My Spring Break started yesterday at 5:13 p.m. (but who’s counting?), and I am more than looking forward to having 9 days away from the office. I am taking a “Stay-cation”, so instead of packing up half of our house and loading up the mini-van we have decided to have some quality family time at home. We do not have much scheduled, and will hopefully get caught up on some “eating, drinking, and being merry”. The one family goal that we do have over the break is to build a treehouse in the backyard. We have been talking about this project for years now… brainstorming, daydreaming, researching, drawing up blueprints, etc., and it is finally time to reduce this dream into reality. In discussing the project over breakfast this morning, my daughter said “It has been so much fun imagining this treehouse… I can’t believe that we are actually going to make it.” And while she was clearly excited, she also looked nervous, anxious, and a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of turning what has existing only as a fairy tale in her mind into a crude wooden structure in her yard. And to be honest… I somewhat share that sentiment.
I will leave my mental Spring Break for a few minutes now, and go back to the cubes and labs… In our roles as innovators, we are often tasked with “building a treehouse”. We need to dream big, plan smart, and execute with excellence to turn visions into actions into realities. And while this seems like a very logical flow of thought and of work, I have a question. In an average work week, how much time do you actually spend “creating”? I don’t necessarily even mean the “final product”, but what percentage of your time is actually spent creating prototypes, summaries, or any tangible results rather than time spent thinking, talking, and busy-ing yourselves with the mundane? Of course it is important to invest in ideating, collaborating, and “checking the boxes” that the corporate world often demands. But do these activities complement or conquer the time that we should spend actually making something? And if the percentage is low (mine surely is), why is that? By nature, we have all gotten into the creative business of innovation because we like “building things”… and creating transformational and disruptive products and experiences. And also by nature, many of us are bored easily by repetition, mundane tasks, and “politics”… so then why do we spend so much time with the latter, rather than the former?
1) I Think, Therefore I Am. The truth is, dreaming, brainstorming, and ideating is fun. Leaving the constraints of reality, and instead imagining what is possible rather than what is probable, is a fun state in which to exist. And when working on a creative team, the collective power of the ideas can be highly energizing and exciting. But it can also be paralyzing. Much like the fear my daughter and I feel about turning our treehouse dreams into reality, teams can get into a vicious cycle of fear of not being able to perfectly translate a vision into a functional product. On post-it notes, in conference rooms, and within a powerpoint presentation, an idea can remain in its ideal space… but when the team starts reducing it to practice, it is almost like stepping backwards into a world of compromises, messiness, and creative disagreements. Thinking is important and creating is hard… but it is critical to take the leap forward and to start reducing ideas to practice. If an idea forms in a brainstorming session, but there is no one there to create it, does it make a sound?
2) I Do, Therefore I Am Busy. So when we do leave the realms of “dreaming” and start actually “doing”, what type of tasks do we do? Do we invest our time on the messy tasks of prototyping, or the menial tasks of emailing? Do we spend our energy on difficult-to-measure activities like experimenting or on more tangible, recordable box-checking? Yes, the corporate world is full of a lot of “crap” (a technical term) to do and it is easy to get caught up in the overwhelming wave of mundanity that can flood over us. However, we can often use this deluge as an excuse to not focus on the tasks that are truly impactful. Do you vigilantly answer every email because it is mandatory, or because it fills an internal desire to complete something? Do you do every training and attend every meeting to be a good corporate steward or out of a fear of checking less boxes than your peers? And… in the end are you biasing your time toward safe but less impactful activities rather than risky but potential amazing ones? Basically, do you keep yourself excessively busy with peripheral tasks because you truly have to, or because you are afraid not to?
3) I Create, Therefore I am Fulfilled. In my opinion, there is nothing more fulfilling than creating something out of nothing. Part of the allure to me of writing these blog entries is the satisfaction of taking a blank sheet of paper and turning it into a tangible and permanent finished product. In creation, we are putting our stamp on the world and bringing to life something that otherwise would not exist. It is utterly rewarding, but often highly difficult… particularly in getting started. First, there is the hurdle of letting go of the perfection of the ideation stage. Once you impose the constraints of reality, like time, resources, money, laws of nature, etc., it is virtually impossible to create exactly what is in your mind. Don’t underestimate the impact of this hurdle, as the unconscious fear of failing to meet the gold standard can create a high activation energy for starting a project. Second, there is the obstacle of clutter. There are so many “little things” constantly bombarding us, that it can be difficult to learn to live with the clutter (it can never be eliminated!) and to focus on building something new amidst the “storm”. And third, there is the critical barrier of prioritization. There will always be something or someone that demands your urgent attention, and there will be no shortage of meetings and deadlines. The urgent will always attempt to overwhem the important, and if you do not deliberately dedicate time to building for the future, then this time will always fall to the bottom of the list. Prioritize time for creating. This doesn’t just apply to products… building a prototype, creating a concept, writing a summary all involve starting with a clean slate and making something real. If not every day, then every week, I would recommend allocating and investing time for leaving the mundane day-to-day work and building something. This will not only drive results for your programs… but will provide personal fulfillment as well.
As I start my Spring Break, I have a very clear goal for the week to build a treehouse. There will be little things that get in the way, but we are dedicating the time to bring this to life. It is going to be messy… I am never going to be skilled enough to do a professional calibre job and my three young architects will be “helping” alot. It also will be far from perfect. We have big plans and limited skill, so what we ultimately build will be far less than what we have dreamed in our blueprints (Sorry, son, we will not have a working bathroom or kitchen). But while it will fall short of perfect, it will be infinitely better than the empty space in the tree that we have now. We’ve dreamed, we’ve planned, and now we will build… and when Spring Break ends there will be a new home in the backyard where nothing stands today.