Recently, for a variety of interesting and uninteresting reasons the logic driving the selection of my projects and company affliations warrants explanation. Why?
Well, you, the reader/partner/associate, can decide if my explanations pertain to you, matter to you or make any sense at all. Most likely this exposition concerns me alone – a letter to myself. I figured that we’re all not so different though – so perhaps you, too, struggle in finding or creating projects that matter to you and this essay might help you in your processes.
I value projects and experiences with non-trivial consequences.
I think of consequences as both direct outcomes as well as side effects, learnings, connections and follow on projects.
Non-trivial is the crucial concept here. Non-trivial is somewhat hard to define as you almost have to assign that status to a consequence retrospectively. Let me leave that concept alone for a moment and instead focus on the trivial.
Trivial consequences in projects and business include:
- Money alone – getting rich to get rich, getting rich as the only outcome
- Fame alone – fame for fame’s sake
- Career Move – an outcome that only moves a career forward regardless of the other consequences
- Isolated Impact – it impacts you and you alone
- 1000 Monkeys – an outcome so trivial that a 1000 monkeys in a short amount of time could produce the same result
- 1 Monkey – worse than a 1000 monkeys is 1 monkey “in the right place and the right time regardless of experience or skill” could produce the outcome
- Been Done Before – an old project with a new audience does not add value (usually)
- Time and Space Dependence – a non repeatable “stuck in time” outcome. i.e. pet rocks in the 80s.
- Can’t Explain To Mom – a project that doesn’t impact mom or is too embarassing to tell mom usually is trivial
- and combinations of any or all of the above.
Generally projects and companies with trivial consequences are easy to spot. Thought experiments following the format “suppose this all worked out perfectly” generally reveal whether the basic consequences would be trivial.
I certainly have knowingly worked on projects and companies with trivial consequences. Generally I work in such situations if the methods (work) is appropriately trivial (cost effective). In fact, I cannot avoid, nor do I think anyone can avoid, a certain amount of trivial work – its often the trivial work that pays the bills in the short term. Also, trivial work serves as practice or warm up or learning steps to non-trivial work.
The challenge involves avoiding trivial consequences requiring non-trivial methods. Many projects require elaborate set ups and execution (and generally a lot of people). Finding simple ways to do things is very difficult (it requires thought! and practice!). However, more damaging to the pursuit of non-trivial consequences is our (my!) confusion between methods (the pursuit, the work) and the consequences (the outcome, the goals). I often fall into the trap of “if the work is hard, the outcome must matter!” Wrong! … usually.
In short, I do trivial work if and only if the methods are or can be made trivial (usually through the use of a computer or sub contracting).
And now the hard stuff! Non-trivial outcomes can be hard to predict. The metrics for non-trivialness are not obvious nor standardized. The outcomes typically maintain challenging contingencies and/or are the result of hard to spot initial conditions.
This much I’ve identifed about non-trivialness in projects:
- There is a barrier to entry/getting started – usually not monetary barrier – it is a skill, experience, concept barrier
- The number of people potentially impacted is not small, that is, there is a generalization possible
- Cut and Paste Is Not Enough – it is not a simple repackaging or reordering – synthesis or genesis must be involved
- Unknown personal impact – you cannot predict its rebounding impact on you (your methods, your personal network, your experience)
- Discomfort – it involves a level of discomfort, a struggle, a slight doubt about whether you can pull it off
- Beauty – there is something beautiful in the methods and the result. Perhaps a cleanliness or cleverness or visual beauty or structure – hard to define in words but easy to spot, hear, taste, feel.
Amazingly, non-trivial results often do not require non-trivial executions. I can think of our best modern example – Google PageRank. Hugely impactful and can be explained in laymans terms in one page. I have many other examples for interested people (and, no, most of them are not computer or internet related!)
I suppose we can evaluate whether the original question or problem statement generating a project or company is trivial or non-trivial. Usually though I do not see much correlation between the original question and the eventual execution. I prefer to look at the current state of affairs to judge trivialness. Again, we have many examples where the original question is quite trivial but the results are not or the eventual executed project is not (see James Burke’s “Connections” series for a fun exposition of such phenomenon)
I want to attack the idea of “homeruns” in business head on. Many people seek the big idea in business, the big success, the huge windfall. I conjecture most pursuits of the business homerun fail because the Get Rich outcome is trivial. It is trivial to Get Rich in method and outcome. Where does fortune alone lead? If I had a big bag of money, what would I do with it? Methods of just getting rich are tried and true – sell sex, invest in stocks, drugs, organized crime, arbitrage (fuel, clicks, tickets), corporate ladder hopping and variations on those themes. Many people engage in these things – usually without knowing how trivial it is (so they do a lot of work!). This is not for me.
Homeruns in business, the kind I like, are not predifined. I don’t think “homerun” has a generally applicable definition. I don’t know the distance to the fence. I don’t even know if I’m playing baseball. (metaphors suck so lets drop them.) Point is… I don’t look for what is an obvious business success because if it were obvious (a) everyone is already doing it (b) it’s probably not as successful as it appears.
The key effort for business sucess seems to be in creation of value through conversion of resources. Can I take my raw materials (experience, insight, networks, handiwork) and produce something people will buy or rent? That is, can you take something without a price (that isn’t already in monetary/market form) and get the market to price it (value it)? Yes, there’s a way to make money by reducing the cost of something that already has a price and so forth. Again, that is trivial in most cases (though there are cases where reduction of cost is not a trivial task and the reduction in price resulting takes something with small impact to a very wide audience). Again, for some margin management works for them. For me it does not.
Defining and refining the project selection strategy is non-trivial and this is not my final effort. The methods are trivial – write it down, test it, edit, test, repeat. (oh, and don’t go broke while testing project selection / creation strategies!)