“Walk Around in Their Skin”

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I recently worked with a client who had become extremely frustrated that his technical creative team did not understand what he wanted for the product he had imagined – a new communications portal. In fact, he felt they actively disregarded his requests in their product designs. He was all the more upset that he repeatedly asked them to “collaborate as a team” with him, yet they refused to actively engage with him. They sat back and watched my client become visibly distressed by their seeming total disinterest in the product he was so excited about.

When I asked this client to describe what he told them, it turned out he was talking to his team of tech designers about his philosophy for his product. He spoke in broad, theoretical terms, and expected them to understand his philosophy and design the product accordingly. He also expected them to share in his excitement over his concept for the portal, as well as to engage in a back-and-forth creative process with him.

What became extremely clear was that this client would have benefitted from the advice Atticus Finch gave to his daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That is: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

My client was locked into his own perspective. He was not communicating with his audience – highly skilled technical professionals – in a language they could relate to, find important or even relevant. He was not looking at how to engage these people in a way that mattered to them. Instead, he was speaking passionately about philosophy with people who were most jazzed by creatively solving technical problems .

By my client’s giving his designers only broad strokes in somewhat esoteric language, they lacked a clear idea about what problem to solve. When they came back with a solid and creative design – but not at all what he wanted – he tried to solve the problem by trying to give them very specific directives for what to include in the design. Not being a technical creative professional, he offered lackluster solutions. Then the team was reduced to “following orders” based on ideas they considered to be less-than-stellar ideas, which of course drained them of any enthusiasm they might have for the project.

My client also asked for “teamwork” and “collaboration”, but he did not explicitly say what that meant to him. What he really wanted was for them to follow certain minimal directives, design “elegant” solutions, and basically search the product for and correct any glitches and inefficiencies. But since they had no idea what he was talking about, they just did what they thought was best.

When I introduced my client to the concept of seeing his vision for this project from his team’s perspective and engaging them in a way that touched their sensibilities, he could imagine other ways to communicate with them. He realized he would need to:

  • Stop expecting them to share his philosophical outlook, and translate his ideas into a language his audience could understand
  • Be clear and specific with his audience about what he wanted them to do, in terms that made sense to them, yet not try to design it for them
  • Frame his requests in a way that would give them a compelling goal for themselves…not the goal which was compelling to him
  • Abandon his expectations that his audience meet him where he was

In short, my client needed to walk around in his audience’s skin: understand their needs and interests and accommodate them in his communications with them. The great take-away was that by understanding his audience’s needs, interests, strengths and limitations – and not expecting them to understand his — he could communicate what he wanted in a way that would move them towards creating the outcome he was seeking. Both my client and his team could then feel proud of and excited by the final product, but their perspectives on what they had been aiming for how they accomplished it would be different. And that’s okay!

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