April 10, 2015

The Learning is in the Weeds

When you start something new, inevitably you reach a point where you get stuck. You don’t know how to approach a problem, you realize the software you’re using doesn’t have a capability you need, or you have a strategy for something that you don’t know how to execute tactically. We’ve all been there.

This term has been a lot of that for me.

Last week, for example, I was tasked with doing synthesis for a high-profile project I’m working on. I had 48 hours. No sweat. As a researcher, I’m no stranger to synthesis. Making sense out of data is what I do best. But, that’s analytics. Not all synthesis is created equal. In design, getting from challenge to product varies depending on what the challenge is.

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Lauren Serota. She presented the design process like this:

Here is how I interpreted it:

Synthesis is code for black box--a creative process with no clear steps on how to get from A to C. It’s like magic. Put a frog in a box, twirl it around and out flies a dove. Here I was, faced with something that seemed fairly easy and I didn’t know where or how to begin. I was stuck. My partner suggested I take a break and check out some videos on creativity. Great idea! I did it and found these videos on the creative process from 99U and had a good laugh from this one on procrastination (I absolutely love tea!). I let things marinate overnight and the next morning, I banged out something solid pretty quickly. I realized 2 things about my own creative process: stepping away for a bit helped and getting something down--anything--is key to getting some early feedback.

My work managing communications for StartingBloc has also had some snags. Most of us do social media casually, but when you’re setting and trying to meet measurable goals, things change. All of a sudden, posts aren’t so casual and you’re paying attention to every little detail, learning the limitations of Facebook, A/B testing to optimize click-rates on newsletters, and tracking and analyzing metrics. Last week, I cursed Mailchimp for not having a legitimate “undo” option (no, cmd-z didn’t do the trick) after mistakenly hitting that pesky minus. I was so outdone I considered sending them an email with some suggestions on how they could improve their user experience. I still might.

It is easy to default to frustration when you hit a snag. After all, you’re trying to get stuff done, quickly; and running into snags slows you down. When this happened to me, yes, I got frustrated. But, then I realized that getting past snags and other ‘stuckedness’ is a mark of true learning. I learned something I didn’t know before, created a hack, and became better at my work. If you’re comfortable, breezing along in your work, there might be a chance you’ve reached mastery and aren’t growing professionally. Ask yourself a big question, “Am I swimming with ease or wading through the field?” Learning happens in the weeds.

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