Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on A List Apart, Issue 246. We hope you enjoy the article and invite you to submit content ideas and articles by sending an e-mail to uxp [at] visualactivity [com].
Polos versus Doc Martens. Peet’s versus Starbucks. Hat Heads versus Bed Heads. Every project and every office has multiple personality types. How you work with them and how you manage the rationale of decisions and feedback is crucial to your success.
By applying the right relationship management techniques, you can calm tension, communicate more easily, run your projects more efficiently—and you might get additional work since the relationship with the client will be strong from beginning to end.
Hat Heads and Bed Heads
It’s important to know what these two personas are and what they represent.
Hat Heads are everywhere: project managers, senior management, and many other people who may not intuitively understand the benefit of creative discussion. Whether they’re clients or team members, Hat Heads often see themselves as the champions of the greater good. They belong on the project—their roles are essential—but they’re not always as flexible as you’d like them to be, and you have to know how to communicate with them.
Bed Heads are those who believe in the lifestyle of a hard-working free thinker. They may get up and come into the office later than some and take an actual lunch hour to break up the daily routine, but may also work all hours of the night because they believe in what they’re doing and know they’re giving the best they have to offer. Bed Heads usually fill creative or marketing roles: they’re designers, developers, and art directors. They sometimes believe that Hat Heads are being difficult just because they can.
Even a two-person team has the potential to have these two personalities, as do couples and siblings. Like chocolate and peanut butter, their differences don’t mean they shouldn’t be together—you just have to mix them in the right fashion. Enter: relationship management.
A creative manager has to constantly and successfully manage relationships to nurture positive interactions between Hat Heads and Bed Heads and get the entire team performing under blissful, caffeinated conditions that encourage unfettered creativity. The creative manager (or project manager, depending on the team structure) is the protective liaison who makes sure that if a Hat Head and a Bed Head are in the same room, they realize they’re charging towards the same goal: recognized brilliance and an awesome launch party.
To accomplish this, we can use a set of standard project management techniques that focus on building and maintaining successful relationships, and that can be applied to both internal and external clients. These relationship management techniques can be used in three ways:
- at pre-client project meetings,
- on the fly, and
- at post-meeting assessments.
Pre-client meetings: groundwork for good relationships
Here’s a funny thing about being a creative or project manager: whether you’re working on an internal or external project, you typically know more about the state of the project than anyone else. Especially on large projects, where the rest of the team knows mainly rumor and hearsay.
To create team balance and cohesion, you must pull the entire team—including the sales person or account manager who landed the deal—into a room to run through an agenda that covers why the team members were selected and what their specific roles are as well as ground rules for communication with the client team and the project’s overall timeline. By getting the entire team in the room as soon as possible and including them in early decisions and direction, you create a level of ownership that will help you manage the team.
The daily show
Your next goal is to get your team (or teams) into a rhythm and set the expectation that their involvement is critical to the project’s success. If you get your team together for 10 to 15 minutes every day in a relaxed environment to share status and give the staff a chance to raise any issues, you offer the proper forum for things to surface before they get out of control. Keeping it as a roundtable will seem sometimes boring and mundane, but it puts people on the spot and makes them think about their work. And, if they don’t seem to have anything to offer, ask a couple of questions. It’s ok to coax them into a discussion.
By the way, if you’re not the one running the project, feel free to initiate this with your creative manager if one hasn’t already been set up. They’ll probably thank you for thinking of it since they’re probably thinking about a million other things.
On the fly: keeping relationships strong
I remember the first time a client showed high levels of frustration during my project. The vice president of sales and marketing for a now-defunct insurance company was screaming at our team for not applying the correct brand strategy (we’d used product-specific colors instead of the corporate color scheme).
Instead of getting into a battle with the VP, I lowered my pen to the table, waited until he’d finished, and very politely explained that the creative brief that bore his signature made it clear that we had used the correct color scheme. I explained that I understood wholeheartedly that things change (more than likely, to be fair, because of the opinions of a more senior-ranking member of the client team), offered to initiate a change in scope, and even told him that we’d do it for a lesser amount than our typical rate.
Rule #1: get everything in writing
What would have happened if I hadn’t gotten that section on the color scheme into the creative brief? How many times have you walked away thinking that you had everything in hand, only to discover later that you have no way to verify or validate a client’s approval?
Conflict can occur when one party assumes or tries to execute on a memory of a conversation. In addition to getting formal sign-off, you should always write down all comments, feedback, and thoughts during a conversation and send them to the necessary recipients in a follow-up e-mail in an effort to validate the information. The extra effort will help keep your Bed Heads and the client’s Hat Heads on the same page.
Rule #2: employ the buddy system
In almost every project or team environment I’m involved in, I make an effort to create a high level of trust with a strong team member right away, so that we can discuss situations and issues with a sense of confidence. It certainly doesn’t mean that what I’m saying to this person stays secret—I’d be a fool if I thought that were the case, especially in a client-vendor relationship—but if you can build a good relationship with a strong, supportive team member, that person can help you build the remainder of the team’s trust and support.
Rule #3: match the right hat to the right situation
You probably have more “hats,” in the sense of specific skillsets, on your project than you think you do. One of your responsibilities as creative manager is to take inventory and match the right hat to the right situation.
This matters not just in the initial distribution of responsibilities, which you may or may not control, but when you need the right hat to handle a potential relationship problem. There are invariably times when you find yourself in discussion with someone whose personality type or working style is quite different from your own, and you need to step back and think about which hat helps the situation.
Example: a client team member who has been harboring a deep dislike for the navigation layout your team has designed, but who has been uncomfortable speaking up in public, stops you in the hallway and brings up the topic. Your responsibility is to manage this relationship before it a) gets out of hand, or b) stops the momentum and natural flow of the project.
Consider the personality and working style of the person you’re speaking with, then take the time to explain things accordingly. Design is part science and part creative subjectivity, so select the right way to explain your team’s choice and take the time to lay out a valid argument using language your client can understand.
Rule #4: manage conflict
Okay, so you’re in a meeting and you’re discussing a design comp and the third person to your left is “that guy.” He’s been around the block. He knows this “design stuff,” and he wants to be heard. Unfortunately, he’s from the budget office and his only design experience was a poster he did for his cousin’s lemonade stand when they were nine. And a half.
Your responsibility is to keep it cool. Here are some well-known conflict management tips that you can use to keep the discussion going your way:
- Don’t interrupt—even if the person speaking is on your own team and you can stop them, don’t immediately try to keep them from having their say. You’ll have a chance to respond.
- Lead by example—as the creative or project manager, your responsibility is to lead and not let emotions get in the way, even when personality conflicts arise. Your client and your staff are watching you.
- Keep your language neutral—avoid using terms like “never” and “no.” Use inclusive terms: “I think we agree that our goal is x and I’d like to see us get there together.” It may sound corny, but this is an important part of effective communication.
- Compromise—I realize you can’t compromise on some terms (finance can be a hot topic), but when it comes to design elements and copy, don’t let pride end your lucrative project. A client isn’t always right, but they do usually pay your electric bill, so do your best to find a solution that lets you maintain your integrity and also meets the client’s needs.
Nobody is perfect, and that meeting you just left might have left you with a couple of chinks in the armor. No matter. Take a moment to breathe deeply and reflect on how the meeting or conference call went. Try the following questions as a partial self-assessment to help you get started:
- Did I achieve the intended goal of the meeting?
- Was there anything I needed to address, but didn’t?
- Who was not at the meeting that I should reach out to?
- What action items can I take out of this to be proactive?
- Is there anything I should change for the next meeting to make this relationship stronger?
The next time you go attend a client or team meeting, take a mental (or written) note of the personalities in the room. Think about how you would communicate with them if you had to present a new idea today. Would you be able to convince them that your idea is the right idea? On the individual and team levels, is their personality in line with yours, or do you need to adapt? And if you do, what does that mean?
Adaptation doesn’t just mean change. Adapting is more about being flexible and seeing other points of view. It’s impossible to change a person, but we can all adapt in so many ways:
- A client manager can adapt by reading the client’s body language and suggest alternatives without sounding like they’re backpedaling.
- A designer can adapt by willingly incorporating client feedback even though it goes against the theme of their initial artwork.
- A copywriter can adapt by loosening the strict guidelines surrounding corporate gobbledygook and allowing the piece to be more fun so that it becomes more of the brand.
Conflict management and conflict resolution are two wonderful starting points on your path to proper relationship management. If you are already a seasoned project manager, think of the personality side of the equation or take a moment to do a relationship-building self-assessment at the end of your day. If you’re a designer or developer, a copywriter, or an interactive dynamo, you can expand your relationships and strive to adapt your approach to suit the situation.
In the end, you have all the hats you need. Some may not look as good on you as others, but that shouldn’t matter. If you’re wearing the right hat, your client will appreciate the effort. Just don’t spend so much time choosing the right hat that you forget to wear pants.