Tom Greever

Solving the whole cube

The ability to communicate design solutions effectively is crucial for successful product design leadership and more important than the ability to create a perfect solution. outcomes.

Talk transcript of Tom Greever – recorded on 18 Jan 2023 Stakeholder management

Design Design thinking Designops Customer success Empathy Product management Stakeholder management Soft skills Communication Critique Cross functional teams Culture Product research Psychological safety Remote collaboration Stakeholder management Team collaboration Transparency & vulnerability User & customer research Ways of working

The Importance of Articulating Design Decisions

In the early stages of his career, Tom Greever observed that despite two designers having equal design abilities, one was more successful in getting their designs approved. This discrepancy led him to explore the problem and understand why this was happening. He found that the successful designer was better at presenting their work and was more articulate. This realization prompted Tom to explore the subject further throughout his career and to try to systematize the process of articulating design decisions to the stakeholders within an organization.

The Importance of Communication

Tom believes that the ability to articulate design solutions is more important than the ability to create the perfect solution. No matter how innovative the product or solution is, if it cannot be effectively communicated to the people who hold the keys to its success, it will not succeed. The lack of effective communication often stems from a lack of empathy with the stakeholders and their needs. Therefore, the ability to empathize with the stakeholders and communicate the solution in a way that complements their needs is crucial for successful product design leadership.

Case Study: James

Tom shares the story of James, a young and innovative designer who lost his job due to a lack of empathy and poor communication skills. Despite having a user-centered design approach and good intentions, James’s arrogance and defensiveness when dealing with executives led to the loss of funding and ultimately, his job. On the other hand, Tom was able to get more buy-in and support for the project by managing the conversation differently and demonstrating empathy towards the stakeholders.

The Key to Success

Tom concludes that successful product design leadership is about two things - communication and visibility. Keeping everyone on the same page and communicating effectively is just as important as delivering specific outcomes. When everyone understands what is being done and why, the details of what is delivered become less important.

The ability to articulate design decisions is crucial for successful product design leadership. The lack of empathy and effective communication often leads to the failure of innovative products and solutions. Therefore, it is essential to develop empathy with the stakeholders and communicate the design solution in a way that complements their needs, in addition to the needs of the users.

Working with Stakeholders: A Balancing Act

As a consultant on a different project, I found myself facing an interesting challenge. My client, the director of engineering, had hired us to create an internal-facing tool for his team. Though he was an engineer, he lacked experience working with a product and design team. I was upfront about the process of understanding business cases and creating user flows, which would eventually lead to wireframes, mock-ups and higher-fidelity designs. Despite having agreed in writing to this process, my client’s complaints about the slow pace of work began to mount. He couldn’t understand why the designs were taking so long.

Balancing Client Needs and Team Process

Each time my client asked about the lack of progress, I would remind him of the agreed-upon process. Despite this, his frustration continued to grow. Eventually, he became upset, expressing that he felt like we had made no progress in the past month. This situation revealed a deeper issue - my client was not confident in his ability to understand and present our work to others. He needed something concrete that he could present as his own work to his senior leadership each week.

Once I realized that my client’s primary concern was about presenting progress to his superiors, I was able to shift my approach. Every week, I made sure to give him something tangible that he could present as his own work. This gave him the confidence to represent our work and get the approval he needed.

In our role as consultants, getting stakeholders to agree is just as important as the work itself. This can be achieved by being willing to lead with a “yes.” Similar to the idea of “yes, and” in improvisational comedy, our conversations with stakeholders can also be seen as an improvisation. To create a positive outcome, we must be willing to say “yes” and build upon what our stakeholders bring to the table. By doing this, we can foster agreement and ensure that our project moves forward smoothly.

Leading with a Yes

Tom believes that innovation rarely occurs in a place where “no” is the typical response. During a meeting with the CEO to review a product release, the CEO began to voice his concerns and criticisms about a specific UI element. Instead of immediately disagreeing or dismissing his concerns, Greever responded by saying “yes, I completely agree that we need to solve for that.” This simple response validated the CEO’s perspective, showed empathy and gave him the confidence that the issue would be addressed.

Greever explains that leading with a “yes” is not about blindly agreeing to everything, but about leading the conversation with positive affirmations. By using phrases such as “That’s a really good point,” “Thank you for sharing that,” and “I’m really glad you brought that up,” Greever is able to remind the person about the areas of agreement before addressing areas of disagreement. By leading with a “yes,” it is more likely that the person will respond with a positive attitude.

The Power of good documentation

Greever is a list maker and note taker, who finds value in summarizing his thoughts and distilling complex ideas into a few words. He believes this helps with cognitive load and serves as a guide to track progress. He does not recommend a specific tool or method for creating notes and documentation, but believes it is a crucial part of communication within product teams.

Greever shares two examples of how documentation has helped him in his career. In the first example, he was leading a product team in a company that underwent several major changes, leading to three different bosses in a year and a half. By keeping detailed notes from weekly design reviews and meetings, he was able to help each new leader understand the decisions and choices that were made.

In another role, Greever was leading two product teams and found himself repeating the same information in multiple daily stand-ups and weekly calls. To save time and eliminate redundancies, he began recording a weekly video that covered all the work his teams were delivering. This allowed him to review all his work in one concise, ten-minute video, without the need for repeated meetings.

Leading with a “yes” and utilizing effective documentation are two crucial elements in effective communication and innovation in the tech industry.

How does effective communication look like?

Effective documentation is a key component of team success. It helps ensure that everyone is on the same page, provides context and accountability, and serves as a reference point for the future. It serves as a crucial reference point for all team members and helps ensure that the team stays on track towards its goals. In this blog post, we explore the insights of Tom Greever, who shares his thoughts on the art of documentation and how to make it more effective.

Documentation is more than just jotting down notes.

Documentation is more than just jotting down notes. To be truly effective, it must contain a certain level of detail and be structured in a way that makes it easy to understand and refer to in the future. According to Tom, the purpose of documentation is to help the future state of you and your team. It should allow team members to look back on the documentation and understand the decisions made and the reasons behind them. This level of detail, he believes, is what makes documentation truly valuable.

Tom also highlights the importance of including the names of individuals involved in the decision-making process. This is not to point fingers or blame anyone, but rather to provide context and accountability. Without this information, it becomes difficult to understand the context in which decisions were made.

The notion of putting one’s name on a decision can lead to decision fatigue, but Tom believes that this can be mitigated by building trust with the team. If someone is unwilling to put their name on a decision, it raises questions about the validity of the decision and whether it’s just an opinion or a subjective idea.

Use short videos to illustrate your points

Tom also believes that short videos can be an effective way to share information and ensure that everyone is on the same page. By forcing people to watch the videos, it ensures that they have a more informed response. He acknowledges that it may take more time and mental capacity, but he believes that it is worth the cost in the long run.

Showing Work in Progress:

Finally, Tom addresses the challenge of getting people to show their work in progress, particularly for junior designers who may feel like imposters or are still in the process of creating something. He acknowledges that it takes time to build up the confidence to show work in progress, but emphasizes that it’s okay to fail and that it’s better to catch errors while they’re being made.

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