On Big Ideas

Hmm, another strangely personal post…

In between wishing I was at NDF2012 in New Zealand and InterComm2012 in Sydney, I got to hang out with some old friends and wound up talking about some of the same themes I think about in a professional context.  So, since it kept getting in the way of the other things I should be writing, here it is.   

Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend I had the rare privilege of spending the evening with some of my oldest friends, people I’ve known since high school and kept hold of over the years. It was full of wonderful moments, like realizing that my daughter is now the age we were when we first became friends, and how marvelous it is to have people around who knew you when you were just starting out on this whole “being a grown-up” adventure.   It was also interesting to realize that we were still having the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” conversation.  Only now, we weren’t talking about colleges and majors, but about half-built careers and new directions.

Partway through the night, when there were just three of us left, my friend asked us if he could share something very confidential, with that look that says he was serious. We of course said yes, and he told us his big secret; he had a Big Idea, something that could be his life’s work if he could figure out how to get his brain around it, which he hadn’t been able to do. He hoped that by finally telling somebody about it, we might be able to help him figure out A) was this even really a Big Idea, or was it just a silly, unattainable dream, and if it was, B) how to figure out how to move forward. The resulting conversation brought together a lot of ideas that have been appearing over the past few months here and at conferences about personal professional development and agency. As I’ve written in previous posts, personal learning networks are something in which I’m very interested. Part of that interest comes from being involved in a number of strategic projects that require all kinds of skills I used to consider being outside my core competencies as an exhibit developer. Part of the interest comes from finally getting a better handle on exactly the same question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Four hours later, we realized it was time to head our separate ways and far from answering his question, we’d just replaced his huge, nebulous concern with a legion of specific concerns. But everyone was smiling and energized by the conversation, and I look forward to seeing how he synthesizes what we discussed into a plan of action.

The context

My friend is a budding humanities scholar and had found that rarest of academic treasures; the important question that nobody seems to have asked yet. I obviously won’t go into details, but he had realized that there was an unanswered question that was global in scope and impact and he was trying to figure out whether he needed to apply to a PhD program so he could work on this problem. He was very concerned about not sharing the question for fear of someone stealing it. As he saw it, his prize was an academic book on the subject, and the problem was how to do the staggering amount of research necessary to tackle the question without giving away what the question was until he was ready to publish. And of course the ever-present American concern of how to manage the debt load of higher education. It was a tough knot to unravel.

So, like good friends do, we questioned his framing of his problem and spent hours hammering on the same themes I often seem to cover at work these days; going back to first principles and asking the hard questions like; “What does success look like to you?” “What role do you see yourself playing in this endeavor?” “Who is the audience for the work, and is the vehicle (an academic book) the right one to reach them?” What we were really doing was help him articulate a career plan/personal learning program, and it’s a good exercise to undertake.

Here are some of the highlights of that conversation that, I think, are broadly applicable whether you’re an EMP, a mid-career type, or even a senior manager.

Find the right people to help you figure out what’s the real story

My friend had only one image of what working on his dream looked like; get a PhD, have to teach somewhere and work on his Big Idea as part of the package of being an academic. As described his problem to us, we immediately saw trouble with this; the kinds of skills and expertise he’d need to really tackle his Big Question were not likely to be what he’d get from a PhD. Most of what he described as being essential to the project involved normalizing and analyzing mountains of scattered quantitative data, and trying to draw research from another field into his field. Really interesting, cross-cutting research requiring a diverse array of skills, and a lot of grunt work. But the only model he had was that of his professors, who were at least a generation older, with the corresponding skill sets. His problem, as he saw it, was one thing. The minute he had to put it into words and describe it to us, it became clear to all of us that his problem was a very different one. Years of internal dialogue hadn’t gotten him as far as four hours and a couple of rounds of drinks had with two friends. I’ve had this same thing happen to me a couple of times over the past year, and both times my big nebulous problem turned into a very different-looking list of specific problems that were individually tractable enough to allow me to make progress.

What role do you want to play in the story of your life?

One point we made to my friend over and over was to think about what role he wanted to play in realizing his life’s work. Did he see himself as the lone researcher, finding all the data himself and doing the hard work? Or, did he see himself as the vision keeper, marshalling his people to go out and find the data and inspiring others to pursue the Big Plan he had? Or something else? It seemed clear to the two of us hearing the story for the first time that it would be impossible for a lone researcher to accomplish the work he’d described in a lifetime, but we needed to walk through all the jobs that would be required in order for him to see it himself. Who was going to comb through archives and repositories on multiple continents for the data he’d need? Who was going to take on the serious number-crunching his project would require? If it was he, he’d need another degree just to have the chops to assemble a dataset he could query, let alone analyze. And he was able to say “No, somebody else could take that part.” and admit he didn’t really feel like getting a Stats degree, then it was easier to put down his obviously dearly-held vision that he’d do it all himself, and see himself needing to be more of an executive producer than a writer.

What does success look like to you?

My friend’s vision of success was one I could totally relate to; write the book on the subject.  It’s a great vision, but it’s quite a narrow one. As we talked, many different outcomes for his work came up, a film or films, crowdsourcing efforts to build a global network of volunteers interested in his problem, institutions that might sponsor his work, and/or take it on as part of their mission. Would any of these count as “success”? He thought they might. As he focused less on one product as the only indicator of success, the possible ways to move forward increased, pitfalls became less dangerous, and the steps he needed to take became clearer.

What do you know you don’t yet know, and how are you going to learn it?

One way to attack a wicked problem is to break it down. For my friend, figuring out how to proceed to realize his ambition would require lots of things to happen in a particular sequence. For many of those steps, he lacked specific knowledge, skills and access to the networks that would move him forward.  Though we’d dismissed getting a PhD as the only route to success, we spent a long time talking about how he could look at getting an advanced degree as a tool to validate his hypotheses for the Big Idea, gain specific skills he’d need down the road, and develop enough of an idea so that he could demonstrate how the full implementation of it might look, and put a flag in the ground, so to speak, establishing his claim on the idea. I wished at one point that I’d done the same thing when I embarked on my own Master’s program. I think it’ll help him enormously as he tries to sort out whether he needs a PhD or a Master’s degree, what schools might be more amenable to an outlier project like his, and what kinds courses he’ll need.

What are the milestones that will tell you you’re on the right track, and how must they be phased in order to bootstrap you from phase to phase?

My friend had been paralyzed by the size of the project he’d envisioned, not because he couldn’t do the work, but because he hadn’t been able to see it as a sequence of discrete steps that built upon each other to achieve his ultimate goal. Our other friend runs a very successful user interface R&D shop and was very good at taking his idea apart and turning it into a work plan. Figuring out what you need to do to get to the next step is a lot easier than trying to figure out the whole puzzle at once, and we were able to brainstorm a long list of steps, and milestones that could get him a good way down the road. Project Management 101 stuff, you might say, and you’d be right. But lots of us don’t tend to think of our careers as a project, and my experience has been that fewer still manage their careers as actively as a project manager monitors even a  simple project.

Who is your tribe? Where can you find them, and how can you start building your coalition?

This theme came up repeatedly at the MCN Directors’ Roundtable as a vital skill to possess in any museum, and I’d argue it’s probably generalizable to most fields. For the big ideas, the ones that stand a chance of having major impact, finding the people who can help you realize your goals is critical to overcoming resistance. This requires being a great communicator, and that is something worthy of attention and effort.


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