Blog: Design Musings and Other Nonsense
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Three Pillars of Creative Projects
When you are around creative projects for a while, projects when you are building something big, you tend to notice certain things about how they go. Specifically, you typically notice what causes these sorts of projects to go well, and what sorts of things cause them to go not so well. Over time, patterns start to emerge, and at least in my experience, specific traits of successful projects come to light. And, just like pillars on a building, these qualities are fundamental to the project’s success.
Like most things, even though the summary is simple, in practice things get complex. But, underneath those complexities, those things that you are doing that no one has ever done before, are some fundamental truths. And, whether you are building a website, a product, or a company, these basic traits seem to hold true.
The funny thing is, at least in my experience, is that the difference between successful projects and less than successful ones often tends to come down to basic human qualities. Almost like the irony is that even with all of the technologies, tools, and general digital power we wield on a daily basis, there is no escaping the human elements of getting things designed, built, and released to the world. Simply put, more often than not, the better-executed projects are that way because they are run by people with certain qualities, people who interact with and treat their projects in a very specific way.
Pillar One: The Will to Act
It may sound simple, but one of the most important qualities of successful projects is simply possessing the will to act. Or, to put it more simply, unless you are willing to “do”, your thing will never “be”. Often, this isn’t so easy. Perhaps you have people telling you you can’t do what you think you can. Perhaps there is a ton of risk, you have a family to take care of, so there is no way that you can indulge some flight of fancy to build that new app. For many of us, there are dozens of very good reasons not to do what we most deeply want to do. And, the rub is that many of these reasons are valid. We do have families to take care of. We do need our health insurance. We can’t take on that home equity loan in order to start our business. These are facts, true, but they are not the only version of the truth.
The reality is, if there is a will to do what we most want to, there is a way. So, in these circumstances, where you find yourself up against an immovable obstacle, it is important to ask yourself if what you are trying to do is really impossible for you, or if you are just bumping up against your fear. Because, if we are afraid, we will let external excuses stop us in our tracks. Fear is sneaky, and it will use any tool at its disposal to dissuade you from doing what you really want to do. And, if we cannot conquer our fear, we will succumb to it and abandon our dreams, claiming they are impossible, improbable, or even worse, we are simply not good enough to do them.
Our dreams are our dreams for a reason, and if you are burning to do something, you can find a way. It goes without saying that you need to be responsible, but if you have something you really want to do, you owe it to yourself to act, to do something. This can take a lot of courage, especially when it comes to conquering fear, but often, the things we most need to do are the ones we are most scared of.
Pillar Two: The Humility to Embrace What You Don’t Know
Looking at the first pillar, it can seem than all you need to do to get things done is just charge into every situation, guns blaring, and never saying die. Well, not so fast. Effective action is almost always tempered with humility. Because, if we are taking action from a place of hubris, we will only create damage in the long run. A scorched earth policy leaves scorched earth in its wake. Plus, we will miss the feedback the process, and the people around us, are giving us. We will simply charge forward under the unilateral influence of our own opinion.
Any successful project needs an effective leader, and in my opinion, one of the most important qualities of an effective leader is humility. He/she needs to be able to admit when they are wrong, when they don’t know the answer, and when someone else deserves the credit. Humility means not overvaluing yourself, but not undervaluing yourself either.
Plus, humility is a key trait if you want smart people to work with you for very long. Because, smart people have options, and they rarely put up with the toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance.
Without humility, you won’t trust opinions that differ from your own, and you will build a team that reinforces your insecurities. You won’t look for people who fill in your holes, you will look for people who won’t expose them. You will have an imbalanced team because you try to do too much and allow your people to do too little.
Additionally, without humility you will not accept harsh feedback, especially harsh feedback from your market. You won’t be able to learn the lessons your market is trying to teach you, so you will make the same mistakes over and over again. Without humility there is no growth, and without growth there can be no lasting success.
However, like all things, humility needs to be kept in check. Of course it is critical to be able to honor the talents of others and not pretend that you are the omnipotent creative mastermind of all time, but it is also important to remember that there is no magic, and no one really knows what they are doing all the time. Things like experience, intelligence, and perspective are important, but most people who do a lot of creative projects well are making things up as they go along, at least some of the time. This goes double for if you are doing something new. Especially in this space, often the successful ones are the ones who can reinvent the rules as they go along, dropping limitations that are no longer serving them and adopting lessons as they present themselves.
Pillar Three: Trust the Process
Working a creative project, no matter what you are building, will have its dark times. I don’t know why this is, but for some reason every big creative project seems to go through this sort of hero’s journey, where at one point everything looks like it is going to fail and our hero is doomed. In these dark moments, it can be critical to just keep going, to dig your way through the darkness out to the light again.
To me, it is not tragic when a project fails. Sometimes that the just the way it was all supposed to go. No, what is tragic is when a project fails simply because everyone quit too early. Especially if you are used to being successful all the time, or this is your first time building something big, it is easy to get tricked by the fool’s gold of false failure.
How do you know it is false failure? After all, if you have humility, shouldn’t you be able to admit defeat? Yes, you absolutely should, and how you tell if you are dealing with false failure is to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself, honestly, does this project have the capacity to work? Ask yourself if there is some fundamental truth you have been avoiding, or if you just haven’t tweaked the project in the right way yet. This is incredibly difficult, but you need to have the discernment between denial, fear, and reality. In denial, no project you ever do will fail. In fear, no project you ever do will succeed. And in reality, this project cannot succeed because of this fundamental truth. As they say, the truth will set you free, and if you are being truly honest with yourself, you will know when it is time to quit and when it is time to keep going.
But, what do you do in those dark times, when you know your project can be successful, but the success has eluded you? In those times, when you don’t want to give up, when you know that you are on the right path, you trust your process. You trust yourself that you are making the right moves at the right time, and you trust that if you need to adjust you will. You trust you have smart people working the angles from their perspective. You trust that this is just a natural part of the process, the darkest part of the night, and that dawn will break if you just stick with it.
Of all the pillars, this is probably the hardest one to honor. It is really hard to stick to your guns when all results point to giving up, but in those times, when you know what you are doing will work, stick-to-itiveness is your strongest ally.
Of course, sometimes our process needs to be tweaked. Sometimes lack of results is an indicator that we have a flawed process, which is generating flawed output. Again, the most important thing you can do in these situations is be honest with yourself. And, if you find you need to adjust your process, do so. However, make sure your process has been proven to be at-fault before you modify it. Sometimes, in our haste for results we can abandon good process because of lack of results. The key is to know when the process is the problem, and at those times, modify as necessary.