Integrated Approaches to Constant Personal Learning, Improvement, and Maturity

October 5, 2015

Large organizations are complex organisms with different combinations of roles, teams, and departments and are often political in nature. People have personal needs, handle a range of jobs and functions, and have different backgrounds and educations. Organizations employ various approaches, skills, methodologies, measures, and reward structures in accomplishing their goals.

A huge challenge in large organizations is the ability to form smaller, nimble project teams who share a common sense of purpose. It’s the ability of such teams to come together and intentionally create something great that enables organizations to achieve stellar results—with the help of integrated approaches and practices that guide them, not only in becoming better at working well together, but also, hopefully, in getting more enjoyment out of their work. Over time, such teams get better and better at both their individual roles and their ability to work effectively together.

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Intentional Awareness

Another challenge that is often present in larger organizations—but seldom spoken about—is a lack of intentional awareness regarding the types of project conversations, interactions, and experiences people have with one another on a project team. For the purposes of this article, let’s look at these independently of the work the team does.

Where there is a deliberate and constant investment in learning, improving, and maturing as part of practicing the approaches and skills that are necessary for a project team, teammates can build trust with one another, help others on the team, and keep the team together over time. This effort may include defining a well understood, comfortable, open, inviting project language. When a team defines a project’s purpose and artifacts together, then iterates them over time—and even across successive projects—the learning environment matures iteratively, as part of the project experience.

To help our team better understand a work or project environment, we may ask ourselves:

  • What drives us or excites us in the work we do?
  • What problems are we trying to solve right now?
  • What work is on the horizon that may connect to the work we are doing now?
  • What opportunities for learning are present in the work we do?
  • What approaches are available in our toolkit?
  • Are the approaches that we speak about well understood by other team members?
  • How can we capture learnings as common, well-understood artifacts that form and inform a project narrative?
  • What learnings and potential improvements should we capture in a project book as we look toward the next project?

Gaps and Commonalities Between Roles

Sometimes people and teams in organizations get trapped in routines that are driven by speed or the busyness inherent in running a business. At times, this can create an unfortunate, blind focus primarily on deliverables and timelines. People are in a mad rush to be busy—so much so that the time necessary for self-reflection and learning seem to be disappearing from the workplace.

Divisions that exist between different functions such as engineering, product management, design, and user research—and their different approaches and ways of working—sometimes create gaps, or silos, between these roles. But, in actuality, these roles should be omnipresent across all project teams to help everyone refocus on customer and business needs and guide teams to successful project outcomes.

So, while a project inexorably continues on its path, the people on the project may not always get adequate time to think about their own approaches, skills, practices, and involvement in the project. Or about the common roles that—independent of function—need to be present on all projects. Roles that everyone can practice from project to project.

An apparent lack of safe zones and mentors is also evident. Mentors should constantly be present to help with people’s personal and skills development. But, all too often, other project demands do not allow the time for that, and skills development seems to become a second or third priority on a project—or not a priority at all.

Practicing Shared Skills

Independent of whether a person works in a management, engineering, product management, design, user research, or some other function, there is a common set of skills of which people need to remain constantly aware: skills that help make our teams’ collective efforts on projects better. Because the intention to integrate their ways of working exists, teammates’ collective learning makes teamwork more effective and results in more meaningful experiences. Working sessions, in which people from different teams or functions come together to solve a problem, provide a common space in which a team can focus on that problem, define approaches to help them solve that problem, and work through issues together. A team can identify the skills they’re practicing, reflect on any gaps that may require them to expand their practice, then aggregate their learnings in common artifacts that help form and guide a project narrative with which the team resonates or can critique.

In understanding the ways in which we work together—in essence, developing empathy for each other—we may see other benefits in addition to the work we produce. One benefit could be moving away from a primary, blind focus on just tools and processes—perhaps toward an equal or primary focus on how we approach our work together or how we think about problems within the context of a project. The ways in which we interact with each other suggest that we should look at the following roles—again independent of function or job title:

  • informing a problem—What evidence or learnings have we gained to date? What outstanding questions do we need to answer? How would the answers inform the solution to a problem we’re solving now or over time?
  • making sense of the data we have—How can we make sense of our learnings as they pertain to specific questions or larger themes that we need to understand and for which we need to design solutions over time?
  • evaluating designs—How can we evaluate designs and iteratively improve a product or service and its positioning over time?

What Skills and Practices Do Teammates Share?

For teams that encompass a mix of management, engineering, product management, design, and user research functions, people share skills across functions and their combined efforts enable them to solve problems and iterate forward. Some practices that need to be present in the way people think—whether individually or as teams—include informing, sense-making, and evaluating. In addition to applying these practices as we focus on the creation of products and services, we also need to apply them in solving our projects’ overall problems and in gleaning opportunities from the team’s collective learnings. Certain skills are always necessary, and we need to nurture these skills by consciously practicing them:

  • listening—Active listening is a way to show respect for other people’s positions, backgrounds, and contexts.
  • curiosity—Being able to move effortlessly from a detail-level focus to a broader perspective can help us to see a larger narrative and uncover parts of a picture we may not yet have perceived.
  • observing—By observing the people for which we are designing products or services, we can capture their stories and understand their needs. This is equally true of observing the people we work with.
  • analyzing—Analysis and sense-making of the observations we’ve gained through listening and curiosity inform a project going forward.
  • aggregating—We must aggregate our teammate’s major observations, insights, and outcomes.
  • connecting—Finally, we must connect the team’s major observations, insights, and outcomes.

These skills apply equally to both business stakeholders and the customers for whom we’re designing a product or service and are present in all roles. We should practice them over and over again.

What Are the Implications for Personal Learning, Improvement, and Maturity?

Through each project experience—and all of the interactions between people in different functions on a project or across projects—it is important to reflect on our skills and practices and maintain an awareness of the need to apply the skills and practices we described earlier as we seek to improve and gain in maturity in our business purpose and mission.

As we look at better-integrated ways of working, improving, and maturing, we need to think about the following:

  • What skills exist in your work today?
  • What gaps exist in your work skills today?
  • How could you facilitate better teamwork for improved outcomes?
  • What does a mature team look and feel like?
  • What healthy interactions between people and teams are at play?
  • What unhealthy or toxic interactions should we be aware of, and how should we deal with them?
  • How can our approaches help people to mature, get better at working with one another, and build trust?
  • What approaches do we need to create that don’t exist today?
  • What role or combination of roles does a UX professional play in all of this?

What Roles Are Necessary to Encourage Integrated Ways of Working?

Some of our work requires that we focus our minds and delve deeply into design details, while other work requires us to take a step back to see how the elements of our work connect with one another in delivering solutions to well-identified needs that are part of a broader narrative. As members of project teams, we can play an important role in helping our teams to work more effectively—whether by advancing ideas and recognizing when it’s time to consider alternative approaches. Teammates may play the following roles:

  • facilitator—As facilitators, we can define approaches to guiding the process of informing, sense-making, and evaluating. We can craft agendas for working sessions and identify what problems need attention. We can manage interactions between functions, aggregate a team’s learnings, and map these learnings to shared artifacts. We can identify themes that require further study and set goals for the team’s next working sessions.
  • mentor—As mentors, we should be aware of approaches and skills that require ongoing development and practice and organize safe spaces in which people can practice them—using them over and over again during working sessions and across projects. Mentors should work closely with facilitators and custodians to identify the knowledge that the team has captured and map it to a learning program for team members, with a focus on informing, sense-making, and evaluating.
  • connector—As connectors, we connect people’s skills and roles and create artifacts that help bridge gaps and make interactions between people feel more fluid.
  • custodian—As custodians, we maintain the knowledge base that forms over time and leverage it in creating approaches and courses that help our teammates on projects to get better at what they do.

What Other Roles Have You Identified?

People’s work may encompass more than one role. Over time, all of a person’s roles build up their overall leadership skills, and they gain a stronger sense of team and community in their work. The way they want to work is increasingly independent of their function.

We can think of these roles when assisting in the integration of the ways in which we approach our work on project teams. We can also work with these roles—constantly practicing their skills as we mature in the way we work together and helping to build environments in which people on project teams want to co-create. At the start of a project, it should be mandatory to identify how a team wants work together and set the ground rules by which they’ll live every day.

Sure, we need to deliver business value through our projects. But the ways in which we conduct our projects and work with the people on our project teams can also contribute to creating healthy workspaces. Spaces in which we can iteratively reflect on our work and understand what this means to our ability to constantly learn, improve, and mature.

How do you seek out opportunities to constantly learn, improve, and mature in the work that you do? 

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Founder, Big Human, Innovation Servicers

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Michael Davis BurchatAs a Product-Portfolio Manager at Nokia, Michael led design-research planning, portfolio studies, and work practice innovation projects, all of which represent boundary objects. Michael’s work introduces human-centered reasoning as a practical way to reorient profit-and-loss decision making and create value for people. His prior work in the domains of corporate strategy, design strategy, consumer insights, business-process design and concept making, and industrial design enabled each silo to reason more clearly with each other through design thinking. Prior to receiving a Masters in Design Methods from the Illinois Institute of Design, in Chicago, Michael was a Professor of Industrial Design at Humber College, in Toronto. Michael is particularly interested in the topic of mastery and the forces that confound it during innovation planning.  Read More

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