On building singular worlds

I have followed the developments of the One Week | One Tool project with great interest over the past seven days.  Like everybody else, I’m very curious to see what the actual tool ends up being.

But whatever it is–and my knowledge of the people involved tells me that it’s definitely not going to be a disappointment–other observations can already be made about the process based on what we do know so far.

And the key one for me is this: #oneweek shows the merits of monotasking.  Or more broadly, that when you pull people out of their ordinary work environments and patterns and instead go full immersion in an environment focused on one thing, incredible things are possible.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with the summertime residential Virginia Governor’s School program which my wife directed for five years.  Her staff of fifty–a faculty made up of college professors and high school teachers from around the country and a committed, creative student life staff–built an incredible learning environment for four weeks that annually changed the lives of 400 gifted high school students.

One of the things that always struck me during the program was how hard it was to “break in” from the outside; sometimes frustrating, sure, when some banal but important thing having to do with scheduling some family event or question about a bill needed her attention.  But mostly it was just an impressive testimony to the creation of this focused and finite world, the throwing up of barriers that cut out the rest of the “real world” so that the authors of the program could concentrate fiercely on creating something the world had never seen before.

I imagine this is what happens at Pixar during their creative process.  It certainly happens at professional football training camps: players are pulled out of their daily routines and thrown in together to concentrate on this one thing at the exclusion of everything else.

Successful ingredients appear to include: a place apart, a finite length of time, a concentrated (and concentrating) group of people, a specific charge, and creativity.

The result?  Magic.  It happened at Governor’s School, and it happened at #oneweek.

And the takeaway question for me: how can we replicate that effect in the ordinary workplace, where multitasking tends to rob us from this kind of approach?


  1. Jana said:

    I think part of the magic of our process was also that (with a few exceptions) we didn’t know each beforehand. So we were not only immersed, but we also had no ‘baggage’ on our relationships with each other. As we were talking on the last day about our process, we agreed that it might be hard for us to do something similar again with each other–unless we were removed from the roles that we established for ourselves in #oneweek.

    August 1, 2010
  2. Patrick Rashleigh said:

    Regarding what Jana & Eric said: yes, all this resonates with my #oneweek experience.

    Another possible reason why the process worked well was that we were able to choose our project based on the resources available — especially regarding timeline (one week) and available skillsets (what each of the 12 could bring to the process). I don’t know the governor’s school or what “a specific charge” means in that context, but in the case of #oneweek we were basically charged with building “something useful”.

    I would guess that had the project deliverable been chosen (or even more constrained) beforehand, before we knew the skills of the group, it may have been more challenging to fulfill the requirements with our given resources.

    August 2, 2010
  3. Eric said:

    That’s an interesting point, Jana–the lack of personal history is something that makes the experience even more “insular.” I can totally see how that would be the case, and it’s probably a large part of the reason that such an environment can’t really be sustained every day at work. We get too used to what each of us “does,” even though we might have had different roles within the working and personal relationships if we were all starting from scratch as you all were.

    Patrick, what I meant about a specific charge is basically the decision to do some specific something–in your case, it ended up being Anthologize. For Governor’s School, it’s the charge to educate 400 gifted humanities and arts students. In football, it’s install an offense. But it’s a task that is somehow finite to the time allotted (despite the fact that its effects and efforts live on).

    I like, though, that you didn’t go in with anything more specific then “build something useful.” That opens up the creative dynamic even further: you build to the skills and interests of the people involved, rather than pulling them in based on the needed skills and interests that a predefined project would dictate. I could see that it might be a little paralyzing at the outset, though: was there a moment of, “Uh, so this is all of us. What do we do now?”

    August 3, 2010

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