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Spreadsheet Productivity

A while back I asked Mike Cassidy about his productivity method. Here is what he said:

Hey Joel,

Here’s my system.  I’m sure it’s not the most efficient system in the world, but it works for me.
– I have a big list of over 150 todo items in an excel spreadsheet.  2 columns: “date” and “action item”
– Over the course of the day, I’ll jot down on paper new todo’s to add.
– At the end of the day, I’ll add the new todo’s into my spreadsheet and assign a date to each one.
– Then I sort the spreadsheet by date.
– I’ll look at all the items listed for the next day.  Usually about 20.  Then I may push some out to a later date (for follow up) or cross some of the list if they’re done.  So maybe I have 15 left.  I print those out.
– The next day when I come in I have my 15 todo items ready to go.
– One good thing is that it’s easy to follow up on stuff because it’s easy to push dates out for follow up….
Mike :)


Here’s a sparse example of this simple method. You can view the google doc here.

Spreadsheet Productivity


What is great about this?
  1. Simplicity
  2. Speed
  3. Commit

The simplicity and speed should be apparent. The daily review is key, too. But as I’ve thought over this method for a few years, I think the hinge that makes it brilliant is this:

It forces the commit.

You must prune the master list daily, perhaps before you even put it down. But then what you do enter into the system MUST have a date! It instantly brings a time demand to the entry.

This method both scares and intrigues me (scares because you HAVE to commit) and intrigues because it seems that consistently following it could have a great impact on how you make decisions and plan.

My guess is that this method plays extremely well with Mike’s business approach of “speed as competitive advantage.”

(Find the slides here.)

At the moment of this posting, I’m primarily using a 2 list system in Evernote. However, I might just need to give this method another try!

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But what would you do if you knew how to do it?

She said, “I don’t know how to put them on. You do it!”

She is three, and the zipper at the back of her sandals seemed formidable. She forgot that she had put them on by herself a week ago. It would be easier to get someone else to do it.

“Well, what would you do if you didn’t know how to put them on?”

“I don’t know how! You do it!”

“Ok, well just show me. If you did know how to put them on, what would you do?”

Finally she gave it a shot and showed me exactly how she didn’t know how to put on the sandals – one successful foot at a time.

I wonder how often we all do this. We shrink back from doing “that thing” because we’re uncertain. We’re not sure if we have what it takes. We’re not the kind of person who does things like that.

Well, what if we approached it as an experiment. If we did know what to do, what would we attempt?

We might just have what it takes to walk in that pair of shoes.

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Better writing through ostrich in coffee shop

What makes for better writing? An ostrich might be part of the answer.

It is the only building in the country that is dedicated to the craft of writing at the pre-college level.

That’s how they describe The Writing House at Interlochen Center for the Arts.



We had to check it out. Because how do you build a building just for the “art of writing?”

Here’s a list of some things I noticed:

  • natural elements (wood)
  • light (lots of glass)
  • many nooks for writing, reading and conversing
  • small classrooms
  • bean bags
  • a video editing room
  • whiteboards
  • magnetic word board
  • teachers offices
  • a central gathering space (could host a tiny concert, lectures, speaking series)
  • a piano (only use when NO ONE IS TRYING TO DO ANYTHING)
  • a patio
  • art
  • bookshelves with books and writing resources
  • a coffee shop (including a stuffed Ostrich!)

My takeaway…

A place that makes for good writing might be a place that allows for intersections of ideas as well as places to withdraw and reflect. Not just good for writing, this seems like a kind of place that is good for thinking.

What about you, what are your best places for writing and thinking?

(If I was going to add a kind of place, I would need to include an empty space with only the things I need to work on, a place to take a good walk, and maybe a deadline).

Also, some pics below!

writing-house-art-nook writing-house-classroom writing-house-coffee-ostrich writing-house-hallway writing-house-meeting writing-house-nook writing-house-sign



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Just because it’s been uprooted doesn’t mean that the forest has died. Or that the sun has stopped shining. This may be the end. Of something. For now.

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Competitive Advantage in the #SOCIALERA

I’ve been reading Nilofer Merchant‘s book on the #SOCIALERA. The main point is that “Traditional Strategy” is dead. For example, one shift is that organizations can’t behave like 800 lbs. gorillas who use a single driving strategy to dominate a given space – and then expect to hold their place in the market for decades. Those business models are being disrupted every day (uber, airbnb, *cough, cough*).

Instead, the shift is toward the idea of 800 gazelles who are able to act independently and make shifts quickly and gracefully as a herd.


This phrase stuck out in particular:

In the Social Era, the idea is to get the general direction right and rely on feedback loops to iterate and adjust direction.

And it brought on a few simple illustrations.

What Traditional Competitive Advantage Looks Like:

  Traditional competitive advantage

What Competitive Advantage in the #SOCIALERA Looks Like:




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Should or could

When I was a kid I would sometimes get concerned about doing the right thing in some really mundane situations.

“Mom, can I go to a friend’s house?”


“But should I?”


I’ve been learning about decision fatigue. Basically, in some matters, making a decision is more valuable than which decision you make.

If it’s of little consequence, just make a decision. You’ll  have saved energy for a more important decision.

But, what if it is important? And you’re inclined toward indecision?

Here’s one starting point. Instead of all the options of what you should do, what about what you can do?

In one of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, Kirk says this line:

I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.

The context was somewhere in the realm of “everything is falling apart” and he did not know what the textbook answer to that scenario should be.

That line has stuck with me. In uncertain situations, I’ll often not know what the best possible choice of action is. But maybe I have a starting point, a course of action that takes into account current resources, abilities and experience.

So if there’s an overwhelming, possibly chaotic event unfolding, maybe this is an option: what can you do?

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Comfortable vs. Safe

Are you living in safe or comfortable?

Seth Godin put it this way:

Doing the best I can

…is actually not the same as, “doing everything I can.”

When we tell people we’re doing the best we can, we’re actually saying, “I’m doing the best I’m comfortable doing.”

As you’ve probably discovered, great work makes us uncomfortable.

 And then there’s this from Paul Jarvis.

Only by experimenting with fear can we find our true limits – no the limits we think we have, because these are only assumptions until we try. When we push up against fear, we realize that our limits are much further away than we realized; sometimes those limits are so distant, we can’t even see them.

– Paul Jarvis, Everything I Know, pg. 78

Even the next layer beyond safe isn’t much threat. By “Risk To Reputation” I mean that it might hurt your image, you might lose some confidence, maybe your judgment will be questioned, but it’s more of a superficial loss. It appears to be a poor choice. But I’d rather know if and what you learned in those moments. 

There are probably many more layers in this inception quadrant – and eventually if you get too careless you may actually hurt yourself or someone else. But the whole point is this:

We tend to live with a much smaller set of assumptions as to what choices we have available to us.

We live bound by our own insecurities, fears and comfort.

Maybe it’s time to see ourselves and others in a new light. With the possibilities of who they could be. And maybe we can be willing to step out just a little into more of the possible and available choices that we have in our work and day to day activities.  

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Beauty vs. Ugly (Part 1 of 2)

Last fall I took suggestions for topics to dive into. One of the ideas was “Beauty vs. Ugly.” I decided to take it on and pretty quickly knew at least two people I wanted to talk to because of their perspectives. This is part 1 of 2. It’s an interview with Dan Denardo about looking just a little bit harder to find beauty.

Dan Denardo On Learning to See

I recalled a post from Dan Denardo where he talked about how easy it is to miss beauty if you’re only looking for it in obvious places. Dan is a photographer, but his way of approaching life is something we all can learn from.

He had written about what choosing (or not choosing) to see the beauty around you.

From his post:

I would much rather discover beauty than have it handed to me on a platter. I don’t need overused clichés of beauty. I have seen the beaches of Thailand and the Caribbean, the rainforests of Brazil, the Swiss Alps, Venice, Rome, Nice, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the canals of The Netherlands, Mount McKinley and more. I loved them all, but if I didn’t see the more “pedestrian” beauty around me, I’d be missing an important and fulfilling part of life.

This is hard. It’s easy to get caught up in seeking the next adventure, the next shiny object, the next great thing that might be somewhere else.

But what about this moment? What about seeking the everyday beauty that might be playing hide and seek?

It’s about learning to see.

Hoar Frost Abstraction

Photo by Dan Denardo. Read the story behind it here.

And it’s something we need to train ourselves in.

I suspect that living here has made me a better seer. When I hear people criticize this area, it saddens me. Not because they’re badmouthing the area I’ve chosen to live, but because they are choosing not to see. They’re being lazy with a God-given gift. They are putting their brain in neutral. There is beauty here, they just don’t see it. It’s on a different measuring stick.

We talked on the phone about this perspective and you can LISTEN RIGHT HERE:

He told me that, “Yeah, I’m a photographer, but more specifically, I’m a seer.”

One of the ways that his being a seer plays out is in simple things.

It’s goofy things too. I look up toward the sky more than other people do so I see things up in trees or I see cloud formations. I just make the effort unconsciously to do that stuff when other people don’t.

"Seedless" - Such a fun deconstruction.

Photo by Dan Denardo. “Seedless” – Such a fun deconstruction.

So is this something that can be learned?

Dan says that it’s a muscle you have to train. You can give yourself assignments that will push you to grow in your ability to see:

  • shoot things of a certain color
  • shoot things and shapes that spell out your name
  • shoot things that could mean something else
  • shoot things in a certain genre, like the 4 “r’s” – Rust, Ruin, Ramshackle & Rubble

One lesson: Obvious beauty and beauty that you have to seek out can be equally fulfilling (consider the Grand Canyon versus a desert flower.

It’s really about a passion for seeing and you might be surprised when the work you most want to share is your personal projects (over commercial ones).

My sense is that people who do it have always done it, and people who don’t do it have never done it.

Such a great story behind this one too.

Photo by Dan Denardo. Such a great story behind this one too.

I was also curious about Dan’s process for his personal projects. Here’s how they generally happen for him:

You can give yourself assignments, but for me I do it almost unconsciously. They just kind of bubble up. If I have something that bubbles up to the surface and I want to make it an assignment, I write it down and then I make a roadmap to help me get it done. And nine times out of 10 I do get them done.


  1. Notice ideas that bubbles up
  2. If one sticks out, write it down
  3. Make a roadmap for completing it
  4. Do it
Read the post here.

Photo by Dan Denardo. Read the post here.

Just for repetition,

If I have an idea I write it down. And then I turn it into a goal, and then I go off in pursuit of the goal.

I, for one, aim to train my seeing muscle with a little more intention.


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Setting things up in order of priority


From what I can tell, it doesn’t matter which ride gets set up first for the local carnival. It’s not going to be in action until the whole thing is ready.

However, when I see a Ferris wheel, what does that signal? 

It signifies that there is more, that the whole experience is going to be available. And for a bonus, it’s a signal that can be seen from farther away simply because of what it is.

So maybe it doesn’t matter if the game kiosk goes up first. But if you’re trying to tell a story and have it told as early as possible, why not go ahead and get the Ferris wheel up?

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How some fears survive

At summer camp, one of the cabins had a wasp problem. Nope, no fun.

When I got there to check on it, it was easy to see that these wasps were not just outside, but had made nests inside the walls. And it scared some campers.

These wasps looked dangerous with their yellow and black markings. No one had been stung, and for this I was glad.

When the camp manager came to take care of the situation, he clarified what kind of a problem we were dealing with.

These aren’t aggressive wasps. They’re dirt daubers, and they survive by looking like the scary kind.

These were even difficult to provoke. You would have to really try to get them to sting you.
And some fears are that way. They look scary, but are pretty harmless. It’s good to know the difference and treat them accordingly. And if you can’t tell, it’s great to have someone who can help discern which is which.

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The Tension Between

There’s a tension in the work we create.

On one hand there is the need to test, fail fast, ship, respond. On the other is the bigger picture of what this is all building toward.

Pressfield’s The War of Art wasn’t an immediate hit. But it was about the long game and it has continued to gain traction over the course of several years.

The work of Krista Tippett and her team at On Being isn’t in response to the latest trends. They aren’t trying to ride the emotions of a current crisis. Instead, their focus is simply asking important questions that are relevant to the human experience.

Perhaps part of the tension is in the purpose of shipping fast. Is it to test something? A small experiment? What happens if we try this?

And then maybe that gets combined with the longer vision, the bigger purpose.

And then maybe that becomes a culture of experimentation where prodding, poking and testing leads to relevant ways to accomplish the goal we’re aiming toward.

Kind of like a pilot or driver who makes thousands of small incremental changes and adjustments (and sometimes huge ones) in order to reach the chosen destination.

A worthy goal plus relentless creative pursuits toward making it happen…

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One Simple Approach to Writing A Book

It’s easy to get caught up in the technique of process, the mystique of the imagined world of writing, the nebulous ether of what it might mean to thrash in the creative space.

Instead, I like this really simple approach by Chris Brogan in Owner’s Mastery Foundation Group #232:

You want to write a book?

  1. Start with the Table of Contents.
  2. When that’s done, ask whether someone would buy the book? Ask what they’ll learn.
  3. Adjust the Table of Contents accordingly.
  4. Repeat a few times.

Cut to the chase. Make the process simple. Jump in.

Also, simple doesn’t mean easy.

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Known in the State of California

I don’t always read warning labels, but when I do they occasionally make me chuckle.

Like this one that was on a Tiki torch:

This product… may contain chemicals KNOWN TO THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA to cause…

I’m not quite sure how that works. Why does California have this special knowledge that is unknown in New Mexico, Kansas and Rhode Island?

And then I wonder… How many times do we practice selective knowledge? Or selective denial? Or when does our territory define what we accept as true? Or when is something declared true by a group around us when it might not be so.

Here’s to having open eyes to see things as they are, and also understanding the lenses through which those around us see.

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A little window

Hilton Magnificent Mile

I was in Chicago. At the hotel, there was a window on the way to the elevator. But instead of showing you outside, it let you see into the restaurant kitchen. You could see what they were making today. And they placed a card in the window inviting you to come enjoy the day’s special dish.

It’s easy to get caught up in what “I” am doing. On what “I” might be able to offer. On “my” perspective.

When I saw the little window, I was convinced this is a practice I need to get better at. Simply let folks into the process. Let them see what’s cookin’. Where they could just be looking at a blank wall, instead give a glimpse of the actual work. It could lead to a completely new set of conversations.

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Ice Cream vs. Gelato

On Monday, I asked my email subscribers for a topic, situation, or scenario that I could dive into for the week. I wanted to try something different. A game of sorts. A challenge to explore something for a week and then post about it by Friday.

A response I received (thanks Heather!) said this:

Ice cream vs gelato.


So I was off to figure out what the differences are.

Starting the dive

I quickly found an article about the differences. It helped get a quick orientation, but I’m not sure how accurate the descriptions are.

Next, an article in Forbes about an unlikely location for the best Gelato in the United States. I was intrigued, though. And quickly decided I would try to interview the Morgan Morano of Morano Gelato.

Blue Bell

I also wanted to try to talk with someone from Blue Bell Ice Cream. So I did. Listen below to the full conversation that I had with Kaysie Noska.

Some interesting things about Blue Bell Ice Cream:

  • If it has bananas, they were hand-peeled
  • Although they don’t have their own cows, they purchase from co-ops.
  • The Brenham location daily uses the milk from 60,000 cows
  • Homemade vanilla is the #1 flavor
  • They’re constantly trying new flavors and taking input from consumers
  • So far, they’ve stayed away from social media

When I checked my freezer, guess what I found?


Morano Gelato

I then spoke with Morgan Morano.

After studying history and anthropology in college, she went into culinary school and eventually she moved to Florence, Italy.

There she stumbled across a Sicilian gelato shop. She was intrigued. This led to being mentored by the chef of that shop, Antonio Cafarelli. She wanted to learn how to make gelato. He wanted to learn how to make American cheesecake. One of their collaborations was a peanut butter gelato.

She found that when it comes to the best gelato:

There’s a craft, an art, a tradition. No one in America was making gelato the true way.

Later, in Hanover, NH she started offering her Gelato at the local farmers market.

The first day people tried it. And then they were sold.

She had come up with her own technique, combining her experience making ice cream as a pastry chef with the tradition that she learned in Florence.


Image courtesy of Morano Gelato

The hardest parts of launching the business were convincing people how good it is (although not really a problem once they tried it!) and securing a bank loan.

Her business quickly grew into its own store location, and is now in the process of expanding to other locations and outlets. Still, she wants to keep the small community ethic as it expands.

Fun Facts about Gelato:

  • Sicilian gelato is primarily water based with some milk
  • It’s lower in butter fat than American Ice cream. This helps you perceive the flavor more (because butter fat coats the tongue).
  • All the flavors are derived from a single base
  • It’s a digestive

Morgan’s Case for Gelato

Although I prefer Gelato, I love American Ice Cream as well.

Gelato is generally healthier than most ice cream: lower butter fat, generally made with fresh, healthier products, no artificial flavorings. No paste or fillers.

 Penny Lick Ice Cream

In talking with Morgan, I was reminded of something that I heard from Seth Godin. He had made reference to someone selling Ice Cream at a local farmers market. I thought it could be a lead. I found out that it was Penny Lick Ice Cream.

Ellen Sledge agreed to an interview. You can check it out here:

Ellen also started at a farmers market, with a single cart and one machine. She’s using only the freshest ingredients. Word quickly spread and the operation grew. Penny Lick is now in 6 farmers markets, a restaurant, and they have been catering ice cream to various events – most recently, weddings.

People think it’s very unique, but it’s very old fashioned. A bicycle wheel push cart selling ice cream – that’s a 150 year old notion.

Custard ice cream well pre-dates what’s in our stores now. I’m just bringing it back.

First Ellen went over some of the differences in making custard ice cream, hard american ice cream, and gelato.

One thing that stood out is the speed at which they run their machines spin the ice cream.

  • Gelato is typically 130 RPM
  • Her custard ice cream is at 115 RPM
  • American hard ice cream is closer to 234 RPM

This difference affects how hard the ice cream becomes. The higher speeds result in more air being whipped into the ice cream and then it also becomes harder.

Ellen’s case for ice cream

I find gelato to be very thin. It’s just not that interesting to me.

The idea of making a custard base, chilling it overnight, and having all of those ingredients form what is custard ice cream – so much more interesting!

(Just don’t read the calories or the calories from fat part on the nutrition label.)

On being in business

We talked about what it was like starting her company in 2013. One thing she learned is that:

Farmers markets are a really great incubator for small businesses.

You can find out quickly if your idea passes the “does it work” test. She found that the farmers market community is very collaborative. Also, it’s never difficult going to work. It’s always a joy.


The hardest parts of starting the business were:

  1. Putting yourself out there, because it’s creative and personal to you.
  2. Constantly pushing yourself to do the next hard step.

This reminded me of the excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man In the Arena” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I asked Ellen, what gave her the push to actually pursue the business. She spoke of the dreams that pretty much everyone in culinary school has of pursuing their own venture. At one point she realized that she was taking great care in being a mother of three kids, but that she was losing herself in that process. She needed a creative outlet and felt that having that would also make her a better mother. And then she decided to go for it.

Her mantra has become,

If it fails, if I fail at this… I can say I did it. I can say I tried.

The Real Challenge

I think the bigger question isn’t ice cream vs. gelato.

What I’m taking with me is questions like this:

  • How am I approaching my work, my craft? Do I care as much about the quality and approach as I could?
  • Is there someone I could learn from?
  • Am I pushing into the next hard thing that might feel so uncomfortable, but is clearly (or foggily) the next step?

If you have an idea that you’ve been carrying for a while and you haven’t been able to get started, I’d encourage you to listen to the interview with Ellen. But then also try to figure out just what the one next hard step is. And decide if trying in spite of the possibility of failure is worth it. Then go for it!

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Roger’s Cigar Box Guitars

He goes by Rotten Roger.

But don’t let that fool you. After only talking with him for a short while, it’s obvious he’s the kind of guy that is a genuinely nice person.

He gave a quick history of Cigar Box Guitars and showed us the creme of the crop:

This is our Stratocrapper. This is our top-of-the-line model.

They only get mostly cleaned, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to play the crap out of them.

Yes, that was one of the jokes. ;)

I enjoy learning things from people who are craftsmen. Roger genuinely cares about his craft. And he does well with it. He teaches people how to make them and also sells them at events. I caught him at Cider Days in Springfield, MO.

He sells about 250 of these guitars each year at about $120 each. I didn’t get one this time, but I’m looking forward to getting one if I can catch him another time.

And here’s one of the things that I observed.

Some of the best leaders are that way because they truly care most about the cause – not about pushing their agenda.

He really didn’t try to “sell” a purchase of one of his guitars. What he was doing is:

  • trying to share the great history of the Cigar Box tradition
  • let people experience it by playing themselves (or listening)
  • encourage people to become part of a community & make their own

So now, the challenge: Simply lead. Care the most. Create something out of the scraps you have.

Rotten Roger with one of his Cigar Box Guitars.

Rotten Roger with one of his Cigar Box Guitars.

Me getting to take a turn. The simple tuning on these things would make it a great instrument for a kid to start on.

Me getting to take a turn. The simple tuning would make it a great instrument for a kid to start on.

Here is how you can get directly in touch with Roger.

Here is how you can get directly in touch with Roger.




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All Hard Work


It can be easy to get caught up in daydreams. To be stuck in ideation.

Proverbs 14:23 describes it well.

All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.

An antidote is to put into practice small, daily efforts. Gretchen Rubin describes it well in her chapter of Manage Your Day-to-Day:


  1. Makes starting easier
  2. Keeps ideas fresh
  3. Keeps the pressure off
  4. Sparks creativity
  5. Nurtures frequency
  6. Fosters productivity
  7. Is a realistic approach

So much of the benefit is mental:

Nothing is more satisfying than seeing yourself move steadily toward a big goal. Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day.

So the question is then, what’s my daily practice going to be? And, how can I structure every project so that I’m at least making small, daily progress?

Do you have a tip, hack or story about daily practices? I’d love to hear! Let me know on twitter or email.


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David Kelley

An interview introduction of David Kelley and what he’s trying to do:

David Kelley believes that everyone is creative, but we have a tendency to hide from that word as we get older. His mission is to help all people recover their problem solving abilities – their creative confidence.

Several years ago he founded a company called IDEO. I’ve known about the existence of IDEO for a while, but didn’t realize that I should be paying closer attention. I only knew that they helped companies make new products.

What I recently found out is that they have a whole framework for how to approach new problems. It’s called design thinking. Or human centered design. And they are very generous in how they share their process.

It has three main parts:

  1. Understand – use intentional empathy to understand the communities and individuals you are designing for. Here’s an example case study about redesigning the lunch experience for San Francisco’s Unified School System “A Cafeteria Designed for Me.”
  2. Ideate – No wrong ideas. Build on them, don’t tear them down. (Hint: They use a lot of post-it notes)
  3. Experiment – Take your best ideas and try to make something. A prototype is way better than just a “Hey, I had this idea….” A prototype allows people explain, discuss, and offer constructive feedback. It can hijack our imagination as we build upon what is already there.

If you really want to dive in to some of the resources, I would study (and maybe even contribute to?) any of the projects on OpenIDEO.

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