Quest for the organizing thought

crystallizationI thought of starting this piece with an observation that talking about my process risked spiraling out of control until I realized that feeling was, in fact, a part of my process. The most satisfying part of my work is bringing new things into existence. An essential step is generating enough raw material to ensure that something good and pleasing is likely to emerge

The process is about designing new capabilities. The domain is technology use to support organizational performance. The process and the domain combine to define a practice but it’s helpful to treat them separately.

My process has evolved over the years based on my exposure to other thinkers and on the lessons learned over multiple iterations of the cycle. In today’s vernacular, I would call it a process of design thinking. It starts with someone declaring that a problem exists. What follows is a classic problem-solving process;

  • searching out the facts to tease out a picture of “ground truth,”
  • immersion in the stew of ground truth and the broader context, adding new morsels and tidbits until there is a super-saturated solution,
  • flashing on a crystallizing phrase or formulation that causes insight to precipitate out of the super-saturated solution
  • elaborating the implications of the crystallizing formulation for what the next world needs to look like
  • bringing the next world into being in thought and deed

The process works in multiple environments. It has to be coupled with domain expertise and local environmental insight to be practical

There are two elements of this process that have proven to be important for me, although I haven’t seen them talked about much. This could be a hint that there’s something to be developed further, or it may simply reflect my idiosyncratic perspective. The first has to do with the step I’ve described as “immersion.” I think of it as a deliberate practice of staying in the question rather than pushing on quickly to old answers we find comfortable.

The danger of staying in the question, of course, is that you never move on; something that others warn against as “analysis paralysis.” This leads to that second element. My signal to move on in the process is when I hit on a short phrase that encapsulates my take.

For example, I was working with the director of a university research lab who was wrestling with the problem of how to better manage a group of professors, post-docs, and research analysts that had grown rapidly. After an initial round of interviews, I was reviewing my raw interview notes to see what I might have learned. The phrase that popped into my head was that the Lab Director was asking how could we help “smart people do smarter work.” Nothing exotic and certainly nothing Pulitzer Prize worthy, yet it was a signal to me that I had found a thread I could now work with.

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