I used to love watching a TV programme called Trade Secrets.
Each episode featured a different profession such as gardeners, plumbers and blacksmiths who would share their trade secrets.
I loved it because it gave a fascinating insight into what people do all day at work and how they had hacked their jobs to make them easier.
Here’s an episode where butlers share some of their trade secrets.
I will definitely be circulating my cutlery from now on!
Reflecting on this programme got me thinking whether I could identify any trade secrets I used in my own job.
Here are a few that I came up with that have saved my bacon over the years.
Trade secrets for everyday project work
Remind yourself repeatedly throughout a project — ‘What problem are we supposed to be solving?!’
Projects meander all over the place and it’s easy to forget just exactly what your original objective was. By regularly asking this question you’ll keep everyone focussed on working on the right problem.
Create a shared understanding of what you are working towards as early as possible
A project team could all feel aligned but be all individually working towards a completely different output. I’ve found sharing a quick sketch and saying ‘this is how I’m seeing this coming together’ to be a great way of aligning expectations even before a project has started. This is about communication and collaboration and not about committing to that specific sketch of course.
Always ask the ‘stupid’ questions
From the moment a new project kicks off you’ll be immersed in a new world with new people and new challenges. It can often feel like people are talking a completely different language.
I try and make a point of always asking for clarifications of things I don’t understand, even if I regularly feel a bit stupid doing so.
Trade secrets to help you to stay motivated
Always look to try something different or to do something new in every project
I often have a few things that I want to try out on new projects and I find it a good way to keep motivated when things get a bit samey. This helps to keep you motivated and also gives you the opportunity to make sure you’re developing skills in things that interest you.
Get your team to discuss what they want to try out before your project starts to you can help each other experiment and grow.
Have a side project
A side project gives you the opportunity to work on something you want to work on that you have complete control over. It’s rare to always get this combination on a commercial project. It could be directly related to work or deliberately nothing to do with work.
I am fairly typical of many digital folk who like making ‘real’ things in their spare time. I’ve also enjoyed doing lots of side projects like writing articles and giving talks that have always ended up benefitting my commercial work in some way or another.
Trade secrets for conducting research
Use a checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything
Research projects can become feats of logistical planning, particularly when you’re working across different countries with numerous partners. I’ve found that creating a checklist or a Trello board of all the stuff I need to remember to be a great way of reducing anxiety and has helped to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Double check your tech set up and do a test run
A recent project involved conducting remote research with sales reps on their iPads. We sent everyone instructions to download various apps and called them in advance to check it was all working. The tech failed for every single person. It was frustrating but would have been much worse had it failed in front of the project team on the day of the research.
I also find it invaluable to also do a dry run in advance. This helps to refine the flow of the questions, check timings and most importantly makes you feel much more confident on the day you conduct your research for real.
Trade secrets for creating new opportunities
Go to people with ideas
Some of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on have been ones that I’ve made happen myself because I’ve wanted to work with a certain client on certain things.
I‘ve found that waiting for the perfect brief to land in your inbox and turn into a project that you’ll get to work on doesn’t work!
Stop trying to sell
I remember working client side and hating being sold to. It felt so irritating, time consuming and disingenuous.
I think the best way to sell is to show genuine interest, enthusiasm, treat people with respect and to ask great questions.
Meet people face to face as soon as possible
It’s remarkable how a relationship changes when you get out of the office and go and meet people face to face.
I find that people are much easier to get along with in real life compared to how they can come across on email, the phone or on conference calls.
Trade secrets for healthier ways of thinking and working
Design is never finished
Design projects can get a little frenetic, particularly when so are trying to design something to a deadline. I’ve found it useful to acknowledge that things are never finished and will never be perfect. Your design is largely a hypothesis and launching it into the world is the beginning of the process and not the end of it.
I’ve found that by encouraging this way of thinking you can help people to worry less about signing things off and speed up the process of getting things live.
Get out of the office and into the real world
We all work in a bubble, surrounded by the same types of people who have the same conversations so can easily fall into the trap of losing perspective, particularly when conducting research.
Try and get out of the office and refresh your mind, go to events, meet people from outside of your bubble.
Even something so simple as working in a cafe in a different part of town or travelling to work at a different time of day every so often can be enough to give you a different perspective and keep things interesting.
Treat everything as a hypothesis
By stating your beliefs as a hypothesis (if we do x we believe that y will happen) and framing projects using statements like ‘how might we’ you introduce an experimental mindset that is critically important because no one knows exactly how well a new product will perform in the wild.
This helps to reframe peoples opinions and also should help to get things live sooner so you can find out what works and what doesn’t.
This can feel challenging when you are being paid to design something and can feel like you are supposed to always know the right answer.
In reality the objective is to learn and continually improve a product or service. This experimental mindset is incredibly healthy and becomes critically important for the organisation you are working with to adopt.
Thanks to Zoe Popperwell and Tom Scott for their great suggestions to improve my ropey early drafts of this article.
I hope you find these useful in your own work and please suggest your own trade secrets in the comments below.