Critique

How can developing trust between team members help to foster critique and critical thinking?

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Many “creative” professions involve critical thinking. And critical thinking can mean peer-reviews / critiques. That is, individuals on a team look at eachothers work and point out potential problems, flaws, etc., either with the piece of work, or the process, or something else. Software developers might have “code reviews”, designers might have “design crit(ique)s”, entire teams might have “retrospectives”, etc.

We may not immediately think of “trust” in the same context as critique, but, in my experience, the two are strongly linked.

Imagine that you’re receiving some critique on your work. And perhaps a colleague has pointed out something that they consider wrong, or in need of change. How does this make you feel? There are different ways that you might take the critique. You might feel a bit put on the spot or even attacked, and this might, in turn, cause you to feel defensive. I’m sure most of us have experienced this. It’s good to acknowledge how we feel after this happens. And then, to ask ourselves, how might we engage with critique in a way that doesn’t bring up so much unpleasant emotion?

Now imagine the reverse. You’ve observed something in your colleague’s work, that you consider wrong or that needs to change. You may hesitate to offer the critique, because you are concerned that they won’t take it well, or that it’s not a valid criticism. You may anticipate that your colleague will feel put on the spot, shown up, attacked, and perhaps defensive. Perhaps they are in a position of power in the organisation, and thus, you don’t feel comfortable taking the risk of sharing your critique with them. So you might hold back in giving your criticism.

Can we create a space in our teams, in which:

  1. a person can receive another’s honest opinions and critique, without feeling threatened or unhappy?
  2. a person can give their honest opinions and critique, without feeling that they’re threatening the other, making them feel unhappy, or putting anyone at risk?

By now you may be able to see where trust comes in.

When you receive critique from a colleague, but you trust that their intentions are common to yours (e.g. to do good work, to achieve good results for the client, customer, user, to make the world a better place) then you will likely be happier about hearing the critique. Rather than seeing it as something aimed at yourself, you’ll see both yourself and the critic aiming at a common, shared goal.

And likewise, if you give critique to a colleague, and you trust that they also share that common goal with you, then you will likely feel more comfortable sharing that critique with them, knowing that it’s less likely to be taken as a personal attack or threat, and more likely to be taken as an effort towards achieving the common goal.

So, being able to trust your colleagues’ intentions and motivations, within a framework of shared goals, can create an emotional environment in which critique feels safe on both sides.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that power structures have to be removed or drastically altered. This can be difficult or impossible to do, in some organisations. But it does mean that, wherever people sit within the structure, they feel enough trust to be able to express honest opinions and critique about the team’s work. And that they can separate honest opinions and critique about the work from from themselves and their personal feelings. Or, perhaps even better, they can emotionally engage with opinions and critique with feelings of positivity, from the shared goal of doing great work, building a great product and improving people’s lives.

Consumer

Is your employer only a consumer? Is your barista only a producer? What happens when we flip these two categories?

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Who is a consumer and who is a producer? For some people, it’s economic common-sense that, in economic dealings between people and organisations (such as employment) we are either producing/creating/making things or purchasing/borrowing/consuming things.

I have found it interesting to mentally swap those categories. I will present two very familiar forms of producer-consumer relationships that you likely have experienced.

Let’s start with the workplace. Say you are an employee and you report to a manager. You think of your manager as someone in a position of power, as a kind of customer. You are offering them your services, applying your time and effort, and they are directing you to perform those services, and directing the outputs of those services elsewhere, e.g. to their managers, to customers, etc.

Now take an opposite kind of relationship. Say you are shopping to purchase an item. You walk into one of the big branded stores and you look at the items and then pick up a product. And as you’re walking out the door with your purchase, you hope to yourself it works properly, doesn’t break, and that there’s some kind of warranty if it does. It seems that the producer is in a position of power, able to determine how your product is designed, built and supported. Or suppose you’re ordering coffee from a cafe. You can somewhat determine the product you’ll be getting. E.g. what kind of coffee, how strong, etc.

Now let’s try flipping these two kinds of relationship.

Imagine the ways that your employer or client might be thought of as a producer. The ways in which they have you work. Perhaps management methods. Perhaps ideas. Perhaps frameworks of ideas, ideologies. Perhaps principles, best-practices, etc. Also, workspaces within which you work, optimised for your work activities. And equipment optimised for your use.

Thinking of these and other things as things either produced or provided by your employer and consumed by you, as an employee, can open up new ideas and a new space of opportunity. Those things might be seen as a class of assets, which you could harness and use in various ways, whether or not intended by the supplier of those assets, your employer.

For example, imagine applying a visual design technique you learned on-the-job, at your place of employment, to design a birthday card for your child!

How about the other side, thinking about the “producers” as a consumers? Imagine that the big-brand supplier collects data about you, which they use to improve their products or processes. The cafe perhaps does something similar, to improve the service they’re offering you. In a sense, they’re consuming from you – personal information that opens up marketing possibilities, feedback about their products, experiences, ideas. Though you’re paying them for a product, in a sense, they’re consuming from you.

Could this understanding of the relationship also open up possibilities? Perhaps you can have some impact or influence over a consumption item.

Perhaps you identify and sell an improvement, either to the “producer” or to a third-party, such as a venture capitalist. Or perhaps you smile and crack a joke with the barista, which brightens their day, lightens their load and improves the quality of the coffee!

So whatever kind of marketplace relationship springs to mind, try flipping it in your mind, and see how that changes the landscape and perhaps opens some new doors.