Designing Your Work for Dummies


If you peruse the online booksellers, or wander into a bookstore, you’ll quickly find volumes from one of two series, labelled either “(whatever) for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to (whatever)”. These two lines — which started as a way to produce manuals you could learn from rather than the incomprehensible ones delivered with computer products — now cover everything from cat care to knitting, fixing outboard motors to baking.

So, with chapeau doffed in admiration to the concept of making complicated things simple, let’s talk about designing your work.

Notice I didn’t say “find a job”. It may be that the design you come up with leads you down that road (it’s hard to be in certain roles without fitting into an existing societal structure). But if you start by thinking about your future in terms of designing around the work you’ll do, you will have a lot of the thinking necessary to consider creating your own job.

The person who is employed by someone else can find themselves out of work because of external events that cause the enterprise they’re a part of to cut back or fold — or they can be on the street (or never hired) because of the pique and incompetence of a manager (as sketched daily in Dilbert by Scott Adams). The person who creates their own situation is still at risk of the first — but is unlikely to fire themselves in a malicious way.

The tool I’d like to point out to you is called a business model canvas. The million-copy seller for designing a business is Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation. Its counterpart for designing an individual’s life-work plan is Tim Clark’s Business Model You. The latest improvement to the concept is Antony Upward’s “Strongly Sustainable Business Model Canvas”, built around triple bottom line concepts (Antony has a number of interactive presentations, YouTube videos, and a LinkedIn group available on the web; the process of turning his dissertation into a friendly book is underway).

All you need is a hunk of wall. Some people draw the canvas outline on a white board, others tape up butcher paper. Get some post-it notes.

What the process of working with a canvas asks of you is to identify the answers to questions. When using it to design your life’s work, you can start with what you’re good at, or needs you’ve seen that could be fulfilled, or connections you have. When you use a canvas to design an enterprise (creating your own job), you do the same questions but with more business-like terms such as customer segments, value propositions, key partners, and the like.

It’s decidedly simple stuff, but powerful. Four people gathered toward the end of February to think through the creation of a new not-for-profit organization to promote local business webs in a major city. None worked in the field (although all were running their own enterprises). None had training in the use of the canvas. Two hours later, the wall was absolutely covered in post-it notes, real reasons why people would pay to join such an organization had been identified, its staffing needs had been uncovered, and so on.

If you take away the right conclusion from that — hey, I don’t have to be an expert on business to do this — good for you. You don’t. Which means you could work on your canvas with friends, with family, with anybody. You move the post-it notes around, you throw some out, you add some new ones. Collectively, they tell a story about what would work for you — or how this new business would feed you.

Although Tiffinday wasn’t built using one of these canvases, it was thought through the same way. Tiffinday is a company that delivers hot, fresh lunches in Toronto’s financial district. The containers are reusable. The food is prepared by mothers with children in school. It’s put together in the mornings using a parter — an evenings-only restaurant whose kitchen was free (there are laws about food preparation). A bicycle courier company delivers the containers, then picks up the empties after lunch for cleaning. Everyone’s home again in time for the kids to come from school.

Would you have thought to provide an ever-varying menu to workers in cubicle land, employ people who would likely not work because they’re only available between 9 and 3, partner to use underutilized resources and avoid having to capitalize your own using all the traditional “follow your passions” business development advice? Canvases can see all sorts of opportunities that traditional methods don’t.

This is just one of the way Personal Due Diligence advisors work with clients to expand their opportunities. Are you ready to expand yours?

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