Sunday, February 27, 2011

Evaluation 101: Goal Setting

Welcome to the second of my five posts on how you can better evaluate your business! (it was to be four, but I realized a fifth was essential. ;) ) You can read the first here; it discusses how to construct a logic model. This post DOES build on that one directly, but I will try to make it understandable even if you haven't read the previous, so never fear! This time, we take a look at goals.

What is a Goal?
Many of the things I've seen set as goals by my fellow crafters are excellent in every respect except for one - they are not goals, they are objectives. A goal is a mid-term or long-term outcome that you hope to achieve by engaging in a set of activities, such as those that would go in an "output" section in a logic model. Goals are frequently best described using words (rather than numbers), and should be achievable, specific, measurable, relevant, and based directly on what you are hoping to achieve and what activities you are engaging in as part of your business. I will go in to each of these items in the list below. Here are a few examples of goals - some of which I raided from my own list of goals for 2011 (though many of my goals for 2011 are actually objectives, too ;) ):
"Increase exposure for my business."
"Increase sales for my business."
"Turn a profit."
"Improve my product."
"Enhance my knowledge of my craft."
"Build a Web Presence."

How is a Goal Different from an Objective, a Performance Measure, or a Benchmark?
Now, I want to preface this by saying: I'm not suggesting you all run out and change your goals. If they are working for you, keep them in the form you have (provided they meet the other criteria below and in my next post, anyway ;) ) - in a lot of cases the differences between a goal and an objective, and between both of those and a benchmark, become negligible (and some sources I've seen call objectives goals, and say objective is another term for benchmark, just to make things even more confusing!). It's still worth while to at least understand the difference. Whereas goals are usually general and descriptive, objectives are where the real meat-and-potatoes come in. To take one example from the list above - if the goal is, "Turn a Profit," one objective related to this might be, "increase the range of products that I sell." Other objectives would list other specific, concrete activities that you intend to engage in that you think will enhance your ability to turn a profit. This is different again from a performance measure or benchmark. Performance measures are what you are specifically measuring in order to determine if you are meeting your objective, and they are often also called "benchmarks." Thus, a performance measure related to the "increase the range of products that I sell" might be, "I will publish at least one pattern a month." All goals should have at least one objective associated with them, and all objectives should have at least one performance measure associated with it, in which you demonstrate how you will measure your progress towards meeting the objective. I'll write more about this in a final post which will bring together all of this.

In short, goals are the big-picture aims that show the direction that you want to go. Objectives are how you intend to go about reaching those goals, and the performance measures are how you measure if you've done it.

Formative and Summative Goals
Okay, I'm going to get a little technical here for a moment. Bear with me. :) There are two basic types of evaluation activities. One type assesses the quality and effectiveness of process and addresses questions like:
"Have I done what I planned to do?"
"Have I made my product effectively/efficiently?"
"How can I improve my work process?"
This type of evaluation is called formative evaluation, and is concerned with processes, activities, basically everything that would fall under the "output" category of the logic model that I described on Thursday.

The second type of evaluation address outcomes, and answers questions like,
"Did I make as much money as I wanted to?"
"Did I produce as many units of my product as I wanted to?"
"Did I reach my target in sales/production/etc.?"
This type of evaluation is called summative evaluation, and is concerned with the extent to which specific achievement goals have been met within a pre-specified time frame. It's most closely related to the outcome part of the logic model.

A strong set of goals should include BOTH types, because you cannot really understand one without taking a look at the other. If you only have formative goals (from the above list, "improve my product," "build a web presence" or "enhance my knowledge of my craft" are examples), you don't end up with any idea of what the outcomes of improving your process have been. On the other hand, if you only have summative goals ("turn a profit" or "increase sales for my business" from the above list) then - whether you meet them or not - you don't end up with any clear idea of why you did or didn't hit them. However, by assessing both, and setting goals related to both, you are much more likely to have a clear idea of both how effective the changes you have made are, and why you did or didn't hit your goals for the year.

When you actually get down to it you'll often find that many of your goals have both summative and formative components. And that's fine. For example, "increase exposure for my business" might involve formative objectives ("maintain a blog") and summative objectives ("attend X craft fairs in a year").

Good Goals and Bad Goals
A "good" goal is one that is actually useful to you, providing you with guidance and inspiration and a target to aim for while running your company. A "bad" goal is one that drags you down, can't be achieved, causes you to waste time on non-priority tasks, or one that lacks relevance. When you are writing goals, if you think of a goal and cannot think of any way that you can go about reaching it, then it's probably a bad goal - or maybe you need some time to figure out just what you can do to meet it! For example, if you know that "increase the exposure of my business" is a goal that you want to reach, but you have no idea what activities to engage in to reach it, it's time to do some research and learn what behaviors you can engage in, and once you have, you can start setting objectives - perhaps "advertise on FB" or "create a mailing list" or "attend craft shows" or what not.

It's important to keep in mind that goals are about what you are doing. In the logic model, there is a category on external factors that might influence your output and outcomes. Never set a goal (or objective or performance measure) that only pertains to external factors, unless you are prepared to clearly delineate how you intend to address it. "Increase sales" is only a good goal if you can list activities you will engage in that will bring it about; if you just list "increase sales" as a goal without any associated changes in your behavior, it's a terrible goal, because unless you act, it's highly unlikely that your sales will just go up.

Here's an overview of some of the most important things to keep in mind when writing good goals:

1. Set specific goals.
A list of goals with some specificity will be of the most use to you. "Improve my business" might sound like a good goal, but it's so general that it encompasses pretty much every type of activity that you might engage in as a business owner, while telling you nothing about what you actually intend to do. All of us know some specifics of how we want to improve our businesses, based on our own situations. Those specifics make much better goals. Maybe you have a great product that no one knows about, then you should think about a goal related to advertising or exposure. Or maybe you've got all the attention you could want, but you've got a small product range that your audience is already familiar with - in which case it's time to think about goals related to improving your skills, expanding your range of production, or innovating in to new areas. The more closely aligned your goals are with what you are actually trying to achieve, the easier it will be for you to think of useful objectives (which, remember, describe what activities you'll do to reach your goals).

2. Set relevant goals.
Make sure that your goals matter, and are actually related to what you do. I know this may sound obvious, but I've seen a shocking number of instances in goal lists of goals that are only tangential to the actual activities that are being engaged in. For example, if you primarily intend to engage in activities related to marketing and outreach, setting high goals related to production might not be your best bet. You can't do it all. (that's a mantra, I'll be saying it a lot in these descriptions ;) )

3. Set goals based on your priorities.
Directly following from the previous item on the list, it's critical that you relate your goals to what your actual priorities are. If you don't, you'll just end up running yourself ragged trying to meet goals that have become disconnected from what you are actually trying to achieve. If your priority is to make a little money on the side while raising your family, don't set ambitious goals for profit that mean that you're going to have to work your tail off. If your priority is to become the best at your craft, remember that education and learning take time, so maybe you should scale back on the goals related to production to ensure that you have plenty of time to learn and practice and improve.

4. Set achievable goals.
You cannot do it all. You cannot do it all at once. All good sets of goals should have a time period associated with them (often a year for our business, though in my job it's often 3 or 5 years). Keeping in mind every single type of thing you really have to do in a year, don't set goals that you can't reach. They won't do you a lick of good, and they'll make you feel bad to boot. This is NOT to say that you shouldn't set ambitious goals, and finding the balance can really be hard - but it's critical to be honest with yourself when you set goals. Set the bar high enough that you'll have to work for it, but low enough that you've got a better than 50% chance of getting there, and you'll end up doing your best with a reasonable chance of getting that happy glow from achievement.

5. Set measurable goals.
A goal that you can't tell if you've hit it is of no use what-so-ever. "Get noticed by a publisher" would be an excellent example of this kind of goal. Sure, that'd be awesome, but how on earth are you going to know if you've been "noticed?" It's totally meaningless, for one, and completely impossible to measure, for another. A better goal would be, "be published" - while it's still relates to things partially outside of your control, you can easily delineate a list of objectives (activities) that you'll be able to engage in that will increase the likelihood of this happening.

6. Set goals based on the activities that make up your business.
Setting a goal based on external factors you can't control isn't helpful at all. Building on the last example, "be approached by a publisher this year" is another way to phrase the situation, but depends entirely on external agency - a publisher to find you and want to publish you. Then you are right back where you started - completely unable to assess the extent to which this goal has been met, and at a loss as to how to bring about a situation where a publisher would come to you. In the end, goals are about you and your business and what you do, and how those activities influence others.

7. Goals should not be "yes" or "no" items.
Performance measures and objectives can be yes or no items. You either raise your prices or you don't. You either engage in self-education, or you don't. A goal should never be an activity you either do or don't do. If that's the form your over-arching goals have taken, you're thinking too small and have mixed up the levels. Goals are the big picture things. Raising prices might be one way of turning a profit, but in the end the profit is the goal, the price raising is just an activity you engage in to reach that goal.

8. Good goals aren't the same for everyone!
Don't think your list of goals has to look like every one else's. Maybe, based on your current priorities and situation in life, "scale back my business" is a realistic, reasonable goal. Don't be afraid of that, even though most other business you see will be going in the exact opposite direction. Goals, as I keep saying, are about what you want for your business, based on your own situation, and on what you yourself are doing.

9. Set a limited number of goals.
Repeat it with me: you can't do it all. A good list of goals shouldn't have too many items on it (I'd give a number, but in truth what's reasonable depends on your other obligations - but I'd say if you're hitting over 10 you've probably got too many). If you've de-prioritized something to such an extent that you can only give a very small amount of your time to it, don't make it a goal - since you probably won't be able to do it anyway. Save it for the "long term outcomes" part of your list (remember your logic model!), and keep it for the future, but focus your goals on the short- and medium-term. Give it enough time, and keep chipping away at the things in reach, and the others will eventually come within reach.

10. Don't be afraid to revise your goals.
Things change. Life changes. Situations change. Maybe you got laid off from your day job and need to step it up. Maybe you actually did get discovered by a publisher and went from obscurity to fame over night. Maybe you took stock mid-year and realized that you set the bar way too high - or way too low. Goals aren't set in stone. They are only relevant so long as they are helpful to you, and provide you with support in implementing your business. The instant they cease to be helpful, or become a burden, is the moment when you should consider stepping back and reassessing them. Even a list of goals that starts out "good" can end up being terrible if they become a burden to you.

So. That's a whole, whole lot. I know. You've finished the bulk of it! If you think you've got it, feel free to stop here. However, if you'd like to see it grounded a bit in specifics, I'm going to finish the post off by focusing once again on Widget Co., the hypothetical start-up company that I created for the Logic Model post. Let's take a look again at Widget Co.'s hoped-for short-term and long-term outcomes.

As CEO of Widget Co. I've set my sights on a lot of different areas at once. Some of the things I've listed as outcomes are goals; others are more like objectives - remembering that the distinction is that objectives are activities we engage in, whereas goals are over-arching purposes. And again, these lines get fuzzy, but here's how I would classify the list.
Short Term Outcomes:
1. Develop a widget market: goal. This is broad, but there are a lot of activities that I can engage in to try to reach it. However, narrowing it might be better, as in the below list there end up being many items that are facets of this.
2. Earn a profit on widgets: goal.
3. Be able to make more widgets each day: goal. There are various production-related activities that relate to this.
4. Sell more widgets each day: could be a goal or an objective, but not a very good one. Also, somewhat repetitive with earn a profit - obviously we have to do this to earn a profit.
5. Hire additional staff to make more widgets: objective. This is a way of making more widgets each day.
6. Open the widget store for longer hours or open a second widget store: objective. This is a way of turning a profit and expanding the widget market.
7. Have more people regularly read the widget blog...: objective. This is a way of developing a widget market.
8. Expand market for widgets in new places: goal, but repetitive with item 1.
9. Develop new types of widgets: goal, but one that will require a great deal of thought to figure out how I actually intend to go about doing this.
10. Educate the public about why need a widget: goal, repetitive, a facet of item 1.
11. Become acknowledge expert on widgets: goal, but problematic. How will you know if you are acknowledged? Better to focus on self-education and leave the acknowledgment to posterity.
12. Employ a high-quality, dedicated staff: this is a good, specific goal, much better than item 5, where you just hire them. Repetitive with the other.

Long-Term Outcomes
Pretty much all of the long-term outcomes are problematic to one extent or another. While the first three are perhaps reasonable, and can be measurable, two of the three are really more like objectives to set for success once you've gotten far enough. The fourth (monopolize the widget market) is illegal, and the fifth (world domination) is likely unachievable. While these kinds of ambitions might be our ultimate dreams, there is a big difference between a dream and a goal. If you can't really figure out a reasonable sequence of activities that you can engage in that will enable you to reach the goal, it's probably too big - even for the long term. This isn't to say that you shouldn't have dreams - on the contrary, dream away, please! - but keep in mind that dreams are separate from your business, and you'll be helping yourself out if you keep each step within reach (even if it's distant reach) of your current situation - and then through successive small steps, reach those dreams one step at a time instead of staring at "make millions" on the day you open your doors to the public and wonder how on earth you'll ever do that. Start with "make hundreds," step up to "make thousands," and if you keep it up, who knows, maybe you can get there!

Based on everything that Widget Co. does, and these outcomes, lets set them some reasonable, achievable goals linked to their priorities and the activities that they engage in...
1. Earn a profit on widgets.
2. Improve the production process for widgets.
3. Self-educate on the production, development, types, competition, and other facets of the widget business.
4. Maintain various advertising activities for Widget Co.

Evaluation 101 series:
1. Logic Models
2. Goal Setting
3. Writing Objectives
4. Performance Measures for Dummies
5. Bringing it All Together

Friday, February 25, 2011

Meet Manny Man-O-War, Manager of the Oceans!

Excellent, exciting news: I've got my camera back from Canon, good as new! So I'll be able to take better pictures of Manny and get ready to test the pattern. But for now, here's Manny Man-O-War, the "in uniform" version of my Portuguese Man of War amigurumi!

This is the second player I've completed of The Oceans, my underwater themed Baseball team - the first is Santana Squid, the Ace Pitcher for the Team.

Manny is one incredibly tough guy, and he doesn't accept anything less than his player's best. They want to stay on his good side, because his stings pack a serious wallop and he's not shy about letting failures feel the rough side of his tongue, and his tentacles. Because of his gelatinous body and is incredibly nasty tentacles, no one could figure out how to get the green uniform on to Manny, but he didn't let that stopped him, he just intimidated a whole lot of photosynthetic algae in to sticking to his tentacles, and he excreted the black pin stripes necessary to complete the look.

Don't let his doe eyes fool you! The other players live in terror of one of his infamous set downs, and he puts Lou Pinella to shame, he fights with the umpires so often! He's been thrown out of games more often than any manager in the history of the Undersea League.

He wears the number 42, because for him - and under his rule, for his players - the Oceans are the Life, the Universe, and Everything.

In the end, though, everyone puts up with him - and many even love him - because all he really wants is for the Oceans to win. He's a tough, mean, confrontational guy, but his heart is in the right place - or at least it would be, if he had a circulatory system.

Join in on the fun this Finished Object Friday over on Tami's Ami Blog! See what everyone else has to show for the week!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Evaluation 101: Logic Models

Last weeks discussion of how our jobs influenced our crafting business got me thinking, and seeing a recent post over on Fresh Stitches about her progress towards goals for 2011 helped focus an idea I had for a series of four posts about how to effectively evaluate our businesses. The first of these posts (today) will discuss a logic model and how you can construct one. The second will discuss goal setting. The third will be about setting objectives related to the goals that you set. The fourth and last post will be about how to create useful, measurable benchmarks for determining how well you are meeting the objectives.

Just a warning - this is a long, image heavy post (though they'll be small in kb...). However, I think it will be worth it. I hope you all agree!

What is a logic model?
A logic model is a simplified chart that gives you an overview of a program. In my line of work, we are frequently evaluating a program that is designed to, for example, help teachers teach better. This model is just as applicable to business (in fact, it originated in business). Basically, a logic model gives an overview of your business while clearly showing the connections between what you are investing in your business, what outputs you are producing, and what your short term and long term goals are. By putting this in chart form, it helps you see how what you are doing relates to your goals - when you've done it "right," all of our inputs and outputs will relate to your goals - you'll have goals associated with each, and no goals that can't be connected to something you are inputting or producing.

What are the components of a logic model?

A simple logic model has three components: inputs, outputs and outcomes.

Inputs reflect all of the components that you put in to what you are making. The outputs are all of the activities that you will engage in, and also in many cases who you will be targeting/including in your efforts. Lastly, outcomes are what you expect to have happen. This model is excellent for the sort of simple things that come up in our daily lives all the time. For example, perhaps you come home to the problem that your plants are drooping. At this point, the input would be water and fertilizer. The output would be the activities - measuring out the fertilizer, mixing it with the water, and watering your plants. The expected outcome would be that the plant leaves would no longer droop, and the plant would no longer need water (at least until next time!)

A full logic model has a few other components.

This adds in the situation - what is the initial condition of things at the time that you start pondering all the rest? Priorities - namely, of all of the different aspects of your situation, what are you going to target? It also includes assumptions - what things are you believe to be the case that influence your consideration of inputs and outputs? And finally, external factors are all of those things that can happen that will influence the outcomes. So, to continue the plant example, the situation was that the plant leafs are drooping. To this, you can add in some of your own knowledge - the plants haven't been watered in a week or fertilized in a month. Since it's been so long, you prioritize conducting both activities - watering and fertilizing. After a careful examination of the situation, you proceed with the assumption that water and fertilizer will solve the problem (rather than that the problem is with the type of soil, or the current light source, or the draft by your window - all of which are the potential external factors).

Again - this is still all pretty hypothetical, so I constructed a very simple logic model. You see, the thing is, we actually all use logic models all the time to make decisions, we just don't think about it. The plant example is one like this. I know, as an indoor planter, I go through that all the time, but I never would lay it out like that, I'd just go get the water. Here's another, slightly more complex example.

Again - we all do this automatically when it comes to simple situations. If we feel hungry, we go to the kitchen and get food out of the fridge (unless our priority is our diet!) Indeed, in life this can get very complex - looking at the situation of our life, we determine how to spend our money based on our priorities, and the inputs and outputs are determined by the priorities, situation, and assumptions we make - but sometimes the outcomes don't work out as we expected because of external factors outside of our control! So maybe you put the gas in the car, use up the money, and even though you expect this means you can get to work for the next week, that funny noise you ignored means that the car breaks down, or you hit heavy traffic that eats through the gas, or your office schedules you for a meeting in another state.

So! That's what it looks like when a logic model is simple. Lets make this a little bit more applicable to our craft business. I want to created a hypothetical business, Widget Co., with the idea that I will make - obviously - widgets, a strange item of indeterminate function that I believe everyone needs. I want to make Widget Co. the best widget company in the world!

Why am I using a hypothetical company instead of CCC?
Pretty simple - with a hypothetical, I can control all of the factors, rather than worry about all of the different factors that influence my business - especially, for example, that I work in two different and distinct fields (crochet and photography).

So lets go! Let's say that here's my situation:

Obviously, a real situation will be much more complicated than this. :) But the idea is, identify what it is that you are actually trying to impact by going about whatever endeavor you are going about. When considering the situation, consider: what are the problems? Why are these problems? Who has a stake in the situation? What are the different factors that influence the situation? What are the political, social, environmental, familial, economic, or other factors that influence the situation? Are there activities that you can engage in to learn more about the situation before you proceed? And keep in mind - logic models take time to develop! So, for example, it's taken me about two hours to put together this post - which is nothing! - and thus it's not surprising that it just dawned on me that I should have included "No other companies currently make widgets" to my list of the situation!

But of course, you'll never be able to hit all of the problems with one solution. Instead, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!

When you set the priorities, consider all of the different factors that relate to why you might make the decision that you make. Who else is affected? Who will be involved in making the decisions? Are there specific criteria for picking your priorities? Why have you picked these priorities? The reasons you have chosen the priorities that you make will impact your desired outcomes. In my example, I've prioritized making money as one thing - so presumably one of my expected outcomes will be profit, or else I've done something wrong! But the list I gave above is just a short sample of the many priorities that you might have.

Next up is the assumptions. Here's only a small selection of the possible list of assumptions that would impact this model:

I could as well indicate many others - but these can be especially hard to identify, precisely because they ARE assumptions. They underlie every decision we make to such an extent that it can be hard to realize that we are even taking them for granted. Talking to others about your business - those who are on the outside and don't know much - can help to single out these assumptions.

Alright. You've got the foundation! So what, exactly, will it take to make widgets?

Here's just a preliminary list of the kinds of inputs that it will take to produce a widget. Note that inputs are always things that are tangible (even if not physical). Time, expertise, money, materials, space - these are inputs. The kinds of things that might be a line item on a budget are inputs.

So, now we've got the raw materials and other bits and pieces that we'll be using. But what is our output - what is our process? - that will be utilizing these inputs?

Ideally, each of these outputs will match to one (or more) of your inputs. So, make widgets connects directly to time, money, and materials. Sell widgets connects directly to space. If you've got an input that doesn't lead to an output, you've got a problem; if you've got an output that doesn't derive to an input, you've got a problem. Don't read my example to closely - I've probably got at least one unpaired, because I put this together so (relatively) quickly, and using a fake example. :)

Another important component of the outputs is who this impacts. Yes, this makes the vocabulary a bit weird - we don't generally think of our audience/participants as being "outputs" but think of it another way - if our product is a widget, than a person who owns a widget is an output - something we have "created" by engaging in this behavior. Thus, we have our stakeholders - the external groups that are influenced by our input of materials and output of widgets.

Ideally, we'd have a different vocab for this - but we don't, so life goes on. :)

Alright! We're almost ready to take a look at what we expect to have happen. But before we do that, take a step back and consider all of the things other than your own inputs and outputs that might influence your business. Here are a few that I came up with:

Loads more could be added, though, both good and bad!

Lastly, we've got our outcomes. For a real business, you'll generally divide these in to three categories: short term outcomes, middle term outcomes, and long terms incomes. For this example, I've only done short term and long term.

Here, in the short term, is what I am expecting the outcomes to be from my widget business, disregarding the external factors that might end up messing everything up. Short term outcomes should be within reach, reasonable and - and we'll talk about this more tomorrow - measurable.

Long term impacts are where things get ambitious!

However, you'll notice that my long term outcomes for Widget Co. are particularly out there. This is wrong, and I did it wrong on purpose, because it makes an excellent segue into what will be the next post in this series (which probably won't get done tomorrow, just based on how long this one took me I won't have the time - I've been at this for about three hours!!)

Setting outcomes can be hard. The outcomes - both short term and long term - that you set should translate directly in to goals, and the rules that govern what makes a "good" goal are kind of complex but well worth examining, and so I will, in the next post.

Alright, so now we've introduced this, but I bet some of you are asking:
Wow that's a lot of work - why should I bother?
Keep in mind that when you really do this, the different parts all interrelate closely. If you take a step back and list your priorities, then do all the rest and realize that you are engaging in activities that have nothing to do with your priorities, and have other priorities that aren't being met, then you know something new about your business. If you have outcomes that don't link directly to your inputs and outputs, then you need to consider how you can meet that outcome in more detail, and consider how you should change your behavior. If you haven't looked closely at the assumptions that you have made, it can be very difficult (well nigh impossible!) to isolate what has gone wrong when things don't go quite as you expect. I could continue to list examples.

I'm sure that all of us have done something like this, to a lesser or greater extent, for our business. We can't continue to produce our outputs if we don't know what our inputs are! But, for example, I think a lot of us overlook the importance of the time we spent on the internet as a marketing tool - getting the word out about our businesses IS an essential part of our business. When you actually do one, consider listing the items in each category by importance - that'll help you figure out how best to divide your time (which is an input that is ultimately completely limited by the number of hours in the day! ;) ) In short, this is the kind of activity that you'll get out as much as you put it.

Now, to tell you honestly - I've not yet done a logic model for my own business. :) But now that I've really reminded myself of just how useful they can be, I'm definitely going to.

And don't forget - this isn't set in stone! It changes over time, just as our priorities and hoped-for outcomes, input skills and output products, do.

If you want to learn more about logic models, this is a very helpful site. The Teaching and Training guide listed there helped remind me of all the different bits and pieces to include in this post. :)

Until then - I hope this is helpful! :)

Evaluation 101 series:
1. Logic Models
2. Goal Setting
3. Writing Objectives
4. Performance Measures for Dummies
5. Bringing it All Together

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Work in Progress Wednesday - 2/23/2011

The only one of last week's WIP that I actually managed to finish were the mittens - there are pictures here and the Ravelry page here.

Instead of tackling those other things, I got going on a two other projects that I need to do before I can send the patterns in for pattern testing, plus a third that is just for fun.

First, I've got my two amigurumi that are in development.

Manny Man-o-War, Third Draft of the Portuguese Man of War Amigurumi:
This is my closest to being done. For the amigurumi I'm designing for the Oceans (my undersea baseball team), I always do an "in uniform" and "out of uniform" version. This is the in uniform version, and it should be done tonight!

I tried to make his eyes look tough, but I think they turned out exactly the opposite. Ah well. Maybe I'll write that in to the story about him. :)

Sooper Sekrit Amigurumi WIP
It's really not much of a secret, since I've shared it a little on Ravelry and have a Ravelry project page up with the first draft, but it's secret on my blog so I thought I'd keep it that way.

Doesn't look like much of anything yet. :) Hope to have it done by the end of the week, and once I've got two version finished, it'll be ready to test the pattern and share it! For the second version, I decided just to pound it out in cheap materials, hence the boring black Red Heart...(I can't wait to finish using all the Red Heart in my stash - it's left over from a time when I cared less about what I used to make things, and was broke enough that Red Heart was all I could afford...)

This is the WIP that I'm most excited about, but unfortunately cannot do any more work on until the supplies I ordered arrive. This is another one inspired by Nerd Wars over on Ravelry. This is supposed to be my entry in to the challenge called "A Bonding Experience," which is all about using different types of materials and discussing the challenges this involved. I had this idea to marry knowledge gleaned from my favorite craft (cross stitching) with this!

I don't want to spoil what it's going to show, but the idea was to give the white a shimmer by using Kreinik blending filament in silver and multi-colored. Blending filament is this awesome, thin, shiney thread used to make sections of cross stitch shimmer. It comes in all kinds of colors, but the projects I've done have mostly used gold, silver or multi-colored. It's working just how I hoped:

...unfortunately, I only have one spool of blending filament in the house (actually, I KNOW I have two, but I can't find the other, and anyway it goes with a specific cross stitch project - if I use it, I'll have to replace it), and I couldn't find any where local that carried the stuff (truly ridiculous) so I had to order it...and now I just have to twiddle my thumbs and wait for it to arrive. Very frustrating, because I really want to be working on this project! But there's nothing for it, I guess. :) This is another new direction for me, a shawl of my own design. I'm so glad I've joined Nerd Wars, because I'm meeting so many awesome geeks and also really stretching my boundaries and experimenting with new stuff in order to meet the challenges. :)

Want to see what other awesome stuff people are in the process of making this week? Check out Tami's Ami Blog and visit all of the other blogs participating in this week's WIP Wednesday!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Business: How Our Day Jobs Impact Our Crafts

Over in one the Designers group on Ravelry, a member posted an interesting thread which she started by referencing a blog post she had just written about how her experience as a business analyst has impacted her process as a now-full-time knitter. The purpose of the thread was to ask how it has impacted the rest of us. I was going to just respond there, but I thought this was a really interesting thing to write about in a bit more depth, because I think all of us might find it very interesting to step back and see how our educations and prior work experience has impacted our craft. :) Which is my way of saying: here's my answer, but I'd really love to hear yours, in a comment, in a reply, in a blog post (but please share the link with me!) because I learned a lot by reading the things in that thread, and I think there's something really interesting in this.

So. A little background. I have two bachelor's degrees - one in history (focus on Japan) and one in East Asian Studies (focus, surprise, on Japan). I also took a lot of course work in science. I have a masters degree in Library Science. For my professional experience, I worked a couple crappy jobs, and I worked for a year and a half in the library conservation lab, which was awesome. And starting when I was 19, I've done what I do now (though now I do it a lot, lot more) - education consulting. This means that I write grants and conduct evaluation of grant programs. I also help with strategic planning, conflict resolution, and more. I use statistics, I write reports, and I frequently work under tight, absolute deadlines in a very unwieldy bureaucracy that likes to make unnecessary additional requirements with far too little time to actually meet them. I currently balance the evaluation of 10 completely distinct projects, and have to keep all of the information about each one organized and make sure that all of the different things that have to be done at different times for each program get done - and when those deadlines overlap, I have to prioritize but also get it all finished. All while frequently communicating with clients. In between, I visit loads of teacher classrooms for observations and attend lots of the professional development (aimed at teachers) that I evaluate. has all of that impacted my attempts at starting a crafting business? Some of them are obvious - prioritizing, deadline meeting, high-pressure situations, working to meet certain criteria/specifications, I think all of these require no explanation for how they would be helpful in running any kind of business! But here are a few that are perhaps a little less obvious. :)

1. Breaking work in to steps. When you first look at a grant application package, it's completely overwhelming. The only way to get one done is to break in to bite-sized chunks, and tackle it one chunk at a time. If you do them out of order (say, skip one that is annoying or boring) you botch up all the later ones. The good habits I've developed because of this have really helped me with pattern writing, especially when things get annoying. Do I really want to make a project a third time just to take photos of the one step my testers found annoying? Of course not! But if you just knuckle down and get it done, you can get on to the more fun steps, like publishing the pattern! It also has been very helpful for figuring out how to construct a doll. I get an image in my head of the animal and the pose I want to make, and then the next step is, how do I break that in to crochetable pieces? Once I've got a clear idea of that in my head, I just tackle one step at a time...

2. Writing. The key to successful grant writing is clear, concise, completely accurate, non-flowery writing. This does NOT come naturally to me. I like commas, I like decorative adjectives, I like run-on sentences that cover lots and lots of ground and wander all over the place and maybe digress a bit in the middle or later part to cover some other piece of information before meandering back to the main point which is of course about how I tend to write ridiculous sentences that never quite seem to get to the point - but that's the point, right? Oh, did I mention I also like dashes - and ellipses...(oh, and parenthetical asides, too!) Well, in grants you can't do any of that. Yet, I'm a very good grant writer - grants I've written or co-written have won more than $25 million for our clients, with a better than 50% success rate for submissions. (okay, tooting done). I had to teach myself to write that way (and often, say, for blog posts, I don't bother). And all of the things I do to write clear grants, I use when I write patterns! I think: what, exactly am I trying to say/describe? How, exactly do I want to say it? Then I place myself in the reader's shows: I've never seen this before - do I understand what it means? If I read this, what would I think I was supposed to do? And if I find I'm not sure, I re-write until I am. And one of the main pieces of feedback I get from testers is how clear my patterns are, so I guess I'm doing something right!

3. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! As I wrote above - I have around a 50% success rate in grant writing. And that's a pretty good percentage. That means that 50% of the time, we DON'T win. Now, we don't get paid to write grants. We only get paid if we win. So there is a LOT of frustration that goes in to this process. But it also builds patience and fortitude and a thick skin when it comes to rejection. It also breeds a willingness to do a whole lot of work for potentially no reward. All of this comes in handy for reasons I should think are pretty obvious to anyone with a craft business. :)

4. Tools for improving product. As an evaluator, my main job is to look at the programs I work with, and - through observations, surveys, rubrics, focus groups, and other tools - figure out how they can be improved, which parts are most successful, which parts are least successful, etc. We set definite goals, and measurable objectives based on these goals, and then setg performance measures and benchmarks to assess if we've met our objectives. Though I've never written it all out, I've done this for my business, and my believe me, I think everyone could benefit from doing so!! And if you don't meet them, that's fine, but by making them solid and tangible, you've at least thought about them - and how you are going to achieve them! Whether you hit them or not, you've done the background work necessary to take a step back and think - this is what I did, this is why I did, it here's what worked, here's what didn't work, here's what I'd like to change, here's what I should do more of. This is why I gave a photography survey. Surveys are now in my blood. ;) But really, it's taught me to look at business as a series of achievable benchmarks, and then work towards each of those benchmarks. (now that I think about it, I really think I should write mine out in more detail - sounds like a future post! :) )

5. Keep on pushing. When things get busy with my job, I can't stop working. The deadlines MUST be met. The flip side of that is when things aren't busy, I don't have to do much - but I still have to get through the minimum. The positive work habits I've learned to get through both busy and slow times are very helpful in running my own business. They help me push past the "blahs" to get done crafting work even when I don't really feel like it. Do I always win this battle? No. Some nights, I just can't. But more often then that (like, say, last night) - I can find the energy to pick up the hook and get at least a little bit done, even when I'm tired enough that I don't think I should.

6. Teaching strategies. I work with teachers constantly, and have now seen over 100 different classroom lessons (gah, I never thought of it that way!) - and attended tons of high-quality professional development aimed at teachers. As a result, I've inevitably learned a lot about what goes in to being a good teacher (though whether or not I could use any of that in classroom is highly questionable). However, what it has shown me is that different kinds of information is accessible to different people. Some people look at a paragraph of dense description and completely shut down, but if you show them a photograph, they can immediately see what's expected of them. Other people (like me!) will sit and piece through the paragraph, but if you give me a picture it's like, uh, great, what do I do with THIS? All of the writing I do for the business (especially the blog and the patterns) I try to keep this in mind and give a range of types of content - pictures, detailed explanations, simplified explanations - posts of mostly writing, posts of mostly pictures, posts that are in between - keeping material accessible to different kinds of learners.

Now, is any of this good, generalizable advice for running YOUR businesses? I have absolutely no idea. I am not the poster child for success over here - but I haven't given up! (see #3, above :) ) But these are the ways that what I do every day for my regular job (which, by the way, I'm procrastinating working on this morning by writing this post...) have helped give me useful skills for my craft business. :)

So...those are the first things that spring to mind of how the skills necessary for my job have translated in to useful supports for my crafting business. I hope it's of interest! I could easily go in to way more detail, but I think I've said plenty (in fact, I've just gone through and cut a bunch cause I think I said too much! :) ) - now I want to hear from all of you!! How have skills from jobs you've had or still have impacted your crafting?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Work in Progress Wednesday - 2/16/2011

Yes, it's my second time joining WIP Wednesday! First, in the photography area, I'm still in the process of posting the 8 x 10s that ya'll picked from my photography survey; I've got 6 of them up on Etsy thus far. Also, since my camera broke on Monday, I got it packed and shipped off yesterday, and hopefully it'll be back and 100% by next week! In the meantime, I'm using my old camera (which has lens focusing and jamming issues), so shots aren't up to my normal standards.

How did last weeks WIP fare?
1. I finished the Ouchless d4, and it's now up as a free pattern in the linked blog post.
2. I completed the manager of the Oceans, who was revealed to be a Portuguese Man-of-War amigurumi!

This week, I've got four more in-progress (two of which I had actually started before last weeks post, shhh. ;) )

I had this idea for a crazy little snowman (it would be a free pattern) but I can't get it to work right - I haven't had the time to figure out how to make sure it can stand. :)

Part of the fun of this snowman is that I want to be able to dress him up, so the one on the right is in fact a snowman dressed up as a ninja. Obviously. :)

One of my treasured childhood stuffed toys is a frog:

I want to do an ami loosely inspired by this doll. I've only done the head (and it's not stuffed yet):

Shortstop for the Oceans
Now that I've mostly finished the manager for the Oceans (my all-undersea-creature amigurumi baseball team) it's time to move on to the third player: the short stop! Stacey from Fresh Stitches correctly guessed in a comment from last week what the manager was, based on my WIP image. Well, here's the yarn for the Shortstop:

I plan to start him this week. Anyone have any guesses based on the color? :)

Lastly, I'm participating in a Ravelry competition group called Nerd Wars. We are all sorted in to teams based on fandoms we like (I'm on Team Rangers, for my love of Babylon 5). I've already completed two competitions for this - I designed the Andromeda Cowl for the "Nebula" inspired competition, and for the Valentine's challenge I designed and made an amigurumi that I have yet to share on the blog (but hope to in the next day or two, once I've finished a second draft of it). The next competition I'm tackling is the "Giving Geeks: Cold Hands, Warm Hearts" challenge - the purpose of this challenge is to donate a pair of gloves or mittens to charity. Since the purpose is charitable, we're actually not required to make them ourselves, but I figured it was a good opportunity to tackle a challenge. I've never made mittens before, and I'm making up a pattern as I go, but I started this morning, and I'm pretty happy with how they are going so far:

The next round will separate the thumb from the hands. :) Anyway, once they are done, I just have to figure out what charity to send them to. Anyone have any suggestions?

Want to see what other awesome stuff people are in the process of making this week? Check out Tami's Ami Blog and visit all of the other blogs participating in this week's WIP Wednesday!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Introducing Manny Man-of-War, a Portuguese Man-Of-War Amigurumi!

For Wednesday WIP last week, I mentioned that I hadn't worked on the Manager for the Oceans since November. Obviously, that was unacceptable in the long term! Spurred on by sharing my early efforts, I went ahead and finished making him, and then second version. Note that I still have to make the third version, the one that's decked out for the baseball team. :)

Fresh Stitches hit the nail on the head when she guessed that I was making a jellyfish! Specifically, I was making a Portuguese Man-of-War!

Meet Manny Man-of-War - first two images are of the first version; the next are three are of the second version. I made a lot of changes, actually, but most don't show. :)

Manny is the Manager of the Oceans, the all-under-water baseball team starring Santana Squid as their Ace Pitcher. Manny is one incredibly tough guy, and he doesn't accept anything less than his player's best. They want to stay on his good side, because his stings pack a serious wallop and he's not shy about letting failures feel the rough side of his tongue, and his tentacles. However, I'll save the rest of the story for when I finish (er, start...) the version "in uniform."

I'm really happy with how the finished man-of-war turned out. There was a lot of staring at pictures and thinking "how can I DO that?" involved in this design - more than in many of my past ones.

The body shape and the frill were particularly challenging. Thank god I learned the loop stitch when I made the Swedish Chef, it came in real handy!!

I love making tentacles...

Here are two of the many shots I used to help figure out how to make this amigurumi:

Next steps? Finish the third draft, and then on to pattern testing! :)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Holy Lint Monster, Batman! (And a Trip the the Zoo!)

I was a torn about what to do for today's post. On the one hand, I've now finished two drafts of the manager for the Oceans! (though I still have to make a third...) On the other hand, I had what might be my most successful visit to the Bronx Zoo ever (from a photography standpoint)...which ended with my camera breaking. While I really want to share my Manager, I decided that current events take precedent, so it looks like it's two days of image-heavy posts in a row!

I was shocked when I discovered how absolutely gorgeous and warm it was today. Even better, my meeting was only a short distance from the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx I decided to walk over to the NYBG!...but when I was part way over there, I realized that the Garden was probably closed (it was) so I went to the Zoo instead! I re-upped my membership (I let it lapse a year ago, but I've missed having it) and then did some business-related investigation: I went to go speak to the Public Relations department about what would be involved in getting permission to sell prints of the photographs I took at the zoo! Unfortunately, this query hasn't produced results yet (the helpful folks at the department weren't able to reach the people who actually could help me, and when the right person called me back - which they did, and I appreciate - they had looked up the answer to a slightly different question, and so will get back to me :) ). I'm hoping that there is a small licensing fee that's within reach if I carefully select a few of the best images I've taken there over the past few years. But I guess we'll see... :)

After that, I wandered around the indoor exhibits, plus a few of the outdoor that have year-round animals (bears and tigers, primarily). I took a LOT of pictures and waited very patiently for beasties like tigers, lemurs, kangaroos, otters, monkeys, and hornbills to get in to just the right spot for the just the right picture. My persistence paid off - about a third of the shots I took turned out, a few really, really well (for active shots in low-light exhibits, it's not a bad ratio at all...). I'm thrilled, because it's one of those concrete events that help me see how far I've come. Right around this time last year, I did a trip where I went to a lot of the same exhibits, with the idea of doing primarily photography, and the difference between the two sets is night and day.

Some of that is because of a change in camera. Early last April, I was at opening day at Citifield when the lens on my old camera (Canon Digital Elph SD 1000) jammed. It did unjam, but the writing was on the wall - after two years, tens of thousands of images, and a whole lot of abuse, I'd been having trouble with the focus for a while, macro was starting to just flat out not work, and I really wanted a new camera. In fact, when I originally started Curiously Crafted Creations, that was my only goal: raise enough money to pay for a new camera. Since I still haven't done that, I guess it's a good thing I didn't wait. :) Instead, I broke in to my saved change and scraped together half the price for a much nicer camera than my old one, and paid the rest out of pocket. The new camera is a Canon Powershot SX210 IS - still not a fancy one, but bigger than the travel/pocket/mini-sized one I'd been using. Not long after, I did a post in my LJ in which I compared my efforts at photography of the same items at the Met. (though a lot of the differences in that set reveal more about how much I learned about photography in between when the shots were taken than they do about camera differences). Some of the old shots were comparable or better, because I'd gotten to really know my old camera and how to optimize it. And in the months after that, I had a lot of trouble with the SX 210; it wasn't until the trip in September that I really began to feel comfortable with it.

And today, I got to remember how hard it is to switch. Right after I took a really successful (imo) shot (you can judge for yourself - it's the pic of the hornbill, below), I turned the camera off, wandered down to the next area, turned the camera back on, and noticed that something wasn't right - there was a weird blurry spot on my lens! When I looked, I saw this:

A giant piece of lint had somehow worked it's way in to the space between the layers of glass that make up my lens!! WTF????? Look what it does to my pictures!!

Needless to say, I was pretty freaked at first, but I used my phone to go to Canon's webpage, did a little trouble shooting, nothing worked, so I called them and they're going to fix it for me - probably for free (I really, really hope I can find some document or other that proves it's still under warranty!!). But in the meantime, I pulled out my old camera, which I meant to sell but never got around to it, so that I could snap shots of my recently finished Manager and other such things. And ya know...? Now that I'm used to my new camera, there's really no comparison. I'm going to have to completely re-shoot the pictures of the Manager because without control over shutter speed and such the shots just don't come out quite right...I've come a long way in the past year. And that's nice to see.

I'm not worried. Canon has promised to send it back to me in 5 - 7 days. Unfortunately, the release date for the camera was a week ago last year, so it is actually possible that I bought it long enough ago that the warranty could be expired (though I actually bought it the last week of April...)...but if I can't find proof of the warranty and they ask me to pay, I will, and that's that. :)

Anyway. Enough of all that! ADORABLE ANIMALS! :)

Sleepy was the main theme of the day! Sleepy fossa...

Sleepy sea lion...

Sleepy monitor...

Sleepy leopard...

But don't make the mistake of thinking the Nile Croc is sleepy...

And when they wake up, it's time to play! The Amur tigers were playing with their food...

The ring-tailed lemurs were running around just because...

The golden lion tamarins ran around so much I had trouble getting a clear shot...

The ebony langurs were mostly just grooming each other...

The hornbill made his (or her?) voice heard...

The Asian water dragon was just watching (until his fellow jumped on his back right after I took this picture)...

The peacocks mostly ran away...

...but my shots of the day were of this Silvered Leaf Monkey, who looked like he had all the knowledge of the world, and was just waiting for someone to come and ask him all about it...

...but I couldn't convince him to tell me...

You can see the whole set here. It took five minutes to pick the tiger shot from about the 30 that I took, all adorable (there are three tiger cubs along with their mama at the zoo right now...). The old set that I took last year and shows my improvement is here.)

HAHAHA YES!! In the time it took all the photos to upload, I found my receipt!! It's dated 4/23/2010, so it blatantly proves my warranty is still valid, so I'll definitely not gonna have to pay for any repairs or replacement! YAY!! (I was worried, I'll admit - I tend to toss receipts, so it was entirely possible that I didn't have it...)

SQUEE! And adorable animals! :) (and if you want a spoiler for tomorrow, the pictures of the Manager are already up on Flickr...and I promise I will not do a third day in a row of so many pics!)