The Creator’s Dilemma
If you’ve ever been the source of a new creation, the designer, developer, product manager or script writer, you’ve probably experienced the following scenario. You work on something new and innovative with laser-focus for one or two weeks. During this whole time, you’re thinking to yourself, "Gosh this is a great piece of work, I can’t wait to show everyone else what I’ve got going here". After that, you schedule a review meeting with other peers or directors in the company. Not only are their feedback not what you were expecting to hear, like “Bravo!” or “You did a great job”, they were critical and sometimes harsh. You started to bang your head and say to yourself, “Man how did I miss that?”
This is the dilemma that every creator faces. When you spend too much working on one piece of work, you start to lose your perspective. The creator begins to design the work for themselves, instead of the end users. If you spend too much time in a forest, all you can see are the trees around you. I have been in this situation many times myself, and witnessed many others who have done the same. When you are making something new, losing perspective isn’t a necessary evil. It is a necessary mechanism to encourage collaboration. There are two things that have worked well for me that I’d like to share here.
Test early. Test often.
All early versions of a new product or service suck. I don’t mean that in a modest or reserved way. They suck, a lot. And that’s ok. Early versions aren’t polished, they haven’t been tested, nor have they had incorporated wisdom from others on the team. As a matter of fact, if the creator tries to make the first version perfect, it’s a red flag. Instead, the creator should mindfully create opportunities to put their product in the hands of others as early as possible. During a design process, I would set up reminders on my calendar that pop up every day and display this message: “Have you stayed inside a static design tool for more than 24 hours?” There are two reasons why I’m doing this. First, I want to make sure I don’t spend more than 1 one working only inside a tool like Photoshop or Sketch. Otherwise you’re guaranteed to lose perspective as you start to perfect the spacing or pixel of a design. Second, it serves as a reminder to switch to a prototype tool so I can collect feedback on the progress so far. A prototype isn't as polished as the final product. It only needs to work and look like the final product. The prototype might be 60%, or 70% of the final product. But the point is to use prototype to continuously validate decisions you've made along the way with real people.
2. Constructive Feedback.
The ideas I'm about to share here are inspired by the concept of Braintrust, a feedback mechanism that Ed Catmull introduced in his book, “Creativity, Inc.” In the book, Ed explained that Braintrust is a meeting designed to provide feedback to director of the film at key milestones during a production cycle. Here’s how it can work in a technology product or service environment. Continuing my previous example of showing an early prototype of a new product, a team of peers and directors have gathered inside a meeting room. After each person has a chance to test the prototype, this is how a meeting goes.
1. Remove the Power Struggle.
The most senior person in the room would say, “We’re not here to tell you what you should do. We’re here to tell you what we would do if we were in your situation. Take what we say with a grain of salt and we’re here to support you create this product.” This is important because if the product creator knows the people in the room can overwrite their decision, they will enter the room in a defensive mode. By assuring that the choice is theirs, the product creator will be much more open minded in hearing other’s opinions, questions and ideas.
2. Identify the stage of development.
For this step, the product creator clarifies the current stage of the product. Is she still working through the problem? Is she looking for feedback on the aesthetics? Or is she facing challenges growing the user base? The benefits of doing this helps frame the mindset of the people who give feedback. The creator is letting the audience know what feedback they are looking for and what feedback wouldn’t be relevant for this meeting.
3. Cultivate Fearlessness.
We’ve all been in meetings where people were reluctant to speak up. A lot of us care about how we sound and look in another person’s eyes. We try hard to think of things to say that are smart, impressive and not stupid. Or we remain silent. If you experience silence during a meeting, and afterwards a group of you huddle in the hallway and share the most candid feedback about the presentation, you have a problem. After the creator had clarified the current stage of development, they would say, “I’m looking for feedback that explains what’s wrong, what’s missing, what’s not clear and what doesn’t make sense.” These four categories cover almost every feedback that a person might have. The consequence of doing this is that you’re making everyone fearless. They’re freed from the baggage of being too self-conscious. And you’re setting the expectation that everyone should be candid for the good of the entire group.