Trust the Designer

When I was a teenager I wanted to learn to rock climb. There were a few problems with this. One of the biggest ones is that I had no idea how to rock climb.

Sure I was pretty good at climbing things. Everyone grows up climbing trees. But I had taken climbing things to a bit of an obsession. I could scale some of the walls of my high school with reasonable ease. Going up seemed to be easy. Doing it safely was another matter.

Learning how to do something I’d never done before wasn’t necessarily new to me. Living in an area with few mentors on the subject I turned to the place where I could find good mentors on the topic, books. I read a lot of books about rock climbing, learned and practiced the necessary knots, and felt I had a pretty good grasp on the subject. Enough of a grasp that I invested a couple hundred dollars in gear and headed off to a cliff near our house with a buddy.

We had a great time rappelling.

When I came back from the adventure dad heard about what I was doing–probably from mom. He knew I was of the age where you don’t always see the risks you take in the choices you make. He engaged in a conversation to help me see those risks. It went pretty well, except that we disagreed.

He became more insistent.

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So did I.

When he asked me how I was sure I was going to be safe I told him I was using the equipment the way it was designed. Because I had taken the time to learn from books one of the things they covered was the math and engineering behind the equipment.

I didn’t pursue rock climbing as a serious hobby. Dad was right. There were some things that weren’t in the books that I was going to need a mentor to help me figure out. What I did do with the gear and with my interest was done safely though, because I trusted the designer.

What’s the Larger Lesson?

My current profession involves people using technology. In that space I’m often needed to play the mentor–a role I love–as people learn to stretch their skills and enjoy a more effective work flow.

Sometimes the people I work with don’t want things to change. They’ve grown comfortable with their work flow the way it is. This is a human condition. We’ve talked about this before on this blog. NOCZ isn’t just a cool looking acronym. It’s real.

How can we help people who don’t want to change, change their perspective?

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I go back to my discussion with my dad and ask them not to trust me, but trust the designer.

“Your workflow was based on the way the software was designed a few years ago. Things have improved since then, and I’d like you take the risk to trust the designer.”

It works. Mistakes are still made. Lots of mistakes. That’s where the mentor part comes in. It’s not helping to coach people from making mistakes (software these days is pretty durable) it’s coaching them in a way that encourages them to keep trying to find a way that’s effective and works for them. Once they’ve adapted to the new work flow the response is usually one of gratitude and appreciation.

Why do I do this? Because the older work flows are going to need to be retired out of necessity. The software will change and the current work flow will not be supported. I’d rather encourage change while there’s a long runway to practice and the user can feel like it’s their choice instead of it being something that happens when the user isn’t prepared for it.

I’m glad dad was right and taught me that people needed mentors. I’m glad I didn’t want to be wrong and in my defensive attitude expressed the value of trusting the designer. Combining both of our perspectives has lead to some wonderful experiences and helped me to add more value in the world.

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Beyond Broadcasting

We often perceive communication in its broadcast format.  While not inaccurate the narrow focus of this definition creates severe limitations on the human capacity to effectively communicate.  In their book (Adler & Proctor, 2007) the authors present a model for communication that includes internal noise, external noise, and the information of both the sender and receiver.  While not directly addressing the concepts of noise reduction from this model Julian Treasure took the stage in 2011 to present a Ted Talk on listening better that has implications for project managers.  

According to the PMBOK, “project managers spend most of their time communicating with team members and other project stakeholders.”  This statement translates to a minimum of 51% of a project manager’s time being spent in the act of communicating.  This also means that if someone were to create a Pareto Analysis based upon the actions of a project manager’s use of time one of the top items to address would certainly involve communication.  This also means that any action that has an impact on improving the effectiveness of communication has a significant impact on the PM’s time and the overall project.

Incorporating conscious listening techniques advocated for by Julian Treasure include the technique of Receiving, Appreciating, Summarizing, and Asking (RASA) in the context of communicating with others (Treasure, 2011).  This listening technique can significantly enhance a PM’s ability to manage team meetings.  The non-threatening nature of this technique helps to create an environment of trust that will enable others in the meeting to bring forward ideas that can significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the project.  They will certainly reduce the amount of questions which occur after a meeting due to miscommunication and reduce some of the inefficiencies inherent in general communication.

The RASA process can also be beneficial when dealing with group conflict.  Wilmot & Hocker advocated for applying a collaborative conflict management strategy (Wilmot & Hocker, 2007) and RASA falls right in line with creating this environment.  Recognizing early stages of conflict is often difficult.  I have met and worked with some professionals who didn’t recognize conflict until it was explosive.  Others operated as though conflict was always occurring.  These latter professionals believed that every conversation revolved around some conflict and so they encouraged a collaborative environment to prevent destructive conflict.  I subscribe to the theory that conflict is natural and always occurring and therefore the concept of preventing conflict is quite an anathema.  Regardless, conscious listening techniques of RASA create the space for productive conflict.

While we often think of communication in its broadcast form, communication very much involves the process of listening.  As he concluded his Ted Talk, one of the things Julian was impassioned about what informing his audience to Live to Listen.  Modern PMs need to understand how listening early and often is communication, and can save them from quite a bit of broadcasting their thoughts in the future.




Adler, R. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2007). Looking out/looking in. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2013).  A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide). Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Treasure, J. (2011, July). Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED. Retrieved from

Wilmot, W. W., & Hocker, J. L. (2007). Interpersonal conflict. Boston: McGraw-Hill.