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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • November 4, 2011
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Great work is often built on the mundane. 

Today’s post is an article I wrote for Michael Bungay-Stanier‘s superb publication ‘End Malaria‘. If you haven’t got a copy, you should, and here’s why.
End Malaria

Great cathedrals start with bricks, great paintings begin with paint, and great novels start with words.

No-one ever castigated F Scott Fitzgerald for failing to invent new words – his brilliance lies in how he used the exact same 26 letters we all use. No-one ever complained that Picasso failed to invent new colors – his brilliance (or a major part of it, at least) is in the way he combined colors that already exist to form something new and original. And while Gaudi may have come close, even he didn’t invent new shapes – he ‘merely’ used the existing constraints of three dimensions in ways we’d never seen before.

And though it may not always seem so grand, just like Fitzgerald, Picasso and Gaudi, as managers and leaders, every day we engage with the mundane to (hopefully) create something great. And for me, the tool I use that most helps me accelerate that process is something truly mundane: the use of templates.

In the world of information engineers (which we all are these days), our raw materials aren’t bricks or paint – they’re usually blocks of raw information that we need to somehow transform into something great – a plan, a proposal, a report, a blueprint, a book, a product, a speech, a presentation, a conversation…whatever it is that you do each day. And it’s in how we interpret those blocks of raw data – and even more importantly, how we communicate our interpretation – that greatness lies.

The step where I get bogged down – and which causes me to produce merely good work, as opposed to great work – is the literal, physical act of transforming my personal insight about mundane data into something readable by others. Whether the end result needs to be a two by two graph, a blog post, a book chapter, an email, a spreadsheet, a pdf, a web-ready image, a web page, a snip of video or audio…or an article for an insanely great compilation like this, the point at which I can lose my enthusiasm, begin to get unfocussed, or simply just lose my way because it is so tiresome is in translating my insight into the final ‘product’.

That’s why I have templates. Literally hundreds of them. They’re all filed and tagged so I can recover them easily and instantly. I have templates for every common output model I use (see then list above), and once I envision the shape of the output I want, I can pull up the appropriate template and start producing the final product right away.

Does this mean that there’s a sameness (or worse, a staleness) to everything I do? I hope not, because the time, energy and enthusiasm I would have wasted trying to create from scratch a two-by-two graph or the structure of an email, is instead invested in making this graph, this email ‘sing’.

I’ve built up my template inventory over the last ten years, and I continue to add to it regularly. It saves me literally hours of work every single day, and more importantly, it allows me to direct my creative energies almost exclusively on making each individual piece of work I produce great (or at least as great as I can make it).


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