(7/27/20) focusing on the what before the how

Hey all,

Last week was a randomly fun one. New York City has cautiously opened up outdoor dining. It’s been great to see restaurants experiment with sidewalk cafe-style seating. Brooklyn is starting to feel like a young European city.

It’s also been great to still see high levels of mask adherence, especially compared to other cities in America.

I hope these trends continue! The combination of “respect thy neighbor” and “carpe diem” points to a Front Porch Republic.

We’re living in strange times, but there are old-yet-new possibilities emerging all around.

What I’m Thinking About

A potential client came to us recently with a big question— How do we get students safely back into the classroom?

The conversation jumped into implementation details: temperature checks, air filtration, contact tracing, seat reservations, WiFi security, usage analytics, the full works.

There was one problem, though.

In all our excitement, we rushed to the How before defining the What.

What does it mean to get safely back into the classroom? What components of the student experience need to be agreed upon? Under what circumstances is this even a wise decision?

The What gets dismissed All. The. Time. Why? Because it is tedious and uncomfortable. It forces conflicts, misunderstandings, and hypocrisies to come to the surface.

As sense-making, self-protective beings, we have a tough time with the What. The What forces the discomfort of identifying our stance on something. We don’t want to be wrong. So we flit around our issues.

When asked to explain what we are doing, we instead respond with how we are doing it. When asked to explain what we are feeling, we respond with how we are feeling.

To address this tendency, some of the best product and design leaders I know employ a useful What-orienting tool. It is often called an journey map, though in its generic form it is as simple as a well-told campfire story.

The tool is simple. Create a timeline of activities that a potential person would take in a given circumstance. Supplement these activities with any supporting actions that any other characters in this story may take. Do all of this together as a group.

Here’s the beginning of a journey map we created several months ago about what it takes to run a successful coworking space:

Over the following couple weeks, the unexpected happened. We started telling each other stories to explain our individual perspectives. The overall narrative sharpened and became richer.

Finally, the marketing team begins to understand why the IT guy can be so grumpy. Finally, the creatives recognize why the sales team makes certain suggestions.

Narrative exercises orient us away from How and towards the What.

What-Orientation cuts through BS.

In an age where BS reigns supreme, reorienting to the What can lead to profound change. You learn quickly because you cut to the essence of things. From there, the How tends to reveal itself.

Bullet-Point Summaries

Slavok Zizek’s Provocative Ideas for the Recovering Millennial

  1. Happiness means no responsibility. It means having a relatively comfortable life. Why be happy when you can be interesting?

  2. You want to keep your good life in the West, but you like to be authentic through others. You’re always searching for another place where things really happen, rather than looking at what’s right in front of you.

  3. The bases that hold society together are unwritten rules and customs. All our humanity is based on these empty manners — sincere hypocrisies. Political correctness tries too much to legalize them.

Being Playful vs Being Successful

  1. Success has failed us. Even if you are successful, in this game of life we play towards loss. That’s what awaiting us, like it or not.

  2. We don’t really grow old and stop playing. We grow old because we stop playing.

  3. Treat everything around as a potential riddle. Take yourself far less seriously.

  4. Play is the ultimate hard worker tool. Without play it’s impossible to put huge amount of effort into things over a lifetime.

Thanks for reading, friends. Talk to you soon!

Ammar