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.