Concrete Elephants

How to turn the lights on for your team

“You are all right. But you are all wrong too.”
Karen Backstein, re-telling the parable of the blind men and the elephant

There is a well-known parable about an elephant—consider this variation: a product designer, a data scientist, a product manager, and a developer are at the zoo, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of nature’s finest. They enter one of the pavilions when suddenly the lights go out. It’s pitch black. Searching frantically for an exit, they pass through a door and quickly become aware of a large presence in the room with them. Unable to see even the faintest hint of what’s before them, they use their other senses to try and deduce their circumstances. 

First, the brave designer reaches out and feels a sturdy, weathered pillar. She says, “Oh, don’t worry—it’s just a large tree before us!”

The product manager waves his hands and grasps a long, frayed length—“Actually I think it’s a rope, let’s climb out of here!”

Our developer tries her luck and is met by a soft, flimsy material, exclaiming “This feels like some sort of curtain. Maybe it’s an exit.”

And lastly, our data scientist speaks up, “You’re all wrong, what we have here is a hose of some sort—it’s flexible yet sturdy and seems to be hollowed out!”

The brightest readers may now have guessed how this story is about elephants. Each person is approaching the same problem but with a different understanding. There is no common view for the group to align on. Each is basing their conclusions on their own assumptions and narrow viewpoint—or even their lived experience. In some tellings of the story, these disagreements lead to violence. Imagine how quickly this conflict could have been resolved if the lights had just come back on?

I’ve seen this same scenario play out countless times as a designer. Think of how often an idea has been discussed in the abstract, or even in writing—we’re talking about how we might solve a problem and either all agree, or vehemently don’t. In my experience, this easily leads to confusion and misalignment. Conflict. Loss of trust. Maybe we all thought we were on the same page, but when we started designing it became clear that what you thought and what I had in mind were miles apart. Maybe we need to go back a few steps and start again. Yikes. Or—if we’re lucky—perhaps upon seeing those first sketches or mockups we realized, “hey, we’re closer together than we thought!”

Getting to concrete

So how do we turn on the lights? How do we eliminate the illusion of alignment (or misalignment?) One strategy that has always worked for me is to start with design. Start with something concrete. Start with a viewpoint, something tangible that we can critique and discuss. It doesn’t need to be finished and it doesn’t need to be perfect. Some provocative ideas or opinionated elements work well to spark the conversation. What’s most important is that it’s something we can all use to get on the same page. Let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Design is a very powerful tool for envisioning a new future — but let’s not discount its incredible ability to align. 

This is why napkin sketches and quick wireframes are so valuable in a team. They bring us together. They give us a common ground and a clear shared understanding of our thinking from which we can move forward.

I cannot count the number of times a debate or lack of clarity has been resolved by just drawing a picture. The number of times I’ve said “OK hold on, let me come back tomorrow and show you what I mean.” 

Show, don’t tell.

And this isn’t limited to designers—everyone can do this! Invite your partners in product, engineering, and otherwise to bring their “PM mockups” to the table. Use powerpoint or a marker or code a quick demo—when we’re building visual products, we need to get to visual ideas quickly. I hold well-written artifacts like briefs and design documents in very high regard, and there is certainly a time and place for writing in design (like I need convincing!)—but the sooner we can start discussing something visual, that starts to mirror the actual thing we’re hoping to build, the better. 

Turn on the lights.

First published July 8 2024