Where the geniuses are. (Via Flickr)

File Under: Client Management 101

Genius

Dear Dan,
One of the stakeholders on my project introduced me to some new stakeholders as a genius. Am I?
Signed,
Wicked Smart Designer

No.

Hell no. You are not a genius. Sorry.

You may be a very good designer. You may be an excellent presenter. You may be great at client management. But you’re no genius.

And if you let that crap go to your head, whatever modicum of talent you have will be squandered.

I cringe when clients introduce me as a genius or superhero, and not because I have an overdeveloped sense of humility (quite the opposite actually). I cringe because it undermines my process.

“Genius” implies that you can singlehandedly solve all design challenges. It implies that you alone have the power to make their problems go away. But they’re not just setting expectations too high.

Calling you a genius implies that you are superior to everyone else in the room, that you have an especially privileged place on the team. Which means you can’t do your job. Design is the process of bringing together myriad perspectives to clarify intent and render that intent into a product. When your perspective is elevated above the rest, you breed silence.

What to do?

First, Be Cool

Thanking your client for the compliment is only appropriate. (And it’s healthy to accept compliments.) Protesting too much serves only to reinforce that you do, in fact, have this image of yourself.

Describe the Process

What seems like genius to your client is probably the result of hard work: carefully following a process and shrewdly course-correcting. Remind people what it took to get here. Perhaps you’re at the beginning of a new project, and the client thinks you’re a genius from some previous work. Take a moment to describe the earlier effort.

Emphasize the Activity

Remind the assembled people that your role is to shepherd a process. Say, “We’ve got steps we need to take, and I’m here to make sure we address your objectives by going through the process.” Then, describe today’s activity and how much you’ll rely on them to provide input.

Plead Ignorance

Transition from introductions to your activity by highlighting that you’re here to learn from them, the experts. “Look, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know a lot about what you do. I’m here to hear from you.” A little reframing of your role goes a long way.

Specify Your Superpowers

Indulge the compliment by highlighting your strengths. “I think of myself as intensely curious, and good at asking questions. Let’s get to it.” Reframing again, directing the group to the task at hand: getting them to talk about their perspectives.

Read the Signs

If your work is anything like mine, you work on difficult problems. As an information architect, I focus on designing abstract structures. Perhaps I get called a genius so that person can hide that they don’t understand what’s going on. You don’t have to call anyone out, and highlighting that this is difficult work can go a long way to set the right tone. “We’re learning as we go, so ask a lot of questions. I know I will!”

Take it Slow

If you’re working on complicated stuff, don’t rush things. Take time to explain everything. Externalize your thought process. Show your work. Rather than scheduling one long review meeting each week, have shorter conversations more frequently to build an understanding together.

Maybe you are a genius after all

And look, you’ve made it this far in the business so you must be wicked smart. You’ve made some good decisions and learned from the not-so-good ones. It’s important to celebrate the victories, whether they come from a successfully launched product or a rough meeting that you turned around. So give yourself a pat on the back, take a moment to let that sink in: you did good work.

And let’s not forget that you and I are damn fortunate to be able to do this work. So let’s not give up what progress we’ve made, what good we’ve done, by focusing on the wrong things. Perhaps part of our success is our natural gifts. But a much bigger part is what constitutes real genius: the boundless appetite for learning.