Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.
BLACK MOUNTAIN,Optimism is usually the single most crucial element in successfully solving business and technical challenges.
That statement seems a bit silly and naive. Perhaps that is why I forgot to include it in a recent column on the elements of success in dealing with tough problems.
Nevertheless, I believe it is true.
Now I don’t mean a fuzzy, smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you kind of optimism. What I have in mind is much more concrete, and much tougher to achieve. It is simply this: the complete certainty that you and your team will solve the problem, and will solve it sufficiently well and on time. Nothing more than this, and nothing less.
I first came to realize this a few years ago when surveying the competitive landscape for a bleeding-edge technology my company was attempting to commercialize. When I first began looking, my heart sank. I found project after project doing things very similar to what we were, with many of them having started years earlier. As I dug deeper, though, I began to realize that none of the projects had any real momentum. Several could have been become real products, but none did, whether they came from university research or corporate R&D efforts.
Eventually I concluded that such efforts were irrelevant from a competitive standpoint. Within the groups that had undertaken them, they were seen as “research,” rather than efforts to produce a real product on a certain timescale, and that seemed to doom them from the beginning.
The point here is decidedly not to denigrate research — undirected, even playful research efforts are vital to future innovation, and recent trends at some universities that focus researchers on short-term commercialization opportunities could have long-term damaging consequences.
The point I wish to make here is that there is a vital difference between the psychology of exploration and that which takes solution of a problem as a given. If you need to develop a product or to solve a specific problem within a fixed amount of time, it obviously behooves you to try the latter.
The reason lies essentially in the frame of mind with which you approach the task. A dramatic story that illustrates this well comes from Jim Collins in a December 2003 Fast Company article. He tells of a 1979 first free-style ascent of a peak in Colorado. Collins realized that a climb considered nearly impossible by one generation, once climbed by someone, becomes “not that hard” to the next generation. So he bought a day-timer, changed the year throughout to 1994, and approached the climb pretending to be 15 years in the future making a climb that had been done many times before. He made the ascent, and caused a sensation in the rock-climbing community.
Now, perhaps the gods give the occasional nudge to the bold, but there are also a number of good, practical reasons why confidence in finding a solution can be part of the solution:
Envisioning the outcome can hint at the solution. It is sometimes astounding how vague the descriptions of a final product can be. The fact is, it is hard to hit a target when the target isn’t clear. Far better is a concrete vision of the product with a reasonably good sense of what is flexible and what is not. The side benefit here is that, in many cases, simply imagining in very concrete terms how the product works and what it looks like can sometimes make the solution obvious.
Provides energy. Solving a challenging problem is often about momentum — the willingness to try one more option, or to play just a bit longer with the idea that you think might work. The likelihood that your team will have the energy to learn from failure and try again, or to keep eyes open for the unexpected hint or opportunity, depends greatly on their level of confidence.
Reduces likelihood of getting sidetracked. It has often been pointed out that effective people, teams and businesses always work with the end in mind. The subtext there is that you have to believe in the possibility of that end. Then, with the outcome kept at the forefront, it becomes natural to measure each step against its effectiveness in making progress toward the goal, and so to avoid wasting time on secondary issues.
Focuses on how rather than whether. This is the most obvious benefit. A project that sets out to explore the feasibility of something is far less likely to achieve a concrete, usable result than one which assumes feasibility and focuses on how to achieve it.
Still doubtful? The only thing I can offer is a bumpersticker thought I encountered recently: “There’s no sense in being a pessimist. It wouldn’t work anyway.”
What do you have to lose?
Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.