You’re walking through a building in the night. City light pollution shines a glow on the ledge of a step in front of you. Beyond that, you can’t see a thing. Your guide’s instructions direct you to climb the staircase beside the window. And so you lift your right leg, find your footing on the step and shift your weight upwards.
Now your left. Be sure to slide your toes right into the corner so the entirety of your foot settles on the step. And lift yourself up.
Onto your right – lift. Stretch your arm out to the side to find a wall, where you pose your fingertips. And back to the left.
Imagine the way your foot tentatively reaches through the air, seeking out stability, unsure of how long it will take to find solid ground. Unsure, even, of whether it will. When you feel the surface, your lifted leg rests, testing, before you allow it to carry any weight.
Hold onto that feeling. And let’s move into a different setting.
IT’S YOUR THIRD DAY IN A NEW JOB
Over the past 48 hours your boss has talked you through a dozen processes you might need to implement, explaining how they do things here. It’s all hypothetical at this stage really, like receiving directions when you’re still in the house only to find they’re far less clear on the streets.
Let’s imagine there’s a bit of tech at the core of the entire operation and it all relies on you putting an x here when y happens. Of course, at this stage you have no idea why this matters. It’s just a thing you’re expected to do, because that’s how it’s done.
Midway through your first week, an email arrives and you add the data to a spreadsheet, just as you were told. In the background a hundred processes occur but you don’t see a thing. All you know is that it’ll all fall to pieces if you don’t complete that spreadsheet. And so you blindly follow instructions, unsure of where they lead.
What’s happening in these scenarios is that we’re acting from a ‘how-to’ list. It’s not necessarily a formal, written list but an approach that’s been passed down to us. A set method for how to do a given task, which steals the focus away from the goal we’re trying to achieve. In practice, there are multiple paths to an outcome but there’s only one way to follow a list.
PERHAPS ALL THIS PROCESS IS A NECESSARY EVIL
A route that works well for one person won’t necessarily play to another’s strengths. But then it probably wouldn’t have been any easier to climb the staircase in the dark if the only information you had was that you need to get to the second floor.
Working to a set of instructions is the most well-established – if not the simplest – method of getting started in an unfamiliar environment. It enables you to be immediately productive, to an extent, without any understanding of the context.
It’s an interim solution, though. At the very most, instructions should be used as a framework until you have enough familiarity with the environment to build your own. Nothing beats contextual awareness.
If you studied a map of the building before you entered, you’d plan your own path knowing your capabilities. And beyond that, you’d have the resources to adjust your route and plan a different one if yours didn’t work, or if you veered off piste.
Similarly, given some time to play with the tech and figure out what goes on in the background, you’d design your own way to make magic happen.
It’s not about reinventing the wheel, per se. There’s definitely a great deal of value in knowing how something has been done historically. Without the freedom to adapt the process to our own strengths though, we’re blindly following instructions, we’re nothing more than cogs.