Project Insights and Potato Salad

Last time I was at the supermarket, I was struck by the huge quantities of potato salad filling the deli aisle. Potato salad is one of my favorite foods because while growing up Asian, I was accustomed to rice as King Starch of the dinner table; potatoes are a kind of luxury food in my mind because it was relatively scarce. I found it particularly irritating, therefore, to know just how awful the supermarket potato salad is. It’s mediocre and acidic, doomed by cooking techniques that preserved potato chunkiness at the expense of taste, bound with an insipid mayonnaise that acts as a watery spackle to hold its form.

As these thoughts raged through my brain, I still had to wonder why there was so much potato salad in the aisle. That meant someone was buying it, and in great quantities. The supermarket was making money on this awful stuff, which meant maybe it wasn’t so awful at all. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I should be making metaphorical potato salad too.

I’m very much driven by the allure of making something great, and because of this I probably drag my feet more than I have to. Perhaps there is a balance between making potato salad and…something epic? Let me try to break this down…

Breaking it Down

There is an unspoken “spectrum of awesomeness”, I realized, that apply to the projects on my list. I found that projects fall into one of four categories:

  • Projects I know how to do that aren’t exciting on their own. They product commodity items, usually. Potato salad falls into this category. I tend to get bored by these.

  • Existing projects that I am improving, either by elevating their quality or lowering cost/time to make. This is marginally more interesting, but since these improvements are very incremental they are difficult to appreciate. In culinary terms, an example is learning how to boil perfect eggs consistently.

  • Projects I am in the process of making, but haven’t yet been nailed down in terms of process and equipment. These projects represent new capabilities, and because they’re about possibilities I am excited by them. Buying that finishing sander is an example of acquiring a possibility-enabling piece of equipment.

  • Challenging projects that will change the world and make me famous. The realm of dreams and long-distance desire, pining for the completion of a difficult project that represents a quantum jump in quality and personal reputation. Sometimes it’s the sheer time-and-difficulty factor that is exciting; making espagnole sauce from scratch comes to mind, or learning a new language fall into this category. Or, the challenge lies in adopting the pioneer spirit and pushing into unseen territories, building what you need as you adapt to what you learn.

The value axis ranges from “known and mediocre” on the low end to “crazy ambitious and unknown” on the high end. I naturally gravitate toward the latter types of projects, and apparently my attention follows. If I’m unexcited by some “known” project, I find myself surfing the net more. This is a big productivity hurdle that I sometimes overcome with timer tricks, but I hadn’t realized exactly what the root cause was. It’s this: I think they’re boring and dull, but not for any specific reason. It’s just that other projects are filled with more unknowns that yield exciting possibilities. The poor mundane projects get picked last, unless external factors make them more attractive. That’s what the Potato Salad Insight is. It’s the known quantities that can be turned into revenue. Once a project is mastered, this creates a product that can be applied or sold. And while a potato salad project may not be enough to stand on its own, there’s no reason why it can’t be part of a greater team of supporting products. A fabulous picnic, for example, could be anchored by an improved potato salad. On a pragmatic note, an additional value is that people already know what potato salad is: It’s a side dish that comes in many variations, and goes well with picnics. People are open to the idea of a greater version of what they’ve experienced before, and I just have to remember that. It will not do to let myself be dazzled by whatever is sparkling on faraway horizons. This may be one of the great challenges that face the designer seeking to become an entrepreneur. Our creative minds are tuned toward creating new and interesting approaches to every day problems. However, when it comes to being a successful entrepreneur the most important task is to ship a product that is reliably manufactured at a predictable cost. It’s not exactly the stuff of great mythology, but it’s incredibly fundamental to a successful narrative.

Shifting Priorities

With that in mind, I can think of a whole bunch of “potato salad projects” in my Trello docket:
  • Form Variations
  • Simpler Forms
  • Useful Documentation
  • New Digital Downloadables
These are all things I know how to do, but because of that they haven’t been as interesting to me. I have a tendency to believe that the hard thing I don’t know how to do is the best thing to aim for, but because of this I’ve neglected the real contribution of creating a finished product for distribution. This might be why I like to write blog posts about what I learn; it’s a way to produce something that is accessible and (hopefully) useful to others in a similar place.

Energy Management

Potato salad projects, however, get boring. There needs to be a periodic infusion of energy to keep my morale high enough to keep moving.
  • For the potato salad projects, short-term yields are what we’re looking for. This very blog post will give me energy, because I happen to like writing them up. Energy also comes from seeing products sell, seeing incoming links, or any other sign that I was “seen” and some reaction occurred as a result. I don’t think anyone likes working in a vacuum.

  • Moving a step up from potato salad projects are the improvements projects. Enhancements to the website to improve usability fall into this category. These are harder to appreciate because very little feedback comes back from completing something like a site upgrade. These types of projects are, usually, energy consumers, but can often take advantage of something I’ve made before. That includes the small potato projects.

  • The next step up are works in development. This includes things like the index card docks, the iPad ETP app, and the Creative Huddle brainstorming forms. They are longer term and won’t yield results for quite a while, but the anticipation of seeing a bumper-crop of goodies is what keeps me going. Small achievements also provide energy, but the main source of energy for me comes from collaborating with other people who understand what I’m trying to do. Half speculative and half productive, these projects represent the current “edge” of my work. Maintaining a balance of “ship” and “inspire” here is critical to keeping these moving forward.

  • The final level of project, requiring lots of energy over great periods of time, are the super-challenging projects. I’m not even sure how to define them beyond directions for now. The XNABS2 programming project, which is my desire to create a really good interactive museum exhibit framework, probably falls in this category. Then there’s the idea of writing some kind of book of collected wisdom, once I figure out what I’m collecting; it feels too soon to write anything substantive. The energy for this project, like WORKS IN DEVELOPMENT, comes from collaborators who get what I’m doing and share some of my ideals. These projects also benefit from work I’ve done before; perhaps these are the ones that have the most strategic bearing on my project selections. However, they are also EXCITING to me, because they represent awesome future capabilities.

Concluding Thoughts

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p>The basic takeaway is that boring projects, which for me are projects that are already finished and have a known level of inconvenience, provide no boost of energy by themselves. It’s only after are transformed from “tedious list of tasks” to “potato salad ready-to-sell” that they tart to become interesting. Shifting my mental focus from “list of tasks” to “product available and in stock” is something I need to work on. That’s interesting to me.

A secondary takeaway is that there are three other kinds of projects that provide and also consume different kinds of energy. Dreams provide energy and inspiration, but making progress on a dream requires the combination of inspiration with the ability to push through uncertainty. Sources for that kind of energy tend to be other people who “get” what you’re trying to do, and are able to help out with specialized knowledge or personal support.