Fifteen years ago I had a chemistry teacher called Jayanthi Swaminathan. By all accounts, she was an excellent teachers, and easily one of the best teachers in the school where she taught me. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of what she taught me, the only thing I remember being her constant refrain to “plan and draw” while drawing orbital diagrams (I’ve forgotten what orbital diagrams look like).
Now, I remember wondering why it was that big a deal that she kept mentioning “plan and draw” while drawing or asking us to draw such diagrams. This question answered itself a few days later at my JEE factory, where the chemistry teacher started drawing an orbital diagram which soon threatened to go outside the blackboard. A friend who was sitting next to me, who was also from my school, quipped “this guy clearly didn’t plan and draw”.
The reason I’m mentioning this anecdote here is to talk about how, when faced with a deadline, we start running without realising what we are doing. I can think of a large number of disastrous projects from my academic and professional life (till a couple of years back my academic and professional life was rather disastrous), and looking back, the problem with each of them was that we didn’t “plan and draw”.
I especially remember this rather notorious “application exercise” as part of my marketing course at IIMB (btw, since the wife is doing her MBA now I keep getting reminded of IIMB quite frequently). We had a problem statement. We had a deadline. And we knew that the professor demanded lots of work. And off we went. There was absolutely no coherence to our process. There was a lot of work, a lot of research, but in hindsight, we didn’t know what we were doing! Marketing was my first C at IIMB (and the only C in a “non-fraud” course, the other being in a rather random course called Tracking Creative Boundaries).
Then I remember this project in my second job. “Forecast”, I was told, and asked to code in java, and forecasting I started, in java, without even looking at the data or trying to understand how my forecasts would solve any problem. Six months down, and forecasting going nowhere, I started coding on Excel, looked at the data for the first time, and then realised how hard the forecasting was, and how pointless (in context of the larger problem we were trying to solve).
There are several other instances – see problem, see target, start running – like the proverbial headless chicken (as made famous by former Indian ambassador to the US Ronen Sen). And then realise you are going nowhere, and it is too late to do a fresh start so you put together some shit.
That piece of advice I received in chemistry class 15 years back still resonates today – plan and draw (pun intended if you are in a duel). Its is okay to take a little time up front, knowing that you will progress well-at-a-faster-rate once you get started off. You need to understand that most projects follow the sigmoid curve. That progress in the initial days is slow, and that you should exploit that slowness to plan properly.
I will end this post with this beautiful video. Ilya Smyrin versus Vishwanathan Anand. Semi-finals of the PCA candidates tournament in 1994 – the tournament that Anand won to face off with Garry Kasparov at the WTC. Anand, playing black, gets only five minutes to play the whole game. Watch how he spends almost a minute on one move early on, but has planned enough to beat Smyrin (Anand only required a draw to progress, given the rules).