Managing Up and Meta-Communication

I spend my days coaching design leaders, helping them improve themselves and their organisations. Since so many common themes and interesting questions come up, I’ve decided to start a regular series of video reflections.

This one is about managing upwards through questions, meta-communication — the communication around the work vs the work itself — and the importance of showing your working.

Plus a bonus clip of me tandem skydiving.

Thanks to Daniele Catalanotto for the inspiration!


N.B. This is generated by Descript. There are likely some errors:

Coaching Reflections April 4th 2024

Hello, my friend and co-leader at the Hochschule Lucerne where I teach service design Daniele Catalanotto and I have been doing these roundups of our coaching sessions with our students. And then I thought, well, this is a good idea to do with my design leadership coaching too.

So one of the questions that comes up all the time as a topic is how do I manage up. You know, you can’t really change an organization from below very easily, but one thing you can do is ask pointy questions. So a thing that always comes up is this idea of, you know, speed and this has to be done.

And, you know, we need to go faster. We need to grow more. We need to all those kinds of things. And this causes people in all sorts of stress. Uh, it means that if you’re a manager of designers, you’re kind of putting your design team under stress. And it’s always good to question that original premise.

Why do we need to go fast? What for what reason are we were going fast? What’s the speed for now? If you’re in a startup, there’s usually a good reason we’re going to run out of money and we need to launch and so forth. In larger organisations, this is not necessarily true or more established organisations.

Speed is not always the right thing. Now I’m not saying you should become this kind of really slow creaky enterprise. And I don’t know what the kind of agile and lean people will be rolling their eyes here. But actually, you know, At a certain scale. Think of Facebook, right? Getting it wrong has massive consequences.

If you’re a very established brand already. It’s better to launch something, not as a kind of MVP that’s a little bit half-assed and people think, God, you know, What the hell is going on here. But actually, you know, launched something that is really thought through. You don’t really see car companies like Mercedes launching a car that’s really poorly designed and a little bit half-baked and with the idea that we’re going to fix it later. And yet of course, in digital, we do this, this happens all the time, except stuff doesn’t get fixed. So ask the question. Why are we going fast? And that forces two things for, for the person you’re asking. They’ll either give you a good reason. In which case you now have your reason? Or they won’t have the answer.

And they’re forced to think about that themselves. And that’s the really useful thing about using questions as a way of managing up. So other things are, do we have any validation for this thing we’re building? Do we know why are we building this thing? And people might have an answer, but if the answer is well, I th I know in my customers and we think it’s a good idea. That’s not a very good answer.

And that gives you something to actually have a kind of conversation about. So you kind of force that person who’s just often cascading the stress and the deadline downwards, to do some thinking themselves. And deadlines are another one. Is this a real deadline? Or is this a fake deadline? Most deadlines. are not as urgent as they are given to be. There’s a really great piece. Uh, by someone I went to school with actually seemed to be on my podcast uh, a screenwriter called Julian Simpson, and he has a newsletter called Development

Hell. One of them’s about writing slow and there’s a whole bit in it. There’s a bit of swearing in it. So I’m not going to say it because YouTube is going to ding me for the swearing, because the whole thing in there around. Um, this idea of, you know, he got like three emails saying urgent, we need urgent script changes on this before this guy, Bob goes on holiday. And he’s like. I’m not, why would, Bob’s not going to be reading my script. Whilst these on holiday. And even if he is, I could be using that time whilst he’s on holidays to improve the script. So, you know, screw Bob. I’ll put a link in the notes about this.

Another thing has come up as a topic is more than one design leader has said, you know, I’m not really sure whether my design team. What their skills are, how they’re ideated, because we’ve got really established design system. And a lot of what they’re creating and a lot of what they bring to presentations is finished, polished work. And it’s kind of to based and built upon that design system. So you know the question is, would they be able to do that on their own or are they just kind of able to push the parts around of an existing design system that someone has worked upon? I suspect there might be a bit of a generational thing here. Um, but we were talking around the value of of ideating and sketching.

You know, I have this conversation with my students all the time. Um, but it also kind of bleeds into a professional life. If, you know, there are times when it is definitely worth not going through the kind of process of doing a mock up and then showing people and having the conversation where they don’t really get that

it’s a mock-up and you might as well just build the real thing or build a clickable prototype to show them. There’s definitely value in that. At some times. But if they’re, if it’s just that’s the first leap, I that’s, it can be really problematic because as your teachers will have said to you show your working. Um, where are the ideations, where are the kind of multiple ideas that you had as the way of tackling this problem? You know, where are the sketches that you might have had? And I, I kind of feel like sketching stuff has become a bit of a lost art of kind of multiple variants of things and different ways of approaching stuff. And I’ve also, this has come up in the last couple of weeks. The lost art of presenting. If not wireframes then certainly kind of sketchy versions of something.

Balsamiq mock-ups the wire framing tools did exist and there’s also a bunch of Figma templates first. I kind of look like in a Sharpie sketching lines. For showing this stuff, there is a real power in communicating, Hey, this is not a finished thing. These are some ideas that we’re, we’re thinking of. There is room for maneuver and, um, change here. Or here is the progression of how we were thinking about this.

Certainly when you’re presenting to design leaders, I think that you always have that problem with stakeholders, other stakeholders that may not be able to make that mental leap from, you know, they don’t know what they’re looking at. Why is this black and white? Our brand isn’t black and white. I don’t know.

These are sketches. There’s a wire frames. Um, But there is a real power in also presenting something that is obviously not finished as a way to stimulate discussion because you then get much better feedback. You. And this I thought was a known thing that the reason why you do that is because you’re communicating this isn’t a finished thing that gave me honest feedback. Whereas when I… I’ve presented you a polished thing. Um, we’re going to, people are going to feel more, um, worried about giving you direct feedback. Cause I think we’ll look at all the work you’ve put into this. It is really, really important.

Do not skip that ideation stage. I feel like research gets done. The insights and analysis and synthesis should be done, rather than just the research sitting in a Notion database somewhere that no one could have really knows what to do with, and there should be then some responses to that and multiple responses to that.

And that should be a divergent process. And I, I kind of. I feel there’s a habit now of just skipping to the end. Most of it, I think is driven by that pressure to be, to work fast. But what happens when you work fast is you lean into what the software can or the tools can do easily and that can also be your design system or kind of existing templates and patterns. And so there’s this kind of homogenisation that comes in where everything starts to look the same. And it’s all, it’s all a pretty boring. Now, your job as designers is to make stuff up, right?

Your job as designers is to invent stuff. So I really would like to see that happening more. And at the very least you can’t have a decent conversation as a design leader, you can’t have a decent conversation and critique session, if all of you are just kind of turning up with really polished work and everyone’s are kind of very precious about it and no one wants to offend anyone. Um, I don’t think anyone should be unpleasant, deliberately or bullying. But a kind of, there’s a kind of politeness. I don’t mean disrespect, but I mean, there’s a kind of politeness that can really kill creative processes because you’re not being candid and you really need to be.

And then the last thing came up actually from Daniele Catalanotto I will put a link to his presentation. He did a little presentation to my students. And this is the thing that comes up all the time in design leadership coaching, and it’s metacommunication so it’s, it’s the talking about the work rather than the work itself.

He started the presentation saying, you know, when, when he started, he thought, you know, the work was like 90% of the thing and the 10% of the kind of politics and the communication stuff to stakeholders. You know, was only a kind of tiny part. And wasn’t really that important, and that’s what the kind of suits and the business people did. And, um, then he kind of realised he wasn’t really getting anywhere.

He wasn’t really getting much progress. People were switching off when he was presenting stuff and he realised that actually he went the other way. He sort of did like 10% of the work and the 90% meta-communication, but then kind of came back and found a balance of half and half. You know, the meta-communication and the further, you would go up, um, in leadership the more important that is, which is how do you communicate about the work? How do you understand where people are at, how do you basically make friends with people, make friends and influence people right within your organisation? That stuff is vitally important and it feels a bit counter-intuitive because it feels like what I’m not talking about design anymore. And you still need to speak design to designers and your design teams. But, the value of going around and speaking to people, understanding what they have on their plate how might you be able to help them take something off of their plate? And help them in some way and be a really good stakeholder partner.

All of that stuff really gives you a massive amount of influence and goodwill, that then you can use when you’re trying to get change done and sometimes it’s that fixing a very small thing or doing something that’s kind of been a constant irritant to people, and no, one’s really done anything about a new approach it differently and you fix that or you improve that thing. Sometimes it’s just about actually understanding that people are human and the someone who is, uh, appears to be being you know, difficult or, you know, uh, controlling is probably full of fear and anxiety and when you see it that way, you think, what are they afraid and anxious of and how might I mitigate that in some way? How am I kind of help them some way? And that may mean communicating way more about the work you’re doing. The meta communication around the work, than you think is necessary, because it’s self evident to you how great that your work is and all the reasons why you’d want to do design stuff. But actually it’s not self-evident to those people.

And when people are afraid and anxious, they will grip tighter. My favourite metaphor for this is actually a video of me tandem skydiving, and there’s a lot of communication there around on the ground first of like, this is how you can do it.

There’s like a dry rehearsal of what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of I imagine it is actually real safety checks, but not just safety theatre, but there’s quite a lot of sort of tugging on carabiners and stuff to check, you know, are you, are you properly connected? And I’m, I’m pretty sure quite a lot of that was for my benefit too, because when you actually shuffled towards the edge of the plane and I’m sitting on this guy’s lap hanging out over the top of the plane, it’s very very scary and the first moment of the jump, your brain just goes right. What’s going on panic stations and actually if I really, really panic and I grabbed the guy’s arms because I’m afraid we’re going to plummet to our deaths. Well, then we plummet to our deaths because he can’t pull the chute.

And so there’s a lot of stuff there about kind of calming me. And I realized afterwards, looking back at the video, you know, this was this guy’s, this is this guy’s office. Right? I was probably his 10th jump of the day or something. He does it every day for him, it’s just like, well this how this works. I know how this works. For almost all of the people he jumps with, it’s their first time, like it was with me. And, and so you have to do a lot of over communication in order to calm people’s nerves, even though, you know, “Oh this is fine. This is a process we’ll, we’ll survive it and it comes through the other side” So meta-communication. It’s super important rather than just being reactive.

I hope that’s useful. If you’re interested in my design leadership coaching, you can click in the show notes down here or I’ll put some doobly thing on the screen. if you would like to get in touch or you’re interested, or you’ve got some thoughts of your own, then please leave it on in the comments. Otherwise I will see you next time.


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