I love the idea of starting something new. I mull ideas while sitting on my porch, riding in the car, eating lunch. I can actually feel my endorphines boost a little when I think about putting this great new idea into motion. However, it’s short lived because once I sit down at my desk to actually start working on this idea, I get lazy, sleepy and just about anything distracts me from doing the work.
About a year and a half ago, I was approached by my son’s teacher and some parents (my son is on the autism spectrum) to help them build an app. I remember feeling like this could be an amazing opportunity to do something beneficial. However, a year and a half later, I finally have a minimum viable product that is being tested by the family who brought up the idea. I look back and wonder why it took so long to get there. So I now have some key steps I can take to get me to this minimum viable product (MVP as us nerds call it) so that I can build on it more quickly with refinement. Here’s what I use today:
1. A pencil and paper sketch
Often times when I work on a new product, I have a million small ideas in my mind that help bring the big idea to life. If I need this app to store users, I’ll need an input form. I may also need a way to encrypt the data so it’s safe. And the list goes on. The biggest challenge here is holding myself back and trying to organize the project so I don’t run down rabbit trails and lose focus. That’s where a pencil and paper come in handy. This low tech approach forces me to literally draw relationships to different components of my app. I can focus on the pieces that build the bigger picture. Make a list of all the little projects I need to work on to complete the big project.
Imagine you are about to work on a grant proposal. You know that you have to write a lot of information so you dig in. However, if you stopped and first took a piece of paper and drew a box and wrote the words “finished proposal” inside, what steps would you need to take to get there from where you are? Think big at this point. You’re just writing with pencil so nothing is locked in. Somewhere along the line you might discover that you should read past proposals that were successful to see what this grant funds. You may find that you need to research some previous reports to strengthen your proposal. These smaller steps lead you to your goal.
2. Switch from pencil to pen
It’s important to move this process along and refine what you’ve written. Many (too many) times I have gone to the effort to write these elements down and then never returned to this work and improved it. I lose the notes or don’t think they are necessary. However, like painting a wall, it’s important to apply additional coats of paint, or in this case, refined comments/thoughts. It’s highly unlikely that you can think of everything at once. Therefore, improving your notes or moving them online (Google Drive, Lucidchart, etc) is a critical next step.
3. Peer review
At this point you may still be working solo on this new idea, grant proposal, product, etc. It is incredibly easy to become trapped in your idea and miss details that are very helpful to making you successful. Really, it makes sense because you have started investing into your idea and it’s taking shape. However, peer input at this point is much cheaper for you than being told down the road that you’re missing key elements. Therefore, take your polished notes and present to one or more of your peers. Ask for critical feedback on your ideas. Unless you’ve completely missed the mark you will get positive notes and hopefully some invaluable insights that will help you make better choices going forward. You’re still in the infant stage so changes at this level are easy and cheap and will help you build a better end product.
If you’re a rugby player, I’m not exactly referring to that. Scrum is a common word used in programming to help a team or individual see an objective and break it into tasks. Imagine you’re writing an application to help people know when it’s their turn to buy coffee for the office. With scrum, you would break that objective into smaller objectives and then tasks so that you can work on the tangible elements without being overwhelmed. One objective is to know who is available to buy coffee or directory of names. To accomplish that, you need to build a form to capture names and place to store them. From there you start to expand to other objectives and before you know it, you have an app.
The same is true for any project you want to accomplish. Break a main objective into smaller and more tangible objectives. Then, list the tasks you need to complete to finish the objective. This will help you stay focused and not get lost in the weeds of your larger project.
5. Work from away
There’s a lot of debate about working from home or from a satellite office and it’s effectiveness. I’m not making a case for that here in this article. However, I am making a case that once and a while it’s good to work somewhere else. Working in a new environment can break you loose and give you a level of productivity you wouldn’t have in the office. You can’t have that 10 minute conversation that you’re used to. You don’t have to stare at the same wall today. By isolating yourself at home with a good list of to-do’s (this list of to-do’s is very important), you can knock out some great work and not only get stuff done but also feel refreshed doing it. NOTE: I’ve seen this less and less effective the more consistently you do this. This means that if you’re making the case to work from home all the time, I would expect you to get the same routine, distractions you had in the office. To me, the spontaneity is what drives the boost in productivity.
Lastly, though not a list item, it’s important to celebrate your progress. We do tend to focus on the things left to do and not the things we’ve done. Don’t forget to turn around sometimes and look at the path you’ve taken and the things you’ve done. It truly motivates you to keep going to realize something great.