A meta-tip for web workers and leaders

May 1, 2007

lieutenant_dan_taylor.jpgThere’s plenty of advice for web-workers and leaders. Tips abound. But will they be any good for you? Here’s a meta-tip on how to benefit from those attractive looking bits of advice.

Background

This post is about hints, recipes, suggestions, or tips. It came about in a period when I was open to tips for new ideas.

This was because I had been postponing any preparation for an upcoming video-conference meeting. I don’t do video-conferencing much, either of the new-fangled web-cam or of the older studio variety. Maybe, as the deadline approached, I might have thought about how to make a good contribution, in what has been scheduled as an important review of a new distant-learning course.

Rightly or wrongly, I was operating out of habit which I can now codify as a tip. Don’t spend time looking, if the dog always comes back when it’s hungry.

But I interrupt myself. Here’s another tip from me to you: Don’t interrupt yourself. You’ll have enough difficulties with other people’s interruptions.

Some tips from the blogosphere

Alerted by a wordpress hotpost, I found a site dedicated to tips for webworkers. The specific tip was ‘talk more slowly’ . This may appear incredibly trivial. But I will argue that there is a good reason why that doesn’t matter. Here is the tip for webcam conferencing.

From the web-workers blog, I was taken by the surfing waves to another blog. This one had tips for programmers. It argued that you should list problems instead of next actions.

http://webworkerdaily.com/2007/04/30/tip-of-the-week-try-listing-problems-instead-of-next-actions/

These two tips led to some musing about how and why tips work.

How and why tips work.

There’s a real attraction to tips, and has been, for as long as you want to go back in history. Moses came up with ten tips for his people.

It’s still a popular format. ‘Ten tips for speed dating … ten tips for stopping athlete’s foot … ten tips for pain-free weight loss’. The tipster may not have the authority of a Moses, but somehow we always want to try the tips. The easier the tip is to try, the more likely we are to give it a whirl.

Why the attraction?

An interesting question. Suggestions are welcomed. One possibility is that the tip is a promise of instant gratification through action. Frustration is overcome. You could say you have bridged the thought-action gap, and escaped anxieties associated with lack of control. I could go on, but will spare you (Tip: Self-indulgence including self-interruption comes at a price).

Another attraction is the attraction of the promise made, backed by the authority of the tipster. Sometimes charismatics get away with Forest Gumpery. Someone I worked with, and who had the charisma which made him a potent tipster. One tip in particular would always have the audience scribbling it down, nodding in awe and approval. This was his tip. Treat assumptions as facts, and facts as assumptions. Wow! Profound? Forrest Gumpery? Profound Forrest Gumpery?

The promised meta-tip

A while ago, I had become interested in attempts to stimulate creativity through structures such as brainstorming. The tips for brainstorming were things like: ‘Postpone judgement’, ‘freewheel’, ‘quantity breeds quality’. Eventually I realized that it was better to think of the tips as learning aids not sure-fire fixes. The meta-tip gets at this fundamental principle. Here (at last) it is:

A tip is a proposed operational procedure which provides an opportunity to learn about more general conceptual principles in specific action contexts.

So, brainstorming instructions permit brainstorming actions, which permit reflection on how the principles worked, why, and how they might be fixed when next called into use.

To Tip or not to tip?

If you are rather averse to tips, because of their apparent triviality, don’t be. In the example cited above, ‘talk slowly’ appears a trivial point to make. In the specific circumstances of video-conferencing it is far from trivial. You have to work out pace in absence of cues within a face-to-face discussion.

According to the meta-tip, the proof of any tip can be established through the link you make between the more general idea, and specific action.

Listing problems not actions is a bit more complicated, as it is itself something of a meta-tip. (‘My meta-tip is better than yours’). At least that gives us an angle to explore things more deeply. My take on this would be to suggest that a refinement of the tip may be: think problems and actions’. That seems to be moving towards a synthesis of both positions.


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