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Becoming a Better Contributor

August 15, 2013

What makes someone difficult to work with? We might point to patterns of behavior like cluelessness, stubbornness, and rigidity. When people are being clueless, they don’t understand their limitations. When being stubborn, people don’t admit when they’re in over their head. And when they’re being rigid, they don’t adapt to the ever-changing circumstances typical of design projects. Learning to manage these behaviors (in other people and in ourselves) and to become an effective contributor is the most important challenge facing designers and design teams.

It’s in light of this belief that I challenged Jonathan Kahn’s question about facilitation. He asked:

How do “people skills” like facilitation and listening feature in your work?

I retorted:

Converse question also important: How do I become a better (more effective, more efficient) contributor to the team.

When he turned the question around on me, I couldn’t just respond in 140 characters. Becoming an effective contributor is a process, and there are dozens of ways to skin this cat. Here is one take, a three-step process:

Step 1: Awareness

Good contributors are self-aware: they understand their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and style. They have thought about the tasks that make them uncomfortable, the environments in which they perform optimally, and the people who bring out their best.

But awareness doesn’t end with the self. People need to be aware of their colleagues. Every person on the team has a contribution to make (or should), but also has their own strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and style. Understanding your colleagues as contributors means understanding their skill sets but also:

  • How they like to communicate with other team members.
  • How they handle critique.
  • How they deal with a new challenge.
  • How they deal with conflict.
  • What parts of the design process they relish.
  • What parts they hate.

With this understanding, you can craft your interactions to play to you and your colleagues’ strengths. You can position feedback in a way that will be heard. You can ask for critique in a way that will be most effective for you to respond to.

Step 2: Admission

Awareness is one thing, but admission is another. Being honest with yourself and your colleagues is difficult. People are met with skepticism if they overpraise themselves and with hostility if they are overly harsh on their colleagues.

Good contributors take a different approach. They’re matter-of-fact and direct, but admit their own shortcomings just as readily as anyone else’s. They are specific in their feedback, and look toward changing the future, rather than dissecting the past. They take responsibility for their mistakes:

  • “I’d love to try my hand at prototyping this design, but I don’t have a ton of experience. Can we be sure to include some time for me to consult with our HTML/CSS experts?”
  • “I do want to get more involved with research, but I’ve never conducted a user interview before. Perhaps I can split them with our expert researcher, so I can watch a few in progress.”

Weakness isn’t really weakness. Dishonesty is what undermines a team’s effectiveness.

Step 3: Adaptation

Good contributors use the information they gain from the first two steps to adapt their behaviors.

  • Have someone who shuts out critique? Find ways to make it more palatable.
  • Work with someone who flounders on design problems? Establish a system of check-ins to help them work toward?
  • Have problems managing your time? Enlist a colleague to discuss your work week.

Experience teaches us how far we should go to adapt. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m bending over backwards or compromising my values. But as a team member, I hold some responsibility for making sure the work gets done. If that includes padding out my meetings to pay someone extra compliments, or holding an informal conversation to discuss time management, so be it.

Maybe you think this isn’t any of your concern, that it’s someone else’s problem. I’ve worked with countless team members who behave as if their capabilities or talents makes them immune to team dynamics. I’ve worked with people who behave as if a team’s dynamic is a foregone conclusion. Experience shows, though, that people would rather work with someone honest with less talent than a talented person who is a jerk.


Check out my new book

Designing Together: The collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionalsIf you’re interested in becoming a better contributor, dealing with conflict on design projects, or fine-tuning your team’s collaboration, consider getting my new book Designing Together.

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