What Do You Need to Know?

Sarah Judd Welch, a friend and colleague, reminded me I’ve not been writing much on my blog for the last few months and shouldn’t I be? I wrote her back to say that, actually, I have no spare energy to write. The last 20 weeks I’ve been all consumed with a bathroom remodel project and between the 10,000 decisions I had to make on things I didn’t even know I cared about, the bang-bang-bang of noises, and the constancy of contractors coming in and out of the house, I’m not feeling it.

But nearly every day, after experiencing some setback, I think to myself, “THIS is a good lesson for change agents and innovators.”

You should know that I’m not the remodeling type; I’ve joked “before I would remodel, I’ll move.” But, we have owned our home for 15 years and the fixtures in the house had been put in 12 years before that. My son still has 32 more months until he’s done with high school, so moving isn’t a good choice for us. Yet, after nearly 30 years of use, there was no getting around the fact that things needed attention. While we had gotten used to having no hot water in one sink, no outlets that worked in our bathroom for hairdryer usage, a bathtub that randomly leaked an entire bucket worth of water thru the ceiling and into the downstairs dining area, things were clearly giving out after nearly 30 years of use.

I wanted some professional design advice because, if I made novice mistakes, I would negatively affect our home value plus I thought it would make the project easier. We asked our former real estate whom we trust if she knew someone. We figured she’s going to be the one sell the house for us when it comes the time, and so she’s well connected in our neighborhood. We didn’t background check the vendor, because we thought her referral was enough.

Our goal was to derisk our choices and mitigate downtime so the project finished quickly.

But …

  • The designers chose some of the floor and shower tile materials, but not the countertop because “that could be chosen much later” and even recommended we use different remnant pieces for our 10 ft long countertop. Having never done this before, we didn’t know how ridiculous their recommendations were. When we went to choose the countertop, we realized the countertop is the one material you notice the most, so you need to pick it first and choose other things like floor tile to compliment it. And there’s no way you’d put a seam in a single long countertop by choice. And so all their recommendations had to be tossed out and we had to start over, costing us wasted cycles. We figured out that the project they had featured on their Instagram was their own home construction (Husband is a contractor) and they’ve never done this design stuff before for anyone else. They never told us that, and we never thought to ask.
  • The stone vendor that the designers steered us to have not honored any timeline. Not one. We chose every tile after checking availability. But it turns out whatever they say doesn’t matter. Had we known better, we would have chosen a more reliable vendor because you can’t line up a contractor to do the work, until you have supplies to work with.
  • The vendor had to stop the MBR project last week mid-process because the tiles that were picked up weeks ago, were sent in the wrong finish (with half the materials in one finish, and the other half in another). We only discovered it during the installation.

And so on, and so on. And so on.

I’m not sharing this to vent but to relate this back to work life.

It illustrates what it means to do new things. And why most organizations fail at innovation. There’s a learning curve for all new things. We need to learn the interdependencies of decisions, what people are capable of, who is good at what, what key decisions need to be made and in what order and so much more. Just like I had never done a remodel, most organizations need to grow by doing something they’ve never done before. But we want to do it as efficiently, as effectively and as fast as if we know everything we need to know. But we don’t know. That’s the bottom line. There’s no way I could have known that countertops were the key decision until I learned countertops are the key design decision. In business… as we seek out new growth areas or brand new product lines, we don’t know what we don’t know. We want to believe we can know, or that we can hire outside resources who already know. But the reality is always different. You don’t know what you don’t know until you do. And then once you do, you can look back and say, hey I wish I had chosen a different vendor, or a different supplier, or even made different choices.

We learn. We get smarter about what questions to ask. We get savvier about how to check resources. We build up our own “Savoir-faire”, a French noun phrase that means being adaptable and adroit, knowing what to do in any situation. But we don’t get savior-fair without learning.

This is what it looks like to innovate. It means to be okay and forgiving yourself for not knowing what you couldn’t possibly know at the beginning so that you learn what you need to know for later.

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