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Be the “1” December 12, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in building a team.
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I’ve always had an affinity for point guards.  You know, the guy on the basketball team who doesn’t look like he’s on the basketball team…short, wiry, quick.  And it’s not for the spectacular behind-the-back passes or the occasional three-point shot as time expires.  It’s because they represent the essence of the game; five guys, but only one ball.  Individual achievement is dependent on the contributions of the team…and it all starts with the “1”.

In basketball, each of the positions has both a number and a name.  The shooting guard is called the “2”. The power forward is the “4”, and the point guard is the “1”.  He’s the guy who handles the ball the most, not necessarily because he is the most proficient scorer, but because it’s his job to create opportunities for his teammates.  His accomplishments are measured in assists, when a pass from him results in a basket by a teammate.  It’s hard to do once.  The best do it 10 times a game.

So what does any of this have to do with UX? 

Everything.

UX professionals, for the most part, are the darkly shaded area on a Venn diagram of technology, marketing, visual design, strategy, editorial, and research professionals.  Ours is the language of translation, enabling the capabilities of a technology to deliver meaningful content in an elegant presentation to the right audience in a way that drives revenue for the client.  On any given project, there might be eight or more disciplines contributing…and there’s still only one ball.  Somebody has to make it work.

There’s no formula to it, either.  Watch the great point guards of the game…Stockton, Magic, Nash, Kidd…they all had very different styles that were suited to the players around them.  And that’s the real point of this article; the way to be successful in a team environment is not to focus on the skills you have, but to use your skills to make the people around you successful.

Face it, the behind-the-back pass is no good if your teammate isn’t expecting it.  Some guys like to get the ball on their left, some prefer the right, some like to get a bounce pass while others prefer a lob.  In basketball, it’s all about knowing the skills and preferences of your team within the context of the play.

In the UX world, it’s less about the back-screen and the pick-and-roll than it is about understanding the way each collaborators skill contributes to the experience.  It’s important to use your skills and experience to make the technology meaningful, the content accessible, the campaign valuable…without impeding the progress of your teammates with stifling best practices and limiting design principles.  Too sharp a focus on the integrity and quality of your own work can work against you.

We talk a lot about things like mental models and influence maps, but we often do a poor job of abiding our own advice.  We argue with the creative director about whether a facebook page is what the customer really wants, or bicker with the copy supervisor about how many levels there are in the content hierarchy.  We may be right; we often are.  But it doesn’t matter, and it won’t make your project successful to alienate yourself and your practice from the other guys on the team.  Just like a point guard, you can only influence the play if you have the ball and your teammates know what you’re going to do with it.

When we look at the best teams, whether it’s on the basketball court or in the world of product and service design, it all seems to work so seamlessly that we often attribute the success to the role our discipline plays.  Ask someone in the biz what makes IDEO successful, and their answer will tell you a lot about what they do for a living; an industrial designer might say that the integration of form and prototyping into the design process is the key, while a technologist might say that including tech in discovery is the secret ingredient that makes the sauce.

The reality is that the secret ingredient isn’t much of a secret at all.  It’s the dedication of each person to the success of the team, the willingness to align with the unifying philosophy, do the grunt work, and most of all put the success of others ahead of your own.  And the easiest way to make it happen is to focus not on assignments, but on opportunities.

For a while, this might feel like compromise, but it’s really a process of learning how to make the most of overlapping and evolving capabilities.  As you dedicate your skills to the success of your teammate, not only do you build trust, you also teach her how to work with you.  When she faces a challenge for which she doesn’t have the answer, she’ll look to you for help and guidance.  This is your opportunity to exert more influence, or to try something new.  The good news, you won’t be going it alone.

Just this week one of my teammates thanked me for including him in a research project.  The fact is, there’s no way the project would have been successful without his input.  Even though I was in the leadership role, I owed my thanks to him for his execution and enthusiasm.  All I had to do was to call the play and pass him the ball.  So, for their role in making the project wildly successful…and for helping me to articulate this metaphor…I say thanks to my team.

Thanks Andrew and Keith and Chris and Michael.  Let’s run it again.  Who’s got winners?

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Comments»

1. Helena P. - March 8, 2011

I came across your site via a post you made in the IxDA group. It was about interviewing to-dos and I appreciated your matter-of-fact assessment. Taking a look around here, this post caught my eye and I have to say, being a huge fan of the point guard role, I had to read it through the end. I think the following passage sums up my own philosophy quite nicely:

The reality is that the secret ingredient isn’t much of a secret at all. It’s the dedication of each person to the success of the team, the willingness to align with the unifying philosophy, do the grunt work, and most of all put the success of others ahead of your own. And the easiest way to make it happen is to focus not on assignments, but on opportunities.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences!


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