Get your hands dirty

Strategic planning is all very well, says Hoss Gifford, but sometimes you need to get hands-on and learn from good old fashioned trial and error.

My dad was a joiner who specialised in making stuff that others couldn't. This meant creating staircases and handrails that left the floor at one angle and travelled through a three dimensional twist as they curved up to the floor above, where they would have to arrive at a specific point in space, at a specific angle.

Somewhere along the way, an overly enthusiastic architect would have drawn a series of beautifully curved lines to accurately represent how the final wooden object would look in each orthogonal view, as was evidenced by the dye-line prints scattered atop the stacks of two-by-fours. I know all this because this was back in the days before health and safety, where my dad's workshop also played the role of childcare centre during the long summer holidays.

The architect's drawings would be the target for much derisory muttering and swearing that would increase after each failed attempt to pull the rabbit out of the hat. This would eventually to be replaced, sometimes days later, with the raw pride of success.

Mountain of fail

In any industry where there's a desire to create something that is non-standard – that hasn't been done many times before – it takes more than strategic planning to make it work. It takes the long hours of practical experimentation, with a mountain of fails, just to know how to begin.

Nowadays most of my time is spent strategically planning complicated projects for large brands, but this sometimes leaves me wondering how analogous all this thinking is to the architect hunched over his T-square with his Rotring pen, achieving the perfect lines, only to find the makers unable to bring it all to life. As the wonderfully quote-worthy Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth". I can confirm this to be true.

We've adopted a number of strategies to address this at OneMethod, my favourite being to leave space in some projects for unplanned magic to happen, during the making process. Of course, this is every project manager's worst nightmare, but without it there's a danger of us successfully delivering something 'meh'.

Thinking through making

We also believe that passionate makers can become the best strategic thinkers. It's what all truly successful projects have in common — way back at the start, the high-level thinking about what could be done wasn't informed just by viewing other work as an observer, but instead benefited from the hands-on experience of making.

So next time you're in rainy Glasgow, if you've decided to take the stairs rather than the escalators to rise up through the atrium of Princes Square, take a second to look where your hand lies. The handrail that so many said couldn't be made out of wood is right there in your grip, evidence that planning is no substitute for getting your hands dirty.

Words: Hoss Gifford

Hoss Gifford is a digital industry veteran who recently moved from Scotland to Toronto to take up the post of vice president and director of technology for OneMethod, where he runs a rapid prototyping innovation lab.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 220.

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