I have never worked on just one thing for more than a week. For as far as I can remember, I have always juggled professional identities and projects. This has made every utterance of the question ‘what do you do’ an opportunity for self-reflection.
Diversity of practice is core to my sense of freedom. Separate the powers: let not my life depend on just one person or one organisation. Hang on different spots, so that if one thread breaks, the web survives.
At times, this juggling is a source of energy. I can hover from one activity to another over the course of the day, following my own rhythm. I pack in more than I would otherwise, with a sense of joy and independence. But there have been moments when I felt a sense of saturation, experienced as internal panic.
Not that deadlines are pressing, but rather, than my focus becomes unclear. I shift my glance left and right. No matter where I look, everything is on a spectrum from complete blur to slight haze. Nothing is crisp and sharp. I can’t figure ‘what to do next’. The mind flickers. Progress stalls.
Three things will precipitate similar states of uncertainty: when deadlines are too close together, when I work with more than three different sets of people, or when expectations and quality criteria for a project are unclear.
What’s the way ahead? Write a piece like this one. Recenter. Stop, reflect. Take a step back. What is my general goal? Where does everything fit? Then, from the big picture, zoom back on the details, and execute.
Yesterday, a friend posted the following on her Facebook wall: “Which of those sounds more true to you? A: You can achieve anything if you set clear goals, believe in yourself, and work hard. B: You can achieve many things if you prepare for an opportunity, see it, and act upon it.”
I publicly rejected A as an assemblage of cliches. To my French mind, ‘work hard’ signals idiocy, palliating the lack of strategic thinking with pure effort. “Believe in yourself’ codes blindness and stupidity. “You can achieve anything” sounds like plain delusion.
All this sounds utterly obvious to me. I was surprised to see people choose “A” or, more disturbingly, “a mix of both”. Since then, I’ve been wondering what kind of mindset would lead to this preference. Goal setting may be the main hinge. Is it about perceiving the shifting patterns of the world, and identifying a way forward among the ripples? Or projecting a vision into the blank space of the future, and self-generating a pathway to this vision?
I’ve always been suspicious of self-proclaimed hard workers. If you ‘work hard’, how will you feel the subtle tremors in the fabric of the world? They tell you where to press, and where resistance will be. If you work a little softer, it’s easier to find the joint – and you won’t have to saw through the bone.
Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.
Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.
In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.
My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?
Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.
We spend a lot of time looking for ways to reach our goals; but spend remarkably little considering what these goals should be. This applies to people and organisations.
Solving the ‘how’ question is a process most of us have mastered. I want a new phone, which one should I choose? I want to see the latest James Bond, where should I go? I want a partner, how do I get one? But often, even with a brain well-trained to find convenience and a good deal, we procrastinate, ponder options, and never act; or follow a course of action, eventually get what we want, and feel no satisfaction.
Corporate strategy is a sexy domain. It is the black box of executive decision-making: setting direction, asking the big questions. Yet the term and practice blur the distinction between the Big What – why are we together and what is it that we do – and the small what – how do we succeed and what do we do next?
The same applies to personal strategy, we blur these two levels. The Machiavellian quest for power, status, wealth – how do I get to my goal – overlaps with the Socratic, Cartesian, Freudian quest for purpose: what should I want, is it what I want, and do I really want it? And so we believe, because we’re making plans and considering options, that we’re deploying wisdom.
“If you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a farmer”. This is what I almost posted on my Facebook wall earlier. But then I caught myself: farmers observe nature continuously, and may be wiser than most of us city dwellers. The better proposition would be, “if you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a gold-miner.”
Over the years, as I presented Marco Polo Project to potential partners, funders, even mentors, the same question came popping up: what sector are you in? When I tried explaining that we spanned across industries and countries, and didn’t really fit in any, eyes rolled. Some wise advisors even told me that we’d better locate ourselves more clearly, because if we didn’t, who would ever consider funding us?
Find a niche, hey? I understand your logic, but now tell me: what’s the use of a bridge inside a tunnel? And if you’re building on air, then don’t you think it’s wise to rest your weight on two pillars at least?
No wonder we don’t fit in any clear-cut category: our very purpose determines our structure. Not hiding in the cave, digging for gold, but anchored across a range of sectors: literature and education, multicultural communities and partners internationally. We build connection between them and – like bridges – are neither here, nor there, but in-between.
But hey – if you’re looking to dig a gold-mine, you shouldn’t think like a bridge-builder.