Nalini, Director of Engineering at a small software startup, felt disheartened. Everyone around the company was talking about their preferred methods for absorbing, processing, and communicating information. Even their CEO.
She had written her methods on stickie notes she had then placed on her window:
They just felt so…out there.
“I’m going to get laughed out of the room if I tell these to anyone,” Nalini said, drooping in her chair as she stared morosely out the window.
Feeling too down to do any work, she decided to spend some time outside.
Admit what works, even when it seems weird or bogus
Nalini spent the next hour and a half wandering through the neighborhoods around her office and listening to podcasts.
Her favorite podcast described the various paths teams had taken to solve this or that hard problem. Pretty much every episode followed the same sequence: The standard approaches didn’t work > So, we tried this unusual tack > problem solved.
She loved this podcast because every solution was so creative.
Today, she also noticed how every solution was so different from the standard approaches.
Just like her methods of handling information seemed to be.
“I don’t know whether the people involved were embarrassed to propose their unusual approach,” she thought. “They did propose it, and it worked. The ways I absorb, process, and communicate information work for me. Maybe that’s all that matters.”
She pondered this for a while.
“I’m not going to be embarrassed about the ways I handle information,” she declared. “My results speak for themselves.”
Looking at her current descriptions of her methods, she decided they were still a little rough.
How could she refine them?
Every time she got stuck on something, her boss always said, “If what you’re doing isn’t working, what if you try the opposite?”
She had come up with these descriptions by examining times she had successfully absorbed, processed, and communicated information.
What was the opposite of the times she had been successful?
Times she had flopped.
So, examining those was her next step.
She headed back to her office, feeling a bit more upbeat now that she had a new approach to try.
Focusing on your flops can clarify what works
Back in her office, Nalini started filling stickie notes with times she had failed to absorb, process, or communicate information. Each went up on her window.
When her window was overflowing with stickies, she stopped adding new stickies and switched to organizing the ones she had.
Eventually, she had her stickies grouped into six distinct themes. She replaced each group with a single summarizing stickie:
Nalini now had a better understanding of what she did differently when she succeeded.
“I think I can describe my methods accurately now,” she thought.
She took a few deep breaths, shook out her body, and started in.
When Nalini was absorbing information, she experienced it tactilely.
One fact would feel squishy. Another would feel slimy. A third would feel orange.
“Which still seems super weird,” Nalini thought, grinning to herself.
When she later needed to recall a specific piece of information, she always knew what it had felt like.
She didn’t know how she remembered this. She just did.
Their quarterly results always felt off-kilter and a bit musty.
Their scary customer defects were always wilty and skulky.
“All this feeling,” she thought. “That’s how I absorb information.”
Encouraged, she moved on to processing.
It wasn’t just that she saw the places that were missing.
She also needed to see the relationships and shapes of things to make sense of them.
She had to see the big picture and the details.
Now, for communicating.
Nalini wondered why she could never find the right pictures to represent the relationships and shapes she saw.
The images that made sense to her almost never made sense to anyone else.
What was going on?
Thinking about this, a picture swam into her mind’s eye:
Nalini was puzzled.
What did this mean?
Then, she got it: since her mental images didn’t make sense to anyone else, she needed to find synonyms for those mental images.
Nalini grinned. “What a great idea,” she exclaimed happily. “That’ll simplify finding the right words, too.” She rewrote that stickie:
She was grinning broadly. She felt confident she had the right descriptions for how she absorbed, processed, and communicated information.
Now, to see whether these new descriptions suggested ways of turning her flops into successes.
Knowing what works can turn flops into successes
Nalini started with the first stickie:
This was what she had just figured out—she needed to look for synonyms for her mental image.
She moved the stickie out of the way.
When she talked ideas out with her friends, she could tell they weren’t understanding what she was trying to convey.
So, she’d wander around, looking for a better image.
Since she hadn’t realized that’s what she was doing, however, she never knew how to direct her search.
Hence, the long-windedness.
“Now that I know I’m looking for synonyms,” she wondered, “maybe this will work now?”
She made a note to experiment and see.
Now, why did she get bogged down in the details of taking notes as drawings?
“I think,” Nalini said slowly, “I’m trying to process the information as I absorb it. Too much going on at once.”
She decided to try consciously focusing on either absorbing or processing, rather than trying to do both at the same time.
She’d flip a coin between heads and tails, with heads being absorbing and tails being processing.
Or something like that.
She added the experiment to her to-do list before moving on.
Presenting from mind maps had never worked because she had used the wrong synonyms for her mental images.
Taking notes by drawing pictures didn’t work because pictures weren’t how she remembered information.
Growing restless in meetings stumped her at first.
Thinking about how she absorbed information, however, got her wondering whether her restlessness was related to the way she felt the information.
What was different about long meetings than the rest of the time?
She remembered back to a recent meeting.
She felt her restlessness and tried to identify its cause.
Why did she want to get up and move around?
“Oh,” she realized. “I want to turn the information around, feel it from all sides.”
She made a note to reflect on how she might do that without disrupting the meetings.
“And, that’s the last flop,” she announced to her empty office.
Embracing your way will energize you
Nalini remembered how morose and droopy she had felt earlier that day.
Now, she noticed, she was standing tall and even bouncing a little. And, she laughed, “I’m grinning so broadly my cheeks hurt.”
Nalini felt energized. And, at the same time, relaxed, and much surer of herself.
Admitting what worked, even though it seemed weird and embarrassing, had made a big difference.
Now she knew how to describe to her colleagues her way of handling information. After a bit of searching for images and experimenting with presentation layouts, she had three perfect slides:
“I’m going to test these out on Thad and Sarah,” she said excitedly, as she sent the slides to her phone.
“I’m curious whether I have the right images yet. If not, maybe they can help find the right synonyms. Either way, I’m looking forward to feeling their reactions.”
Photo credits for Nalini’s three slides: Gary Sandoz, Vino Li, Roman Kraft, Ussama Azam, Gustavo, Kyaw Tun, Finn Whelen, Pavel Neznanov, Alina Grubnyak, all on Unsplash