You Gotta Keep ’em Separated

joe —  Sat 1-Dec-12

Control IssuesI suspect man has had control issues from the first day they put two of them together. For many that might have been Eve eating the apple. For others it was probably the first cave owners’ meeting when the Hominids needed to establish their HOA covenants.

I remember a meeting many years ago when my boss, Keith, held a brainstorming session with our management team. We were huddled in a small room and I volunteered to be the scribe, collecting the ideas and writing them on the whiteboard. It was a subject I was very passionate about, so I was contributing more than my fair share of ideas. I was on fire.

We then took a break. Obviously my boss thought this amazing idea generating engine of mine needed to get some fuel before it kicked in again. That’s when Keith pulled me aside and told me a simple phrase that has since changed the way I look at my role. “Joe,” he said, “If you have the chalk, you do not talk.” Did my boss just pee on my cornflakes?

Keith went on to explain that the person with the chalk has a lot of power in the group. They get to decide what gets written on the board as well as how the idea is captured. They have control. They hold an unfair advantage over the others if they are also one of the contributors. Pretty soon the board is unnaturally slanted toward the ideas provided by the chalk holder. Keith was basically telling me “you gotta keep ’em separated“.

Fifteen years has since passed and that simple message still rings in my ears. I have the great fortune to work with an incredibly talented product manager, Jing. As you may know, a product manager is essentially the chief decision maker in terms of a product’s future. They own the direction and are responsible for its financial health.

Dilbert uiJing is unique in that he also is able to draw up designs and ideas, combine them with the latest technology and even produce his own web pages – all tasks that my team is responsible for. While I love his talent and contributions, being the person in control as well as one of the contributors has its challenges.

We were about to start a new design project that required significant user research, ideation, wireframing, and ultimately a recommended design. When completed, the design would be presented to Jing for his decision making process. Jing, however, had a lot of ideas on the subject. He had talked to hundreds of customers, had a swarm of research data, and he had visions of wireframes already dancing in his head. We couldn’t just ignore a valuable source of information simply because he was the decision maker. But, he held the chalk.

That’s when I decided that we would change the design process. During the ideation phase, Jing would agree to be one of our UX team members, with all of the scrutiny, rejection, and equality of ideas that comes with being one of us. He had to remove all vestiges of being the product manager – no control. The chalk was given to the UX project lead.

Once the ideation phase completed, Jing would then abdicate his UX team member role, slipping into the darkness until my team could produce the design. When finished, Jing would once again assume his rightful role as the decision making product manager.

The project worked. The design came out nicely and is now ready for the full scrutiny of the product management team. We gained great value from Jing’s contribution and never felt as though his ideas were more important than the others.

We all want our ideas to win, but I think deep down we want to know that they pass muster. As a leader, we hold the chalk. We must be mindful that if we have situations where we want to contribute equally with our team, we may have to pass the chalk to someone else.

Just remember, you gotta keep ’em separated. [insert loud guitars here]