Pigeonholes

pigeonholes

Sorting Airmail (from The Commons on Flickr).

We’re currently doing two projects with a lot of similarities. Both involve using the web to get information into the hands of people who can do something useful with it. Both involve pulling together people, resources and expertise to deliver a genuinely useful service.

And yet, at the same time, the two projects couldn’t be more different. The organisations involved, the overall aims and the experiences we’re trying to create, call for very different approaches.

I’ve always envied those diagrams and descriptions that companies put on their websites, the ones that show, in clear steps, how they approach and deliver their projects. It makes me feel like I’d know exactly what to expect, what I was getting. It ticks the marketing boxes, clearly articulates the proposition.

And so, on occasion, I’ve gone away to write these things myself. I’ve thought about the stages of a project and the route we’d take with a new client. But nothing ever comes of it. Or at least it’s so general (“we talk about it and then we do it”) that it serves no purpose. I can list all sorts of principles and tools but never a process.

And so, thinking about those two current projects, it seems that perhaps we don’t have a process at all. Or at least all I can say is that we start with talking about the project and something comes out at the end. In between the two is a mixture of what we know works and what new things we can try out.

What I’ve realised is that you can waste a lot of time trying to fit what you do into boxes. The neatly packaged product, the clearly articulated proposition, something obvious to sell. Straplines. Diagrams. Statements.

I’m not saying that these things don’t have their place, but how many people are trying to shoehorn their work into other people’s shoes? How many people are trying to summarise what they do to make it snappy? Most importantly, how many people are stripping away subtle complexity for the sake of communication?

The longer you’ve been doing your own thing the more you realise that the solution is more complex and simpler at the same time.

It’s complex because trying to think about it all, the marketing messages, the different perceptions, the relationships you have with people in business and the different routes you could take to achieve things, is beyond comprehension.

And it’s simple, very simple, because all you have to do is keep going, keep learning, keep talking to people. You have to care enough to want to start from scratch every time. Look at everything like it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it.

And then, hopefully, it’s not a conveyor belt, it’s a journey.

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7 comments
  1. We as humans and the businesses we run, are always in a constant state of work in progress! What complicates it is when we create something and think its the end of the process by stuffing it into the market place. Marketing is about how much veneer you can create, when in truth all you have to be is yourself whether thats as an individual or a brand!

  2. Agreed, and thanks for the comment. Being a work in progress can be difficult and take a lot of experience to be comfortable with. We all need to learn to be happier in that zone.

  3. What ‘process’ and ‘pigeon holes’ miss is empathy – the ability for individuals within an organisation to connect with other individuals inside or outside the organisation on a level that is respectful, thoughtful, and creates comfort and non-comfort zones that ones talent can shine in. Being told or forced to work in another persons language, zone, style, time will never draw the results you want, positive results that can be built on.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Stephen. I completely agree about the empathy element but, in reality, so few tools and platforms understand and encourage it. I think there’s still a disconnect between the soundbite requirements of the channels we use and the deeper storytelling we need to build more meaningful relationships.

  5. One of the most important questions we can ask is: “what is this like?” It’s a question that isn’t confined to pigeonholes. If every experience was completely new, we’d never learn anything But we can find similarities without seeing everything as an instance of a type. Gregory Bateson called it “looking for the difference that makes a difference”. Doctors do it when they diagnose symptoms (“What else could cause a pain just there?”) Taxi drivers do it when they drive an unfamiliar journey. It would be funny if a taxi driver started every journey by taking the first left and then the second right, or if they said to the passenger, “right, guv, it’s three roundabouts for a tenner, so which ones do you want?”

    Everything is new, in some ways, but a repeat in others. If we have a “process” it’s more like having a repertoire of stored routines, and knowing how to decide which ones to use and when.

  6. Don’t be so hard on yourself; “We Talk About It & Then We Do It” would make an excellent strapline!

    Oddly I stumbled upon a post following a very similar theme yesterday, written by Micheal Beirut in 2006 (http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=4717).

    He writes about creating proposals where his process is decribed as “…divided in[to] four phases: Orientation and Analysis, Conceptual Design, Design Development, and Implementation.” When the truth is “Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem!”.

    To me design can sometimes feel like navigating a familiar room in the dark. You know where you started, you know where you want to end up and you know from experience how everything fits together. The rest is simply a case of moving carefully in the right direction until you get there.

  7. Andrew describes very well the way in which ideas show up at any time despite a process, but that does not mean that there are no processes which facilitate or stimulate that. See, for example, Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the artist within”, which is about the process of creativity.
    Gordon captures the essence of understanding a subject domain by categorisation, through identifying similarities and patterns, and his description of stored routines applies this to processes.
    Isn’t much of this about the distinction between analysis and synthesis? It is less of a “break down” and more of a “put together”.
    Since designing is a holistic (right sided) [see Betty Edwards’ first book “Drawing on the right side of the brain”], it is not feasible to start at the top or the bottom or the front or the back of the final result and to progress through to the other end in one pass. This is association, not rugby, football; there is no “gain line”.
    Isn’t it important to think outside the boxes, shoes and holes?
    Surely designing involves starting with what we know and have, however discontiguous it all is, and finding arrangements, links, patterns, and new elements which allow partial, and eventually, whole candidate results to be synthesised and selected? Our understanding and choice of dependencies, real or imaginary, especially their direction, is crucial to maintaining focus and flexibility.
    We are what we repeatedly do. Processes exist at the day-to-day operational level; and the larger, more complex and important our projects are, the more value there is in capturing, understanding and communicating those operations as repeatable tactics. However we hamper this process if we confuse it with our strategic approach to the current objective and the flexible selection of tactics for its operational implementation.
    And we hamper all of this, if we prejudge its nature. There is such a thing as nature, which exists and operates whether we intervene or not!

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