Does this sound familiar? You’re meeting to design a solution to a tricky problem. People are alternating between adding new requirements and deriding prior approaches. Everyone agrees with the issues (“Yeah,” “Yup,” “That’s right”), but no one is suggesting a solution for fear of rebuke. These meetings end one of three ways:
The third approach is obviously the fastest, most constructive, and most efficient, yet it’s the least common—especially if the senior person in the room doesn’t make the proposal.
Why don’t more people propose solutions? Because their proposals get ripped apart by detractors. Is that the problem? No. We don’t work in a cordial industry with easy solutions. You need hard conversations and forthright debate to arrive at the best approach. So there’s no solution? Of course there’s a solution: Stop being a coward.
In fact, the process of providing a proposal, getting it critiqued, then arriving at a better approach is the classic dialectic method: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
At Microsoft, the culture of candid criticism goes all the way back to Bill Gates. His design reviews were notorious for detailed questioning and harsh feedback. Bill often remarked that the ideas presented were the least intelligent of his experience. (Ask old Microsofties for the more colorful version of that famous phrase.)
While Bill could have offered his constructive criticism more graciously and tactfully, the key is he offered it. Poor designs are worse than hurt feelings. They lead to products no one wants to create or buy. Microsoft products have not always been the most pleasing, but they’ve always been compelling to create and competitive over time. We keep asking tough questions until we get it right.
I’m not excusing Bill for being so insensitive. If Microsoft reviews were tough, but more respectful, I believe we’d have greater diversity of ideas and greater retention of talented people.
When people do make proposals willingly in design meetings, they are often the most senior people in the room. Why are senior people willing to have their ideas eviscerated? There are a few reasons:
While senior people are often the ones willing to have their proposals pummeled, anyone can float an idea. It just takes courage, conviction, and collaboration.
In the end, your initial idea may not resemble the agreed-upon solution, but that’s okay. Your idea was the seed to a crystal. The crystal won’t form without the seed—that’s why seeding is so important. The final design won’t be yours alone, but you made it possible. Providing the seed that triggers others’ engagement is what leaders do.
I discuss good communication in “You talking to me?” (Chapter 8), and presenting ideas to senior leadership in The VP-geebees.
Just as junior people sometimes fail by not speaking up, senior people can fail by speaking too loudly. Regardless of who proposes an idea, there should be vigorous yet respectful analysis and criticism, followed by collaboration on a solution that addresses prior objections. Junior people should be courageous enough to propose ideas and critique, and senior people should be secure enough to be cordial and welcome feedback.
Am I bothered when people throw rotten fruits and vegetables at my ideas? Not at all. (If I were, I couldn’t write this column.) People don’t remember the initial bad ideas—they remember the successful final outcomes.
Providing targets for people to shoot down is an essential part of collaborative design. Yes, you need courage and conviction to shepherd the design to completion. Yes, you need to collaborate and compromise. But the product isn’t about you—it’s about the business and the customer. You are part of making the product real. Don’t be afraid to lead that effort.