I love a good Trapper Keeper. When I was in grade school, the Trapper Keeper was the “thing” to have at the start of the school year. The idea was that notebooks and folders in different colors could help a student easily separate one subject from another; it made arranging work easy.
The word “arrange” means to “put (things) in a neat, attractive, or required order” (dictionary.com). While life is not always neat, attractive or orderly – and of course we grow and learn from confronting the unexpected – it is nevertheless helpful to arrange things and ideas when we can, in order to make life simpler, easier, more enjoyable.
Over my past five years working in the Office of Strategy, Planning and Accountability, I have started to see how so much can be gained by creating the right arrangement of ideas, information and things. I’d like to talk a bit about “arrangement.”
Let’s start with ideas. Have you ever been in a meeting where ten people are talking about the “same” issue, but no one can figure out what the problem really is? We talk in circles until the end of the meeting and we wonder what the point of the meeting was. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask, like Tabatha Ries-Miller (SPA senior research analyst), “what is the problem we are trying to solve?” Then you can make a list and organize the ideas into related groups. When you have an arrangement of the issues that makes sense, you can hone in on what the real problem is. Affinity diagrams help you arrange ideas. These are easy to create. Team members write down individual ideas on post-it notes (top box), then start grouping them up into logical categories (bottom box). After they are grouped up, you label the categories using group consensus. After that, you can rank which categories are most important to deal with first. This is one way to help a group literally see their ideas arranged so they can, later, decide what to do with them.
Another of my favorite grouping techniques is the logic model. The logic model is simply a series of boxes that allows its users – usually a team that is designing a new program or service – to think clearly and thoughtfully about what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it. This particular arrangement of inputs, outputs and outcomes helps everyone on a team be very clear about what a program or service is designed to do. What do we want to give to the customer/student/participant/client? How will we get it to them? What resources do we need to have and what activities do we need to do in order to provide it? After a logic model is created, resources can be obtained, activities can be planned and people can be assigned tasks. The arrangement of ideas lends itself to organized action.
Now let’s talk about arranging things. What’s beautiful to me about this desk is that it is arranged in a way that makes work easier. It’s not perfectly organized but the essentials of organization are there. This desk allows a person to delineate tasks (see task board), put pending tasks in the bucket at left and store things in the drawer to the right. Writing utensils are all in one place and there’s a notebook next to the (absolutely necessary, if you know me) glass of cold press coffee. The user has an arranged physical space that can counteract the disorganization of the mind. “What was I going to do again? Oh yeah…” While people often switch from one task to another, or float in and out of mental to-do lists, with a desk like this they can immediately come back to arranging those thoughts and activities into a concrete task, a pending item, a storage item, a note or something else. It would be relatively easy to keep track of yourself with this set-up.
What I have come to realize about my work with process improvement, strategic planning, project management and evaluation is that it is about creating the right arrangements. It doesn’t matter if the arrangements are made up of ideas, information or things. By grouping things up in a way that is sensible, clear and thoughtful, with an eye to action, it’s easier to get work done and accomplish your Most Important Things.