Three Mindsets for Making Things

From the 2006 Archives Productivity #TRICKS 4 Comments

I have tended to judge myself by what I know how to make. When I had my first stint at management, I wasn’t directly making anything, and it was very difficult for me to feel good about it. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate what a good manager does, and have seen that what I did was worthwhile. I learned how to see beyond individual achievement as my primary metric.

Still, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed for me, and that’s the desire to create quality product. It’s supremely important to me, and I tend to scope projects to the ability I have to do them well based on my personal knowledge and expertise. Quality. Competence. Experience. Expertise: These are the foundation of the kind of practice I am trying to build.

And this may be just what’s holding me back.

The Competence Model

I was chatting with a friend about our respective attempts at making some dough. He runs a growing agency that’s expanded in all kinds of directions. Like me, he places tremendous emphasis on competence, quality, and expertise, going to great lengths to secure the very best for his clients. In fact, he’s probably a lot more thorough than me, though otherwise we are pretty similar in our approach to determining what’s good and what’s not.

Anyway, we were talking about self-promotion and excellence, and got onto the topic of people who could sell vapor. He knows a few people who can do this, who are able, despite not knowing very much at all about HOW anyone could really build the thing, had no problem selling it. My friend made the off-hand observation that this was something that we could never do, the implication that we are so deeply rooted in having to know how to do something that we’d never be able to make a vaporous (and hence outrageous) claim.

His observation was on-the-mark, but saying “never” to me is a sure-fire way to get me thinking of loopholes and tricky bypasses; I like to think there’s always a way in, if you can define “way” and “in” from a novel perspective. In my imagination, I’m James Kirk battling Khan at the end of Star Trek II, avoid the trap of “two-dimensional thinking” as I battle starship-on-starship in a battle to the death.

So, let’s check some assumptions and see where they go!

The Curse of Vaporware

For those of us with a technical production background, the immediate reaction to “selling vapor” is extremely negative. It seems dishonest. We think of all the times we “bought on a promise”, only to be screwed later when the vendor failed to deliver. Once burned, twice shy becomes our default state of interaction with products and services. Let’s face it: the vast majority of products out there are just…well, kind of there. They’re not terrible, but neither are they great. They’re right in that zone of mediocrity that Kathy Sierra illustrates so well, and we as consumers would rather feel strongly: good or bad. With the bad stuff, at least we are confident in our decision.

Still, I find vaporware interesting in two ways:

  • When the vaporware does have great promise, it captures our imagination. The excitement of the possibilities is balanced by the likelihood of failure; this is something we’ve all learned through life experience. What results is a kind of dramatic tension, knocking our emotions around in a way that is actually pretty intoxicating. If the product, by some miracle, lives up to the hype, then we are swept off our feet. In every piece of vaporware lies the seeds of a whirlwind love affair, with all the excitement and passion and heartbreak that entails.

  • It’s a little different when we sense that the vaporware is a malicious attempt to manipulate us to someone else’s advantage. If we allow for the benefit of the doubt, the disappointment of vaporware is perhaps due to incompetence undermining the best of intentions; at worst, it’s outright fraud, and we are outraged. It’s pretty bad when you’re in the situation where you’re working with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing (a case of their reach exceeding their grasp) or is deliberately misrepresenting their abilities to take advantage of a situation. How do you know if they’re able to deliver on their promise? Anyone can make up a product out of thin air, and if you’ve ever had to clean up after someone’s lies you learn to distrust these people implicitly. Or you learn to develop a Cold War perspective, separating intention from action as you evaluate the evolving situation.

So what’s the upside?

It came to me as my buddy was expressing with increduality at the sheer chutzpah these guys had in come up to him and explaining what they’d just sold. The thought that came to mind was, “well, they’d be fine if they worked with him”, and then it clicked: I would entirely believe in someone who could “sell vapor” if I knew that they also possessed the ability to pick good people to do the actual work. Then “vapor” becomes “vision”.

I also realized that we were thinking like consumers who had been burned, not like creators who build new experiences.

The Consumer Mentality

For those of us who grew up without much business experience in the family, we’ve been conditioned to think like consumers, not producers. We think a lot about the following:

  • The Best Value for our Money!
  • The Best Quality!
  • The Best Features!
  • The Most Effective!
  • The Best Feeling!
  • The Best Picked from Many Choices!

When I started getting to the point where I could create new things, I went through two initial stages of realization:

(1) That I can make a thing in exchange for money.

I realized I could make something, and in exchange receive compensation. However, that wasn’t enough; hence, stage 2:

(2) That the people I’m working for have the same consumer values as I.

To respect myself and gain others respect, I need to create to standards that I hope to receive myself. This put my focus on developing expertise to create high quality product. I started to think like a craftsperson.

Stage 2 is where I’m at right now, thinking mostly about the things that I can make with my own two hands. When I think of expansion, I think of working with more people who share those same values of quality, expertise, and honesty. These values are all consumer focused; in other words, I’m thinking about customers in terms of what they will receive. This is a fine way to think about customers, of course, but it’s also a limiting perspective: if I think about product craft all the time for my customers, I not thinking of how to really scale the business operation. Or indeed, how to grow it. I’m constrained by the ability to find other craftspeople to work with me.

Now, I’m not saying that I am thinking of NOT thinking about quality product, technical prowess, and expertise: those are all fundamental and necessary, otherwise who’s going to buy your stuff? What I’m saying is that focusing entirely on craft doesn’t allow me to focus on creating larger opportunities where that craft can thrive. Staying a craftsperson isn’t the way to do that, and if you’ve ever tried to hire someone who works the way you do, you know how impossible that task seems. Small quality-oriented operations are largely constrained by the people they can find to expand. They do well, but growth is slow, often by design because the addition of the WRONG person can destroy a team. That’s our assumption, anyway, often learned the hard way. But what is the wrong person? And is the assumption implicitly that the RIGHT person is “someone who is technically competent”?

To test this, I posed the following question to myself:

If I didn’t have to worry about finding a quality production team to do the work, could I “sell vapor”? Could I even be good at it?

Selling vapor now becomes selling vision, and getting that vision made is all about leadership and communucation…you know, the kind of thing that Steve Jobs does, backed by people who really know what they’re doing in their areas of expertise. Jobs himself has a highly-developed ability to pick the right people to bring his very intuitive sense of design to life. If there was ever a rule to apply to picking partners, it would be this: pick the people who demonstrably have picked great people to work with them. In the case of those guys who sell vapor so well, what’s even MORE important is how well they can sell their own team. If I came across a guy who was trying to sell me vapor, and they said, “Oh, and your buddy is also working with us”…hell, that impresses me, and I’m much more likely to be on board. In other words: Don’t shop product or talent. Shop the team.

If I didn’t have to worry about doing the production myself, and instead could rely on people that I KNEW could do the job, how liberating would that be? How would you like being the person responsible for directing the development of an iidea? Wouldn’t it be great, if you too were 100% confident in your ability to be the vision setter? How many of you out there are in the same boat?

So here’s what stage 3 is:

(3) That I can find people who are smarter / better than me to do the things that I am not good at, so I can focus on bringing the vision to life.

I saw an interview on Charlie Rose with Warren Buffett, and he said that he hired people who were smarter than he was. I thought perhaps this was a kind of company morale-building PR statement, but on reflection it really is the secret to effective scaling. The hard part, of course, is learning to recognize the smart people, because that takes considerable smarts of your own. Buffett is quoted as saying that he doesn’t invest in businesses that he doesn’t understand; without that understanding, perhaps he’s unable to really tell how smart the business management really is. I think by “understand” he means total comprehension; Buffett is not saying that the business needs to be “simple”.

What I don’t know is whether I’m a vision person or not. However, recognizing that there is a valid way to think of vapor as vision is pretty liberating. The poet who coined that phrase about “reach exceeding grasp” in the first place meant it inspirationally; this desire is what moves us forward in the first place. The price of admission, however, is to really make the effort to be an expert in more than just one field, so you have a better chance of finding those people who are incredibly smart in the way that you are not.

Ways to Think of Making

To sum up, here’s the three modalities I now know are accessible to my creative thinking:

  1. Create the best possible expression of my soup-to-nuts knowledge, expertise, and experience to solve a problem hands-on. This is the craftsperson / engineering mentality, placing value on methodically and consistently being able to forge quality product from the primordial dust.

  2. Declare, then sell a vision. Absolutely own it. Guide it to fruition personally, by working with people who operate in modality 1. This is the guy who sells vapor, but it’s vapor only because the blueprint in that guy’s head hasn’t yet been taken by a production team and made real. On the surface, this has all the elements of a production disaster in the making. However, if one applies the Buffett criterion of making sure that “you understand what each other is trying to do” before you invest your time and energy…just maybe you’ll find someone smarter than you to work with, and wonderful things may happen.

  3. Pick the next easiest thing to do that seems like it would work, and do it. I haven’t talked about this at all up to now, but as you might guess it’s related to the Get Things Done (GTD) Two-Minute Rule. This modality is an iterative approach that works pretty well most of the time, and applied consistently I think it probably gets you 75% of the way to Excellence. That’s often good enough; when you hit the 75% mark, then modality 1 or 2 might help squeeze out that last 25% of goodness.

Three Ways to Procrastinate

A commenter recently mentioned the idea of living in alignment with your values, and looking at the list above I’m thinking that procrastination may be a misalignment of creative modality.

While I believe in Modality 1, “High Quality Production Expertise” and practice it to the best of my ability, it’s an approach that requires tremendous patience and meticulousness. I’ve trained myself to do it, and am regarded as being fairly patient and detail-oriented as a result. However, I am realizing that I may be misaligned: I really am quite impatient, and like things to happen very quickly. While I’ve learned to wait, I don’t really like it. When approaching a project that takes research and planning, my natural impatience tends to sap my enthusiasm, which leads to procrastination and that feeling of non-productivity. Enthusiasm is restored when you’re working with happy, empowered people; you’re sharing the creative burden with people who think as you do, so the project goes more smoothly.

Modality 2, “Being the Visionary”, may be more my speed. However, to be in that leadership position you need to either PAY for privillege or EARN it. It’s better to earn it, of course. In the past, I’d been uncomfortable because I hadn’t felt I’ve earned the right. Now, with more years of experience, I can feel more confident in the role of Benevolent Design Despot. Whether that would actually work out, I have no idea, but it is interesting to think about. It means letting go of the actual production work, and wholeheartedly accepting the role of visionary, teaching and guiding throughout the project because that’s what you have to offer the team. You’re splitting the creative burden across lines of expertise and responsibility, which I think helps keep people focused and productive. An example that comes to mind is doing Quality Assurance for software. When there’s no budget for QA, it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, just have the programmers do it, since they’re the ones fixing the bugs.” Wrong. Debugging is pretty draining, and for me asking me to then go into QA mode after fixing one is just asking too much. To be great at QA, you have to be a devious and unconventionally-thinking person. You try random things, and then when you find something you figure out how to reproduce it. It’s a sufficiently different mindset that switching to QA mode afterwards will drive you a bit mad, especially if you’re fixing several dozen bugs a day. Also, the idea of having the person fixing the bugs also clearing them as “fixed” is like asking a fox to guard a henhouse, or letting Congress approve their own raises in salary.

Modality 3, “Take the Next Step” is a great GTD concept. I think people who are “classically productive” in the sense that they “just do it” probably think like this all the time. They know that taking many steps leads to progress, and experienced creatives know that “chicken scratching” will eventually lead to something useful. They don’t think that much about what COULD be, they instead take what IS. Taking a step will create a result, which provides new input for the next creative step; it’s an incredibly powerful cycle once you’ve learned to be comfortable with it by not fixating on the distance goal. Instead, you focus on the what-just-happened and what-happens-next. If you can define many small steps to have a tangible immediate result, procrastination doesn’t have enough time to set in.

Conclusion

I’ve touched on a bunch of different ideas that have been on my mind:

  • That vaporware is not that different from vision. The difference depends on the team you can line up to do the production work, and how well “the vision” is disseminated.

  • That there are three was to think about making things: as an expert, as an expert who is looking for the team, and as a set of simple steps that one “just does”.

  • That being able to choose someone “smarter than you” to work with means you have to be smart enough to recognize someone’s brilliance in the first place.

  • That one’s “making style” and notions of “how one should make things” can be out of alignment with one’s personality. I’m impatient, therefore I find modality 1 a little tedious to put up with if I don’t have someone else to work with. So maybe I should think in modality 2 and 3 instead, and trust that my training in modality 1 will help me find the great people to work with.

True? False? Who knows? I’ll be thinking of ways to apply modality 2 in the coming weeks.