Friday, 21 August 2009

Disregard. Plough your own furrow

We live in a world where communication and teamwork is considered beneficial, which it mostly is. I say mostly because there are occasions when solitary work is important, times when disregarding the outside world is more important than studying it.

There have been times during my career when my betters encouraged total disregard for others’ pricing, marketing activities, or system design. Back then this was confusing – surely more information is better than less information? Well sometimes, but not always.

The rationale is that with too much information we get swamped and are unable to move. Comparisons become stifling and all creativity is gone. Whereas starting with a blank sheet of paper and asking elementary questions can produce startling new revelations.

As I was working on a systems problem yesterday, I did exactly that. I went back to basics and asked “what’s really the problem here?” It produced some interesting, and different answers. The technique is not without its dangers – others could have come up with different or better answers. But maybe that is a great deal less dangerous that coming up with me-too ideas and solutions.

The physicist Richard Feynman went through a period from 1961 to 1967 when he was remarkably unproductive. It seemed as if his genius was used up and he was fresh out of ideas. It took a conversation with James Watson, who together with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, to awaken his creativity. After having read Watson’s book “The Double Helix” he fretted over it for some time.

His conclusion was scribbled on a notepad, surrounded by jottings and doodles. In the centre of the page Feynman had written “DISREGARD.” He realised that this was what he had been missing; this was why his work had been poor. He realised he had to get curious again, go back to disregarding others’ work and asking his own questions of why things worked as they did.

Reading of Watson & Crick’s discovery enabled him to uncover the reasons for his own lack of productivity.

It is similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas encapsulated in his marvellous essay “Self Reliance.” Taking too much note of what others think does not always pay.

I realise now that this is fundamental to my work as a systems analyst –I have to disregard the accepted “truth” that others offer. Because a problem is just that – a difficulty that has yet to be overcome – and disregarding the accepted wisdom is one way of approaching a problem.

"Disregard" and "Plough Your Own Furrow" are useful concepts for many problems, not just physics or designing software.

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