First Purposes, then Products: define the why before the how
Experiences in the context of the design of personal projects
In a recent learning exercise analyzing the possibilities of personal projects, a group of five professionals in different areas of expertise ranging from cooking to music, including me, a digital product design consultant, we came across the wall of the «Solutionism».
One of my colleagues was considering the possibility of starting an online training effort to teach other people about the importance of eating well and raising awareness about the impact of our dietary decisions on the welfare of the planet. In the description of what he wanted to do, he highlighted the how but very little about the why.
Similarly, another of my colleagues, thinking to be clear about the purpose of their project, revealed some level of anguish at not being able to identify how he would carry out that plan to preserve the legacy of a great leader in the field of support missions for nations in poverty. It was raised a lot the how without verifying much the why.
And on the other hand, we had the brilliant and well-articulated professional music producer who presented us with his challenge to clean up his company of toxic people and toxic practices and, went with great enthusiasm, towards ideating in the air with possible solutions to clean up the organization. He was thinking a lot about how to reorganize the company without wondering why he should do it.
In many scenarios where we question how to carry out a project, we could take a step back and explore why we are doing what we do not know how to do. Our main problem, let’s face it, is that we do not always dare to throw that question: Why am I doing what I want to do? Why am I looking forward to launching that online education service? Why is it worthwhile to rescue the legacy of that illustrious person? Why should I do this process of change in my company? What is it that moves us to do what we do? Where is the purpose of our actions?
Perhaps, considering the pragmatism that guides us in our professional practice, such a justification of purpose seems useless or even too sublime. Maybe we could think that our actions can not wait to define why. Perhaps we could do it out of sheer apathy or ignorance and naivety. However, sooner or later such a gap in our sense of purpose will affect us and create frustration, demoralize us and make us less productive, less effective, and easy prey of conformism and apathy.
Among the most significant challenges we face as organizations and individuals, it is to be able to live continuously transiting between the space of why we do what we do and the space that defines how we are going to do what we want to do. We can not separate one from the other. Our purposes will remain in ideas on the air until we land them in concrete actions that allow us to make our products a reality.
The scenario that most organizations should fear is that which is marked by spending a lot of time worrying about the product, without a clear sense of purpose for that product.
That being so, our product creation processes (digital, services, events, etc.) will not be complete unless they allow us to establish these scenarios of constant transition in both ways. We must have methods of creating products that facilitate the discovery of why we need these products and that also allow us to reveal how we will make those products. Methods that are closed to this possibility, which assume that products can be defined in the genesis, that it is possible to freeze requirements, are recipes and direct paths to frustration and stupidity in business. Our processes to create products must resist the temptation to think about innovation under the thrust of techno-centrism or solutionism, where we confuse our ability to do, with intelligence that allows us to understand why we should do it.
We need processes to create products that start from accepting that we need to change our products because they must respond better to the needs of our clients and not to the arrogance of those who have the most influential voice in the organization. Processes that allow us to understand that it is not about inspiration or a celestial touch that characterizes true innovation. It is about vulnerability, about someone accepting that he did not have the answer, that he assumed that we all start from assumptions and that he should urgently validate, through multiple and painful iterations, hundreds of experiments that would lead him to what is now, in the final result, seen as the work of a genius. No, do not get confused here, it was not the individual and magical genius, it was the genius of perseverance that overcame the resistance and the genius of fear who provoked the vision to achieve the result.
The stories of innovators such as James Dyson, the accounts of the design processes of Jonathan Ive, the practical work of design entrepreneurs such as Luis Arnal, the tenacity of people who multiply a product such as Adolfo Babatz or pragmatic intellectuals like Roberto Martínez indicate, again and again, that it is nothing but the constant transition between why they do what they do and how they do what they do where genius emerges. Their experiences allow us to understand that more than being geniuses for genes, the geniality is on their sleepless nights, their sweat drops, and their persistence. They are, without a doubt, in love with the process of going back and forth between the whys and the hows.
My colleagues from that meeting, the chef, the mission leader and the music producer, and I, understood that night that opening ourselves to the possibility of exploring the purposes of our projects gives us a higher meaning in our lives. Besides, it allows us to understand that the how, the products that implement the purposes, can be achieved in many different ways. There is no established sequence; there are no recipes; it is again, a path of exploration. A design path.
My friend, the cook, having understood that his purpose is to change ways of thinking about food, he will have to explore solutions that go beyond an online platform. My friend the mission leader, understanding that his purpose is to inspire action from a legacy, will have to explore the multiple ways to achieve it, instead of thinking that he should take the role of that person he admired so much in life. Finally, my producer friend, upon discovering that he wants change in his company because he has realized that it makes him deeply unhappy, he will have to face difficult decisions that go beyond temporary remedies, to root out the bad people.
What will I do? I will continue to write and motivate the action to discover that the true purpose of my professional work is to continue arguing in favor of the following principle: before the products should always be their purposes.
This note is inspired by the experiences of my friends KR, BO, and KS shared in a video conference session with BC one afternoon in May 2018.
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Copyright © 2018 Víctor M. González
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