I’m not a big self-promoter. I’ve always been like that—shying away from “me-talk” and diverting the conversation to discuss some of your accomplishments. I find that I get to know people a lot better and, thus, feel a lot closer to them when I do so.
So when I was asked to share some of my thoughts on our MQ Blog, I had a difficult time coming up with a topic. What could I write about, from my own experience, that would be interesting to a world of readers? Sharon, our Director of UX, suggested looking into Lean UX and my experience with AGILE, so I started reading Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. The book was certainly interesting, and I could see a lot of parallels with (and solutions to) the two forms of AGILE I had experienced (with less-than-positive outcomes) in previous organizations. The problem was that I still wasn’t sure any of this was really fodder for a good blog post.
Then I came across something that hit me hard. While reading through the principles of Lean UX, I saw an anti-pattern to a successful process listed: Rockstars, Gurus, and Ninjas.
“What is it? Lean UX advocates a team-based mentality. Rockstars, gurus, ninjas, and other elite experts of their craft break down team cohesion and eschew collaboration."
"Why do it? Rockstars don’t share—neither their ideas nor the spotlight. Team cohesion breaks down when you add individuals with large egos who are determined to stand out and be stars. When collaboration breaks down, you lose the environment you need to create the shared understanding that allows you [to avoid repetition] to move forward effectively.”
—Lean UX, page 10
Since my time in design school, there has been an unspoken understanding that the “Design Rockstar” gets things done fast, blows everybody away, and eats/breathes/sleeps design. I’ve seen many a creatively-written job posting looking for rockstars and ninjas. On occasion, I’ve even worked with a rockstar or two. Funny thing, though—those rockstars I know would never describe themselves as such, nor would they feel comfortable applying to such a job posting. Why? Because they know the self-described rockstars (the ones who don’t share ideas and bask in the spotlight of single-handedly coming up with the next big thing) aren’t a lot of fun to work with, and typically aren’t interested in integrating valuable feedback into their pet projects. That’s a pretty rough environment to try to work in every day, particularly when you’re trying to solve complex experience problems for your customers.
So why is this important? Why did I decide to write about this? When I read the quote above, it occurred to me that a lot of organizations are trying to figure out how they’re going to take their next big step, or how they’re going to cure an age-old pain point. All too often, they’ll fall in love with the external rockstar who wants to work for (not with) the organization to fix that need. In the end, they may get a good solution and some words to plaster on their résumé, but it might have been a great solution with some collaboration or knowledge-sharing with the appropriate stakeholders.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t bring in rockstars, gurus, or ninjas; self-described rockstars make great contractors on small projects where you actually need them to be completely autonomous, and egos aren’t inherently bad things (realistically, any contractor that has to spend time marketing themselves to potential clients will likely have a little extra ego). However, they can prevent worthwhile ideas from making their way into the resulting solution, and that can mean the MVP they churned out is still going to need significant iterations before it begins to impact your original problem.
Big, brand-weakening problems have wide roots that stem from entire business ecosystems. Solving problems like these usually requires any problem solver to admit he knows absolutely nothing, and then learn as much as possible from the CEO, the newest intern, and everyone in between. This requires openness, collaboration, and acceptance that he doesn’t have all the answers—things that rockstars often aren’t willing to deal with.
The truth is that experience designers like myself are only half of the equation; our clients are the masters of their products and know the ins and outs of how things work. We can’t provide a meaningful solution until we look at the problem with that knowledge, the openness and unbiased thinking of an outsider, and our own expertise in design and strategy. With those tools guiding our thinking, we can provide a fresh perspective and quickly identify issues our clients were previously unable to recognize, such as perpetually false assumptions about their customers. That said, my team and I prefer to work collaboratively with clients as much as possible, and it isn’t uncommon for us to come up with an ultimate solution concept hand-in-hand with our client during an all-day, onsite session.
So, to reiterate Gothelf and Seiden: rockstars, gurus, and ninjas tend to break down collaboration and push their self-formulated ideas above all others. They can be difficult to work with. One of the reasons I enjoy working with my team and coming into Macquarium every day is the absence of large egos. We work closely together and pass ideas back and forth without worrying about who gets the credit (though we do like to give each other shout-outs for exceptional work, with our coveted “You Rock” rock). Our office is full of people who don’t have all the answers, but ask the right questions, and are willing to listen as long as necessary to find the right solution—it’s a big reason I accepted a position here. That, and the fact that as someone who would rather listen than be a self-promoter, I seem to fit right in here.
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