When to follow someone else’s process. And when to create your own.
I go to the car wash about every other week. It’s one of those where you drive in and wash the car yourself.
In each stall, a pressure sprayer and foaming brush is provided. Also provided is the feeling of panic when your car is still soapy and there is only one minute left to rinse it off. This happens no matter how many coins you put into the machine.
I am obsessive about washing my car by hand.
I scrub every inch.
I have a system.
I want to remove every single piece of dust and dirt.
My dad used to bring home cars that his company would repossess. (No he wasn’t a repo man, but he worked for a company that gave credit to people who often didn’t deserve it). He brought home some nice cars too. Porsche 924. Datsun 280z Turbo. Mazda RX–7. These were a lot nicer than my dad’s Chevy Caprice.
He’d keep them for a week or two, and I would clean them for him. Not just because he gave me money, but because I loved cars and loved cleaning them until they looked like new. In hindsight, I may have had a great future in car detailing.
The other day I was at the car wash and overheard a father raising his voice to his son. The son was maybe 9 or 10.
He was getting very frustrated because his son “wasn’t doing it right.”
I’m sure that dad has a system too.
I can empathize. It’s hard to know in your mind the “right” way and see someone else doing it “wrong.”
Next week I’m driving my daughter to college.
I think a lot about how we raised her.
I think about moments when I got frustrated with her because “she wasn’t doing it right.”
It took me many years to realize that she didn’t need to do so many things “right.”
She needed to do what’s right for her.
If I could go back and do it again I would spend more time having fun and spend less time trying to teach all the “right” ways to do things.
The beginning and the end.
What I learned over time is to focus on the two ends of any process. The beginning and the end.
One, start by teaching “foundational” process. You know, the basic stuff you need to begin anything. Like life skills. And morals. And, in this case, the basics of washing a car and the tools you need to wash it.
Two, focus on outcomes. Desired end results. Like having a car stay in great shape for a longer time. Creating great photographs. Being loved. Earning respect. And why great design, order, and aesthetics matter.
For everything in the middle, I would let her figure out the right way to achieve those outcomes. Instead of getting frustrated along the way, I would laugh and have fun and let her make mistakes and figure stuff out for herself. I would of course help if asked, but otherwise I’d let her discover her own way. Her own process.
This is a lesson I’m still learning at the creative studio we run in San Francisco.
I’ve been doing what we do for a long time. For almost everything we do, I have a way, a process, that I know is right. At least right for me.
But step back for a second. What is the point of having a process, really?
A process is created to achieve a desired end result. Most likely, you create a process so you can repeat the achievement of that result in the most efficient and effective way.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters is that end result. So as long as we achieve it, and achieve it when we said we would, why does it matter whose process we followed?
If you achieve the desired end result, and do it in the time you were given, how you get there does not matter. It’s about the output, not the input.
This is the important part. The really, really important part: when you develop your own process, you are actually learning.
If all you do is follow the steps of someone else’s process, it’s unlikely you are gaining a full understanding of how the whole thing works (that thing being whatever you’re trying to figure out or achieve).
Understanding the big picture, the system, how things actually work, is what you should be striving for. It’s the way you actually develop the insight needed to create innovative, unique processes that allow you to solve problems in your unique way. In a way that, perhaps, no one else has done before. This is what matters more than anything.
Innovations, breakthroughs and new ideas are, more often than not, discovered not by following someone else’s process– but by creating a new one.
Finding your own way is critical. There are, however, some major steps in a process that really matter and should be followed consistently. Especially in what we do. In our case, we employ creative thinking to solve business problems. The end result might be a full brand identity or a website or perhaps a re-engineered sales process. No matter the output, there are two foundational processes we use every time:
#1- Understand the Problem & Define the Desired Outcome. To solve a problem, first you have to understand it. You need to learn everything you can about it and the context in which that problem lives. You also need to define what the problem is and what you are solving for. What does a successful outcome look like? This may sound like two steps, but they’re so interrelated that you can’t really separate them. Oh, and you also need a deadline for solving that problem.
#2- Reference, Reference, Reference Fact: most (if not all) of the problems we’re looking to solve have been solved before by someone else. So it’s really useful to see what the world has come up with before you. In other words, pull reference. Lots and lots of reference. To quote Pablo Picasso (and Steve Jobs, who quoted Pablo) “Good Artists Copy. Great Artists Steal.”
#3 Figure it out. From that point on the steps you take to arrive at a solution can be, really, whatever you want them to be. As long as you get to that solution in the time allotted.
It’s a journey.
Following a process to solve a problem is like taking a major trip. Not a vacation, but a real journey. Like backpacking in Europe in your early 20s. Or an Australian Walkabout.
In this journey, you don’t know your exact destination. You begin with an idea of what it is you hope to find out there, and you carry just enough knowledge to hopefully recognize it when you get there.
You need to be prepared for this journey. First you have to educate yourself on what you might find along the way and where your intermediate steps may take you. You need to carry the basics of what you need along the way. You have to pack the right stuff.
The great thing is, other people have taken similar journeys as you. So you do the research and find out what they’ve done.
You’ve got what you need and a semblance of plan. Once you take that first step, the rest is really up to you. At the beginning, you’re likely to get lost. Make mistakes. Go in circles. Sometimes you need to ask for directions. The more you do this and the farther you go, you begin to master the art of the journey. You develop the processes that work for you. You find your way. You learn, and grow.
I’m looking forward to the long drive that my daughter and I will take to college next week. We do know our destination, but like all journeys, we will have new experiences. We will discover something new along the way. Something we couldn’t have planned for.
Before we go, however, I am absolutely certain about one thing. The car will be spotlessly clean.
About me: I’m a Partner/Creative Director at Teak in San Francisco. I’m from Colorado, moved to Chicago for 8 years then settled down in San Anselmo, California (the birthplace of mountain biking) with my wife to raise two amazing kids. I’m a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, Denver Broncos and Peet’s Coffee.