This post is co-authored by Chris Savage and Meryl Ayres.
As a company that emphasizes creativity and autonomy, we've become familiar with a certain pitfall. Since it's a nebulous concept, we found it helpful to give it a name.
When a teammate runs far with an idea without checking in, they're Forrest Gumping.
If you haven't seen the film Forrest Gump, here are some cliff notes: Forrest Gump (the main character) invented Elvis's Dance Moves. Forrest Gump was a war hero. Forrest Gump got in real early at Apple. Forrest Gump loved Jenny. But most importantly, for this blog post's sake: One day, for no particular reason, Forrest Gump decided to go for a run. That run took him from Alabama, to Maine, to California… that run circled the continental US. And that run lasted 3 years.
I just felt like running
There's nothing more exciting than thinking of an amazing idea. You start envisioning the enjoyment that you will impart on your audience, and you're pretty sure your teammates will commend you for your heroic efforts. You might even hear a tiny voice asking, "Am I a thought leader?" It's a natural high like no other, and it feels good to keep running. It feels good to Forrest Gump.
Here's the problem, though. If you never slow down and ask for feedback, you risk losing out on important perspectives. It's those perspectives that could make your idea better or gently dissuade you from continuing down a fruitless path.
A downside to autonomy
It's even easier than usual for Forrest Gumping to happen in environments that foster autonomy and trust. It's a downside to the values that we strongly believe in at Wistia. We coined this term because we needed language to describe this phenomenon—we needed a compassionate way to talk about this misstep in creative work.
It's tricky, because a creative idea has to be somewhat formed to communicate it effectively to teammates, and it can take time for people to appreciate the value of a creative project. But there's a key difference between sprinting solo for miles and maintaining an ambitious-but-reasonable pace that accommodates different opinions.
When you Forrest Gump, you make a decision for the group without inviting a creative discussion. You just keep running.
When you finally return, your legs are exhausted, and your beard is out of control.
But seriously, when you finally come around to present your work, it's likely that you will have wasted some of your own time running in the wrong direction. Of course, there are rare instances when a Forrest Gump gets lucky, and everyone likes what they've done, but this doesn't happen often, and there's nothing to lose by simply checking in.
Finding a creative balance
The key to preventing Forrest Gumping is to collaborate and share your creative thoughts with others at the right time.
Use a proof of concept
Focus on getting to a proof of concept so that your peers can get a real sense of what you are working on before you run into the sunset. Back when we launched our HTML5 player, our video producer, Chris Lavigne, created a mock-up to share his unconventional video idea with the team:
In this example, Chris used his iPhone to shoot a quick mock-up that communicated the general concept for the video. Talking laptop faces seemed like a super weird and risky idea at the time, and the final product benefited from this quick give-and-take between Chris and our team.
Put a high value on your time
Knowing which projects are the right ones to prioritize next can be a real challenge. This is even more true when the work you are doing is creative. Treat your own time like the valuable resource it is. Ask your team what work will make the biggest impact. This almost always sets people on a worthwhile course and makes Forrest Gumping impossible.
Set clear goals together
For a long time, we didn't have a practice of setting company or team goals. It seems crazy, but we relied purely on autonomous individual contributors to get us through. Without goals, it put the onus onto each individual to avoid Forrest Gumping themselves. Transparent goals make this a lot harder, because there is agreement and alignment about what we should all be working on.
Finding that sweet spot between working autonomously and Forrest Gumping is difficult, but it's something we strive to do. With this strange little term, our team recognizes the mistake more readily and feels comfortable talking about it openly. It's amazing what company nomenclature can do!
The creative marathon is plenty long. Pace yourself. Ask for guidance. Communicate.