Books versus people

Recently I've realised that I'm not spending enough time talking through the problems I face at work. This has been a hard-won realisation for me.

I used to be able to solve work problems by reading things in books and articles and then practicing them on my own. This is how I learned to be a designer and a researcher. I learned how to interview people, make prototypes, do usability testing, give presentations, run workshops, and many other things like this. It felt like a superpower.

But as my work changed - from working on my own to leading teams - this superpower stopped working.

This showed up in a series of personal crises at work:

  • when I was designing an online supermarket and burned out because I couldn't work out how to share work with my team
  • when I jumped from managing no one to managing four people and struggled to do my job because I couldn't figure out how to let go of enough control
  • when I became paralysed at the thought of doing a product manager role on top of my role as lead user researcher because I didn't realise I could negotiate with my own managers to put some aspects of both roles on hold for a while.

I didn't get through these crises by reading books (although god knows I tried). I got through them by talking things through with other people.

I think this is because these crises were not about how to do specific things on my own. They were about how to act and behave in complex situations that involved many other actors and their own motives. Books can't ask questions to clarify context before they give advice. People can, and do, ask questions (or at least the best ones do). And it's this back and forth about the context that makes their advice so powerful.

I noticed something else too. The people that helped me most were not the kinds of people I'd talked to up to that point in my career. 

Previously, I would talk with other researchers and designers because the problems I was facing were practical problems about how to do specific things. But researchers and designers were often as clueless as I was about how to deal with this new class of problems. 

I had to find new people to talk to.

I solved the three crises using a mixture of counselling and coaching. It turns out that counsellors and coaches are experts at asking the right kinds of questions and then giving powerful, contextual advice.

But this is too expensive in the long run.

Now I talk through these problems with people I know at work who face similar problems themselves. These people are not just researchers and designers - they include product managers, content designers, delivery managers, and technologists. There are only two qualifications. Do I trust this person enough to share my problems? Does this person have experience of facing similar problems themselves?

These conversations are amazing. In the last two weeks alone I've realised that I'm not sharing enough of my work with my senior colleagues, that I'm sometimes too focused on building consensus and not making a decision myself, and that my work satisfaction doesn't depend on simply getting stuff done but also on the working culture.

These are wise things that I hadn't realised on my own. They're difficult to answer using books because they're specific to me and my personal work context. 

So that's what I am doing now. Or trying to, because it's a new thing for me and I keep forgetting to do it. My deep-grained habit is to go back to reading a book and shutting myself away to solve it on my own. But although it's taken me about three years to realise this, I'm finally clear that books don't hold all the answers for me.

If you are facing these kinds of problems then you should give this a go too...

Let me know what you think on @myddelton. Thank you to the people who have given up their time to talk things through with me.