BL&T No. 031: Surfacing Context for Stronger Collaboration

Ways of Working

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"People do selfish, thoughtless things every day. They do kind and generous things every day. Sometimes they do not even notice the difference. ... In any case, you're staying lost in your experience of him will never open up a profitable place for learning and change. In order to be a good help on someone's journey toward transformation, you need to understand the world as he sees the world, not as you see him."

From "Changing on the Job" by Jennifer Garvey Berger [Book]


If I were to describe last week in one word, it would be "resolution." In the week prior, I became a mediator in two separate conflicts between team members. In one instance, a team member had done what they thought was right by the client without considering how their actions might impact the team. The other involved a team member who felt that their teammate was not upholding the responsibility needed on an account.

I entered both situations with the assumption that everyone had the right intentions. Luckily, my assumption was correct; each conflict turned out to be a result of miscommunication, misalignment, and misunderstanding.

When situations like last week's get resolved, I can fall into the trap of thinking: "We could have seen this coming." On Friday, I reflected on the events with Peter (co-founder, Barrel). He offered a concept I hadn't considered: hindsight bias. Hindsight bias refers to the clarity we see after an event doesn't work out; in essence, we mistakenly believe it was more predictable than it was. I could feel myself going down this path.

I continued thinking about this new insight following our conversation. Why is it that we see a situation more clearly when it has passed? How can we bring the same clarity upfront?

While it may feel productive to look back on a situation and analyze what went wrong, we won't learn much if we act as if the writing was on the wall. Outside of identifying potential risks, we're rarely aware of the challenges we may face as a team until we work together and give our plan a try. So, where does that leave us?

I returned to two posts I published in March: Team Context Questions and Feedback Without Personal Context. The first post outlined six questions focused on highlighting personal context when working on a team. The idea is that by making connections between team members and with the client, we can bring new energy to a project. In the second, I explored how understanding personal context can improve giving and receiving feedback.

After the recent events, I realized that the insights covered in these posts go beyond making connections and feedback. They're about working together more effectively by understanding each other, and they couldn't have been more relevant now. If it's impossible to predict our future hurdles, maybe the best thing we can do is share what's on our minds from the start and continue sharing every step of the way?

Let's analyze one of the conflicts:

  • Both designers were new to the client, and one was entirely new to the platform used.
  • Earlier, when I mentioned a team member "doing right by the client," what happened was that the producer made changes to the designer's work, in the final hour, without permission.
  • Having worked with the client for several years, the producer thought that the changes would make a better impression.
  • When the designers learned what happened, they felt robbed of their responsibility. They wished they had the opportunity to address the feedback themselves and approached the producer for understanding. It was in this exchange where conflict arose.

Although it's unfair to say that anyone could have predicted this, I do wonder how this would have played out if each team member had shared what was on their mind, perhaps using the context questions as a guide. Let's see how that may have gone (with fictional names):

  • Alexa and Adrian (designers): "Is there anything we should know about the client before we get started? Also, this will be our first time working together on this platform. Allen, can you tell us about the platform?"
  • Allen (producer): "I've worked with the client quite a bit! I think we have an opportunity to raise the bar from our last project. Have you seen it? I have a good sense of what they'll be looking for and want to get it right. I'm pretty well-versed in the platform. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. I enjoy getting my hands dirty when I can!"

By getting all of this out on the table, I'd like to think there would have been a stronger relationship between everyone involved. Maybe the producer would have never jumped in last minute!

What's reassuring about the events of last week is that everyone wanted the same outcome. It just didn't feel like it because there was a void in information. When the team hit a roadblock, they acted with their assumptions. The designers felt like the producer was disrespecting them and saying their work was no good. Meanwhile, the producer felt pressure from past client interactions and hoped to avoid even minimal feedback. As a mediator, I helped highlight this in a group discussion. When it all came out, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The facts were comforting. They reflected on their reactiveness through the situation and apologized for any misinterpretations.

As happy as I am that these conflicts are behind us, I know it's inevitable that we'll face more in the future. The experiences last week taught me to be aware of hindsight bias when reflecting on past challenges. They also highlighted the importance of not only practicing open sharing but encouraging it more among the team.

Lesson? When working with others, it's impossible to predict what may go wrong. Instead, we can focus on getting everything out on the table; our experiences, concerns, fears, ambitions, and accept that we're bound to stumble. Whether it's connecting on a project's subject matter, giving feedback, or simply collaborating, the more we understand each other, the stronger team we'll be.

Thought Starter

What context is my team missing about me?

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