Hold hands when crossing the swamp

Oliver Vergo
Jul 2, 2019 · 4 min read

I recently came across John Saddington’s post, titled ‘The emotional journey of creating anything great’. His depiction of the creative process seems brutally honest, and remarkably accurate. Crucially, it reminded me how much we’re asking of our clients, when we invite them to join us on this journey of co-creation.

If we look at some of the ground-breaking, disruptive innovations of the last 10 years, it’s easy to marvel at their apparent simplicity. Take Uber, for example, or Airbnb. How many of us have said to ourselves ‘I wish I’d thought of that’, or ‘it’s just so obvious now I think about it!’. These platforms have found their niche, they’ve filled a gap in the market, and they’re attractive to users. They’re disrupting industries which were previously set in the ‘old ways of doing things’. These new innovations are user-friendly, they’re un-fussed in their design, and they’re efficient in their execution. But all that didn’t happen over-night. It didn’t even happen over a matter of weeks. These success stories are the products of months and years of pain-staking research, experimentation, mistakes, iterations, and sometimes just pure, dumb luck. Successful innovations like Uber and Airbnb are rarely the product of a ‘Eureka!’ moment experienced by the lone genius in the bath tub. Mostly they’re the result of countless hours of frustration, with a multitude of failures as well as seemingly endless revisions and, most importantly, the perseverance of a team of talented and determined individuals.

When we embark on a project with a client, it’s easy for us all to think ‘this is going to be great!’. And it is. But it’s also going to be hard. What might seem simple at first, turns out to be very complex. When the difficulties seem insurmountable, it’s tempting to just give up, and go back to the status quo. Coming to terms with the reality of multiple challenges, obstacles, points of views, and an overload of information, can drag people down into what Saddington calls ‘the dark swamp of despair’. The question is, how do we manage that situation as a team, when all hope seems lost? How do we push through to come out the other side?

In my workshops, I draw attention to the swamp up front. What is named and made clear for all to see, is less powerful than that which stays hidden, lurking in the shadows, ready to take people by surprise. I’m honest with the team at the start of the project, and I make it clear that parts of the process are going to be difficult. I invite the group to consider how they’re going to work together when the going gets tough. The team might agree to have regular check-ins, when people can say what’s on their mind without fear of judgement or criticism. Other strategies might include things as simple as — ‘play a game outside when we feel stressed’, or, ‘bring chocolate when we’re losing energy’, or ‘offer words of encouragement to someone in need’. It’s not all about fun and games, of course. The aim is to develop a way of working, a set of values, the rules of engagement, and some expectations from one another, before we embark on the creative process. Everyone’s contributions are recorded on a team charter, which might include other more serious features, such as ‘be open to having your ideas challenged’, ‘embrace constructive criticism’, and ‘ask lots of questions’. This charter hangs on the wall, for all to see, throughout the project. Now, when we descend into the swamp, we have something to refer back to. We can hold ourselves accountable to the ideals and values which were important to us at the beginning, and that gives all of us renewed strength, patience, and determination to carry on. This simple exercise sets the tone for the project, and it encourages a way of working that’s based on looking after one another, especially during difficult times. It takes all of 10 minutes to make a team charter, you can apply it to any team in any industry, and it’s incredibly effective. So hold hands when crossing the swamp. It could save your project’s life.

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