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Courageous design

 Does this sound familiar? You’re meeting to design a solution to a tricky problem. People are alternating between adding new requirements and deriding prior approaches. Everyone agrees with the issues (“Yeah,” “Yup,” “That’s right”), but no one is suggesting a solution for fear of rebuke. These meetings end one of three ways:

  • Deciding to meet again to discuss the problem further.
  • Asking a couple of people to create a proposal for the next meeting.
  • Someone with guts making a proposal that gets ripped apart, but eventually leads to a workable solution.

The third approach is obviously the fastest, most constructive, and most efficient, yet it’s the least common—especially if the senior person in the room doesn’t make the proposal.

Why don’t more people propose solutions? Because their proposals get ripped apart by detractors. Is that the problem? No. We don’t work in a cordial industry with easy solutions. You need hard conversations and forthright debate to arrive at the best approach. So there’s no solution? Of course there’s a solution: Stop being a coward.

Eric Aside

In fact, the process of providing a proposal, getting it critiqued, then arriving at a better approach is the classic dialectic method: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

I don’t mean to be rude

At Microsoft, the culture of candid criticism goes all the way back to Bill Gates. His design reviews were notorious for detailed questioning and harsh feedback. Bill often remarked that the ideas presented were the least intelligent of his experience. (Ask old Microsofties for the more colorful version of that famous phrase.)

While Bill could have offered his constructive criticism more graciously and tactfully, the key is he offered it. Poor designs are worse than hurt feelings. They lead to products no one wants to create or buy. Microsoft products have not always been the most pleasing, but they’ve always been compelling to create and competitive over time. We keep asking tough questions until we get it right.

Eric Aside

I’m not excusing Bill for being so insensitive. If Microsoft reviews were tough, but more respectful, I believe we’d have greater diversity of ideas and greater retention of talented people.

I am in control here

When people do make proposals willingly in design meetings, they are often the most senior people in the room. Why are senior people willing to have their ideas eviscerated? There are a few reasons:

  • Low risk. Senior people have already found success, so tossing out a half-baked idea doesn’t put them in serious jeopardy. However, that jeopardy isn’t real when you invoke courage, conviction, and collaboration (more below).
  • Authority. Senior people’s ideas aren’t as likely to be attacked, because junior people might feel intimidated or deferential. This is wrong—every idea should be rigorously reviewed, regardless of who raises it. Yes, you should always be respectful, whether the idea comes from an intern or an architect. But never confuse respect with cowardly compliance.
  • Natural selection. Senior people became leaders by proposing and defending their ideas. They have developed sufficiently thick skins over the years and thus are willing to face criticism.

Stick your neck out

While senior people are often the ones willing to have their proposals pummeled, anyone can float an idea. It just takes courage, conviction, and collaboration.

  • Courage to withstand all the inevitable criticism and not take it personally or feel threatened.
  • Conviction to not back off when people challenge your ideas, but instead continue pushing the dialog forward toward a workable solution.
  • Collaboration to refashion your idea into one that everyone can accept. You can’t ship an idea by yourself, and not shipping is failure. Shared success only comes from synthesizing people’s ideas together.

In the end, your initial idea may not resemble the agreed-upon solution, but that’s okay. Your idea was the seed to a crystal. The crystal won’t form without the seed—that’s why seeding is so important. The final design won’t be yours alone, but you made it possible. Providing the seed that triggers others’ engagement is what leaders do.

Eric Aside

I discuss good communication in You talking to me?, and presenting ideas to senior leadership in The VP-geebees.

Have a little courage

Just as junior people sometimes fail by not speaking up, senior people can fail by speaking too loudly. Regardless of who proposes an idea, there should be vigorous yet respectful analysis and criticism, followed by collaboration on a solution that addresses prior objections. Junior people should be courageous enough to propose ideas and critique, and senior people should be secure enough to be cordial and welcome feedback.

Am I bothered when people throw rotten fruits and vegetables at my ideas? Not at all. (If I were, I couldn’t write this column.) People don’t remember the initial bad ideas—they remember the successful final outcomes.

Providing targets for people to shoot down is an essential part of collaborative design. Yes, you need courage and conviction to shepherd the design to completion. Yes, you need to collaborate and compromise. But the product isn’t about you—it’s about the business and the customer. You are part of making the product real.  Don’t be afraid to lead that effort.

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  1. programinator programinator

    "Poor designs are worse than hurt feelings" – it's not a zero-sum game and I can't believe you manage people

  2. MattGertz MattGertz

    I read that differently.  The statement doesn't imply a zero-sum game; it discusses relative importance of the two with respect to each other, and it makes sense to me.  Ultimately, none of us can control how people will respond to our initial criticism (although we can do our best to soften the blow), but a poor design will certainly cause significantly more hurt feelings impacting more people later on.

  3. ericbrec ericbrec

    Precisely Matt. I wish BillG had been more respectful, setting the proper tone for the rest of the company. Being respectful and critical are not mutually exclusive. "Poor designs are worse than hurt feelings" means avoiding all conflict is worse than being critical. We need candid conversations about design. Those conversations also should be respectful.

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