It’s not uncommon in the halls of Microsoft for a passionate Program Manager and brilliant Developer engage in verbal combat over design ideas. Anyone that has worked with talented people on a tough design problem knows that innovative design is hard—really hard. It takes passion, commitment, and willingness to explore new territory.

Often, throughout the creative process, there are tense conversations as both sides argue rational perspectives. Key to moving innovation forward is the ability to see the value of another perspective. Win/lose conversations rarely benefit the process and impede innovation. In order to understand why conversations turn win/lose, consider external factors that create tension. Things like…

  • Different interpretations of the project vision and target customers.
  • Different perspectives of customer needs.
  • An incomplete understanding of the idea or proposal from either party.
  • Power struggles.
  • Emotional insecurities that lead to a driving desire to be right and valued.
  • The “Bozo Bit” (named after Bozo the Clown, someone has the Bozo Bit if he carries credibility issues from one project to the next).
  • External pressures that a party chooses not to reveal.

Language that creates a “loser” is usually leads the journey down the acrimonious path. For example,

  • No, you should think about it like this…”
  • That is not true…”
  • “That feature will never work because…”
  • “Customers will always…”
  • “What you need to do is…”
  • Everyone will find this useful…”
  • “That idea is a problem.”
  • “You can’t…”

Win/lose situations rarely foster the creative process. I’ve found that a “Loser” tends to hold back fresh ideas in future conversations. As the competitive landscape heats up, good ideas aren’t explored because both sides are entrenched on winning, even the most insignificant battles.

Use Inclusive Language

I have found a solid design strategy avoids a polarized position. The first step is to adopt an open and respectful tone and manner, for example:

  • “Tell me about…”
  • “I agree, have you considered…”
  • “How will the feature work with…”
  • “What motivates customers to…”
  • “Who is the target user for this…”
  • “For many customers that is important, …”
  • “There is a grey area…”
  • “I agree with you on A, tell me more about B.”
  • “Have you thought about…”

Basically, try to understand the other perspectives—even restate positions to confirm you’re both on the same page. Also, search for common ground by talking about elements of the design that you both like.

Ignore Polarizing Language

When I hear polarized language, I try not to react. It’s hard to let polarized statements go without a good fight and just outright frustrating to hear people take positions that aren’t correct. The key is to control your reactions. The easiest way to deflect is to use precision questioning to guide the discussion away from the inaccuracy. If someone needs to be corrected, evaluate if it’s better done in private so that the constructive feedback isn’t taken as a public flogging. Again, take the time to better understand other perspectives.

Focus on your Target Customers

Clear vision statements, guiding project principles, and customer definitions are great tools that can clear confusion that causes design debates. If your project doesn’t have a clear vision statement that clarifies priorities, it’s easy for people to argue correctly for design A or B. If you have clarity about the customer and project priorities, it becomes easier for both parties to refer back to the original documents as the guide.

When conflict arises, talk through the customer scenario—get agreement on what is essential for the users of the product. Recognize that different customers have different needs and engage in conversations about the requirements of the different customer segments and how the design impacts them. Focus on what you like about both alternatives. Many times the best design is found in between polarizing positions.

Coach Others

As a team leader, I’ve coached others on these principles when I observe behavior that suffocates the design process. I’ve discovered that people really want to do great work and that in the end, humility in the workplace is respected.

Open and Respectful Culture

At a company meeting years ago, Steve Ballmer talked about the challenge of creating an open and respectful work environment. I think the quote went something like, “While the comment, ‘That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard’, might be open, it’s not respectful.” Just as Microsoft continues to work on its open and respectful culture, so do all innovative design teams.

So my call is to RAISE THE BAR. When someone has a good idea—step up and acknowledge the idea and sing praises. Also, step up and fight hard for the right design, and do it in a way that others can contribute. Finally, step up and ignore inconsequential statements to gleam golden nuggets from even the most off-beat, scatter-brained ideas. The design process is about cultivating relationships with other teams that are open and respectful. It’s about being willing to give up a good design for a better design. It’s about avoiding political battles or attempts to discredit co-workers out of self interest. It’s about understanding different perspectives, then parsing good and not-so-good ideas into GREAT design.

Tell me, does this philosophy match your experience?