Well-Defined Roles,The Necessity of Leads, & the Power of Reflection

The U in Team

I?m new to working on design teams. On my last project, one of my teammates wanted to spend more time doing research, which the rest of us thought was unnecessary. Additionally, this team member struggled to follow the design decisions, and it was clear they wanted to approach the problem differently. With limited time, the rest of the group couldn?t explain all the details to this one team member. We didn?t set roles at the beginning of the project, so we all worked together on every part of the process.

How do I deal with this situation and avoid it in the future?

Signed,Walking on Eggshells

Define Roles

One of the great myths of collaboration is that smart people will automatically work things out. Great collaboration depends on well-defined roles and leadership. You?re right to point out that not setting roles at the beginning of the project hurt the team overall. Setting roles doesn?t just delegate responsibilities, it assigns accountability and ownership. By making one person responsible for a particular area (a discipline like visual design, or an aspect of the experience like account management) they understand their contribution, and you can hold them to it. They can participate elsewhere, sure, but they know what they?re on the hook for. It frees the team up from having to participate in every decision.

Assign a Lead

Team lead is the most crucial role. Time constraints, as you point out, are but one obstacle in the way of well-meaning teams. Budget, stakeholder foibles, unpredictable technological problems, among others, threaten to derail even the most effective teams. The lead is the teams defense against these external forces. A good lead directs members of the team to help them understand their priorities. They will make decisions and be accountable for those decisions when no one else can be.

Even well-defined roles and team leads need a collaboration ?infrastructure? for working well together. This isn?t just software: it?s processes and techniques.

Hold a ?Pre-Mortem? Meeting

One technique I haven?t used personally but gets good reviews is the ?pre-mortem.? In this meeting, which you have at the beginning of the project, you talk about everything that could go wrong. This is like a Festivus airing of grievances before anyone?s done anything to be grievous about. It?s easy to have this conversation in a non-personal, non-confrontational way as you play ?what if.? With project concerns in the open, the team can plan mitigation strategies.

In this pre-mortem, you could have brought up ?getting too mired in research? or ?not being able to build consensus in the short time frame?. But the great thing about these conversations is that you also get to hear alternate perspectives. When you know what causes anxiety, what project challenges loom in their imagination, you can help your teammates deal with those situations as they arise. And they can help you.

That?s how I?d avoid this scenario on the next project. You?re right to want to deal with how you left things with that team member. Even if you don?t plan on working with this person again, by working through the differences, you practice having difficult conversations, and build up your skills and experience in this crucial aspect of creative work.

Hold a Retrospective Meeting

Have a third party facilitate a project retrospective meeting. While somewhat more loaded than a ?pre-mortem,? project retrospectives give teams an opportunity to reflect on what worked and didn?t work about the project. Third-party facilitation is crucial, to keep the conversation productive and constructive.

Project retrospectives should cover three things:

  1. What happened on the project, a journalistic account of the activities on the project.
  2. What the team learned about the team dynamic, a reflection on where the team performed well and where the team struggled.
  3. What each individual learned about themselves, an opportunity for people to solicit feedback and identify things they want to work on.

Lunch with Your Teammate

If a project retrospective isn?t feasible, go out to lunch with the team member. You can only be responsible for your own growth, so treat this as a learning opportunity for you. Ask questions like:

  • How do you think the project went?
  • How would you do things differently next time?
  • What can I do to work better with people like you?
  • Tell me about a team you worked on that worked well together.

Do not get defensive about the feedback: after all, you asked for it. People struggle to give feedback, so your colleague may not couch it in terms that make it easy for you to hear. Your attitude isn?t so much, ?Tell me what I did wrong,? but more ?Tell me what I can do better next time.?

It Takes Two to Tango,and Sometimes the Other Person Forgets

It?s the rare relationship, professional or personal, in which both people are actively trying to be better for each other. Practically speaking, these efforts either don?t exist or exist in one direction. Think of the subordinate trying to live up to their manager, or two colleagues operating without regard for each other?s efforts.

It may feel like you?re the only person trying to adapt to a difficult situation. The truth is you?re not alone. Everyone feels like they?ve made enormous sacrifices, tremendous personal shifts just to make the project work. It may not seem obvious, but only because you?re preoccupied with your own challenges. That?s life.

The best we can do is try to learn about other people. Understanding how your colleague perceives situations, how they make him or her feel, goes a long way in de-escalating those situations. ?I know she doesn?t like it when we don?t have a plan for next week,? doesn?t have to be a complaint. It can be a call to action. ?He really struggles when he doesn?t have any good examples or starting points,? is perhaps something for him to work on, but also a good guideline for how to collaborate with him.

My favorite part of working with humans is that there?s always a chance they?ll buck expectations.

The more learning you can do, the less frustrating these situations become. The obstacles remain the same, for sure, but your perception and handling of them matures. And my favorite part of working with humans is that there?s always a chance they?ll buck expectations. Maybe next time, your teammate says to you, ?I want to try doing this project with much less research, to see how it goes.? You think you know someone, and then they do something that surprises you.

Have a sticky team situation or an unresolved conflict?Drop me line at dan@eightshapes.com

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