John had been doing fantastic work as a mid-level visual designer for the past year. His execution of the vision described by the creative director and the client was consistently exceeding expectations, and his work was always high-quality, well-organized, and free of silly errors. The rest of his team looked to him to set the tone for internal standards and practices.
So when a new project came in, and the creative and art directors were already overbooked, it seemed like the perfect fit, and John got the call to work as an art director on the project.
A few weeks into the project, John was doing an okay job. The eye, direction, and work ethic he’d been well-known for wasn’t quite there as it had been, and the project was having a few stumbling blocks here and there. It was his first time, though, so maybe he’d need to grow into things a bit.
Talking to John, though, you’d think the project was a disaster. He felt like a fish out of water, and wanted nothing more than to give up his new responsibilities and go back to his old role on the team. In fact, he’d lost a fair bit of confidence in himself as a designer as a result of the whole thing.
To his managers, this was perplexing: John was a promising employee, and this project, which everyone had considered a step up from his previous role, failed to bring out the best in him. After all, these types of responsibilities had brought out the best in them before, so why not for John?
The Typical Mental Fallacy
It’s only natural for us to assume that others’ minds work in much the same way we do. We do it all the time: from when we can’t possibly understand the perspective of someone from the opposite political persuasion, to when we assume that users of our websites will be able to use them as well as we, the creators, are able to.
Since we have only ever experienced our own mind, we have no evidence to suggest that others’ minds work differently. In fact, as a social creature, we’re hopeful that our minds do in fact work similarly to others — perhaps a bit stronger, faster, more creative, or more analytical, but still quite similar on the whole.
John and John’s managers’ minds worked very differently in one very important way: John’s managers were ask-enabled workers, and John was instead tell-enabled.
The ask-enabled worker loves to solve problems. She thrives when work comes to her in the form of a challenge that needs her entire skillset to crack it. That is, they loved to be asked questions and get their form of the high when they have come up with a great solution. This might be code, this might be design, this might be process-related.
John’s managers had all gotten to where they were by solving problems for people, both as designers as well as managerially. Work without a real problem to solve is perceived by ask-enabled folks as tedious and boring, and won’t bring the best work out of these people.
The tell-enabled worker, conversely, gets into the flow best when trying to execute a list of tasks. This is the person who likes to come into work, have a list of bugs to fix, or comps to pump out, or letters to write, and gets the high as he checks each item off that list. Problems are often solved during the course of this process, but the tell-enabled worker values accomplishment over arriving at a solution.
John loves being the guy who can execute things quickly and well. He sets to work, and delivers stuff that’s high-quality by the end of the day. He’s not particularly interested in being an art director, since it doesn’t really suit his work style.
It might seem that John and John’s art directors might have trouble working together, but it’s in fact just the opposite: there’s a wonderful symbiosis created when ask-enabled and tell-enabled people work together, as they perfectly suit each others’ strengths: the creative director works with the client to sculpt an overall vision for the site, and John is willing and able to execute.
In fact, it’s critical for a workplace to embrace both types of workers. The studio with only ask-enabled workers will have trouble making the donuts, and the shop with only tell-enabled employees will be very efficient at pumping out sites that don’t address the problem particularly well.
When you’re starting a company, or when you become a manager and find yourself in a hiring position, it’s important to remember the necessary balance. It’s easy to find a bunch of people who think like you — people who are potential future creative directors or directors of development — but that’s almost never in your best interests.
You need to step out of the mental fallacy and bring in the Johns of the world, whether they’re designers, developers, QA engineers, or something else. Oh yeah, and you have to make sure the good ones are well-paid too.