Getting Unstuck

When you're working through new ideas, inevitably you'll reach a point where you get stuck.  Left unchecked, you'll start thinking in circles until you reach exhaustion and then stop moving altogether.  Moreover, you start to waste time.  

Here's what I've learned about how to approach this.

First, a reframing: stuckness is just a symptom of not having enough information.  That is, the path forward isn't for you to think harder or to magically snap your fingers and become smarter.  You've already considered all the possibilities and scenarios 100 different ways.  You're missing the information you need to make a decision.

To address this, there's a five-step process:

  1. What information are you missing that would otherwise make the decision you face easier to uncover?
  2. Who is likely to have access to that information?
  3. How will you access those people?
  4. Go talk to them.
  5. Are you still stuck?  If so, go back to Step 1.

Now, this is a pretty simple process, but in practice it's #2 and #3 where things get tricky.

For instance, we don't know who to talk to, but we believe that the answer is "out there somewhere".  Or, it might be that no one has the information that we need, in which case the discomfort you may be feeling is simply the trepidation of knowingly putting an imperfect solution out in the world and having to cross your fingers to see what will happen.

Or, we might know who we need to talk to but we don't know how to access them.  They may be outside of our network or there may be gatekeepers actively preventing us from accessing them.

In both these cases, a common strategy is to launch a signal—something you can easily make which is intended to elicit a response from your intended audience.  Think of it as fishing bait.  Certain fish respond to different bait, or they don't.  Your job is to align the bait towards the types of fish you're trying to catch.

Practically speaking, it's something online with a URL and it should be easily produced in minutes or days rather than weeks.  Tweets, blog posts, online resources, stories are great examples of this.  They can be broadly distributed online via social media (in the event that you don't know who you're targeting or don't have access), or included as links in direct emails (if you do have access to who you need).  And ultimately, they should be framed in a way that invite a conversation.  Often you have to clearly invite people into a conversation in order for them to engage.

Signals are like prototypes, in that they can take whatever form possible—they're not just about putting out a crappy version of your product—and that they're modestly intended to get you just the information that you need so you can continue to make forward progress towards your overall goal.

This is also one of the best reasons to start an online community before you start building a product, almost as a preventative measure.  If you can create a space—a forum, a slack, an email list—that successfully attracts and engages the people critical to your work, then you'll have proximity to who you are building for and it will make #2 and #3 a non-issue.

Aside from reducing the number of occurrences of getting stuck, you'll likely avoid numerous product development pitfalls (i.e. making incorrect assumptions, attempting to impose solutions, creating misalignment from the start, etc...) which may be an issue depending upon the complexity of your challenge.  

And of course, especially as we are squarely in the Deployment Phase, it's never been more important to embrace a philosophy of building with and not simply for.