Archive: Straight lines and circles – September 16, 2005

(This podcast is pulled “from the archives” and presented here as a service to more recent listeners — Douglas)

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As a high-tech worker, I am sure you try to compartmentalize your work. You make budgets, timelines and project plans, but you fail to notice one important aspect of your work…nothing is ever finished. Sure, you might get the PC or network installed or the new program operating. You might even think the project is “complete”, but tomorrow will bring changes, requests and problems that put the lie to your false sense of closure. Just like the painters of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, you might reach the end of the job one day, but you soon find that it is simply time to start all over again.

Think in circles, not in lines

Thinking in a straight line, from start to finish can lead to a number of problems in your work. One of the worst examples is the project that is obsolete before it is complete. I am sure you have run into a program like this, or will very soon. Thinking only about the end of the project can cause you to blindly keep moving forward even when the destination has moved. Your project doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so neither can your project planning.

Each project needs to be constantly re-evaluated. Has new hardware appeared that functions more quickly at half the cost? Has the manufacturer significantly upgraded their software? Have estimates, reviews and budgets been proven flawed? If so, don’t keep going down the wrong road. Change direction immediately. In today’s project thinking, though, this can be very difficult. No one wants to admit a mistake was made, even if there was little or no way to know at the time.

Instead of thinking of projects as a straight-line progression from beginning to end, you need to start thinking of projects as circular. A project might begin at any point on the circle but there is never truly an end. In some cases, you might come around the perimeter of the circle to the Start/Finish line, but you will immediately see that the end is also a new beginning of a new project. Programmers often begin working on the new revision of their software immediately after, or even while they are completing the current one. In other projects, you might jump off the circle entirely, spinning off a new project, while abandoning the old. Perhaps the company has suddenly decided not to pursue a new business area. That project stops wherever it is in the cycle and you jump off to the new project.

Viewing projects as circular gives you the freedom to change, diverge from the plan, strike out for new territory, if the project calls for such a move. Use this metaphor enough and you begin to see that projects aren’t a horse race to the finish line, but more of a logical and holistic progression along the circle.

Career Circles

You should also consider your career as a circle. While we often diagram career growth as a series of stair steps, the truth is often different. In today’s business world, we often spin our career off to new jobs and new companies. Sometimes this is planned and, at others, change catches us unaware. One circle lies half-completed, while we may make numerous circuits around another. I had one particular time in my career where I completed the circle 5 times, rising slightly higher at each revolution until I jumped off to pursue another line of work. In some cases, like myself, you might be traveling multiple circles at once. In my case, I have separate, but related, careers in technology, writing and even a small one in music.

A career never lies in a straight line. Even in the old days of the “Company Man” it took the form of stair steps rising up to the corner office on the top floor. A career is an endless cycle, with beginnings and endings occurring each and every day.

If you are having a difficult time understanding and managing your projects, or your career, you might require a new way of thinking. The concept of the circle and the cycles they represent is an ancient one, but applying this concept to our modern day cycles might just be a great way of enhancing your high-tech career.

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