February 3, 2020

Good ideas start bad

Developing your ideas is not an easy feat. You don’t always know what the idea is. You get a general topic to look into, and start exploring. More ideas come out of it, more precise thoughts that come with the first research. It becomes a big pool of ideas, which doesn’t always make sense together.

That’s a quick example of what could happen when you are trying to write a blog post, just like this one. It can get overwhelming. It can get messy.

I’ve started to develop a bit of a process for this. It still needs refinment, and I’m not the first person to struggle with this problem, but I’ll still give it a shot. I’ll try to create something that makes sense, for you to be able to use, before I can shamelessly pitch you my project that could help you with that.

The process of organizing your ideas goes through multiple phases. You first explore the idea, just getting everything out of you, what you know, what you think. You then organize those ideas, in a more coherent ensemble. It seems straigthforward, but it is not easy. During both steps, you get to discover missing ideas, and how they can go together. It will be an iterative process of exploration and organization, one after the other, until you reach the point where you can say “good enough”.

Exploration

There are multiple ways to explore a new idea. You can write, draw, read… Anything that suits you. Just put your ideas, anything, out of your head. When I have something I really cannot wrap my head around, I usually create a tree of the elements that come to my mind. This helps me cut through the fog, and see a little bit clearer. And with those new elements usually come an other wave of ideas, that I can integrate with the previous ones.

You get ideas out of your head and save them, so that others can pop up where they were taking mental space.

Exploration using a tree is great, but it is also quite limited in some regards. By hand, you cannot really add elements between leaves, where they would actually need to go. On a computer, it it quite hard to get quick schematics done, unless you have a tablet with a pen. I think integrating those two together can be really powerful, especially for visual learners. It could also be done for auditory learners, by integrating speech to the tree, which is probably much easier on the user, since now all phones and computers are equipped with a microphone.

Exploration is not something that is linear. You’ll start by a part of the idea, see the direct neighboring elements, then decompose each idea down, until you know what each of the components are and you can link them together to go back up the tree chain.

Exploration is the most creative part of the process, where you need to let ideas flow out of you. As for a lot of other processes, this is very messy. You may end up with pages of writing, long lists of ideas. Just a huge pile of mess that you put all together in not defined order. Now comes the time for organization.

Organization

Organizing ideas means putting them together in a way that makes sense. The related parts go together, and flow from one to the other with logical transitions.

When you start organizing, you don’t necessarily know which ideas go together well, or what the transitions will be. Start with the obvious ones, those you see right away. They start making blocs, that contain an bigger idea. Bigger that the individual parts, but smaller than the overarching theme.

With that, you have an other starting point from where you can get back to exploration, seeing where there are elements missing, and if you have any idea what they can be.

One element that can be useful for organization is to visualize the way ideas go together, by putting them in the correct order, the correct hierarchy. It can be a list, a tree, a mindmap, a schematic. It expands our capacity to wrap our head around the idea by helping group some of its parts together. It helps change the abstraction level really easily, by focusing on one part or an other.

But as for every method, it can become quite messy, or too big to even see the big picture. You should be able to have the whole of it filtered down, especially when you are in focusing mode, and not in “distracted” mode. You want to find the information, idea, quickly when taking a look on it. You want it to help you, not be a distraction everytime you look at it.

What now ?

I also create small hand-written schematics. They often end up not being finished, and I usually do multiple takes, modifying parts of it on each iteration, improving on the design every time. [This next part does not go with the two elements. Am I missing an “implementation” step ?] Then I start implementing this schematic, see the roadblocks I encounter, and come back to designing, to idea exploration. [This is both exploration and organization at the same time, and each iteration is to make the organization clearer]

What about inventing something new with this method ? You can write down all your new ideas, decompose them as you see fit, and then discard the ones that do not seem as good as the others. Or you can keep them and try all the ideas out. This is a good method when you need to be creative, which can be in a painting or a scientific project.

Computer infrastructure and programming are two domains that seem to be very linear from the outside, but that actually are extremely creative. You very often have to go around limitations of the tools you’re using, or thinking of the different possibilities to do a single implementation, so that it is as easily maintainable in the future as possible.

To help with those steps, I am creating a tool that helps you not just mapping out what you see inside of the idea, but also helps you think, reorganize, capture and visualize it. I want this tool to be alive, not just a list of items. It should be moving, breathing, not get in the way of your thinking but help its flow.

This is why I will be implementing, in my project, Treesque, two actions that will help filter the elements during a focus work session. The first action will be a collapsing of the tree, allowing to reduce a whole subtree to a single top element. The second action will be to filter the tree by tags, so that only the tasks related to this tag will appear in the tree. Those two options are meant to reduce the mental burden on yourself when you want to focus on a very specific part of the tree.

Copyright Marin Gilles 2019-2021