Follow Your Mind, Not Your Rules

This article was a guest post on Raven’s Brain. I am publishing a copy here for completeness.

Last week I drove all the way from The Netherlands to Slovenia –which is a 1200km trip– to pick up my boyfriend, who went there earlier (by plane) for a conference. The idea was to spend a long weekend enjoying whatever this little country had to offer.

Spontaneous and Unconventional
In an earlier post I explained why I didn’t travel to Slovenia by airplane, which would have been faster and only slightly more expensive. It’s because I like driving, and I was looking forward to a nice relaxed 12 hour trip –all by myself with a stack of my favorite CDs– that would take me through Germany and Austria. It was a spontaneous idea. I was eager to find out if my unconventional trip would give me some compelling new views and surprise encounters. And it did. But not in the way I had hoped.

Bad Idea?
On my trip through Europe I encountered so many road works it led me to believe Europe’s Post-war Reconstruction was still far from being finished. A couple of big traffic jams made my ETA climb faster than Jerry Yang’s chance of being kicked out of Yahoo. And maybe worse: I didn’t get to see much of the foreign countryside either. The Germans have shielded off many of their highways with a number of trees that should easily compensate the CO2 emissions from their entire car industry. And the only things I remember of driving through Austria were the inside walls of numerous tunnels, the backsides of numerous trucks, and my rapidly dwindling amount of cash. (The Austrians make you pay through the nose for using their infrastructure.)

Maybe Not!
Did I regret going to Slovenia by car? Well, maybe for a short while. But after picking up my boyfriend in the town of Bled, it turned out they had already shown him around, and he had seen just about everything there was to see of this little country (which is caves, horses, mountains, and some more caves.) So we quickly decided to head for Croatia, where we had a nice evening and a delicious sea food platter in Rovinj, down by the sea. And the next day we drove to Italy, just a few hours away on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, where we spent two days eating pasta and watching gondolas in Venice. I’m sure we would have organized our time differently if I had simply gone to Slovenia by plane.


Spontaneous ideas trigger themselves!

Solving problems the unconventional way opens up room for even more alternative ideas. It’s as if spontaneous ideas, once started, are self-generating. Let me give you some examples:

  • On I wrote about having automated our project evaluation process. It’s a very unconventional idea, but it works for us. And it has opened up other new possibilities for data-mining historical projects.
  • Our offices are housed in a famous old coffee factory. The building –being a monument– allows for only few modifications. Therefore our unconventional floor plan flies in the face of common best practices for office space management. But never mind, because people love it! We never expected it, but our office is now one of the main incentives for people to apply for a job. And the renovated building itself got a European award yesterday.
  • For important announcements in our company, I had the idea of introducing the Bell of Success. The bell (a heavy old ship’s bell with a cord) is situated in the middle of our big office space and it is rung (loudly) once every few weeks, when we’ve landed an important new contract, or delivered a great new web site. Everybody immediately comes together for a 5-minute celebration around the coffee machine. Sure, we could have posted these successes on our intranet. But this is more fun!

New Risks
Naturally, unconventional ideas can lead to unconventional risks and problems. I am still surprised I survived traffic on the highways in Italy. The Italians drive like mad men. And it’s a wonder we could find our way out of the country, as the road network seems to have been modeled after Italy’s most famous kind of pasta. And I’ve learned that, when you’re heading for Switzerland, you must realize that "Genova" is not the Italian name for "Geneva". And once we finally found Switzerland, the Swiss welcomed me with a gigantic traffic jam and food poisoning. This I found particularly uncalled for, since the Swiss are among the few people left in the world I haven’t offended yet in any of my previous posts. But I might come to that later…

Defined Process vs. Empirical Process
Ken Schwaber, in Agile Project Management with Scrum, tells us that agile projects should follow empirical processes, not defined processes. I would translate it to this: Be prepared to ignore the textbook rules, and open up your mind to reinvent your processes along the way. Do what it takes to reach your goal by being smart and spontaneous. Don’t just stick to conventional ways, even when they seem to work adequately. Rules and conventions are useful and important, but it’s nice to escape from them once in a while. And even if your alternative solution doesn’t work, it may have opened up some unexpected new opportunities…

Follow your mind, not your rules!

I carried out my last spontaneous act when were having a wonderful dinner in Venice. I had never planned to do this. It just crossed my mind earlier that day because the location, the weather, the surroundings and the food were simply perfect. I had the idea, thought about it for two hours, and just couldn’t think of a better time nor place.

I asked my boyfriend to marry me.

Spontaneous ideas, once started, are self-generating. I’m sure there wouldn’t have been a dinner in Venice if I had taken the plane to Slovenia.

Interesting? Not? Tell me about it! Or check out some of my other favorite articles:

Why Managing Small Projects is Harder

Specialization is Good

Why I Would Never Hire Steve Yegge

  • Tear Down Your Cubicle Walls
  • A Tasty Team Building Exercise
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