When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl. – T.S. Eliot
Eliot suggests here that we produce better results when we work under the pressure of a strict framework. How does this happen? If we have an open ended project to work on, we will continually try new things to get better results. This seems like a good thing, but having a lot of freedom also leaves us open to try things that may take us down paths that do not lead us towards our long term goals. To keep ourselves from having this happen, we should set specific short term goals and milestones that focus our efforts continually in the direction of our long term goals. We will want to create some goals that will keep us focused in the right direction.
If you find yourself in the role of team or project lead, sit down with your team as a group and with each member individually. Set some goals. Specify some milestones. Create a strict framework for them to work in. Encourage your team to prepare for inspiration. Then trust each member to apply his or her talents to do great work and produce the richest ideas. Follow up on any commitments they have made. Encourage a productive environment. Then do everything you can to make it possible for the team to succeed.
As a team member, often a team or project lead will work with you to set goals and milestones for you. In that case, take those goals serious and keep them in front of you every day. If you find yourself on a project without milestones worked out for you, you can set some for yourself. For example, suppose a manager comes to you gives you a nebulous goal of killing that problem. The manager tells you that this project does not have a deadline because it does not belong to any current products. When this happens, sit down and outline a path to go after the problem. Set some milestones for yourself with the purpose of showing your progress to your manager on some kind of periodic basis. Go over your plans with your manager so that he or she knows what you plan to do. This will help you keep your focus on producing something that will benefit the company and away from all the other interesting, but non-product related paths you may end up on without proper focus.
A strict framework will help you produce better results. It will help you come up with creative solutions to problems that will benefit the company and its products. The time spent setting up such a framework will more than pay for itself in the results you get.
In her book, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, Ayn Rand defines inspiration in the following way:
What is colloquially called “inspiration”—namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write as you do, yet it comes out well—is actually the subconscious summing-up of the premises and intentions you have set for yourself. All writers have to rely on inspiration. But you have to know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you. — Ayn Rand
Inspiration that we get when working on any problem, not just writing, comes from the “premises and intentions” we have previously stored away in our memory. Let me use a sports example to illustrate this idea. During his career, Michael Jordan made some truly inspired moves to help his team win games. We watch in awe as Jordan and other basketball players do the unimaginable and we wonder how they could even think to do it. They do not think about it. They have no way of knowing in advance how things will go during the game. They must rely on inspiration to perform as they do. It turns out well because they have prepared themselves beforehand so that they can make inspired moves in the game. They can make those moves because they spent the time to store away in their memory the premises of movement and intentions of getting more points and blocking the opponent from getting points.
Let us step back and look at something that comes natural to most of us: walking. We walk without thinking. We can navigate around a room thinking of what we plan to do when we get to our destination, never thinking at all about the steps along the way. Our foot avoids stumbling over a book left on the floor without more than a glancing thought when we see it out of the corner of our eye. How do we do that? We have stored away in our body all the information necessary for us to use to avoid or overcome physical challenges in the room. Yet we cannot explain how we do it. While you walk across the room, somebody tosses you a ball and you catch it before realizing what has happened. Try tossing a ball at a two year-old and you will realize the inspiration you use to catch the ball. Your past experiences prepared you for that moment of inspiration.
If you want to ensure that inspiration comes when you need it, you need get away from the idea that inspiration comes from some magical source that you have no control over. You do have control over it. The inspiration comes from inside you. If you find that you cannot come up with a solution to your problem, it means that you do not yet have a good background. What do you do in that situation? You look at what others have done. You review past problems you have worked on and look for similarities. You discuss your problem with a co-worker or manager. After some time, a light suddenly comes on in your head, perhaps in the wee hours of the morning, and you get inspired with a solution.
Where did that come from? Most people cannot explain it. It came from somewhere, though; it came from your intense activities to find a solution. If you understand this, you will realize that you do not have to wait until you have another problem to work on. You can get a head start on the next problem by simply brushing up on your current skills and studying everything you can find in your area of work. Engage yourself in meetings. Talk about your work with others. Study and exercise your brain and body to solve many different kinds of problems. Take refresher classes in your discipline. Get the basics down. Repeat them daily. Practice. Inspiration comes to those who prepare themselves.
I don’t do more, but less, than other people. They do all their work three times over: once in anticipation, once in actuality, once in rumination. I do mine in actuality alone, doing it once instead of three times. – Henry Ward Beecher
After planning your next project, start it in actuality. Focus your energy into getting it done. Skip the anticipation phase—that phase that often happens right after planning where you live out in your mind the entire development process. You do not know in advance what problems you will encounter, so skip the anticipation, the mulling over all the potential problems and what you will do in the event any of them happen. Just get started. The human mind can make decisions very well on the fly if it has a clear goal to focus on. Do not waste time beforehand anticipating things that do not end up happening. Spend your planning time defining that clear goal and outlining a path that you believe in to get you there, then get started. Work persistently so that you can successfully attain your goal. Concentrate on your end and you will surely attain it.
After you finish the project, stand back for a moment and admire the end result. Discuss the lessons learned. Then move on to the next project. If you must publish a report of on your work, do not spend endless hours going over all the details of the project. Do not create a massive report that takes weeks to complete. Summarize your results and the lessons learned and publish a short report on it. Most likely nobody will read your report anyway, and for sure nobody will read a long report. Use your valuable time to start the next great project.
Do more by doing less. Do more productive work by doing each piece of work one time.