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Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole

I rejoined the Federal government in 2010 after a 10-year hiatus where I explored opportunities in the private sector. I was lured back into the federal fold by the promise of working on an amazing (and amazingly difficult) project. For the last four years I’ve been working with economists, lawyers, computer scientists, and engineers to craft the policy, rules and mechanics of the first-ever two-sided auction of spectrum usage rights (www.fcc.gov/learn). The details don’t matter so much for this blog, but trust me – there are a lot of details.

I recently learned how easy – and dangerous – it is to go down the rabbit hole on large projects. True, these projects often demand getting in deep. In order to develop a new regulatory framework or a software system (or as in my case, a software system that implements the new regulatory framework you’ve just developed) you have to pay attention to the details. Millions of them. You’ve got to be careful though, not to go so far down the rabbit hole that you can’t step out of the project and reconnect with the surface world.

A few weeks ago I got a seemingly simple request from a colleague in another part of my agency. She asked if I could give an overview briefing of my project to people who work with her. Because the project is so high profile for the agency, she explained, her coworkers want to understand what our team is doing. She told me not to angst over it – just to keep it simple and high level. I didn’t think this request would be too hard; after all I had worked on this issue for years at this point. It was then I realized how far down the rabbit hole I had gone.

I turned to a deck of powerpoint slides that had become somewhat of a historical diary of the project. Every time people made presentations about new parts of the project someone tacked the slides on to this “master deck”. When I turned to it there were nearly 70 detailed slides describing parts of the project. As I started to read through it I became overwhelmed and confused. How could I possibly explain all of this to my peers in a few days? (OK, I should add that I procrastinated a bit and didn’t have much time left before I was set to give the talk…) I struggled trying to pare this material down and shape it into something that captured the essence of the project. But the details kept overwhelming me – this rabbit hole had a lot of different twists and turns! After an hour, when I had pared the 70 slides into something closer to 60, I realized that this wasn’t going to work and I had to figure out a different approach.

Instead of wasting another minute trimming this huge deck into something manageable I decided to start fresh. In my best Oprah voice (which isn’t very good) I interviewed myself and tried to ask questions that would tell an interesting story. What is the essence of this project? What are the key elements? How could it be described in everyday terms? What are the big challenges? What are the coolest parts? How might this approach be useful in other contexts inside or outside the agency?

The next hour was eye opening – and a heck of a lot more productive than the previous hour of PowerPoint hell had been! I looked back over the past four years and thought about where we had come and where we were headed. I jotted notes and ideas rather than long sentences. Most importantly, I kept myself firmly up out of the rabbit hole. I ended up with 8 new slides, which when combined, had fewer words in them than in any one of the old slides. I used pictures to describe concepts and even judiciously used animation to illustrate a few of the trickiest points.

The presentation went very well. The audience loved it and several people told me that after they heard the talk they felt like they really understood what we were undertaking. While I was glad they got something useful out of it, I was really grateful for what I got out of it. In telling the story fresh I gained a new perspective and actually got excited about the project again. I reconnected with the original mission and while I didn’t ignore the details, I put the pieces together in a slightly new way that is going to benefit me the next time I unavoidably fall down the rabbit hole.

If you’re working on a big project, I challenge you to step back and reconnect with the project at a high level. Even if you’re not going to give a presentation on the project (or appear on a syndicated talk show), figure out the story and spend a little time thinking about how best to tell it. In doing so, I’m confident you can find a way to explain things so that others can learn about the project, but more importantly, you can probably learn something too.

Brett Tarnutzer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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