Inspiration must find you working

May 04 2012 Kelly Norton

As a person who builds things, I constantly struggle with what I should be working on right now. You probably do too. But years ago, I thought it was just me. I was naive. I thought I had too many ideas and not enough fingers. Now I know that everyone has a lot more ideas than they can actually build. What I did not realize until recently, however, is how this indecision shapes a company’s culture.

"Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working"

One of the most annoying phenomena in building things is that ideas have bad timing. When I was finishing up my masters thesis, I was tormented by ideas. They were things that I really wanted to build immediately, yet I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. I wrote most of them down confident that I would have a full summer of rewarding work waiting for me when I turned in my final paper. Were all the ideas good? Nope. Some seemed totally ridiculous when I revisited my notes. Others seemed promising but incomplete. A couple, however, were just as exciting as when I wrote them down. For the most part, they were not new ideas but new perspectives on old ideas. I would say that makes them better than ideas, but that’s a different post. These ideas all shared something in common, though. They were all a result of perspective I had gained through deep engagement in building something completely different. My homie colleague, Bruce Johnson, is fond of citing the Pablo Picasso quote “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.” I love the quote. Every time he mentions it, I think of this period of working on my thesis. It reminds me that the mind needs solid input to properly shape an idea. Shaping an idea by sitting idle waiting on your thoughts to organize themselves is rarely a productive strategy.

The Google Culture

The way this indecision affects corporate culture is something that I’ve recently started to realize. In fact, it occurred to me after long wrestling with changes that were happening at Google while I was there. By now, many people are aware that Google is in the midst of an internal transformation. “More wood behind fewer arrows” is the new guiding principle. Everyone in the company is to be working on one of only a handful of high-priority projects. Smaller projects are either put into a new subservient role or they are cancelled. All of this is public knowledge at this point. When this new initiative started, I was excited. I thought Google looked like a bit of a mess from the outside. Small projects with opposing and contradictory goals always taking the headlines for a day before fading into the background with a small community of users. In some cases, it seemed as if nobody in Google was really even aware of what was being released. So when the changes started happening, I welcomed them. But I was wrong. I still very much like that Google will appear more simple and streamlined to the world. What I do not like is the creativity and innovation that made Google a beloved giant is at risk. And without creative insights, the new Google is forced to out-execute competitors at their own game. The old Google would just change the game. The culture of creativity is at risk because the new mode of operation for engineers and product managers is to sit idle and wait for inspiration to reach them. They are asked to sit and plan to change the world in only the context of a handful of key products. The experiments that have always generated new perspective and insights are forbidden from even starting. They should only be forbidden from launching too quickly.

The Parts Bin

But this post is not about Google. This post is about finding a balance between exploration and focus. The tradeoff here is obvious. Without exploration, the big idea worthy of focus cannot form. And without focus, you simply make no progress on a larger goal. Experiments are therefore a necessary waste product in the process of creation. Up until recently, my strategy was to minimize waste. This presumed that nothing of material value came out of these experiments and that never really matched my experience. The bigger things that I have built were all initially a Frankenstein-esqe assembly of left-overs from experiments. So when I recently stumbled upon a talk by Ben Chestnut (founder of Mailchimp), his way of thinking about experimentation really resonated with me.

Mailchimp does a lot of experiments and Ben presents an interesting way of thinking about this waste. It goes into the “parts bin.” It’s simple, you don’t throw away your experiments. You just keep them around until their utility becomes apparent. The problem with a hyper focused approach is that it leaves the parts bin empty or no one pays any attention to what is in it. The other extreme approach would be to ship everything in the parts bin. Both of these are obviously wrong.

In March, we kicked off our new company (Monetology). When you first start a new company everyone wants to know how things are going. That is pretty hard to answer in the early days. Launched product? No. Got customers? Depends on what you mean by "customer." Profitable? Only if you don’t consider our expenses. A better question might be: What does your parts bin look like? Ours looks awesome.