OUR Buddha – the great Spool Buddha – says something very similar about design. Design is difficult. It is painful. As designers, we often suffer towards a project goal
The reason that design is painful is that we don ’ t really know where we ’ re going, or how to get there. You might say that enlightenment lies beyond the dark and misty mountains. Often, the clues we ’ re given are vague or devoid of meaning. And so we have devised methods to help us build the path to our destination. That ’ s why we ’ re @ the Summit - to learn new methods. BUT while those methods are vitally important, they ’ re not enough on their own. We also need to cultivate a number of personal skills & attitudes to make the methods work. Because we work with teams - with people - We need to learn to build relationships, work w/others, & to stay humble & open to learning Our behaviour in the team has a big impact on the quality of work the team can produce.
There are many places we can look for help with soft skills – Business books / Psychology texts I think it ’ s interesting to look at some of the world ’ s great wisdom traditions - they ’ ve been focused on relationships & responsibility for centuries In the Buddhist tradition there is a framework called the Noble Eightfold Path - it lays out the basic approach to living a Buddhist life Life is suffering BUT suffering can be overcome IF you follow the Eightfold Path . I think the Path has some interesting parallels to the kinds of skills and attitudes we need to cultivate as designers.
Right concentration is one pointedness of mind, or the ability to focus your mental power on one thing
For us Right Concentration is what gets built This may seem blindingly obvious, but it ’ s very easy for us, as people who deal in creativity, imagination and ideas, to forget that it ’ s not the ideas that matter. What gets built is what matters. And what gets built is subject to all kinds of constraints – budget, time, the skills of team members, whether or not stakeholders are willing to change. I ’ ve certainly been part of projects where it ’ s felt like those things were stacked against me. And I ’ ve wanted to retreat into the design and say “ this is what ’ s right! ” and kind of disengage from the reality of what can actually be built. But the question we need to ask ourselves is – do we want to be right in some grand, theoretical way, or do we want to influence something real? I think our goal needs to be to influence the real thing in whatever way we can. Make it better than it would be if you weren ’ t around. Because something will be built, with or without your input. You can stick to the ideal and have no impact, or you can focus on making a real difference. So Right Concentration reminds us our purpose; our ultimate goal.
Right Livelihood deals with understanding the context of our work and the impact it has on the wider world.
For us, it ’ s important to recognize that the context of our work is teams. The reason that our work is done in teams is that we need not only a variety of skills, but a variety of perspectives to do our work. Even if we ’ re dealing with only a moderate level of complexity, one person can ’ t hold enough domain and technical knowledge in their head to do everything. Unfortunately, as people who try to push products or organizations toward better experiences, we sometimes see other team members more as roadblocks than as contributors to the process. This is a mistake we need to fight against. Remember – we need all of these skills and perspectives. We need all of these people to work as a team. The reason Right Livelihood – the fact that our work is done within the context of a team - is such a big deal for us to think about is that designers are uniquely situated to facilitate team collaboration because we own the only language that everyone on the team understands – visuals. Sketches, wireframes, and prototypes are our stock and trade. And these are the great leveler. One of the issues I ’ ve seen over the years is that certain people or groups can have more power and influence over a product than others – not because they ’ ve been given the responsibility but because there ’ s an uneven understanding of what ’ s going on. Here ’ s an example:I was recently working on a highly complex project for an application to be used by clerks in the courtroom. There were a team of developers, 3 business analysts, a project manager, a group of subject matter experts and me. The BAs, of course, produced copious amounts of user stories and other documentation that was to be reviewed and approved by the subject matter people. But you know what? Very quickly, the subject matter people didn ’ t really understand what the documentation meant. Okay – I can see that these 400 stories make sense, but I don ’ t know how they come together. All the BAs and devs can say to that is approve the stories and trust us. That ’ s a serious power imbalance. The subject people are forced to approve what they don ’ t understand and hope the developers will stitch it together in a meaningful way. But when I started showing visuals that accounted for all that text-based documentation, we had a language that everyone could speak. And soon, the subject people had an equal amount of power to influence design choices. So I think this frames our role on the team in a different way. We ’ re not just a person feeding designs to the team. We ’ re a kind of lens that helps focus the team ’ s thinking.
So our focus is the product and our context is a team. What do we need to do to work well within a team? Right Intention can guide us here. Right Intention is about having a spirit of compassion, generosity or “ good will ” .
For me, that means always assuming that the people I deal with – even the difficult ones – have good intentions, and that its up to me to understand their point of view. Most people want to do good work. They want to contribute to good products. They may express themselves poorly; they may focus on some issues at the expense of others, but not because they ’ re trying to wreck things. It ’ s very easy to start thinking that challenging people are intentionally standing in the way of progress or being destructive. Or maybe to label them as people who “ don ’ t get it ” . Ever used that phrase? I have. But this is really dangerous because it means that we ’ ve stopped hearing them and that we ’ ve given ourselves a convenient way to ignore what they have to say. That means we can ’ t learn from them; we can ’ t help them to make meaningful contributions; and we ’ ve guaranteed tension within the team. Since we ’ ve already said that we need multiple skills and perspectives in order to be successful, you can see the problem here. If I assume that everyone has good intentions and has something to contribute based on their skills and experience, there is a chance that I can learn something valuable from them. If I assume that people “ don ’ t get it ” , I have cut off that possibility. An example of this comes from the court project I mentioned. Early on there was a person who seemed a little skeptical of what we were doing. She had lots of opinions and design ideas, and she felt very free to critique our work. And she wasn ’ t someone that was specifically assigned to the project, so it probably wouldn ’ t have been too hard to label her poison and keep her out of things. But she also had a wealth of practical knowledge about how clerks did their jobs. In the end I decided to take the “ keep you enemies close ” approach and I asked for her to be part of the project. In the end she proved to be our biggest ally. She was smart and incisive. She offered great critique. The project would have been much worse off without her input. But it would have been very easy to push her away at the start. So take care that you don ’ t label people in a way that causes you to stop earing them.
So far we ’ ve talked about things that we need to keep in mind that are external to us: our focus on product, our context of teams and the reality of other people. Now we come to the really personal skills we need in order to do good work. The first is Right View. In Buddhism, Right View can be summed up as “ you are the owner of your actions ” . Buddhism recognizes that we live in a world with other beings, that how we behave towards them is important, and that we bear responsibility for our own actions and the effects they have.
The same is true for us in our work. The way we behave within our teams has a big impact on the quality of the work that the team can produce. One reason that ’ s important to remember that you are the owner of your own actions is that those are the only actions you can control. You can work on team dynamics, or ways of helping people to contribute better, but in the end you can only control what you do. That ’ s what you bear full responsibility for. So if there are tensions or difficulties you need to first spend time thinking about what you can do or change in order to make things better – not on griping about how others should change. Let me be clear – this isn ’ t about hiding from relationship problems or about some kind of misplaced self-sacrifice. It ’ s about critiquing yourself first because that ’ s the only way you can learn and grow. If you want to help solve problems you need to take ownership of your own actions.
Next is Right Speech, which simply means “ telling the truth ” .
Perhaps the two most powerful truths we can tell are “ I don ’ t know ” and “ I was wrong ” . They ’ re powerful because they are openings for us to learn something new. The whole point of things like iteration, or usability testing is to find out where we ’ re wrong. And that means we have to be willing to see and admit our mistakes. That takes courage. It ’ s not easy to tell team members that your idea didn ’ t test well. Saying I was wrong is a strong signal that we are rising above opinion – that we ’ re interested in facts, and in what we can learn from trial and error. Another powerful truth to speak is “ I don ’ t know ” . “ I don ’ t know ” is a great answer to a lot of questions; and the reason it ’ s a great answer is that it ’ s another essential doorway to learning. I can illustrate this one with an experience on my courtroom project: We ’ d been working on it for several months and had done many design iterations and were nearing the end. I was asked how a clerk would search and filter a certain portion of the data. Now, I could have easily said – “ oh yeah, I ’ m just getting to that. I ’ ll have something for you in a couple of days. ” That would have been the easiest way to save face and hide the fact that I ’ d failed to consider a necessary piece of functionality. But my honest response was "Um… I don't know. They can't. Why would they need to do that?" It turns out there was an important scenario we had never investigated. After a lot of discussion we decided that clerks really needed a couple of simple easy-to-run reports instead of search and filter. But the key to uncovering that was my willingness to say "I don't know. I missed that. Tell me more". If I'd been unwilling to expose my ignorance we never would have gotten to the bottom of the need. Right Speech reminds us that telling the truth –particularly the truth of our mistakes or our ignorance is really important. Because that ’ s the only way we can learn.
The next part of the path is Right Action, which for Buddhists is about ethical behavior. This includes abstaining from taking things that aren ’ t given. So, stealing, fraud, dishonesty.
I think for us Right Action is about not holding too tightly to our own work – about allowing our work to be critiqued without taking it personally. This is hard because the act of creation always means that you ’ ve put a piece of yourself into the work, and when someone rejects it, it feels like personal rejection. But if we believe in the idea of iteration we have to embrace critique. If we ’ re not iterating for the purpose of finding out what we have wrong, what are we doing it for? Right Action tells us to seek out critique. It ’ s nice to have people tells us we ’ ve done well, but that ’ s not nearly as valuable as people who tell us what we have wrong. Finding out that we have something wrong means one less mistake that will be baked into the final product. The whole idea of ownership – ownership of the design; ownership of the ideas – raises the problem of ego. Whose idea was that? Who gets credit? Or, they want me to change MY wirefames. For us, rather than thinking of the design artifacts as OUR work, it would be better to think of them as the storehouse for the team ’ s collected understanding and vision. It ’ s where what the team has learned and decided is documented. Because an elevated sense of ownership leads to ego battles that have nothing to do with the end goal.Right Action reminds us to be humble and to keep our egos in check.
Next is Right Effort, which is about the mental energy required to follow the path. You need an act of will to dedicate your mind to following the path. Nothing comes without Right Effort.
For us, Right Effort means that we have to care deeply about the products we work on. We have to care about the people who use the products and about the business reasons for making them. Nothing good will happen if we don ’ t care. We have to care enough to take risks and put ourselves on the line. Be willing to say things you know will be unpopular, if that ’ s what ’ s necessary. Risk the wrath of a naysayer if you really believe something is important. Be willing to risk conflict. Conflict is necessary because there is never just one right solution to a problem. And intelligent people will disagree on the right solution because they will see things from different perspectives. Conflict is a way for you to talk through differences in order to decide what ’ s best. But here ’ s the key – you need to enter conflict with enough humility to know that you might be wrong. It ’ s when you ’ re unwilling to change your mind or when you play only to win that conflict becomes destructive. You need the courage to fight, but in a way that respects other people and their opinions, and leaves open the possibility that you may be wrong. Caring deeply can also mean being willing to ask dumb questions. No one likes this. No one likes to appear stupid. We want people to think we ’ re smart and know a lot of stuff. So we fail to ask for clarification when everyone is nodding their heads. But you know what? If you don ’ t understand what people are talking about, you can guarantee someone else is just as confused as you – they ’ re just too scared to ask. And even if you are the only one – you still need to ask that dumb question. Because that ’ s the only way you can learn.Right Effort is caring enough to take chances and risk conflict or embarrassment.
The final part of the path is Right Mindfulness, which is essentially about being aware – about paying attention and seeing things as they really are.
If there ’ s anything from this talk that you can take home and use right away, this is it. Start by being aware of your own behavior and how it affects the team. Learn to question yourself and your own actions. Because those are the only ones you can truly control. If we can be aware of our own actions we can learn to contribute in new and better ways. Self-evaluation is powerful. I want to be clear that none of this is to say that we shouldn ’ t be assertive or confident, or that we shouldn ’ t push our teams to be better. Quite the contrary. Right Speech demands that we have the courage to tell the truth and to confront ideas that don ’ t align with the end goal. Right Effort says we need to care enough to challenge assumptions or say things that might be unpopular. The point is to be mindful of our own thoughts and actions; to examine ourselves first; to be sure that we ’ re approaching things with the right attitude before we start looking at others.
We have a lot of great methods for defining problems and exploring solutions. But I think there are certain personal skills that we need to cultivate in order to use those methods effectively. The Noble Eightfold Path is an interesting framework for thinking about those personal skills. I believe that if we are mindful of the path we will contribute to work that is more enlightened. Thanks.
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thezenofconsultingIA SummitApril 5, 2013 Photo Credit: j / f / photos via Compfight
“ life is suffering ” -Buddha Photo Credit: stephcarter via Compfight