Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Defensive Inertia

As I was distilling and percolating the themes for my forthcoming Defuse presentation, I ended up also considering the different ways we can unintentionally stall our own progress. Think about these three examples.

What’s the problem?
In general I am the person least likely to watch sports-related films. Although 2011’s Moneyball tells a story of American baseball, its theme is really disruption – a topic much closer to my own interests. The film charts the rise of statistical quant methodologies in team construction and player selection.

There is one critical scene where the protagonist Billy Beane confronts the Ancien RĂ©gime of grizzled talent scouts responsible for recruiting new players. He explains the true challenges being faced and they summarily dismiss him and his methodologies.

That scene has stuck with me because, whatever business we are in, it is always too easy (in many situations) to gradually fall into the role of that dismissive old guard. As we gain experience, we all develop skills giving us the fast insights, accurate rules of thumb and so-called gut instincts that made those talent scout characters successful in their careers. The danger lies in believing that whatever heuristics have worked for us before will continue to work in future.

However, the true skill is in knowing when the underlying topology is changing and the accepted ground rules are no longer operating. Do not find yourself defending the wrong territory.

Trapped in amber
Last year I attended the screening of the documentary Linotype at the National Print Museum. Many in the the audience seemed in tune with the nostalgic aspects of that film, which was in part a paean to simpler times. When the Linotype machine was introduced it was an innovative and disruptive technology. It allowed newspapers to expand their page counts and frequency of publication. During the era of Peak Linotype, thousands of people were employed worldwide operating those machines. Anyone still capable of operating a Linotype machine today is a novelty: either a nostalgic anachronism encased within an academic/museum setting, or else a decidedly retro design-hipster.

Reflecting afterwards, I think I gleaned a different message from the film than most of the audience. What struck me most was that when Linotype was later overtaken by superior technologies many who had once made successful careers as Linotype typesetters abjectly failed to adapt and make further progress in new or adjacent activities. What would your Second Act be, if the parameters of your industry were to change as dramatically?

Arrested Development
The third idea that I have been mulling over is how the concept of arrested development (loosely interpreted) can apply to our careers. The flip side of attaining high degrees of competency in anything, is that you can blind yourself to your own further potential in greater areas of operation. You can all too-easily define yourself as the person who only does X, precisely because you are one of the best there is at doing X. Yet, you could be even better at Y…

Obviously this poses an ongoing conundrum to all of us throughout our careers. This crosses over with the notion that ‘knowing what you need to know’ is a complex, recursive challenge facing all knowledge workers and members of the creative classes. Merlin Mann has been addressing this recently, both in his Back To Work podcast and in his recent talk Advanced Tricycling at this year’s 34e developer conference.

So a loose assembly of those three ideas was in the back of my mind as I composed my talk ‘A Future For Designers’. I think that the take-away here is that we always need to beware of getting ourselves stuck by defending our own personal status-quo. (Even though we most often do so with the best of intentions).