The importance of roles in making meaningful project experiences

Dan Szuc

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In this post, Daniel Szuc describes why it’s important to go beyond how we may see our roles traditionally when only focusing on job titles. By exploring other roles, as outlined in the post that follows, we can all play a part in helping to glue a team together, making project work easier for all and creating a more positive environment to help in making meaningful project experiences.

Collaboration is hard and needs practice

“Collaboration” is a term that gets thrown around in workplaces to encourage people to work together better. Sometimes, though, the people using the term may not understand the range of skills required to make collaboration work well, including (but not limited to) listening, expression, empathy, and curiosity.

Each of these skills requires practice.

So asking people to simply collaborate, without understanding the skills required nor the necessary spaces to practice these skills, may well frustrate people more than it helps.

Misalignment

As work hums along in a team, it’s easy for misalignment to creep in. Misalignments are caused by a lack of communication, limited time, poor project management, and micro/macro issues that are addressed too late, causing friction between people. If specific roles are not put in place, these frictions can create difficult work environments, making coming to work unpleasant.

Teams may lack common artifacts to help them communicate with a shared language, which in turn helps connect a project and business narrative together. Importantly, this helps aggregate what a team learns together from customer interviews to help improve a product or service.

In effect, there is no light leading the way, so people can get lost in details that have nothing to do with a common and well understood purpose.

Roles beyond a job title

When we speak about roles, we are not referring to traditional job titles such as project manager, developer, and designer, for example. Rather, we mean roles that everyone can play at various points in a project, helping others do their job well and the team deliver on making meaningful experiences.

Roles, beyond job titles or the tasks inherent in those titles, help people think in integrated and holistic ways beyond their official job title.

At times, our work requires that we delve deeply into design details; in other situations, we are required to step back and see how all the elements of our work connect in delivering solutions that are part of a broader narrative.

As members of teams, we can work more effectively – whether it’s by advancing ideas or in recognizing when it’s time to consider alternative approaches.

Four roles for making meaningful experiences

We  have identified four roles to encourage making meaningful experiences for the team and customers, as well as to encourage integrated ways of working:

  1. Facilitators can define approaches that guide the process of informing, sense-making, and evaluating. They can craft agendas for working sessions and identify what problems need attention. Facilitators can also manage interactions between functions, aggregate a team’s learnings, and map these learnings to shared artifacts. They identify themes that require further study and set goals for the team’s next sessions.
  1. Mentors need to be aware of approaches and skills that require ongoing development and practice, and organize safe spaces in which people can practice, using them over and over during working sessions and across projects. Mentors should work closely with facilitators and custodians to identify the knowledge that the team has captured and map it to a learning program for team members, with a focus on informing, sense-making, and evaluating.
  1. Connectors create artifacts that help bridge gaps and make interactions between people feel more fluid, connecting people’s skills and roles.
  1. Custodians maintain the knowledge base that forms over time and leverage it in creating approaches and courses that help our project teammates to improve at what they do.

Practicing shared skills within roles

Independent of whether a person works in management, engineering, product management, design, user research, or some other function, there is a common set of skills of which people need to remain aware: skills that help make our project teams’ collective efforts better.

Because there is an intention to integrate ways of working, collective learning makes teamwork effective and results in more meaningful experiences. Working sessions, in which people from different teams or functions come together to solve a problem, provide a common space to focus on that problem, define approaches to help solve the problem, and work through issues together.

A team can identify the skills they practice, reflect on any gaps that may require them to expand their practice, and aggregate their learnings in common artifacts. These then help form and guide a project narrative with which the team resonates or can critique.

In understanding the ways in which we work together – in essence, developing empathy for each other – we may see other benefits in addition to the work we produce.

One benefit could be to move away from a blind focus on just tools and processes towards a primary focus on how we approach our work together or how we think about problems within the context of a project.

The ways in which we interact with each other suggest that we should look at the following roles, again independent of function or job title:

  1. Informing a problem - What evidence or learnings have we gained to date? What outstanding questions do we need to answer? How would the answers inform the solution to a problem we’re solving now or over time?
  2. Making sense of the data we have - How can we make sense of our learnings as they pertain to specific questions or larger themes that we need to understand and for which we need to design solutions over time?
  3. Evaluating designs - How can we evaluate designs and iteratively improve a product or service and its positioning over time?

Questions for future consideration

  • What roles resonate with you more?
  • What roles do you think are missing?
  • What skills do you need to practice in order to help your team make more meaningful experiences?
  • What skills do you think are missing?
  • What gaps, if any, do you recognize between roles on project teams?
  • What frictions exist on a team and why do you think they occur?
  • How can customer interviews – as one approach to understanding customer stories – encourage constant cycles of informing, sense-making and learning in the spirit of the learning organisation, so to help glue team practices together and create integrated ways of work?

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Josephine Wong for contributing to this piece. For more, see Integrated Approaches to Constant Personal Learning, Improvement, and Maturity.

Dan Szuc
  • Dan Szuc
  • Dan is a principal consultant at Apogee, as well as the co-founder of the UX Hong Kong conference. He has been involved in the UX field for over 20 years, and has been based in Hong Kong for over 18 years. Dan has lectured about usability, user-centred design, and user experience globally. He co-wrote The Usability Kit, an implementation guide providing best practices and guidelines for usability teams, and he holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Management from Melbourne University in Australia.

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