Interpersonal relationships are the building block of all human organizations, including (and especially) businesses. The way people treat one another individually, on teams, and in the organization as a whole are directly correlated to the overall performance level of the organization and the quality of the work that it produces. Most businesses operate as multiple overlapping sets of teams, and those teams can include designers, engineers, executives, product designers, marketers, technical specialists, finance, and people filling many other roles. It is vital that designers learn to communicate and work with the people who fill all of these roles.
The basic approach to collaborating with people from different disciplines is fairly simple, and has three key elements:
1. Know what is important to people in this discipline — i.e., what are their values
2. Know how to communicate with people from this discipline — i.e., how do they explain themselves, and how can you make yourself understood
3. Know how to work closely with people from this discipline — i.e., how to get things done effectively and productively together
In part, you gain this knowledge through doing — it is by interacting with people on the engineering team that we come to understand how to better interact with people on the engineering team. Practice makes perfect. However, it isn’t a Catch-22 — there are things you can understand from the beginning that will make your interactions flow more smoothly and more productively.
(A cautionary note — remember that although we are talking about groups of people, each individual is unique and has their own style — so while you may start out with certain assumptions about a person, what they value, and how to communicate and work with them based on what kind of work they do, be sure that you let your experience with that specific person inform you as time goes on.)
These are the decision-makers and high-level administrators on a project or in an organization. Though they often have some creative or technical input on a project, more often their contribution comes from deciding how to balance competing priorities and allocating resources to the various needs of a project. An executive doesn’t tell an engineer how to design a widget, she tells the engineer how much money the project has budgeted for widget production.
What they value: Executives tend to value outcomes and options. They want to know what is technically or creatively possible, and they want to know what the likely results of implementing a particular plan will be. They are usually uninterested in the backstory of a process; they want to know what is going to happen next. They are often impatient with ongoing narrative and want to reach the bottom line.
How to communicate with them: Discuss the future and your vision of what is possible, not the past and your rationalization of how things went wrong (or right). It isn’t that precedent and past experiences don’t matter — they do, and it’s OK to touch on those things to demonstrate that you do understand what’s going on in the organization and on the project — it’s that the executive is primarily concerned with thinking about the future, whether that’s the next quarter or the next decade.
How to work with them: Plan ahead and be prepared. Executives value their own time very highly and nothing will sink your plans faster than not being ready to explain them. Know your numbers — when you are speaking with the decision-makers on a project, anecdotes and explanations are not enough. You need to have a strong grasp of the facts and the data behind anything you claim to be true.
Get right to the point and speak precisely and with clarity. “Time is money” became a cliché because it’s the truth. The higher up you go in the organization, the less patience executives will have for big windups before the pitch. Whether it’s your own line manager, the CEO, or the Board of Directors, the ability to communicate concisely is critical.