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Surviving Design Projects (Dan’s little distraction)

September 1, 2011

The quick version

Surviving Design Projects is a collection of ideas about managing conflict in creative environments. For now, it’s a blog that deals with three things: Situations — the circumstances that lead to conflict. Traits — the aspects of designers’ personalities that may contribute to or help them solve conflict. Patterns — techniques for addressing conflict.

Why conflict management?

The first edition of my book Communicating Design includes some thoughts on how to present and use design artifacts — sharing a site map with the programmers, for example. The second edition expanded on this, suggesting a repeatable, adaptable outline for leading discussions about design. From the outset, I knew that the artifact in itself was small consequence to the success of the design project. Instead, it was how the designer used the artifact to advance the project.

Advancing the project is more than just hitting milestones. It’s soliciting feedback and validatation. It’s helping the project team understand implications. it’s ironing out details in working sessions. In short, it’s getting everyone not just behind the design concept, but the approach to design as well. This ongoing alignment effort is where conflict is incubated. No team is ever perfectly aligned, and that’s where conflict emerges.

I’ve facilitated dozens of workshops on deliverables, and similar conclusions emerged from every one. Workshop participants report that their greatest challenges aren’t solving design problems or representing their ideas through artifacts. Instead, design teams the world over struggle to deal with the conflict that arises in these endeavors. They mention lack of engagement, or stepping on each others’ toes, or working at cross purposes, or general creative differences. They mention confronting demanding bosses and unreasonable clients. They roll their eyes remembering that one person who caused so much trouble.

Through these discussions about creating design artifacts, I learned that my initial efforts to provide a framework for talking about them wasn’t enough.

So, what have you been doing?

For the last several years, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, asking myself questions like:

Why is there conflict on design projects?
What are the different kinds of conflict on design projects?
What would it take to ensure a conflict-free project?
Are successful projects always conflict-free?
What techniques do we use to moderate conflict?
How can designers be more self-aware?

I’ve done a few things in the public eye on this topic:

  • Co-facilitated a workshop with Chris on Difficult Conversations
  • Presented some ideas on how to deal with difficult situations at the Web App Summit and at a NYC UPA event
  • Wrote a few blog posts on self-awareness
  • Presented a virtual seminar entitled Surviving Design Projects for UIE

Throughout this thought process, I sought a way to make the topic practical. Ultimately, collecting sob stories about challenging projects is cathartic but otherwise irrelevant to my day-to-day work. About a year ago, shortly after I finished the second edition of Communicating Design, I was reviewing some old notes and realized that I could capture conflict management techniques as patterns.

Patterns, situations, and traits

A pattern in interface design is a starting point solution for a typical problem. There might be a pattern, for example, for the log-in process, describing the basic elements of the interface and the flow of the interaction. Likewise, conflict management patterns provide simple starting points for approaching a difficult situation. These patterns suggest behaviors or things to say to deflate or redirect or avoid the conflict. Here’s an example:

Pattern: What’s your first step?

Ask colleagues what their immediate activity will be upon receiving a new assignment.

Use when:

  • Employing a new methodology or technique, and you’re not sure how your team will proceed.
  • Team members can’t offer specific answers about how they’ll contribute to the overall project or how they’ll address the project’s objectives.

Like design patterns, conflict management patterns have a brief description and a “use when,” which defines appropriate circumstances for trying the pattern. Upon developing them further, I’m confident I’ll identify other aspects I can use to structure them further. Many of these patterns are variations on some big themes like “listen better” or “start small”.

It was easy to identify other elements of conflict management — situations and traits. Situations are circumstances in which someone’s behavior is threatening to derail the project. I’ve also been thinking about how designers can be more self-aware — the traits that define our style of participation and contribution to design projects.

Where are you now?

These three aspects of conflict management — situations, patterns, traits — are described in my new blog Surviving Design Projects. At this point, I’m using it as a dumping ground to capture these individual elements.

What’s missing is the connections between them: how patterns apply to different situations, how traits may cause or avoid situations, and how patterns might challenge designers with particular traits. For each situation, I could point to half a dozen patterns that would help deal with those circumstances. For each pattern, I could tell a story about how it was used successfully. For each trait, I could talk about how different designers exhibit the trait differently.

What’s next?

To be totally transparent, I’d like to turn this into a book — a handbook on dealing with conflict in creative environments. Threaded with stories about how designers and design teams face conflict every day as a natural part of the process, the book would help them deal with this ongoing tension.

For now, I’m content to mould the bricks, but if you’re a publisher and think this is remotely interesting, please drop me a line.

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