Learning to Forget

Back in the days when I was a full time consultant working inside a firm, I wore two hats; Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer. The accepted argument was that there was value in capturing and organizing what we knew as an organization so that we could teach it to our consultants and they could do better work for our clients. Knowledge was property—intellectual property—and was as asset to be managed. Good manufacturing firms managed their raw materials. Ideas were our raw materials and, therefore, worthy of active management.

Such a simple analogy. We thought we were more clever than most by tying the knowledge management and learning elements together.

We forgot about forgetting.

Our efforts were all about remembering. There was no attention to the need to make room for new and better ideas. We adopted a scholastic view of knowledge, not a scientific one.

Organizations can be haunted by obsolete ideas as they are held back by failing to remember what they already know. We neglected forgetting practices to go along with remembering ones.

This can be tricky business. Memory hooks are largely about stories; compelling stories make things memorable, even for abstract ideas. It’s hard to simply replace an old story with a new, shiny, story. It’s one of the things making organizational change so hard. The old stories are tightly knit into the fabric of the organization or discipline. The new story, however shiny, can’t compete against the weight of the entire tapestry.

We need to bury old ideas. Celebrate them if we must, but be careful about trying to dig them up when the result is more likely to be zombies than secret treasure.

Make Yourself at Home

I’ve always been fond of Robert Frost’s line “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” While not an Army Brat by any means, I did go through a series of moves in my early years that left me with a sense that there wasn’t a single place that counted as home. Feeling home became a psychological state that I could achieve in multiple ways.

Losing myself in a book was and still is a reliable way to feel at home anywhere from the couch in my living room to a train car en route from Princeton to Wilmington, Delaware. Over time, I found other couches. One was in the home of a girlfriend’s parents. I adopted them as a spare set of parents and treated them as casually as my own for the next forty years. Read my share of books there and had the full range of random and serious conversations any son might have with parents and siblings. Another is a former one-room school house in Vermont that belongs to my sister-in-law and serves as a Christmas retreat in non-pandemic years.

How do you make an arbitrary place feel like a home? Over time, you can attach memories to places, of course. Can you speed that process up or shape it intentionally? If you don’t have a couch handy, what can you do to make some otherwise sterile place less so?

Why would it matter to do so? Comfort is a reasonable payoff all on its own. If we shift our focus just a bit toward working effectively, however, there’s a bigger payoff. Feeling at home frees up emotional energy and lowers barriers to creative thinking. If your value to the enterprise lies in the arena of creating new insights and innovation, then we have motivation to become adept at making ourselves at home.

As an individual knowledge worker, you can focus on tinkering with and shaping your local environment. Choose the apps that appeal to your mode of working. Slap some stickers on your laptop. Rebel against the furniture and cubicle police just as you might push back against an over-controlling parent.

If you’re in a position of authority, push against the control regimes. The real promise of technology for knowledge work is to make it possible for everyone to have highly customized portals into shared work. Create safe spaces that allow for flexibility that enables greater creativity. It will most likely demand more work from those running the infrastructure, but the payoff in greater effectiveness should more than offset the additional complexity. It’s not a home if only authorized staff can go into the kitchen in search of a snack.

Out of place: finding a place to stand

Cannon Green Princeton University“Where did you prep?”

A simple question posed by another freshman taking in the sight of a thousand other freshmen (3/4s of them men) scattered about Cannon Green on the campus of Princeton University.

Four simple words, yet I wasn’t able to process them.

“Where did I prep?” Prep for what? This get acquainted picnic among a thousand strangers? This college experience I was setting off on?

It dawns on me that the question was about which exclusive prep school I had attended on my way to gracing the ivied halls of one of the best universities in the world. For my questioner, there were only a handful of correct answers; any other point of origin marked me as irrelevant in his universe.

A few days into my college experience and I was irrelevant.

Until that point, I thought I was defined by what I had done. Now I discovered there were a host of external markers defining me in the eyes of others. What town did I live in? What subdivision? What street was my house on?

Classic ways of differentiating people; all new to me. So much for being a valedictorian; I was profoundly ignorant of things that apparently mattered. I’m in a new place, a thousand miles from home, and feel profoundly out of place. Have I been out of place all along and only come to see that now?

I’d never thought about myself as a kid from the Midwest until I was among people to whom the middle class Midwest was a foreign land. It was disorienting. I had grown accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. Now, I was in rooms where everyone was as smart or smarter. And smart wasn’t the pertinent metric. There were entire realms of competition and measurement I couldn’t see even as I fell short.

Working out the implications of this has mostly involved time with various therapists. Not terribly interesting in this context. But coping with disorientation turns out to be a good way to prep for the future we live in now. Unpacking a question like “where did you prep?” turns you into an anthropologist in your own environment.

There’s a line in Shaw’s Caesar And Cleopatra that’s relevant here;

Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature

I was a barbarian forced to recognize customs as simply that. This put me on a path to make sense out of institutions and organizations and the people inside them.

Organizations are ostensibly about what you do. But what you do is filtered and interpreted by where your office is located; how big it is; what you hang on the walls; where you sit in the pecking order. Over the course of a career, you learn to send, receive, and interpret these signals. You learn your place. You learn to establish your place.

The past year has accelerated a long simmering trend toward shifting work from physical space to virtual. For teams and groups that have a working history to draw on this transition is mildly disruptive. For newly assembled teams, however, all the cues and clues that were readily available to work with in a physical encounter aren’t available in the virtual. If we want these virtual groups to succeed and flourish we now have to think about things that were just there in the background.

When you foreground these things they create different effects than in the background. Making an explicit point that you went to Princeton or Harvard is quite different than a diploma on the wall or a discrete reference/object on a shelf in the corner that might trigger a question or open up a conversational gambit. There’s no easy conversation opener about someone’s Starbucks order or lunch. No reference to some object of interest in the place where you are interacting.

One of the reasons we’re finding ourselves exhausted in this new virtual world is that we are now having to do the work that our places did for us.



Lost in place: how knowledge work splits mental space from physical space

It once was only poets and storytellers who spent time occupying spaces that weren’t there in front of you. The rest of us were anchored to a plot of land, a cobbler’s bench, or a stall in the market. 

Over the past year, we’ve all been forced to split the mental space we work in from the physical space we inhabit. We’re struggling with the disconnects without quite knowing what’s causing the struggle. As someone who identifies as a knowledge worker, however, this split between mental and physical has been unfolding for a long time. All the pandemic has done, in that respect, is to make the split more visible and observable. As something we can see, we can now examine and explore it.

That’s what I intend to do over the next four weeks. How do the ways we talk and think about place interact with how we talk and think about how we work? 

I’ll be doing this with help from someone I’ve worked with over the last four years and have never met face-to-face. Megan Macedo

is an Irish writer and entrepreneur. She runs a marketing and storytelling consultancy in London where her work is about helping people be themselves in their professional lives. Megan writes and speaks about authenticity in marketing and taking an artistic approach to business (Megan Macedo — Be Yourself, Tell Your Story, Do Something That Matters)

Megan runs writing challenges about this time every year where she gathers an eclectic group of fellow explorers to investigate a theme. This year’s theme is place. 

While we’ve never met IRL, it turns out that Megan and I actually have a connection rooted in place. My paternal grandparents were both born on a tiny island off the North coast of Ireland in County Donegal, Inishbofin. We haven’t nailed down the exact relation yet, but we are connected via my grandmother, Grace Coll (1882-1951). About as clear an example of small world and place as you could wish for.  

Managing in a knowledge economy

There’s a rich field of corporate irony in the collision of mindsets between engineers and executives. It’s paid Scott Adams’s bills for decades. This humor wears thin, however, as more and more of the people creating value in organizations think like engineers. 

Regardless of their academic training or background, knowledge workers in organizations think like engineers. Alan Kay recounted a tale from the early years of Xerox PARC that neatly captures this tension. 

Xerox PARC was situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, a continent away from Xerox headquarters in Connecticut. A team of executives was on site to review the work going on in Palo Alto. Alan and one of his team of software engineers walked through one of the research projects underway. Alan carefully explained that this was ongoing research; experiments were as likely to fail as to succeed and the goal was to learn something interesting that might lead to the next experiment. 

The suit from Stamford nodded along in approval. His closing remark was “I understand, but you’re only running the experiments that succeed, right?” In his universe, “failure is not an option” was not a motivational challenge, it was a risk to be avoided at any cost.

This disconnect is mostly amusing when innovation and invention is a small part of organizational success. For organizations where success is defined by industrial measures of predictable execution of processes, it can be enough to let a small handful of rebels color outside the lines and sprinkle in new ideas in carefully controlled ways. 

When innovation and invention is at the heart of an organization’s strategic design, the rebels are the system. Making the trains run on time is of secondary importance, at best, when success depends on laying new tracks or eliminating the tracks altogether. 

If rebels, the innovators and inventors, are the engine of the system, how does that change the managerial task? “Hire smart people and leave them alone” is no longer a viable approach. 

Hiring smart people is always a good strategy in modern organizations (Frederick Taylor was less of a fan of smart), but leaving them alone becomes an abdication of managerial responsibility. What you now must do is enable, empower, and employ the organization’s smart people.

The fundamental shift here is away from superior/subordinate to collaborator. Giving orders becomes explaining command intent. Plans and deliverables are jointly negotiated and designed not dictated. Organic mess replaces illusionary precision. Management control morphs into servant leadership.

Struggling to Improve Knowledge Work Practices–From Idea to Finished Product

I closed a recent blog post with the following observation

I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. (From Taking Notes to Making Notes)

It’s the sort of idea  the often surfaces as I work on a piece of writing that I’m developing into a prospective blog post. I’m now viewing it as an example of what I’m trying to sort out as I learn how to “make” notes. 

Right now I don’t know whether the struggles I am wrestling with are a function of fighting against the years of doing things a different way, a marker of individual flaws in the way my brain works, or some challenge inherent in the process. I study the advice and recommendations of others whose thinking feels compelling. And then I fight with it as I try to apply the advice as I understand it. 

My habits and practices are the accretion of years of doing what works for me. Most of that experience hasn’t been examined or explored in any systematic way. I encounter, read about, and seek out advice and suggestions from all sorts of sources. Some of it is intriguing enough to try out and experiment with. I run the experiments based on whatever partial understanding I’ve managed to take away from the advice. Some stuff sticks in some distorted version filtered through my assessments of those experiments. 

Let me try an example to make this more concrete. Many years ago, I came across Peter Elbow’s work. I don’t recall whether I stumbled across Writing Without Teachers or Writing With Power first. Doesn’t really matter. I had a new technique to play with–“freewriting.” Get stuff out of your head and onto paper (or a screen) where you can see it. Don’t strive for the perfect sentence or turn of phrase in your head. 

But there were elements of Elbow’s recommended practice that didn’t work for me. Elbow assumes you are doing freewriting by hand. Word processors were not household items when he formulated his process. He advises writers to push on at all costs; keep making marks on paper, don’t stop to review, write nonsense if you find yourself getting stuck. Elbow’s goal is to help you find a state of flow, to suppress your inner critic. 

Elbow never saw my handwriting. Achieving flow doesn’t help if you can’t decipher what you wrote a few hours earlier. Sometime before the arrival of word processing, I got the advice to learn to create at the keyboard. I wrote drafts of consulting reports at a typewriter well before I had access to word processing. My poor handwriting was the impetus, but the more important benefit for me was that I can type faster than I can write. Which meant it was easier to capture thoughts before I lost them.

At a typewriter, going backwards doesn’t make sense so you’re not faced with the opportunity to correct on the fly. With a word processor, you can go back as easily as forward, so now you have a choice about whether to do so. More often than not, I will correct typos if I see them in the moment. I don’t hold to a hard and fast rule; rather I do whatever feels least disruptive to my flow. So, now I’ve violated another “rule” in the method I am trying to adopt.

I also discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and she granted me permission to write shitty first drafts. They had been shitty anyway, but now I had someone explain that that was okay and merely a step along the path. 

That path is well worn but not paved. There’s a discernible evolution from 

  • random notes to 
  • something that feels like an idea worth exploring to 
  • the emergence of a potential outline or roadmap to 
  • snippets of a draft to 
  • something that might qualify as a shitty first draft to 
  • rounds of editing and polishing to
  • finished product

This is a rough snapshot of the process that has worked for me through decades of writing. Laying it out like this makes it look more systematic than it actually is and I don’t feel that it looks all that systematic. 

What surfaces for me here is how much of my practice is driven from a deliverable of some sort; there’s a consulting report, a speech, a class session, a column, a blog post looming somewhere in the distance. I am working toward an endpoint, however dimly perceived.

Until I can see an endpoint, I struggle with what to do next. Once I do see an endpoint, or have one imposed by external forces, I start shaping material to fit that endpoint. Generally, I think that is a good thing, but it does mean I have to be willing to scrap things that won’t fit. That becomes easier with practice.

As you learn to care about your craft, you are always on the prowl for potential improvements. For the past 22+ months that has led to a focus on how notes might play a more central role. Most recently, that has been working to understand the distinction between note-taking and note-making, which was the trigger for this post. 

Having that distinction is only a baby step; the challenge is to work out what it means to incorporate the distinction into day-to-day practice. There’s new terminology, of course; ephemeral notes, permanent notes, atomic notes, evergreen notes. Still only another baby step; working out how to create these artifacts has been a bigger, still unfinished, step. These new artifacts don’t obviously map to what I produce in my current workflows.

The challenge that I am attacking now is that it’s hard to find worked examples of these techniques. You can find advice and recommendations on what various proponents and experts believe works for them. But these ideas are new enough that there aren’t well established practices to emulate. You’re left with trying to reverse engineer and interpolate practices from what you can observe. 

Most recently that has had me following the work of Andy Matuschak. He’s a software developer in this space who has been sharing what he describes as his working notes. He’s also attempting to offer a window into his practices. His observations on Evergreen note\-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work and on Executable strategy for writing have both proven valuable as I work to improve my own knowledge work practice. 

Two asides here. One, I’d be thrilled if more of my finished products were as well thought out as his working notes. I’m telling myself that this is one key reason to investigate his work. Two, Matuschak is experimenting with Patreon as a means of supporting his research. I judge it an excellent return for a modest investment. 

There are also several online communities working these vineyards. Fellow travelers can make a difference. I’ve been monitoring;

If getting better at knowledge work is one of your objectives, look for your own companions and watering holes.

From Taking Notes to Making Notes

I’ve recently been spending time in the online community at Ness Labs, launched by Anne-Laure Le Cunff. She’s been writing about topics that sync up with my interests in knowledge work effectiveness and has collected a really interesting collection of fellow travelers. Recently, she piloted a short online course called “Collector to Creator.” Way above the average online course both in terms of content and community. You should keep an eye out for future iterations. 

This was part of my ongoing efforts to reexamine and retool my knowledge work practices. Much of that has focused on what happens between a germ of an idea and a worthy finished product. And rethinking the role of notes has been both a central focus and a central struggle as I work at designing and then grooving in new habits and practices. Some wayposts in that journey include:

During one of the sessions Anne-Laure introduced a one-letter distinction that has opened up a new line of thinking and development. She differentiated “note-making” from “note-taking.”

The most obvious aspect is a shift from a passive to an active perspective. I hadn’t actually thought much about the passive nature of “taking” until I had “making” as a contrast.With it, I can see how much of my note-taking habits and practices were intellectually passive; I was taking notes to capture someone else’s words or thoughts. This was certainly the case in most of the settings where I was in a student role. 

Now that I have the distinction, I can revisit and reinterpret some of my practices. I never acquired the habit of working with index cards, so I never got the sense of ideas as discrete chunks of text to be manipulated. I did use hand-drawn mindmaps (that being the only option at the time) to work out structural connections and relationships. But my focus was generally on the big picture of whatever deliverable I was working on. Even when I was immersed in the literature of a field, I tended to think of ideas as being embedded in and tightly integrated with the journal articles and books I was reading. I thought of ideas from others as something to be transferred (taken) more than as something to be transformed (made). That’s to the extent that I thought about this level of thinking explicitly at all. 

The transformation, connecting, and reconnecting of ideas into a new deliverable was something that took place either in my head or in the multiple iterations of creating a specific deliverable. I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. 

This one-letter distinction may not be a full 80-IQ point change in perspective, but it’s clearly worth enough to be a keeper.

If you do knowledge work, you need to become a ‘pracademic’

Loyola’s Quinlan School has just launched a new Next Generation MBA. Project Management is a required course in the curriculum and I was asked to take the lead in designing that course. We’re now halfway through the first iteration of the course. I had an opportunity this past weekend to speak at PMI Chicagoland’s Career Development Conference and opted to use the course design and rollout effort to reflect on what larger, emerging, lessons I saw.

During the course design process, I learned a new label to describe me. It turns out that I am a “pracademic”; someone who brings a practitioner’s perspective to an academic environment. While it turns out that the label isn’t terribly new, I just stumbled across it.

I assert that if you are a knowledge worker, you need to become a pracademic as well.

What is a pracademic?

A quick glance at Google’s ngram viewer suggests that the term, “Pracademic” traces back to the mid-1970s and saw a significant uptick in the early 2000s. There’s a seminal 2009 academic paper on the term by Paul Posner, “The Pracademic: An Agenda for Re‐Engaging Practitioners and Academics that’s a good entry point.

The primary focus seems to have been on the notion of bringing relevant practitioner experience back into the academic environment. Like all good portmanteaus, however, pracademic elicits a constellation of reactions.

Among those is the more general notion of blending practical and theoretical knowledge. An admirable and long sought goal but one that, probably unsurprisingly, is more difficult to put into practice than it is to describe in theory.

It’s hard enough to be competent on either side of the divide. Working both sides effectively is harder still. With the continuing and accelerating explosion of knowledge, the need to do precisely that has become simultaneously more challenging and more necessary. This is a topic that has drawn my attention before:

Living in exponential times means this explosion has always been underway. It’s important to accept that this is an explosion that doesn’t end; there is no point at which the curve is likely to level off. Waiting for things to settle down is a fool’s errand.

If you opt for the role of a pracademic it is a matter of accepting that this is a path you will be walking for as long as you wish or are able. Whatever credentials or experience you might collect, there is no marker for being done.

Why does this matter for knowledge work?

Knowledge work is perhaps the purest expression of this notion. Your capacity to deliver effective results is a function of how well you can assess the practical situations you face and then apply the most pertinent and relevant aspects of your cumulative knowledge base.

While the origins of the term pracademic are anchored in carrying practitioner knowledge back into the academy, knowledge work in the environment we’ve been talking about works the other direction. What does it mean to take theory back into practice?

Knowledge work demands leveraging theory. As a knowledge worker, you are rarely granted the luxury of time off to fully study and integrate the latest and greatest developments in your field of expertise. At the same time, if you don’t continue to add to your expertise, your ability to contribute and make a difference diminishes.

How does this change the shape of practice?

The late Donald Schön of MIT addressed this line of thought with his notion of “reflective practice“. Fundamental to the notion of reflective practice is building and testing a robust theory of action.

My particular interests are in action that occurs in organizational environments; action that calls for coordinating the efforts of multiple actors. Practice takes place within those social and organizational environments. Applying theory within this practice environment benefits from understanding key aspects of how thinking connects to action there.

There is a persistent mythology about organizations that rationality should prevail and that anything other than rational decision making represents some level of pathology. This is an area where academic research and theory is especially illuminating.

There are two aspects of thinking relevant to navigating this environment. The first relates to a distinction between oral and literate thinking. This distinction was mapped out by Walter Ong, a Jesuit historian and philosopher. Ong examined the impact of the invention of writing on culture and institutions. At root, his argument is that literacy enables us to get thinking outside of our heads and that this transition is an essential, prerequisite, step in enabling the rise of rational thought.

While complex rational thought is rooted in literate modes of thinking, organizations are environments that predate literacy. They blend oral and literate modes of thought. Most particularly, organizational power dynamics are rooted in oral modes of thought. Arguments do not carry the day simply by being the most logical and rational. This is puzzling and confusing to those who’ve made the effort to become adept at literate thought.

One rule of literate thought, fortunately, is that you do not simply accept someone else’s word, you go and see for yourself. This leads to the second aspect of accepting the assumption that organizations behave rationally; the discoveries of those who went and looked. There is a growing evidence base about the limits of rationality in organizations.

Herb Simon advanced organizational understanding significantly when he pointed out that our desire for rationality was bounded by innate limitations in our ability. “Bounded rationality” meant that however much we might strive to make rational decisions, there were always limits of time and capacity. Real decision makers in real organizations “satisfice;” they settle for “good enough” answers.

Simon’s observation that theoretical rationality was bounded sparked a stream of research starting with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that gradually articulated the extent of the various failure modes of rational thought and established the field of behavioral economics. Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides an excellent entry point into this realm.

Where do you start?

Suppose I’ve made a good enough case. You’d like to begin operating in a more intentional “pracademic” mode. What do you do next? Based on my own travels along this path I can suggest a 2-part reading list and some new practices to adopt.

The reading list contains some core theory and introductions to a starter set of practices.

Core Theory Readings

Starter Practices

There are three foundational practices that should be part of your repertoire.

The first is one you likely already possess; a systematic reading habit. Actually, any reading addiction is a good starting point (cereal boxes were my gateway drug). Over time, you’ll likely find it worthwhile to put some support systems around your habits. There’s a reason your professors wanted you to produce bibliographies to accompany your work. Unfortunately, they sometimes forget to explain the why behind the what. Why and how to keep track of what you read is a subject of its own. We’ll save that for another day. For now, if you don’t have a tool to manage this practice, I suggest you take a look at Zotero | Your personal research assistant.

Reading is the fuel for your own thinking. The second core practice you want to invest in here is better note-taking. That’s covered excellently in Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes in the core reading list. I’ve got a review of his book here – Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes. I would also suggest taking a look at Getting Outside Your Head.

Over time your note-taking will evolve into note-making as you become more practiced in using your reading to engage in asynchronous conversations with writers. You’re going to want to start engaging in conversations with yourself, which is the third core practice. There are multiple approaches to developing a journaling habit. While journaling is often associated with doing emotional reflection and work, it’s also a tool for doing intellectual reflection and work.

What comes next?

You are now on a lifelong learning path. Perhaps you were already on it and now have some new tools to work with. You will discover that you’re walking this path with others on similar journeys. Strike up a conversation and share your discoveries.

The futile quest for the one true tool

One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them;
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

J.R.R. Tolkien _The Lord of the Rings_

I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings back in high school and read it multiple times before I graduated. I’ve reread it from time to time since then. It’s a good marker of my basic nerd-cred.

The quote has been on my mind lately as I try to make sense out of what feels to me to be an odd trend in adopting personal software applications. The most recent example that I’ve encountered is the application Amplenote, which pitches itself as an “attempt to unify four apps that smart people scatter their ideas across.”

I don’t know enough to either endorse or critique this particular application. What I am trying to understand is this neverending quest for the “one true tool.” I sort of understand the appeal from a marketing perspective. It’s the argument for Swiss Army knives and Leatherman tools.

I have several of each, but they don’t constitute my entire toolkit. What leaps to mind first when I come across these pitches is Dan Akroyd pitching the Bass-O-Matic

What I don’t get is why you would want to subscribe to this line of thought as an aspiring knowledge worker. At the early stages of a knowledge work career, it is possible to think of yourself as an expert in a particular tool or technique. It’s possible to label yourself as an Excel jockey, or an SEO expert, or an options trader.

The presumptive default path forward is to move from individual contributor to management. Rather than do knowledge work, you manage others doing knowledge work.

I think there’s another path that hasn’t received enough attention. That’s the path from knowledge work apprentice to journeyman to master of the craft. Two excellent entry points to thinking about that path are:

These are less about the particulars of acquiring specific technology skills and knowledge (although that is a worthy goal in its own right) than they are about a particular mindset or orientation. Instead, they offer insight about how to pursue a parallel strategy of solving problems and building your capacity to solve bigger problems.

Idea Management as an Abundance Problem

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

 Linus Pauling

I suppose it’s fitting that I have struggled with this blog post far more than most. It began with a desire to improve the rhythm and cadence of completing and published writing deliverables. Having just passed nineteen years writing this blog, you would think I was beyond fits of teenage angst. Maybe the onset of blogging adulthood is more daunting than I realized. 

I’ve always liked the Pauling quote. Having lots of ideas has never been a particular problem for me, so I’ve trusted that some reasonable portion of them would be good enough to share. For a long time, I attributed my occasional struggles to focus on a particular train of thought on my ADD. Bright shiny objects always promise a dopamine hit, but I’ve felt like I’ve been able to keep it enough under control. 

It occurs to me, however, that my ADD simply serves as an early introduction into a world that we all now live in. We all swim in an overwhelming abundance of ideas. Our training and practice focuses on turning individual ideas into a desired deliverable, whether that is a blog post, a client presentation, or a spreadsheet analysis for our boss. 

While there’s much to be learned about that idea to deliverable evolution, there’s another layer of knowledge work practice that we must tackle. That thread of idea to deliverable is one element of a collection of threads and you have to manage the collection as something distinct from any one thread. 

Simply splitting the problem into two layers is a step forward for me. I have a reasonable handle on the first layer; I know how to take an idea,  develop it, extend it, and polish it into a deliverable. As a creative task, however, that process is rarely linear. Ideas are not widgets, you can’t simply plow ahead from idea to deliverable. You often need to set things aside and let them cook. 

Which is where the second layer comes into play. What do you pick up when you set the first idea aside? Presumably another idea that you set aside earlier or a new idea trying to seduce you. You now have a management problem as well as a creation problem. 

The management problem is about selecting ideas, monitoring progress, switching, sequencing, timing, and cadence. This is operating at a different level of abstraction from the creation process. 

At small scales, you can likely manage organically. There aren’t so many threads that you can’t keep most or all of the management issues in your head. With time and the accumulation of a body of work, it’s worthwhile to externalize the management problem and not try to rely on the limits of memory. At the same time, the management process must be subordinate to the creative process. 

Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been gradually retooling my baseline creative practices around a more disciplined note-centered practice. Like any retooling, this has led to a temporary drop in output. As committed to improvement as I may be, there’s still muscle memory to be overcome. Even bad habits are still habits that require extra energy to break down and replace. Some markers of this journey that have risen to things worth sharing include:

Early on, what management of the process I did was on the proverbial back of an envelope. Keep a list of ideas as they came to me and pick something off the list when I sat down to write the next piece. Look back at the last few blog posts and write a follow up piece. Do this for any length of time, however, and the envelope gets pretty full

My next thought was to take the list off the back of the envelope and formalize it. I dug into the approaches of other writers who’ve gone through this evolution. Among the appealing approaches I ran into were:

These approaches, however, don’t scale well. As your body of work grows, you risk spending more time maintaining the management control system than you do creating new work. That misses the point entirely. 

Some Zettelkasten advocates claim that the necessary tools and structure emerge as you gain more experience and grow your collection of notes:

This hasn’t played out for me. Setting aside the hypothesis that this simply reflects my personal limitations, what’s missing? 

This comes back to the distinction between creating and managing. Most of the discussion and advice I’ve been able to review is focused almost exclusively on creation. It either ignores managing the process as a whole or presumes that what needs to be managed is trivial relative to making creation work more smoothly and reliably. 

To manage the overall process you need to get above the details of individual work in process (WIP) items. You want to collect just enough data about each item to not have to read the entire piece while you are trying to manage a collection of multiple WIP items. And you need to track the status of each piece of WIP relative to its transition from WIP to final deliverable. Is this item a new idea? A draft? In need of editing? Ready to publish? Published? There’s a life cycle to be defined. This is the metadata you need to make informed decisions about the overall process. Do you have enough WIP to feed your deliverable goals? How does the mix of materials look?

This is a classic data management problem that would seem to call for a simple spreadsheet as DBMS solution. Or a multi-column outline of some sort. Both of those approaches failed relative to the goal of keeping the management system subordinate to the creative system. As I continue the transition to a note-centric creation system, the challenge is to embed the pertinent metadata in the individual notes and create some method of querying the metadata to generate the schedules and lists that will help me manage the creative process. Now that I’ve got a handle on the basic requirements for managing my WIP, the next step is to discover or create the reporting tool.