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The Patchwork Concept: Lessons Learned from the Warmest Project

By: Tetyana Struk (Ukraine), Elena Chudnovskaya (Russia), Joseph Kovalev (Israel) - Linguistic Centre®

16 November 2016

Sooner or later a moment comes when all strategies you know fail as you come across a project that does not fit in the normal template, a project that can’t be managed in a conventional way just because it is different. What would you do?

Do you drop the idea? Admit that it is something impossible? That might be a wise decision. Why waste time on something that is uncertain (or “fuzzy,” in our industry's terms). Why going for it and risking your money?

But wait. We live in a time when the only constant is change. Situations like this happen far too often and saying “no” to unconventional ideas might mean saying “no” to opportunities. Then why not try to find a different approach and succeed? The one that is slightly less conventional, and more flexible. An approach that makes you happier. A fuzzy approach?

Let’s imagine that you decide to publish a book, but you don’t know who will write the story, who will illustrate it, and more importantly, whether anybody will ever want to read it. The only thing you are sure about is that no one has ever created a quite like it, and you want to.

“It doesn't work that way!” you’d say. But let’s put it differently: it normally shouldn’t work that way. Because in fact it does. We have an example to prove the point: The Patchwork Quilt—a collection of translators’ stories that was published in 2015 and enjoyed success on the Russian and Ukrainian markets.

When the idea to offer a book that would promote translation and interpreting as a profession occurred to us, we had but a fuzzy plan and decided to adopt the fuzzy approach (or as we called it—the Patchwork Approach) as we realized that we wouldn’t be able to solve an equation with so many unknown parameters if we go down the beaten track.

It took us eight months of fun, thinking, talking, writing, and brainstorming before the book was released in August 2015. With essays contributed by more than twenty authors—translators, interpreters, company owners, and teachers. With pictures by seven extraordinary artists, some of whom are at the same time language professionals.

We encourage language teams to be creative in your project management,  in your work, and in your marketing efforts. We need to move forward by all means and be crazy enough to adopt new ideas and implement them. 

Here is how our fuzzy project management worked:

1. The Beginning

At first, we had the idea. We agreed that none of us wanted to do another traditional project. We looked at the trends around us with all its instability and risk and understood that we could venture to start a project with short-term planning horizons that could be easily scaled both down and up. We started from there and decided to see where it would bring us.

2. The People

The idea had an appeal for people who are flexible about change and happy to express their inner self in a creative way. We didn’t set any rigid frames or rules. This seems so different from the usual processes in our industry, with numerous guidelines, checks, and inspections. And it was fun. Fun right here and right now appeared to be the only guideline in our project. If a step in an unplanned direction makes us happy, it means that we go the right way. If not, we forget about it and move on.

3. The Team

The project has always been run by a small and flexible team. When we add a subproject, people join in because they say, “I want to and I can do it.” That’s the only criterion. It’s dangerous. You have to be willing to trust people. We assign no fixed duties and often set no fixed deadlines. We distribute the tasks based on what each team member is best at. If you are good at communication, that is your task. If you write great texts, that is the job for you. If you can generate crazy ideas, please feel free to do it. There is no hierarchy, nobody is above you, and you are not superior to anyone. The quality check is your sole responsibility and if something’s wrong, you will feel all the consequences without additional fines (there’s no one to impose them, either).

4. The Process

We wanted to enjoy the process and not only the output. We focused on success and never went too deep into failure analysis as we don't consider anything a failure but rather treat it as a less successful attempt. That is how Nature works: evolution only uses the most successful solutions.

The Patchwork Quilt project looked like a miracle. All we had was an idea, and people who wanted to help and participate seemed to appear out of the blue. We needed illustrations to the book, and seven professional artists volunteered to create them and enjoyed the process immensely. We wanted to spread the book worldwide, and now it has the most impressive portfolio of readers from around the globe: from Ukraine and Russia to USA and Australia. We wanted the project to continue, and people offered new ideas and support.

5. The Progress

When the book was published, a vibrant community grew around it. People were united by inspiration and creativity, and they were eager to contribute: to write blog posts, to share their thoughts and stories, and to develop ideas together.

Various subprojects, such as Translators' Art Show, a postcard crossing initiative, a podcast with poems read by translators, group meetings at conferences and events followed. Soon we will launch a new photo sharing project that will involve people from both inside and outside of the Patchwork Quilt community.

We continue to pursue the same idea that we came up with when the project “was born”: pride (in the profession), the feeling of community (rather than competition), sharing ideas and achievements, and being creative.

Our aim: Pride (in the profession). Feelings of community (rather than competition). Sharing ideas and achievements. Being creative.

The world gives us plenty of reasons to apply the fuzzy, patchwork approach:

  • Our plans are subject to change. The future is uncertain. The environment we live in is complex and made of thousands of components. Our senses may cheat us. In a world like this, we have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions and be as creative as possible if we want to make the right decisions. Good old “traditional” management frameworks don't work anymore. The way out is to live for the day as the future will very likely be different from what it seems now.
  • Humans have hacked the world by means of the internet and social media. The revolution has happened and we are free now to reap its harvest. Flexibility and accessibility of the modern online resources give us freedom of communication. Thus we can establish horizontal communication and work on several shared projects with our colleagues from other countries at our own pace and disrupt the ties whenever we feel such a collaboration is not profitable or doesn't give us the experience we expected. And all this in the comfort of our homes.
  • Seized by the conventionalism inherent in our profession, we feel uncertain and sometimes desperate. The existing business models have proven to be inefficient. We invest time and money in old tools but get few if any results because they don't take into account creativity.

Here are some take-aways worth sharing from our fuzzy project management approach (and we strongly believe that they are applicable to other projects and other areas of our lives as well).

  • Have a dream. And don't forget to share it. There are definitely people who will be happy to be a part of your dream.
  • Have a lot of small ideas. Don't waste time on pursuing the great global idea, if you don't have one (or maybe even if you do). Take small ideas and develop them with your supporters. Do it promptly until you have an inspiration.
  • Understand that we live in a new reality. Everything is possible for everyone. We have all technologies available to create things and use the skills of many people who are separated by thousands of kilometers.
  • Enjoy the instability. It makes it fun with no clear rules of game. When there are no rules in the game, you can neither fail nor win. You simply enjoy the game.
  • Stop when it is not fun anymore. Every game has its end. Stop it if you force yourself to take the next steps. However, if you have success stories of such projects, you believe in your ideas and creativity, you easily generate new ideas and put them into life.

And if you remain sceptical about this approach, if you think that the total amount of fun cannot be taken seriously as a parameter to assess when measuring a business project, then think about Bhutan, a country that dared put people first and introduce Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product as the key indicator of their well-being and success.

It is worth trying! Have fun with the patchwork approach!