21 November 2008

Managing dynamics

There are basically two kinds of car races that make any sense, drag racing and track racing. Drag racing is obviously going full out for a very short period of time. Track racing is about endurance. Certainly overall speed is important, but managing the variance – knowing when to go fast and when to conserve is crucial. This is basically the construct behind the ‘tortoise and the hair’ story we have all heard as a child.

If you have ever played in a music group with others, you understand the importance of dynamics. If the trumpet players play full out for the entire song, it is likely that we will never enjoy the soft sweet tones of the flutes and piccolo’s.

These same principals are important with managing people, works loads and even users and customers. Pushing your staff full out or for constant long hours does not work. The ramifications of applying short-term tactics over the long haul are well documented, and frankly obvious. Burn out and attrition are certainly the most common of inevitable outcomes.

For customers it is slightly different… well actually not so much. They just leave or ignore you. If everything you take to them is an, ‘unbelievable incredible deal of a lifetime’, your message will fade (ok, this time think ‘the boy who cried wolf’). If every offer is accompanied by flashing neon and police emergency lights… then the intensity of those are soon rendered ineffective.

The basic principle of managing dynamics seems so obvious. It causes me pause when I see it ignored.

18 November 2008

Comfort in numbers

The quest amongst those who can afford them is about gathering metrics. In a risk adverse culture, metrics are like a warm blanket. They are comforting when you are working alone, and if things get rough you can pull them over your head and hide from the truth… or the scary monsters.

In scrutinizing the use of metrics I often wonder, is the goal to make the decision process simpler and less risky, or to make a better decision. In that spirit I would offer a couple of suggestions.

The terms research and metrics would seem to be hand and glove. Research is an annoyingly costly and time intense process to find out what you already know, right? But I digress and that would not really be my main point. Outcomes from research can only be useful as guidance. To expect research, whether it is the building of personae (qualitative), or the use of A/B testing (quantitative), to solve the problem is a bit naiveté. In the end a person must do the analysis and a person must make a judgment (more on this in a second). The research is just one component of due diligence and along with other work sets the stage for resolve - it must not and cannot make the decisions for you.

In a hierarchal culture we are often saddled with solving problems that as assigned to us. As those problems are given to us to solve or resolve, it’s worth bearing in mind that the consequences of our decisions may not fit the situation. A critical component of problem solving is asking the right question. Is it appropriate to question the validity of the problem you have been asked to solve… well, yes - if only to set appropriate expectations for your own impact. Will your answer improve the situation? It might, but only, if the right questions are being asked.

Lastly, judgment is much more that choosing between what’s behind curtain number one or the box that Carol is showing us. Judgment requires due diligence, it requires answering the right question, but also requires looking into the future, selling the decision, and most important – follow through. The relief you feel when you finally make that all-important decision is often accompanied by anxiety and second-guessing. The best cure for those troubling side effects is to carefully guide your decision into reality by managing a solid plan.

04 November 2008

The power of peripheral attention

In an old episode of the television show “Friends”, Jon Lovitz guest stars as a food critic. On the way over he gets stoned. Cannabis (I am told) has a tendency to increase focus to a near exclusive state. John’s character hears the word tartlet. He repeats, “tartlets, tartlets, tartlets… the word has lost all meaning.”

A couple of months after my daughter was born I was reading a book at a friends house. I wish I could remember and quote it precisely, but it basically said, “children are born the most aware beings on our planet, and we systematically take that away with them by teaching focus”.

The point of this writing is not to take issue with the power of focus, but to point out that it is not the only answer.

I was reading about Eric Johnson’s (virtuoso guitar player) lifelong quest for tone perfection. He mentioned that sometimes in order to get great tone, you have to stop thinking about tone. He has spent years practicing this. He is still learning.

For many years, I have managed the design process. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been eyeball deep in a project… wading in the muck of options and castaways only to find the perfect solution. As a design crew we would then assemble the client into a meeting room, make our dramatic and passionate presentation, and proclaim that “this, my dear client… is THE answer to your problem”. And, in that 18 minute build up… a 12 second unveiling… and the ensuing 17 minute discussion expect them to come to the same affirming conclusion that took our team 7 weeks.

So the client stares at the work… and then stares at it some more… looks us up and down and then stares back at the work. The pressure builds until they mutter, “umm, I’m not sure’. And we designers are astonished. How could they not see the brilliance?

At this moment, focus is not your friend. After repeating this scenario a couple dozen times I finally figured out why it does not work. The client must often, just like us, live with the solution for a bit.

And so here is the simple recipe. Next time you are struggling to make a decision, stop staring. Hang those three logo options, or variations of your web site, or anything else for that matter, in an area you work or live and go about your business. Give it 48 hours. I can almost guarantee you will come to an easy resolve.

So stop staring at the problem you are trying to solve. Live it. Be around it. Be part of it. Let your peripheral attention work for you.