This is a reflective article in which I’ll be sharing an epiphany I had recently, and why it’s sometimes best to just build something without worrying about whether anyone will use it. I’m talking mainly about pursuing side-projects, but I think there’s also value in applying it to work at times too.
The Innovation Paradox
It’s drummed into us in our schools and careers that we should be solving problems that others have, doing research, analysing competitors, designing, prototyping, and getting feedback to do it all again better next time. These are valuable steps in working on big projects with stakeholders pumping in their money, after all you need to make sure the outcome is profitable in some way.
On the other hand, we’ll meet people along the way who tell us that we must be creative and think outside the box to stand out from the crowd. We should do something different and unique, find a niche, break the mould.
These two can be done together, and in an ideal world they probably should, but we don’t all have infinite time to work through projects in this way.
Working in a corporate innovation setting, this problem that I’m naming the Innovation Paradox (please don’t sue me if you came up with that already ❤️) has been nagging me for the past 3-4 years. It’s also been one of the main hurdles that’s stopped me pursuing a handful of side projects. Before I can make meaningful progress on realising an idea, I’ll ask myself: “Is this the right thing to do?”.
The case for just building things
For the first time in years, I feel I’ve got my mojo back when it comes to me doing me. Recent events and conversations I’ve had with friends have made me realise with greater clarity than ever before that it just doesn’t matter if what I’m building has no impact to anyone. It sounds so obvious when we say it’s OK to fail. But actually doing something is the real challenge. I’m having to go against 90% of what I’ve learned through formal education and on-the-job learning and it’s tough.
Here’s my arguments for not following a structured project with deadlines and not trying so hard to be unique, but to just build something for fun.
Building things for others can be a waste of time
If you plan on building for someone else, how do you know they’ll use what you build in the end? User research, interviews and testing helps, if you have the time to sink into them. But even after you’ve started building, will your target audience’s tastes change? And how will you know if what you’ve built is too little or too much? Sometimes people don’t know what they want until you show them, and even then it may not be good enough. If I just build something I want, I’ve got nothing to manage but my own desire to build.
Building something for fun may be the only way to progress
I’m talking here about getting on the ladder. In my early career, I struggled to stand out because I didn’t have a solid portfolio. So I built my own and learned jQuery (those were the days) along the way. This only took me weeks instead of months and I landed myself a job shortly after. Completing that project gave me confidence, and something to show off about myself. I’ve had similar things happen in my career since then, such as this blog being something a hiring manager spotted and it made for a good talking point.
It’s a safe way to produce concrete outputs
You’re not going to upset anyone, unless you really try to. Please don’t do that. The point I’m making is if you build for your own agenda, your mind can run wild. It’s a very liberating feeling when you convince yourself that you can build absolutely anything you want. Granted, this is probably something you need to work at and I imagine the more experienced you are in something the more liberated you’ll feel. But it’s still a safe place to be in. Don’t worry what others will think of your work, it’s yours. And once you complete it, that’s something you can show off and prove that you can take an idea through to fruition.
It’ll make you stand out
The irony in all of what I’ve said so far is - having the courage to just build something is likely what most people want to do, and will envy you for if you just do it. You’ll get the standard questions about why you built it and who you built it for, but underneath that, it’s a strength to show off that you really can just get stuff done against the odds. And anyway, you can always go back and fill in the blanks later - build it first.
Take all this with salt
I let too many thoughts get in the way of my creativity and ability to produce outcomes when it comes to side projects, and I’m guessing this is the same story for many others out there. If we just get our fingers on keyboards and translate ideas into reality we’ll have a lot more to actually show for our time.
I’m in a particular state of mind lately that’s gotten my creative juices flowing again, and I’ll be doing what I can to sustain that for as long as I can, so I suppose this last part is a light disclaimer just in case I’ve said anything I’ll later regret:
You should make up your own mind about what you do with your time on and off work. Whilst just building stuff has its benefits as covered above, just remember where you are and what’s really important in your life right now. For me, it’s my family above all else, they come first. With what time I have left in the day, I’ll be pumping into building whatever the heck I feel like! 🔨