Fostering a Culture of Creative Partnership

When it comes to identifying problems and coming up with solutions, a product development team has to work in harmony across all disciplines. The moment in which team members start to take on a “Me vs. You” or “Us vs. Them” mentality due to disagreements in approach, the odds of success start to wither. The basic principles of being a good team member can get lost in the shuffle of trying to prove your own value and achieve your personal goals over trying to achieve collective success. It’s an unfortunate reality that impacts almost every team at some point in time, and sometimes it happens without even being aware that it’s happening. It’s very easy to get absorbed in your own role and lose touch with the bigger picture and how each team member’s perspective matters. This commonly impacts designers who feel responsible for “owning” the creative process and its outputs. The problem is that ownership doesn’t necessarily mean you can dictate every decision or that you shouldn’t take inputs from others. Acting as though you are the sole creative decision maker can cause tension on your team and ultimately lead to a culture of opposition rather than partnership.

A few simple changes in approach and attitude can help you take a meaningful step toward getting a team back in sync when tensions over creative decisions arise. It’s critical that we take a look at our own behaviors and how they may be influencing the culture of our team.

Be inclusive, not exclusive

Designers are not the only ones who can have good ideas that can improve your product’s user experience. In order to capitalize off of everyone’s unique perspectives, you have to encourage a culture where anyone is able to give feedback. That doesn’t mean you have to respond or react to every piece of feedback, but it may help you think differently about a problem in a way that ultimately ends up generating even better ideas. When you loosen the reins of creative control and open yourself up to more cross-team collaboration, you help reinforce the concept that everyone is responsible for producing a great user experience and that creativity is not limited to just a select few.

Be positive, not negative

Your non-designer team members may come up to you with ideas or proposals for a new effort, including things as small as a new icon or an internal-facing design asset. Some designers immediately respond to these types of requests with a “no”, as the request may conflict with the designer’s priorities or personal approach to design. When you shoot down your team members’ ideas with negativity, even if their idea is indeed a bad one or is coming at an inappropriate time, you imply that they’re not equal contributors to the creative process. Instead of saying “no”, start with something like “that’s interesting, tell me more about what you’re trying to achieve and let’s work together to find the right solution” or, “thanks for suggesting that! I don’t have time to look at that right now, but could you check in with me again next week?” After having that conversation you may not ultimately land on doing what was originally requested, but you’ll successfully encourage others to think creatively and get involved in the creative process. They’ll also feel much better about their interaction with you when it begins with positivity instead of negativity. These conversations help others learn how to approach design problems and encourage them to continue to surface their ideas to the team.

Be humble, not arrogant

I’ve noticed that designers frequently (though not exclusively) fall into two camps: those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome or otherwise don’t fully acknowledge the great depth and value they bring to a team (likely the majority of us), and those who think and behave as though they’re masters and experts in their field. The problem with the “master” mindset is that design is not something you can master once and apply equally well to every situation. Even if you were, in fact, the best designer in the world, you still have a lot to learn. Arrogance never goes over well with those you work with. You will very quickly alienate those around you if you don’t acknowledge that no matter how much experience you have, you won’t always have all the answers. Humble designers understand that only through a true partnership will you find the best solutions.

Be understanding, not demanding

Designers are often stereotyped as being whiny and demanding (see my previous article, Death to Entitlement in Design). If you’re in an organization where that’s been the case, whether or not it’s reflective of reality, it’s important to do what you can do to combat this stereotype and change people’s perception. You will not always get what you want, and it’s far better to acknowledge that up-front rather than demand the unreasonable. By being understanding of the greater environment and culture in which you work, you will much more easily gain support across the organization and foster a sense of partnership. Make an effort to understand where your teammates are coming from and you will make allies that will do their best to stand up for you when you need them.

Teams that approach the creative process as a partnership rather than as the sole ownership of the Design team open up possibilities for more diverse ideas and solutions. Perhaps more importantly, though, it helps fosters trust, positivity, and collaboration as core facets of your team’s culture.

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