When starting something new, you either know what steps are required to bring the undertaking to life, or you don’t. The former is the case when you’ve done something similar before. Let’s say you’re a designer who’s just started working on the design of a feature for a financial services system. If you’ve worked on a similar system in the past, you’ll have expectations about what you (and others) should do and in what sequence. You’ll mainly be looking for where your new project diverges from the patterns you’ve picked up from prior experience.

Other undertakings may be new to you but have been well-documented by others. Perhaps you’ve never worked on the design of the specific type of challenge this financial services system requires, but other people have. You can ask them, or read about it. It’ll take you a bit more time to get up to speed with such a project than if you have previous experience with something like it, but at least you have a framework to build on. Your challenge will be not just spotting instances where the project at hand varies from the pattern but also understanding what it is.

Still another class of undertaking is entirely new to you and to others. This is obviously a greater challenge than either of the two previous classes: You’ll be grappling with the content and context of the challenge and the frameworks that inform them. You may even have to invent frameworks and implement mechanisms to update them. This requires that you understand what goals they’re serving. But perhaps even the goals are unclear, and all you have is a hunch to go on. Scary stuff, especially if you’re committing resources to the project.

While this last class of challenges is rare, it can lead to breakthroughs. When facing such a challenge, I try to look for frameworks I can leverage from other fields. (Early in my career, I was using what I learned in architecture school in order to design websites.) The work will diverge fairly quickly as the specific character of the new challenge becomes evident, but starting with a dummy framework offers a point of departure and makes the undertaking less scary.