitter.com/mattedgar Matt Edgar

    Thanks for writing this post, Andy. I too love working in the fast-paced, iterative, user-centred studio that Made by Many is creating. What I’ve taken from my experiences, though, is that “vision” and “validation” are two sides of the same coin. If anyone says user engagement dampens creativity, that’s because they’re Doing It Wrong. I’ve seen colleagues return from research visits frothing with ideas they could only have had _because_ they’ve taken the trouble to immerse themselves in the users’ world. Equally, you’ll learn far more from people if you start with some lightly-held but explicit hypotheses. These help you sharpen your curiosity and make the surprises all the more delightful. A process that segregates these two modes of working seems to miss the point. Maybe it’s more of a blend than a balance? Matt

  • http://www.nowincolour.com/ Andy

    Hello Matt! Actually what you’re saying is exactly what I was trying to say. So, yes, I agree 100%  :)

  • http://twitter.com/martinbailie Martin Bailie

    Thanks Andy, you’ve summarised well what so many of us are worrying about and trying to learn in this cross-over digital space. Nice one.

  • nstewart

    I was wondering why I hadn’t heard your name at Poke Towers recently.  Nice piece of thinking too – but to throw in my 2p-worth as a relatively newly-minted client, the challenge we have is to get all the bits of the business that bear on marketing to change.  In order to live by the MxM credo, things like budget planning and incentives need to be re-engineered, not just what gets decided at meetings with the agency.  ‘Lean’ in the current, marketing-only sense is already tricky (which is why so many clients that do it talk in terms of ‘skunkworks’ or ‘black ops’ rather than just ‘ how we do things’); vision and iteration in your terms are an order of magnitude harder.  Or maybe that’s just where I’ve ended up…

    Anyway, good food for thought.

  • http://www.nowincolour.com/ Andy

    Hi Nick, you’re right to highlight the operational and organisational challenges. My post barely leaves the philosophical introduction to this subject. The reality, as you imply, is that new thinking can’t be bolted onto old practices. And that rewiring things on the scale you’re talking about is in many cases difficult and some cases impossible, without crippling disruption. That conversation requires at least a few more blog posts! You should write one — I’d love to hear more from your perspective.