On following directions


Photo credit: IT IN place, specifically Glitchportriat.

There have been a number of instances where I've found myself repeating the same directions to a lot of different people, which means I can compare how different people follow them. A current example is the application process for Open Angel Forum Philly.
Sometimes directions just suck.


When they are my directions, however, I've tried hard to tweak them over time to be pretty clear and easy to follow. So if you're not following my directions it seems like one of three things is going on:

  1. You didn't understand the directions.
  2. You didn't pay close enough attention to them.
  3. You deliberately chose not follow them.

The tricky thing is that all of these seem negative, but #3 is actually ambiguous. You can choose to not follow directions for a number of reasons, both good and bad, e.g.:
  • They weren't in your perceived best interest.
  • You don't like being told what to do.
  • You think you thought of something better.
  • Various constraints didn't allow you to follow them.

Not following directions can really make you stand out in a good way. As someone who doesn't often color inside the lines, I know the concept applies more generally as well.

The issue is expectations. When someone gives you directions the expectation is that you're going to follow them. If you deviate from that expectation, you're starting off from a negative standpoint, which is why the three points above all seem negative on first read.

What you have to do is explain yourself, and distinguish the good part of #3 from the bad of #1-3. That is, you didn't color inside the lines because you're a child, careless or worse, but because you are making a masterpiece.

Another nuanced aspect is knowing when to deviate and when to not. It's a complex calculation that involves risk, reward and how much creativity can be infused into the given situation. Explicitly revealing part of this calculation to the direction giver can often impress. "I just want to let you know that I understand you wanted me to do A but (I did | I'm planning to do) B because of X, Y and Z."

Getting even more nuanced, usually people love getting asked permission since it reinforces their authority and control of the circumstances. It's also great way reset expectations before the task is even complete so you don't ruin first impressions of your masterpiece because they're thinking about how you didn't follow the directions. Yet it is also a bit risky because they could say no, so you have take that risk into account as well.


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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.