Seeing is believing: use art to develop consensus

Artists are in a unique position to develop consensus and prove, or disprove, ideas. Why? Because a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Put a group of people in a room to discuss a visual solution to something and I guarantee they will all leave the room with different pictures in the heads. Have that same group reacting to something visual and the conversation will be more focused, shorter and the picture in everyones heads will be more similar.

If visuals haven’t been prepped in advance, use a whiteboard or a scrap of paper. It doesn’t need to be a work of art, it just needs to communicate an idea. If conversation is going in a circle and everyone is championing their own idea I’ll even suggest a meeting be rescheduled so I’ll have time to make some visuals.

Use images to get gutchecks on an idea in it’s early stage and use them to help set agendas for conversations.

Documentation doesn’t replace dialog

Have you ever sent an email packed with details and been frustrated because someone didn’t digest and retain all the information? Or maybe you drafted a comprehensive design doc that no one read. There are countless scenarios where we expect colleagues to dig into our documents like they’re the next GoT volume. It’s disappointing when we realize our efforts aren’t appreciated but here's thing: People don’t read, they skim. Don’t blame them. Chances are you do the same thing.

Email sucks for brainstorming and the exchange of abstract ideas. If you want your emails to be read, keep them short. If you want creative exchange, talk to your collaborators. If you’re writing documentation, you guessed it, keep it short. Writing consumable and clear documentation requires strong editing skills. Prepare to spend as much time paring down your text as you did writing the first draft. And be prepared to talk through your ideas.

Make recommendations

I like asking bartenders about new beers. I enjoy trying their recommendations and determining whether I agree with their assessments. If I don’t agree with them I don’t get mad. I get a different drink next time, a little better informed. I won’t waste time being miserable about a bad beer. It’s not worth it.

You have expertise. Share it. If you’re not offering the whole of your skill and experience please ask yourself, “Why not?” Are you not being paid enough? Is it a fear that you’ll be judged? Do you not care about the project? You get what you give. If you’re holding back it’s likely the people around you are following your lead.

Make recommendations. Do you want to be valued as a creative person or a tool to execute some else’s ideas? Not all of your suggestions will be followed but the more you offer the more you influence.

How do you make the case for the unexpected?

My term for well-executed but flavorless, emotionally void, design is ‘cereal box art’. It includes actual cereal box art, architecture, music, dance, video games, movies and anything that has the potential to be daring but takes the frictionless path.

Not every design needs to be an emotionally rich, daring, adventure for the end-user but how do you determine when and where your work can be pushed to challenge expectations?

If you’re working on products for the mainstream this will come up. We all want our products to be wildly successful but that often results in designs and concepts whose edges have been filed away to maximize appeal. Focus testing is great but most of us don't have the budget to collect real data. So, when faced with conservative clients, how do you make the case for the unexpected?


Consult the experts

I know you're probably amazing at whatever it is you do but I'm sure there are areas that are outside your depth of knowledge - areas where you aren't so amazing. No problem, that's why you have experts as friends, colleagues, and mentors. If you have the budget, hire them. If you don't have a budget, offer an exchange, or buy them dinner and drinks.

Consulting experts will get you to solutions faster and shorten your conversations with clients. That's more upside for you if you're working on a project or flat rate. If you work hourly it means moving to your next project sooner. 

Where do you lack expertise? Now, which of your friends and colleagues have the skills you lack? Reach out to them. Don't worry about being a pain in the ass, you'll return the favor at some point. That's cheaper than going to school or learning the hard way.

You need a wingman

As an artist you may know exactly what you want to say but you may not see your work clearly from inside the creative bubble. Whether you’re developing personal or commercial work one thing will be constant: your objectivity will probably suck.

That’s why you need a wingman. Someone to keep you honest, on-target and motivated. A friend, an art director, an editor, or colleague who knows what you’re trying to accomplish. What you see isn’t necessarily what anyone else sees and sometimes it helps to have someone to ask, “Are you drunk?”

Yes, even the best artists, writers, directors and dancers have agents, directors, and editors to help focus the message. To make something great even better. If you don't have a wingman, find one. Be critical of yourself but also invite focused criticism.

Anticipate needs

There are few things worse than then doing a review with your client or PO and getting clobbered with questions you didn’t anticipate. Ideally you would have interviewed them about their goals before you started any actual work but inevitably something slips by.

Think like your client. Internalize their goals as your own. If you work with the same people regularly write down the feedback you anticipate and compare it to the feedback you recieve. Do this enough and you’ll see patterns emerge. Most of us have a limited set of scripted needs and we express them over and over. You boss/client/PO is no different.

Regularly step away from your work and anticipate your client's needs. Write them down. Developing this empathy will focus your work, reduce revisions, save time in reviews and your boss or client will trust you more.

The Six Human Needs

Do you know what motivates you? Several years ago I attended a Tony Robbins weekend event with my wife and some friends. It was a complete information and sensory overload but here is what I remember. As humans we're all driven by the same six basic needs. 

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for change, new stimuli
3. Significance: feeling unique, important or needed
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness
5. Growth: an expansion of capability or understanding
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping others

ACTION >> Learn which of the Six Basic Needs are most important to you. Use this knowledge to make life, career, and relationship decisions that align with your values.

Horstman’s Law: More Communication is Better

We all wanted to be respected as talented, capable professionals so it isn't always easy to share our failures. The missed deadline, the idea that didn't work as well as we thought it would, etc. The thing is this: you can't hide the failure but you can control how it's communicated. Don't waste your time on excuses. It's always better to fess up and let people know what you learned.

“No matter what the situation: work or home, professional or personal, boss or subordinate, it is always more communication that solves the problem or clinches the deal. And think about this: communication is what the listener does.”

“Pick up the phone. Provide an update. Admit you’re behind. Over communicate, and you’re halfway there.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.

Horstman’s Law: How You Feel is Your Fault

It's so easy to blame circumstances, and other people, for our frustrations but that's just offloading responsibility. Don't let other people turn you into something, or someone, you don't want to be. If other people determine the conditions of your happiness you're giving them too much power. Your feelings are your responsibility.

“If you find yourself saying, “that guy/situation/boss makes me mad,” you’re wrong. They did something, and then you decided how to respond. Think about the word responsibility. (Response-ability) You’re able to choose your response.”

“Choose the right response. Choose not to get angry. Choose to understand why they behave the way they do. Your response will be more powerful.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.

Horstman’s Law: Control is an Illusion

This is so true. As a manager there's a strong temptation to over-validate our presence by controlling the conditions and people around us. However you can't control everything. Ultimately you, and your team, will be happier and more productive if you learn to step back. 

“There is not a single person whom you think you “control” who would agree with you. If you really think you’re so good as to control another, then who in your organization thinks that way about you? Stop trying to control. You’re wasting your time. Build relationships that allow you to influence.”

“Build relationships based on trust. Say, “I trust you.” Let your team choose their path at times, even when you disagree.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.

Horstman’s Law: You’re Not that Smart: They’re Not that Dumb

Unless you're some kind of sociopath or super-spy people will know if you're holding back. And if they're worth being part of your life they're worth the truth. If you choose to hold back you can expect they will follow your lead.

“You can’t fool people. Ever. The fact is, people know when you mislead them. Yes, they might go along with you, but they know that it doesn’t feel right. That you don’t feel right. After all, didn’t you used to be “them?”

“Tell the whole truth. Don’t leave anything out. When in doubt, tell everyone. Use candor as advantage, rather than seeing it as weakness.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.


Horstman’s Law: It’s All About People

Surround yourself with talented people and get to know what makes them tick. Conversation about work is great but that will only give you a shallow understanding of who they are and, if you're working with someone, do you really want to settle for partial understanding?

“This is actually a hard-nosed, scientific and financial reality. Any hour you spend on people is a better investment than an hour spent on systems, processes, or policies. Great people can overcome average systems; average people won’t live up to great systems.”

“Spend time with your folks every week. Learn their strengths and weaknesses. Learn their projects. Learn their children’s names.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.


Horstman’s Law: The “Other” Way Often Works Just Fine

One of the great things about working in teams is that everyone approaches their work differently. If someone makes a suggestion that doesn't jive with your process or philosophy give their idea it's due. Especially if this is a person whom you respect. It worked for them well enough to earn your respect so there must be value. 

“There’s someone else out there who has succeeded to the same level you have with exactly the opposite intuitions you have. (They wonder how you got where you are too.) Your idea that your way is the right way is routinely controverted. You just think it’s right because it’s yours.”

“Try the opposite every once in a while. After your first thought, wait for a second–different–one.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.

Horstman’s Law: There are No Secrets

People are smarter and more observant than always suits our needs so don't even try to hide things. Even if people don't guess the details they'll see enough to trigger the imagination and what they imagine is probably worse than the truth. Be transparent.

“If you think you can keep something quiet in your organization, you’re kidding yourself. What everybody is talking about is what’s not being said. Everybody knows already. The one associate or friend that you felt you could tell has probably told someone else whom they trusted…and so on. If you try to keep secrets, others lose respect for you because you show you don’t trust them.”

“Tell everybody everything. Forward every e-mail you get to all of your team...automatically. Don’t go off the record.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.


Horstman’s Law: The River is Wide, the Currents are Messy, but all the Water Ends up in the Ocean

If you haven't yet discovered Manager Tools I highly recommend you spend some time with their podcasts. The focus is on becoming an effective manager but I found their content is just as applicable to the lone wolf or freelancer.

“Watch water flow down river sometime. It doesn’t march in nice straight lines. It meanders. It’s messy. Scientists say 20% of it is actually going up river. Your organization is organic–it’s made up of people–just like a river. Your projects and timelines are going to be messy and defy control. Stop fighting it.”

“Don’t worry about or punish every missed deadline–wait for a pattern. Think about a chinese finger puzzle. Sometimes a light touch is the way out. Let go–flow–to get ahead.”

Find more great ideas and information at Manager Tools.


Share your bad ideas

Seeing is believing. Sometimes the path to resolution, and evolution, of an idea means sharing your bad ideas. Yours and the clients. Sharing the good and bad,  and soliciting responses, will tune your understanding of what is important to someone.

At some point a client will ask you to do something that you think is a bad idea and, despite your genius, the best thing to do is to show them what they ask for. Worst case scenario: you discover that you’re not the genius you thought you were. Best case: the client sees first-hand that their idea doesn’t work and they trust you more. In either case you’ll learn a little more about the project by embracing the request and trying it out.

This doesn’t need to be a source of stress. If you’re working with a new client budget for iteration. It will improve the quality of your work and make your clients happier.

Feedback: Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process

Giving and receiving feedback is one of those things that's easy to recognize when it’s done well but few of us have a structure for it. Crazy since it's something we do every day. Liz Lerman’s is the first of a few feedback models that I’m going to feature. Try it out.

Each participant has a role (the Artist, the Respondees and the Facilitator) and the process has four steps:

1. Statement of meaning by the group. Each Respondee shares what is meaningful, evocative or interesting about the work being critiqued.
2. Questions by the writer for the group. The Artist asks specific questions of the Respondees.
3. Questions by the group for the writer. Respondees ask the Artist neutral questions about the work.
4. Opinions. Respondees offer opinions about the work.

The Communication Hydra

There’s a communication model that says anytime two people are speaking there are actually six people involved:

1. Who you are
2. Who you think you are
3. Who they think you are
4. Who they are
5. Who they think they are
6. Who you think they are

While it’s not practical to keep all these influences in mind during a conversation it is a useful tool to develop empathy, contextualize feedback and anticipate the needs of creative partners, friends, family, etc. As you get to know someone these six personalities reconcile but in most relationships it is the blend of identities that represent who we are and how we see the people around us.

Convert details into goals

Ever been frustrated by feedback that’s too specific? You can’t always rely on others to provide useful critique. It’s up to you to get information that you can use, to shift conversation from details to goals. When feedback isn't helpful dig for more information. Find out what that detail represents to the person. Don’t blame others for not communicating well. Help them be helpful. Become an alchemist, it's a portable skill worth developing. 

Client: Make that button blue.
You: Hmmm...why do you think the button should be blue?
Client: I don’t know. I just like blue.
You: Why? What do you like about blue?
Client: I don’t’s like the sky or water. It’s calming.
You: I see, you’re goal is to make this calming. How much room do I have to explore other ideas that have this same effect?