Dilbert and the zone of mediocrity
How brave are you? How far will you (or your employer) go to avoid the Zone of Mediocrity? Until or unless you're willing to risk passionate hate, you may never feel the love. Scott Adams agrees. In a recent post on the Dilbert blog, he said, "If everyone exposed to a product likes it, the product will not succeed... The reason that a product “everyone likes” will fail is because no one “loves” it. The only thing that predicts success is passion, even if only 10% of the consumers have it."
This is NOT about being remarkable-- it's about being loveable. And that almost always means being hated as well. Our Head First Java book, for example, has 139 Amazon reviews, and most are either five stars ("love it, best technical book ever, I learned a lot") or one star ("hated it, worst technical book ever, authors should be shot.") But crafting a book that people would either love or hate was not our intention. We set out to make a more brain-friendly learning book format, and we were just clueless and naive enough to not realize how many implicit "rules" we were violating. It wasn't until O'Reilly editors started a mini revolt against it that we knew we'd crossed a Line That Shall Not Be Crossed and created something potentially embarrasing.
Today, it is often far more risky to create something "safe" than to take a big frickin' chance on something deeply provocative, dangerously innovative, or just plain weird.
Think about all the things you love today that once seemed very, very weird. Things that someone took a huge frickin' chance on.
Today, the more you try to prevent failure, the more likely you are to fail.
That wasn't always true, but geez... how many more [whatevers] do we need today? There are way too many of all the things we already have and not enough introductions of things we don't have. We all know the reasons why companies play it safe, and why employees are often forced to play it safe, but this me-tooism isn't helping anyone.
What does it take to move out of the Zone of Mediocrity?
Normally at this point I'd talk about the usual things everyone talks about... how to come up with breakthrough ideas, where to look for opportunities, being innovative, blah blah blah. You know all that. I think it really comes down to this:
To avoid the Zone of Mediocrity, you must suspend disbelief.
You must be willing and able to turn off (temporarily) The Voice inside that says, "We'll never get away with this. People will hate it." That doesn't necessarily mean The Voice is wrong, but until you can shut if off, you're virtually guaranteed to stay with safer, incremental ideas. But remember--"safer" really isn't safer anymore, unless you're looking only to avoid criticism. Safe will keep you safely out of the spotlight. If that's what you want (and sometimes that's the best approach), then fine. But if not...
(side note: this is somewhat like The Inner Game approach or Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or any of the other approaches to creativity that get your logical "talking" mind out of the way so all the more useful but non-speaking parts of your brain can get on with the important things you're trying to accomplish.)
And it's not just suspending disbelief about what users (or critics) will say... you must also suspend disbelief about what your company will let you do. I first experienced this at Sun, where it was almost impossible to creatively brainstorm about ways to improve things without someone jumping in with, "Yeah, but they'd never let us do that." End of discussion. End of chance to do something amazing. Every time I do an internal workshop, the partipants are far more negative than when some of those same people are in a public version of my passionate users workshop. By taking them outside their company and having them brainstorm or work on fictional or other people's projects, their minds are free to move about. I've nearly quit doing in-house workshops because the "they'll never let us do that" syndrome is so strong.
You can't help users kick ass until your employer lets YOU kick ass. Easy for the unemployed ME to say ; )
(Thanks to Karl Nieberding, Kyle Maxwell, and John Radke for telling me about the Dilbert post!)
And one more follow-up note: I heard from the guy who designed the Airstream 75th Anniversary Trailer (wow -- if ONLY I could afford that one, it would have been my first choice). His studio builds custom and restored vintage trailers, and even if you don't want one now, you should still check out his Vintage Trailering site just to see his work. There's nothing mediocre here!
How to make something amazing, right now
What if you needed to build a powerful web app, but you had only ten hours a week for programming? What if you wanted to write a novel, but you had to do it in 30 days? What if you wanted to create a computer game, but you had only 48 hours? What if you had to write, shoot, and edit a short film in 24 hours? Constraints can be your enemy, but when it comes to creative breakthroughs, they can be your best friend.
Shakespeare wrote sonnets in iambic pentameter. "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May"
Some of the cleverest computer-themed poems are haikus:
The code was willing,
It considered your request,
But the chips were weak.
The Web site you seek
cannot be located but
endless others exist
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.
(Sorry, I don't know the names of the haiku authors)
Big ass budgets and tons of time don't necessarily produce better products. Some of the most addictive games, for example, are extremely-constrained programs like Tetris. Contrast that with a full-motion video, 3D realtime graphics, surround sound console game. Yes, they're apples and oranges, but Tetris and some of other "old-school" (which meant old tech) games are often more fun than the movie-studio-budget games from the big companies. My secret hope is that developing games for mobile phones will put a huge constraint on developers--just like the old days--and bring back some of the creativity it took to make something fun without relying on all that media and processing power.
This blog and many others have
But if you want to write that novel (or just have some fun and see if you can do it), warm up your keyboard because next month (November, 2006) is Write a Novel In a Month time, and the official website (National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo) defines the pure beauty (and genius) of an absurd deadline:
"Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.
Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.
Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down."
There's even a book to help: No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (yes, that's actually the title) by Chris Baty. And you'll find plenty of support groups from the official website or searching for blogs talking about nanowrimo.
And if you find yourself in Boulder Colorado next week, don't miss The Shootout Boulder, a 24-hour film festival. No, not 24 hours of watching films; 24 hours in which to make a film. The finished movies, in fact, are shown the next day. The event is open to anyone--pro filmmakers shooting it out along with students, families, anyone with a camera and caffeine.
One of the best parts is how they prevent people from pre-shooting their footage--you don't know until just before the clock starts ticking what you must include somewhere in your film. At the last moment, participants get a list of 11 items within a 10-minute walk from where the event begins, and they must include five of them. And one of the five must appear within the first 30 seconds of the movie!
I'll leave you with a few quotes from others who've talked about this:
David HH on Ruby on Rails (born from the constraints on building Basecamp):
"We simply couldn’t go with the mainstream toolset and deliver under those constraints. So we were forced to try different ways, to slaughter the holy cows, to route around that which either takes too long or really didn’t matter in the end."
And from a constraint-driven cooking perspective, the Tastingmenu blog has this to say:
"Unlimited freedom in fact negates creativity and creates laziness. The lack of rules or constraints make it easy to be random... So why is it that the first thing many chefs do when they get their own restaurant is take a meandering and undisciplined tour of every favorite dish, ingredient, and technique they'v ever encountered? Freedom often kills focus."
And from Marissa Ann Mayer's BusinessWeek article Creativity Loves Constraints:
"Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained."
But... she also cautions with too many constraints, you might just say it's impossible and give up. Her advice:
"But constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Too many curbs can lead to pessimism and despair. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change."
I encourage everyone to take on some kind of constraint challenge... just for the fun or to experience the feeling of finishing something (without worrying about that pesky quality thing). The Ad-lib Game Development Society's motto (borrowed from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross)
Always Be Closing
So, if you could get out of your own way by being forced to do something fast, what would it be? Write a game? Short film? Book? Anyone considering (or have experience with) nanowrimo?