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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Why quick wins spell success

Getting ahead in the research game is a bit like playing Scrabble, says Alex Ward-Booth. It’s not about how erudite you are, it’s about making the most of what’s in front of you and getting points on the board quickly.

I’ve just learnt to play Scrabble. I have been playing the game since I was a kid, but I only properly figured it out last week while my wife and I were visiting her parents (who don’t have a television – hence the boardgames).

For me, Scrabble has always been about thinking of the longest and most pretentious word you can and trying to shoehorn it onto a space on the board somewhere.

So there I was, sitting back happy having scored 10 points with the word “usury” – which came to me after about 20 minutes of deliberation – when my wife took all of 30 seconds to spell “yard”, using my Y, and getting about 37 points in the process. Then the father-in-law put down “wool” and racked up another 50 points with the strategic use of a couple of those double-word/double-letter score squares (which I considered beneath me to use).

I endured this silent and metaphorical beating for what felt like hours before the penny finally dropped: they were playing the same game as me, but in a completely different way. In their version, it didn’t matter how erudite (12 points) you were, it was all about what you could make out of what you had in front of you and get points on the board, simply and quickly.

I realised later that our jobs as researchers are a bit like that too. The speed at which we work has rapidly increased in line with the development of our technologies and systems. It’s now no longer acceptable to drag things off into our own personal corners and promise to tell people what we’re doing once it’s done. If a piece of work takes too long to finish, it becomes redundant, no matter how well it’s been done or how elegantly crafted it is.

The lesson here isn’t “Do it now and don’t think about it too much”, otherwise you’d end up just delivering half-finished work and running around like a headless chicken. But after my Scrabble thrashing, I tried a new approach. When I got into work on Monday morning I looked at my to-do list and asked myself: “Which one of these things is going to deliver the right thing to the right person at the right time?”. I did that first, and nothing else. I did it well enough so I only had to do it once, but I didn’t over-think it. I set myself a time-limit and stuck to it. The only reason I would have stopped is if someone or something I considered more important had got in the way.

It sounds a bit hard-nosed, but that’s precisely the point. The key thing is that everything we do needs to deliver something useful to someone but with the least possible effort. Don’t be ashamed if sometimes this means that you leave work on time with no stress; in my experience some of the best insights come while relaxing and enjoying the ‘real world’. And of course, on some days this approach works better than others. But my suggestion is that regardless of what you want to get out of your work day, you need to get points on the board as soon as you can so you can get on or get home.

Alex Ward-Booth is strategy and insight manager (foods) for Danone Baby Nutrition UK

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Readers' comments (3)

  • This principle is where perfectionists lose out.

    But it's where they can win when they learn the lesson -- because they can still do 'perfect' when there's the call for it.

    Richard
    http://Wordfruit.com/blog

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  • Is there a research equivalent of memorising all the two-letter words? Grrrr.

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  • Thanks for your comments. I think most researchers have a bit of the perfectionist gene in them (probably comes from constantly checking questionnaires!). I think you're spot on; the biggest opportunity is for us perfectionists to let go when the time is right, because we can always switch it back on again.

    I think the research equivalent of the two letter words are the little short-cuts to insight we all pick up along the years (usually the deceptively simple question), but I don't want to torture the metaphor too much....

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