Archive for category: Skill Building

HBR on Managing a Perfectionist

Every morning I wake up to a tidbit from Harvard Business Review in the form of their “Management Tip of the Day”. Typically, they’re interesting to think about, but nothing mind shattering. I thought today’s was particularly useful and thought I’d pass it along:

A perfectionist on your team is both a blessing and a curse. He may have high standards, but will likely fixate on every detail of a project. Here are three ways to harness the positive qualities while mitigating the bad:

  • Give the right job. Don’t put a perfectionist in a role that is overly complex or requires managing people. Find positions that have a relatively narrow scope.
  • Increase self-awareness. Help your direct report recognize when his standards have negative outcomes. Explain the impact on those around him.
  • Don’t shy away from feedback. Perfectionists may have a hard time hearing criticism of their work. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Ask for the perfectionist’s advice on how to best give him feedback

As a recovering perfectionist, I think the last two are paramount. Perfectionism can be paralyzing because failure is always looming. I’m really thankful for those whose thoughtful, honest feedback helped me escape its grasp.

DIY Continuing Ed | MIT Online

Thinking about going back to school for a fancy graduate degree? Ask yourself why…

If you’re looking for a massive career shift or need the credentials for the next stage of your career, then grad school may be a reasonable investment (think two years off from your career and tens of thousands of dollars).

If you’re looking for new skills, perspective, are a bit unhappy with your job or just want to learn, a DIY approach is a great alternative.

Enter: MIT Open Courseware

One of the world’s top universities is offering free access to its curriculum, or at least a pared-down version of it. Few classes have video or study groups, so you miss out on the lectures and interaction. But you do get a great guide for learning — a syllabus, books to read, some lecture notes and the ability to apply those ideas through assignments.  Warning: self-motivation required.

I’m starting this month with Building and Leading Effective Teams.

IGDA Recap | Meeting, Hearing, Learning, Talking, Confirming

It took me a moment, but I’ve finally caught up after the IGDA’s Leadership shindig. The conference was amazing! It drew people from across the globe and I walked away with new perspectives and renewed enthusiasm. My personal highlights were:

  • Meeting lots of interesting, friendly people who made me feel very welcome. My lack of video game knowledge meant I talked to anyone and everyone, ignorant of any cool kid status.
  • Hearing from firm and team leaders that are experimenting with how they structure work, manage teams and train their leaders.
  • Learning about video game design and comparing their creative processes with other design industries.
  • Talking with people that place such a high value on developing their ability to manage people. Clearly this industry has found the value in developing leadership skills, in part because project teams are so large and complex.
  • Confirming that creative management ideas translate across creative industries by participating in conversations about team and firm management.

The most valuable part of the conference was certainly how much it expanded my network of creatives. I’m excited about the people I met and am looking forward to bringing their perspective  into this conversation about managing creative work .


Being a Better Boss Series | Communication

When I was kid we had weekly ‘family meetings’ – a product of a psychologist father and having a slew of foster kids. While I hated those meetings back then, they gave me communication skills that I carried into adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, communication is always hard. But the more you practice the easier it gets. Here are a few ways to make it less painful:

Value the relationship

If you value your relationship with someone, you want to continue to like and respect them. Think about communicating as something that does just that; it gives you an opportunity to air grievances respectfully and better understand each other.

Talk about things before you’re mad

Bring things up before they’re a huge deal:  Hey Bob, can you keep me in the loop on schedule changes in the future? It really helps me juggle my other projects better. Thanks! <smile>

By the eighth schedule change you haven’t been told about you’re probably seething. Instead, catch it on the second time when you’ve noticed it’s annoying but you’re not pissed yet.

Use humor to lighten things up a bit

My mom is a pro at this – delivering a message with a smile and a wink, my dad calls it the hit-and-run. The key is she’s always good-natured about it, not saracastic or mean-spirited. Well, maybe a wee bit sarcastic, but never mean.

Present your point of view

The quintessential use ‘I feel’ statements advice. Help them understand how their actions make you feel, so that they can empathize. For example, when feeling micromanaged I’ve said: when you check in on me this frequently it makes me feel like you don’t trust me to do my job. Which, of course, was not her intent.

Make sure it’s a two-way street

Let people know you’re open to feedback, then make sure you’re actually open to feedback – listen to what they’re saying with an open mind, don’t get defensive, and ask clarifying questions. If people know you’re really listening and trying understand, they’ll trust you enough to come back again in the future.

There you have it, some of my best communication tools. Granted there are lots of others. What communication tools do you rely on most? Or what do you struggle with when trying to communicate?

Being a Better Boss Series | Empathy

Ok, here it is kids — your first tool in the ‘be a better boss’ ( or team leader/team member/human being) toolkit: empathy

Empathy is not sympathy, not compassion, not being a push-over. It is merely the ability to understand another person’s feelings or point of view. And why does empathy make you a better boss?

Design comes with lots of interesting personalities and creative friction. When faced with a problem child, it’s easy to cast blame, ignore them or stamp your feet. But it’s more productive (albeit less comfortable) to try to get to the bottom of things.

Working under my favorite assumption — that most people want to do a good job — it’s fair to say that there’s some sort of misunderstanding between you and your problem child. First, take a deep breath and stop pointing fingers. Then, take a minute to try to understand why they’re acting the way they are. Is this a product of:

A situation? Maybe the employee in question feels frustrated, bored, micro-managed, lost, overlooked. Or maybe YOU are frustrated, bored, etc. No one deals with life well when they’re any of those things, so we cope (sometimes horribly).

Different points-of-view? Things like generational  or cultural differences make for huge misunderstandings. For example, what may be seen as needy and attention-seeking by one generation may be the communication level that seems normal when you’ve grown up in a ‘real time’ environment.

Different work styles? we all process information and do work differently. I worked with one designer who always avoided me when deadlines were looming. I thought he was just being difficult and disrespectful. Then a coworker explained that this guy could only focus on one thing at a time, “it’s like he’s eating dinner and he has to finish all the peas on his plate before he can eat his meatloaf. He doesn’t mix his food.”

Understanding the other person’s point of view helps you dial back your frustration and then modify how you’re working. In the case of the ‘all his peas’ guy, my bugging him about deliverables actually stressed him out and made him less likely to get the work done. My projects benefited from starting with a clear discussion with him about schedule expectations and changing the timing and frequency of my check-ins  (starting earlier but less often) .

Being a Better Boss (and other alliterations)

I’ve talked a lot lately about how bad management is chasing creatives from design firms, killing productivity, and keeping us from realizing our dreams. (It is also linked to the death of the last unicorn and grandma being run over by a reindeer.) So, in short, it’s bad; bad management is bad.

Most of what we call ‘bad’ management isn’t usually Bill Lumburgh-style bad though. I’m guessing very few people wake up thinking “I’m going to make so-and-so’s life difficult today”. In fact, most people want to do a good job and try to be good managers. So, how do we end up with bad bosses? How do you make sure YOU aren’t the bad boss? Or, more importantly, how do you make yourself into better boss?

To help you answer those questions, my next couple of posts will focus on ‘good’ manager skill building. We’ll talk about empathy, self-reflection and communication, and how you can use them to manage and motivate your team/staff. I think I’ll do a little something on micromanagement too. The first one will be coming at you shortly, so stay tuned…!

Impostor Syndrome, Part II

If you haven’t read the previous post, please do so first.

So the downfall of believing you’re an impostor, other than being a Negative Nancy, is that you get in the way of your own success. Can we say self-fulfilling prophecy? We cope by procrastinating, not asking questions or challenging others, not finishing projects or even actively sabotaging ourselves. We miss out on opportunities to grow, learn and to share our knowledge and ideas (often to the detriment of others).

According to Dr. Young, addressing our impostor tendancies is all about understanding how we define success and then redefining it. Here’s how she breaks down impostor tendancies:

The Perfectionist believes that success means that everything they do must be flawless, every time. But ultimately it just becomes a reason to be stuck, to not complete things because they’re never perfect.

Battling the Pefectionist: don’t agonize, it just slows you down. Finishing something, even if it’s not perfect, is better than doing nothing. Dr. Brene Brown, an expert on authenticity and fear, wrote a book called The Gifts of Imperfection. I love the idea of imperfection as a gift.

The Rugged Individualist doesn’t believe in asking for help because ‘if I was really smart then I could do it all on my own’.

Battling the Rugged Individualist: acquiring the right information and resources to continue to learn means you must ask other smart people for help. If you let them, their different perspectives can help drive your curiosity and provide direction for seeking out new knowledge.

The Expert thinks that they need to know 150% of any subject to be considered remotely qualified to comment. One day they will wake up and be an expert – after one more graduate degree, reading one more book – not before.

Battling the Expert: Will Rogers said it best, recognize that “everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects”.

The Natural Genius believes that true intelligence is innate, easy. They swing between frustration over not having a natural mastery and dismissing those things that do come naturally to them – ‘if I can do it then anyone can’.

Battling the Natural Genius: understand that mastery is not easy or innate for anyone. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and pay special attention to those 10,000 hours.

The Extremist is tricked by their moments of brilliance, since we all have those days where we shine. But they believe that if they’re not brilliant ALL the time then they must be stupid.

Battling the Extremist: most of us, even the really brilliant ones, spend our days in the middle of the brilliant-stupid scale. Learn to savor your shining moments and forgive the inevitable foggy-headed days.

The Superwoman/man/student believes that in order to be successful they must be amazing at EVERYTHING: businesswoman, mom, artist, board chair, co-op member, exercise nut…what am I missing?

Battling the Superperson: trying to do too much means spreading your attention and resources very thin. Prioritize the few things that are most important to you and focus your energy on doing them with gusto.

Personally, I’m a recovering Perfectionist and a Rugged Individualist with a little Expert thrown in for good measure. As I shift from academic life to building a new professional persona, I battle my impostor voice almost daily. Mostly, I’m just trying to take life a little less seriously and reframe my point-of-view: failure as opportunity, fear as excitement, lost as exploring. And if all else fails, fake it ’til you make it. Right?

What do your battles with Impostor Syndrome look like? Are there ways you can shift your internal dialog to be a more successful and full you?


Impostor Syndrome

Earlier this year I saw Dr. Valerie Young speak about ‘Impostor Syndrome‘, her talk was called How to Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Thinks You Are. Interestingly enough, one of the groups more inclined to have Impostor Syndrome is people who are creative for a living, in part because the work is so subjective and is constantly up for critique.

What is Impostor Syndrom?
Despite evidence to the contrary, there are those of us who are bright, capable people but do not trust in our competence or success, believing instead that we’ve fooled everybody around us. We manage to ignore hard facts like fancy degrees, test scores, GPAs and kudos from people we respect; writing it all off as an accident, working harder than everyone else or that people just really like you. Sound familiar, anyone?

*Anna raises her hand*

So you’re  fooling people.
You should probably do them a favor and set them straight: Imagine all of the smart, amazing people you have in your life that (mistakenly) think that you’re smart and amazing. Then imagine telling one of them how daft they are in thinking such things about you, how you’ve so adeptly pulled the wool over their eyes.

Got it? How did that convo go for you? Mine wasn’t great, in fact I’m pretty sure I got laughed at, a lot.

So…maybe you’re not an impostor after all? Mull that over and I’ll throw some more thoughts on the subject your way in a couple of days.

Managing Creativity: Help Teams Be Great

Teams are the cornerstone of creative projects. Bringing together different perspectives, skills and experiences enhances creative outcomes exponentially. This post gives managers an overview of some of the elements of creating and supporting successful creative teams.

Establish Clear Expectations and Goals

One of my fellow classmates, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines, always talks about the importance of managing people’s expectations. Often expectations and work styles vary greatly between team members, which can wreak havoc on a team’s relationships and productivity.

Get everyone moving in the same direction from the start by having the team establish clear project goals and identify expectations for each other around roles, communication and deliverables. Taking a moment to align expectations pays off in the long run with fewer conflicts and smoother processes.

Build and Shape Supportive Teams

Promote Diverse Perspectives: I talked in an earlier post about the importance of having both innovators and adapters in creative teams, but studies have shown that disciplinary, ethnic and gender diversity also contribute to creativity. Build in diversity and then help your teams recognize the unique value that each member’s experience and point of view brings to the project.

Nurture Relationships: Since creativity is collaborative and risky (i.e. subjective and open to critique), mutual support and respect are key to creative outcomes. Demonstrate and encourage this behavior for your team so that they can build trust and develop a willingness to help each other achieve their goal.

Create Shared Excitement: Mutual passion and excitement for the project goal can be a strong driver for supportive teams. Help your team find common ground and develop a collective passion for the work, each other and the end goal.

Look Outside the Group for Inspiration: Encourage people to draw from diverse places to find inspiration, to collectively look outside their traditional resources. Creating networks with other departments, disciplines or even industries provides opportunities for unique insights and ideas.

Develop Interpersonal Skills

Working inside a successful team also means learning interpersonal skills – how to manage conflict, effectively communicate, and provide feedback on both work and processes. Give your team opportunities to build these skills, whether through mentorship or other professional development opportunities. Your firm will also benefit from developing these skills, positively impacting the company’s culture, client relationships and future leadership.

Managing Creativity: Help People Be Great

We’ve established that individual creativity is tied to internal motivation and creative thinking. Whether you’re a project manager or a creative director, there are easy ways to tap these elements to help people do their best work. We’ll start with how you let people work individually, and then move on to teams and organizations in future posts.


I talked in a previous post about how creativity is like a maze. Everyone has their own process for exploring that maze and as long as they know the end goal they’ll get there (with creative thought in tow). So, provide clear direction/goals and then give each person autonomy over their own process, with just a bit of guidance if they need it.

Letting go of control can be uncomfortable, but your creative projects will benefit from giving people the opportunity to amaze you. One project manager I interviewed described it like this:

His college soccer coach would never participate in their games, instead letting the team coach itself. His philosophy: if he had done a good job of coaching during practice, everyone would know what to do once they got on the field.


Effectively challenging people means giving your people projects that stretch their abilities just a bit, but not terribly so. That challenge will continuously engage people and keep them from getting bored. Mathematically it might look like this:

boredom  <  sufficiently stretched  >  overwhelmed

Budgets and schedules can sometimes provide these challenges, helping people tap their problem solving capabilities. However, when time or money is too limited people will refocus their energy on finding additional resources rather than on the project. No good. Strike a careful balance and people will thrive.

Matching People and Assignments

In a project-based, deadline-driven world I know this is hard to schedule, but it’s worth it when you can. Matching people and assignments means not only matching people with what they do well, but also with what they love to do (which may not always be what they’re best at).  You’ll reinvigorate their interest and excitement and provide them with opportunities to excel and grow professionally.

The Good News: Gen X

According to both academic literature and my interviews for this project, Gen X seems to have a natural propensity toward working this way. (Yay you!) Whether described as giving people enough rope to hang themselves, putting younger staff in front of clients early, or playing coach rather than manager, a strong common thread has been letting people do things their own way, pushing them outside of their comfort zone so that they could grow and letting them do what they do well.