When beginning a large project or complex task, the problems you’ll run into aren’t always apparent.
This can be an issue, because lack of clarity often leads to an unproductive response. We often rush into implementing new solutions before thinking about whether we’re even solving the right problem.
On the other hand, it’s possible to get so wrapped up in trying to understand the problem that you never begin working on solutions.
The trick is: You want to get a sense of the actual problem, but you also need to take measurable and readily quantifiable steps to keep yourself from getting bogged down.
Over the past few years, I experienced this first hand while trying to bring a TEDx event to the auditorium in the AstraZeneca building—where our company, Morphic Therapeutic, is headquartered. Our application was rejected three times over the course of two and a half years.
We initially had no idea where to start.
But by continuing to take steps in the right direction and building on what we’d done before, we were eventually able to book the event.
Turn ambiguity into concrete steps
Many people jump into a solution before taking the time to understand the problem. This is a common pitfall amongst even the most seasoned leaders. But you have to come to terms with what needs to be done before you can take steps to address it.
First, we had to decide if we really wanted to hold a TEDx event. Speaker sessions are nothing new to this group—we’ve held hundreds of them over the years. This led us to question whether we really needed to hold an event with the TEDx brand, or if we could instead set up a speaking engagement on our own and call it something else.
We had to decide if we wanted to hold a more informative, academic event, or if we wanted the speakers to be more entertaining, more typical of a TEDx talk. We asked ourselves: What do we want people to feel when they leave the auditorium?
Ultimately we found that what TED created is special and meaningful, and it’s not something you can easily create on your own.
Once we clearly established this as our goal, we were able to start taking steps to accomplish it.
You might not understand the problem fully until you have some solutions
The problem doesn’t always crystalize when you start working on it. Sometimes it’s only apparent once the work has already begun. This is where an iterative approach becomes so important, because you’ll need more context to identify what the problem is and how you can address it.
The only way to get that context is by taking a step, assessing the outcome, and then moving forward with the new information in mind. It’s about making educated assumptions based on what you know, and then testing those assumptions to see how they hold up.
Our initial step for booking the TEDx talk was to do some research. We spoke with people in the Boston area who had organized these events before in order to better understand what was involved. After talking with them, we believed the process would be pretty straightforward. We figured we simply had to apply, and our application would be accepted.
Operating on this assumption, we spent very little effort on our initial application—maybe 10 minutes of work.
We were rejected almost immediately.
You’ll learn from each step you take, even the missteps
Our initial assumption was faulty. While it wasn’t pleasant being rejected, testing our assumption taught us some things we used in our second application.
That one was also rejected. And the one after that.
But each time, we increased the effort we put into the application. First, we broadened the appeal of the speakers and topics to make them more compelling. A large group of scientists will naturally gravitate towards scientific topics, but that’s not what TEDx is all about. It has to be broader, about ideas instead of industry-focused topics.
We began weaving a storyline into the whole event. We assembled an advisory board of people who had been to the main TED talk and had experience organizing TEDx events. And we even turned our thought process on its head. Why would TEDx want to extend their brand to us? What were we bringing to the table?
On our fourth application, we were finally accepted.
Sure, it would have been great to have been accepted on our first try, but this wasn’t a process we had experience with. So we set a big, amorphous goal and chipped away at it step-by-step. Several solutions didn’t work, but each one led us closer to the real problem we needed to solve.
In 1991, my commencement speaker at MIT had a message that stuck with me: “Keep moving.”
He was telling this to the line of shuffling graduates, but his true message was much more profound. He was saying that action itself is what motivates. You learn from action, and so you have to keep moving.
Getting good at this process pays off.
You can use it for anything you want. Whether you’re planning a destination wedding or building a startup, it’s all about turning ambiguous goals into concrete steps. Testing assumptions and adjusting your plans based on the outcome.
It’s a template for getting things done and delivering tangible results when you have no idea where to start. You just have to start at the beginning and keep moving.