It’s not what you say, it’s…

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“Hi, Fred. Nice Jumper.”

“Gee, thanks…”

My old music instructor used to have a saying: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” It became a bit of a mantra. Our high-school band benefited from this saying whenever he pointed out that while our notes might have been right, and our rhythm more or less on time, the pieces still sounded “damp”, “flat”, “wishy-washy” or a host of other qualifiers. He’d say, “Think about two people: one says to the other: ‘Nice shirt…’ in a tone which makes you think his next thought is: ‘I didn’t know the charity shop did give-aways?’ He didn’t really mean it’s a nice shirt, right?”

I think this mantra applies to any creative situation, and It’s something from which everyone from artists to executive managers can benefit. However, I’d go a bit further than Mr. Smith did. I’d say: “It’s not what you say, it’s that you say it well!” For me, it’s a balance between getting the notes right, and making sure the tune’s lively. Or, to break out of this moderately over-extended metaphor, making sure your processes, data, procedures, and the rest are done right, but also that they’re put to their best use.

It’s all very well having high-quality data, dutifully collected over the course of a project, stored well, and properly curated. If, at the end of the project, the only thing you have to report is that you have such data, it seems to me the project was a bit damp, wishy-washy or flat. Or, maybe your data are put to use, but they’re presented in a plain, non-innovative way, they’re never going to reach their full potential. It’s the balance between high-quality data, and a well-developed application. It’s at this interplay between planning and execution, I think, that projects live or die.

Nor is this just about software development. Governmental projects, street-parties, departmental mergers, and buying Christmas presents would all seem to me to need this balance to succeed. The interplay is the hard part, and it’s a balance of resource allocation, strategy, timing and creativity. It’s also the most unpredictable point, and it’s reflected everywhere:

That moment you throw the ingredients into a heated pan, or begin plating up your party meal

That bit between re-reading and publishing a blog post

That split-second before saying a comforting phrase to a hurting friend

The seconds between shelf and shopping basket

The hours between announcement and “go live”

It’s exciting, it’s nerve-racking, it’s crucial. All of these will fail, or fail to impress, if the execution and assessment are not aligned. Cooking rubbish steak well will be hard work for little reward. A well-written article without a good understanding or decent research will fall flat; or, likewise, a stack of well-thought-out ideas or conclusions thrown into a document without care or skill wrecks weeks of hard graft. And the list goes on.

So, what am I saying?

Make sure your projects, whether at work or at home, are well-planned. But, don’t waste this effort with a poor execution or an epic fail at the last hurdle. It’s the best stuff born from the energy of this balance that you’ll remember and will provide stepping stones for future work. And, frankly, you owe it to yourself, your customers, and society to stop ticking along.

Plan in some innovation at the beginning of a project. A dinner party with a bit of “je ne sais quoi” doesn’t just happen, and it’ll need some time to get the tweks and “I’d never have thought of that” moments. Your non-profit will let your cause down if you continue to do what’s always been done or over-use an idea that worked so well in 1995.

Tune your instruments, ladies and gentlemen, but make sure you’re in tune yourselves.

Or, as Mr. Smith used to say: “It needs to sound so good, it’ll turn goats piss into gasoline!” And no one could ever think of any reply…

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