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Trust the Process

"Trust the process," in recent North American sports history, is a phrase that has become most strongly associated with the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. "The Process," such as it was, involved an effort begun in the early 2010s to make the team into a championship contender in the mid-term--and accomplishing that meant "tanking," or doing as poorly as possible in the near term, in order to accumulate high draft picks, to clear out salary cap space, and to acquire younger talent.

As the team plummeted to depths of performance largely unseen in the NBA, "Trust the Process" was a half-confident, half-pleading message from the team to its fans, as well as a semi-ironic, semi-sincere rallying cry for 76er supporters. On paper, in its time, "the Process" functioned as desired: Philadelphia's roster now has multiple young, highly-drafted players, and have made the playoffs (and won playoff series) as a #3 seed in two consecutive seasons.

This particular process could be perceived as

  • overly painful

  • disrespectful to the so-called "integrity of the game"

  • inefficient

But, it could also be perceived as

  • clever

  • effective

  • logical

In the eyes of the Philadelphia 76ers organization itself, it must be considered at least a partial success, since the original objectives, if not fully achieved yet, are more within reach than they might otherwise be.


Sometimes, in the data visualization world, we have discussions online about "process." And by "discussions," I mean, "people tell you that you should do something a certain way."

Maybe you've witnessed, or been on the receiving end of, conversations like the following TOTALLY FICTIONAL but INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS one:

PERSON WHO HAD A SUCCESS: "This particular process has always worked for me. It takes longer to do, especially while you are still getting used to doing it, but the payoff is tremendous. Everybody should do this."

PERSON GOING ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS: "That sounds great! Congratulations on your success. I wish I had time to do that process your way, but I just can't."

PWHAS: "Oh, but you should make the time. I promise it's worth the effort."

PGATB: "Yeah, I know, I wish I could. I've been doing it a different way though, and it has been working for me."

PWHAS: "Well, using your process doesn't let you accomplish XYZ."

PGATB: "True, but my customers have never asked for XYZ."

PWHAS: "Ours didn't either, but when we gave it to them they totally loved it. You have to figure out what they need, not just what they ask for. You know, the whole 'faster horse' thing."

PGATB: "Let me rephrase: my customers would never need XYZ. They WOULD, however, be mad if I started taking more time to deliver my work."

PWHAS: "Well, once they see the quality of the product improve, they'll understand. And if they don't, you shouldn't have them as customers; you don't want to be in business with clients who won't give you the time to deliver the best possible work."

PGATB: "Sure...I mean, ideally, yes, but that's not a choice that's entirely mine to make. And I only get a certain amount of time to spend on this project so I have to make it count."

PWHAS: "Well, I guess not everyone is willing to put in the effort to do things the best way."

So what started as someone eagerly wanting to share something useful with the world has turned into a situation where the sharer is offended because their (obviously valid and useful) idea has been dismissed out of hand as not viable, and the person who was just minding their business is offended because their professionalism is being called into question.

This is not a helpful way to talk about process.


As a group, why do we spend time talking about process? Why compare the way we do things to the way other people do things?

Largely, it's to figure out what common tasks we all have, and to determine the best way -- the best way for EACH OF US -- to accomplish those tasks. We can use our friends' and colleagues' life experiences and (ugh) lessons learned to help us focus our efforts.

After all, in this business of data visualization, we often do have similar tasks to achieve, and similar professional experiences, and by sharing those experiences with one another we can sort of circle in on particular "ways of working" that seem to be more efficient or effective than others.

It's a helpful endeavor--when we remember to keep our experiences in context.

We get excited when we have successes, when we find things that work and solve problems; and because we are a community, we want to share those good things that we've found. But it becomes unproductive when we universalize.

"If it works for me, it will work for you."

"This is the best way I found, so you should do this."

"Why wouldn’t you do it the best way? Don’t you want your work to be the best it can be?"

Process is individual, because individuals are individual. On a case by case basis, my own process differs--as I’m sure all of y’all’s does as well. And that's just within a single practitioner, with a very narrow range of clients and projects.

If I can't hew to a universal set of processes even within my own limited customer base, how can I ever expect to dictate the universal value of any one process to the whole wide world? That's arrogance in the extreme.


Sharing our experiences about our processes can be quite helpful; arguing about process, on the other hand, misses the point. The outcome is the point.

Things that sound like great advice--and all things being equal, ARE great advice--might not be the right advice for your particular situation.

I can't say that you SHOULD do X (always sketch your dashboards before you start to build them!) or Y (always build multiple charts before you even begin to analyze!) or Z (always get customer feedback at every step of the process!), because only YOU know what you need to do to get to the outcome your audience needs.

And after all: the customer, the audience, the clients...they well and truly do not care about your process. The point of what you are doing, in almost every case, is to maximize the value of the relationship your audience has with the data you are presenting. Does it matter if you get to that point via Route 1 or Route 99? If it's within the parameters of your assignment--no. Not one bit.

If you and your audience like your results, and nobody gets hurt in the creation, then you’re doing it right.

When colleagues, leaders, newbies, or whoever talk about their own process, there’s value in hearing what they say just as there’s value in sharing your own experience. But you don’t get to choose what’s right for someone else and you don’t get to dictate “the best” way to do anything.

Trust the process--YOUR process.


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