When having your back means shooting you down
5 minute read
I’ve got a good team.
I know this not because my team is talented; not because they wield terrifying text editors and pixel manipulators with the deftness of a Mayo Clinic surgeon (although they most certainly do). I know this because they are good at critique.
They are able to look at something — a design, concept, prototype — with a critical eye. To communicate their thoughts and opinions honestly and without agenda.
Adults and professionals
There have been lots of articles written on how to give a good critique, and most of them focus on sparing someone’s feelings. The old “critique sandwich” of wrapping your stinky cheese of a criticism between a couple of fluffy, feel-good observations:
“I like that you X in this scenario, but I think Y doesn’t make any sense and should be expunged from the design; oh… and nice Z.”
This is unnecessary crap. *
If something works and it’s worth noting, then say so. But don’t waste time burnishing someone else’s ego. It’s unproductive at best and condescending at worst.
By the same token, if something doesn’t work, say so. Be direct about it. Blunt, even. And be prepared to discuss and defend your observation in a civil and professional manner with your colleagues.
Your team should walk into any design review with a few basic maxims understood to be givens:
- We’re all adults here
- We’re all professionals here
- We’re all on the same team here
- We all have the same ultimate goal and
- We all respect each other; nothing that goes down in here is personal
Let’s call these the Five Maxims of Critique, and that last one is the key. Respect among team members is vital. Any personal issues that might exist between the Dev and the Designer; the BA and the stakeholder, all that gets left at the door. In fact, it helps to open sessions by reviewing these maxims with the team (out loud) before any critique gets started — especially if you’ve got some ego issues on your team.
Trust is both a luxury and a necessity on design teams. Without it, you can’t do good work. Still, so many teams are crippled by an inherent lack of trust amongst their membership that the ultimate quality of their efforts is usually diminished.
So how do you establish trust?
This is a topic that warrants its own article, but suffice to say a few key items will help smooth the path towards trust.
In my experience, nothing goes further toward building trust between team members than open, honest communication. Be clear with your comrades. Speak up. Don’t leave them having to do guesswork or make assumptions about your ideas, motives, and expectations.
Check that attitude. Maybe you are better than everyone else on the team but, face facts: The sum is always greater than any individual. Babe Ruth against nine other guys would have lost every time.
The bottom line is that you are creating something in the aggregate, with a team. The team was assembled to take advantage of each others’ strengths (that’s the hope, anyway). Look for opportunities to work with others and better yourself — and the product — in the process.
So… you’re humble. Cool. How do you deal with those on your team who are, shall we say, less than so? The grim reality is that sometimes you get a dud. Someone’s on your team and they’re narcissistic. Maybe they lack the skills they need to do their job. Perhaps they grossly over-estimate their capabilities. Or they lack social skills altogether. Maybe you are the problem and can’t get over the nepotism or who-knows-what that landed you with this (or these) horrible examples of team members.
You need to take the high road.
Gordon Sumner famously observed that “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” This is, lamentably, at least 50% of design work. In so many different ways. You’re never working with a perfect scenario; a perfect client; a perfect team. Deal with it. A good designer — a good teammate — acknowledges this and looks for ways to move forward in spite.
So your boss stuck you with his brother-in-law as the BA the for the project, and he’s more interested in naps; breaks; surfing shall-we-say, less than appropriate internet content from his windswept and exposed cubicle?
We’ve all been there in one respect or another. You need to do your best with what you’ve got and work to move the project forward. It’s called being a professional.
About those sandwiches
I should also point out that I was a bit unfair in my assessment of the “critique sandwich,” earlier. This concept — and other critique techniques like it — were created for a reason, and the Rogues are it.
In most cases, you don’t need to worry about coddling someone’s ego. You can speak candidly with your teammates and vice-versa. When you’re dealing with the rogues of the world, these “tricks” and “techniques” are often necessary to move forward. Use them if you have to. Proceed without them if you’re fortunate enough to have established a team rapport that doesn’t need them.
I know you’ve poured your life’s blood into this iteration, and you feel like it is something special; a child. But you need to let that go and seek others’ feedback.
You have to be able to take the hits. In fact, you have to want them; solicit them. Design review is the time for the gloves to come off. Ask you teammates for their critique. Explore what doesn’t work. Insist on brutal honesty. If you feel that you’re getting the ego treatment, call them on it and remind them that you’re all there to improve the product at hand; not ooh and ahh over it.
In some cases, you may feel so strongly about an observation or criticism that it becomes personal; a conviction. Please refer to Maxim #5: Drop the personal.
We’ve all seen this in sessions, where someone (maybe it was you) disagrees on that one design problem while the rest of the team is ready to move on.
You have to be able to let it go.
Sometimes you’ll recognize it and call yourself on it. Sometimes someone else will call you on it. The bottom line is, if it’s you, you have to accept it and move on. Some battles are won and some are lost. Accept this and work with the team (you trust them, right?).
Every project you work on, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is an opportunity for growth. It’s also a testament to your efforts and abilities. And working on a team is something that we’re all going to have to do in some form for as long as we’re in this crazy racket.
Make it count.
Build camaraderie with your team. Build trust. Speak honestly and without agenda. Work with your team to establish a culture of open and constructive critique and you’ll find that the quality of your work reflects this. And you’ll look around, and you’ll observe:
This is a good team.