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#section2
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#section4
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#section5
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#section6
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#section7
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#section8
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#section9
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#section10
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.
30 Reader Comments
Thanks for very interesting article Keith. I like this part of Your article “Adaptation doesn’t just mean change. Adapting is more about being flexible and seeing other points of view.” and “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.” Keep up the great work. Regards
A very nice assessment. Some good key points on understanding personality types, particularly within development companies. I think as the years have gone by, and a significant loss of ego, I’ve come to appreciate the points made here. That there are big picture people, and detail-oriented people, and knowing how to employ the right talents for the right tasks is critical in fostering both harmony inside the project team and getting results for the client.
You hit on a great point: results. Whether you’re on a team working on a project for your boss or working on a project for a client, everyone is looking for the same thing: Results.
I’ve seen some incredible “individual contributors” come together and produce very high-level deliverables by working together in, as you say, harmony. Thanks for the post.
Keith, great article. I really enjoyed reading it! I understand you are a supporter and practitioner of UCD and just wanted to make one comment for others to chew on – the more I learn, the more I realize the basic premise and goal of User Centered Design is applicable to almost any facet of life. Whether the context is web design or raising children, thoughtful consideration of people and their particular needs, communication styles, idiosyncrasies, et cetera, will frequently, if not always, provide a favorable outcome. This may seem obvious for most of you out there, but in the event that that isn’t the case, re-read Keith’s article with your UCD filter on to see the methodology successfully applied in a relational context. Thanks Keith.
There it is, isn’t it? The idea that being a good and, more importantly, thoughtful listener will gain you so much in just about any area of your life. Admittedly, I tend to do a better job at this with work than any other place, but maybe that’s because I “expect” tension based on experience.
Something else to chew on: I saw a presentation yesterday where the principal theory was “Even if someone is really pissing you off, just give it some time and they’ll impress you.” This sentiment was handed down by Jon Snoddy, a leading Imagineer at Disney. I share his belief that everyone has their place on a project, but our job is to make sure that everyone has the same GOAL on a project.
Do you really believe in the traditional roles/hats? Sounds like the old stereotypes of being creative versus managing. I don’t think this is true or should be true.
To answer your question directly, of course I do or I wouldn’t have written it.
The unfortunate truth is that until the next wave of thinking (notice I didn’t say “management techniques”) are brought to the highest levels of corporate governance, there will this disconnect.
The good news? It’s already started. When I hear of projects where the creative director and the client sponsor are having direct and thoughtful discussions in full disclosure, I know there’s hope for a better team experience.
A thoughtful piece that I see as timeless but adjustable. The relationship itself may someday come to be a non-issue, but your main point about working with personalities is why thought leaders will always remain a commodity.
Thank you for the article.
A great teams can be built when the mix of its people is correct from a Myers Briggs or more especially Belbin personality types – you don’t want 30 shapers and plants and no completer/finishers – nothing will ever be finished despite what they say as they will get it working (assuming all inputs are correct & never test edge cases) or keep fiddling until the code is fast/elegant/rewritten using ruby/changed to use PEAR etc etc). Pairing a shaper & and a finisher works really well. I have seen projects fail that have the ‘brightest’ but they are all shapers & plants.
The trick is recognising these & applying the right person to the task eg give a shaper – the task of creating an initial design – give it to a finisher to review both will be much happier for it.
This also relates to rewarding staff for good work. As a (very strong) Briggs Myer Introvert I would rather get a private thank you in the bosses office & a letter on my staff file rather than getting a plaque or statue at a staff meeting or awards ceremony – whereas the Brigss Myer extrovert would rather the public pat on the back & a big plaque they can dispaly to the world.
Good points on the roles supplied by both Belbin and Myers Briggs. I think one of the largest issues with teaching a team how to work together is that depending on where you work, you’ll be corralled into a large antiseptic environment where a very talented corporate trainer will give you tools to assess yourself and your team, after which you’ll probably feel somewhat enlightened (if you’re a hat head) or somewhat creeped out (if you’re a bed head).
Corporate training to me is like attending church: if you don’t go all the time and pay attention, it’s not going to stick with you. You should have a core set of beliefs and they can be based on whatever system you desire, but the persistent practice of these beliefs is what will help create better relationships.
Thank you for bringing this into the fold.
I love your article and the line you posted about having a core set of beliefs is really why your article is resonating with me over the corporate training thing. When I go to a corporate session, I feel like I want to get out of the room just as fast as I’ve entered. I’m a bed head, through and through, and it appears that you are … both!? Interesting take that I can use for persona-based projects. Those always seem get messed up with conflicting personalities.
Once in a while different departments in our company will come together for a joint web-related project. And while I’ve never thought about the titles of hat heads and bed heads, I have long thought that there is a disconnect between the marketers and the executives. I’ll have to point the group to this article the next time I’m asked to ‘chair the meetings for the next initiative’.
Try pulling together a smaller group of people that can influence the direction of your project before you get to the main kick-off. I would even suggest that your counterparts (or internal clients) become familiar and a part of the upcoming agenda. Ask them to help you craft it to give you even more of a chance for that first meeting to kick collective buttocks.
Thanks for the great article!
I’m wondering if you could comment a little more on ways of dealing with internal projects (as opposed to external clients)? I’m especially interested in your “that guy” situation. What are some ways to keep different groups focused on their own tasks? For example, keeping the marketing team from telling the web team how to build a web page, and vise versa… but mostly vise 🙂
Thank you! I had a blast putting it together.
The scenario you mention happens far too often, especially in the internal project arena. But, believe it or not, there’s a reason for this: You are working on the cool stuff.
There are a few ways in which I’ve been successful in dealing with “that guy”. Here are a few to get you started:
* Remember that they’re commenting because they care (and a little jealous of your job). Try keeping a level head and listening to the ideas rather than the negativity. Sometimes you can get a great piece of feedback from the strangest and most obscure places. Just remember it’s your area of expertise and very politely explain your position while thanking them for their participation.
* You need the support of your boss. If you’re in a meeting getting steamrolled by a colleague or a person higher than you, make sure you address it as calmly as possible. If it’s coming from another department, go to your boss and explain how you intend to handle it (don’t make your boss do your dirty work; it’s your responsibility). If it’s coming from your boss, set up a quick chat (try going to lunch to soften the blow and get them away from their desk so they can focus on you and your conversation).
* Communicate right up front how you intend to run the show. Your work is just as important in communicating the end result. Your responsibility is to manage the visual communication. Without you and your EXPERTISE, the project will fail.
* Be kind, but be strong. Again, in any situation, don’t let anyone run over you or the team (not that you currently do that, I’m just making a point). If you DO lose face in a meeting, don’t wait. Address it immediately once you’ve counted to 10.
Please let me know if that’s helpful or if you’d like me to comment in another direction. I appreciate the post.
I must say that a true Bed Head will not let anybody call it bed, or any kind of head.
And I do not agree with you at all. There are so many things wrong about your theory that I was simply amused. Now I wonder if you actually wrote this to entertain. I just did not want to be stupid and write a serious critique for a romantic comedy (in the end a Bed Head falls madly in love with the Hat Head).
I’d be happy to answer any direct questions you have. I’m not sure I understand the post, but I’d be happy to address something specific.
George Harrison’s song “Something” is all about love, although you will not find that word in it. I think that something similar is happening in this article, for the most part it’s about a word missing in it: Persuasion.
In an ideal world, or if you are among people with common sense, “dialectics” would be the first choice, but when excessive pride and arrogance are everywhere, persuasion is the (only) option.
So I must say that I agree with the article.
Introvert or Extrovert, who ever you shoehorn into your office there’s always one connection, sugar and caffeine.
God bless coffee and chocolate, without it there’d be a lot of bodies in this office right now :o)
…read this article first, then decide if you have what it takes to manage clients and client relationships. it’s not all about web design and internet development
Great article you put together here; I think that it’s especially strong because you can apply the success principles in this article to any area of life and not necessarily restrict it to design.
For instance, maybe you decide you want to go to one restaurant for dinner, but your wife wants to go to a different restaurant. How do you go about getting what you want while still taking her view into consideration? You might decide to go along with her because they have food that you like, or you might be able to give her a really good reason to come where you want to go!
Granted, it’s not just about food; it also gives me some great ideas when working on a project at my office. Luckily there aren’t too many people who argue with design elements or standards here, but when it does happen it’s frustrating. I think you’ve given the common designers and developers some hope in getting their ideas implemented. Thanks for that!
Thank you for the kind words. You are correct in that I would hope that the same principals that drive success are found in almost any facet of life. There are many ways to successfully (and calmly) work through *any* conflict, and if it works better for some people, they should apply (platonic) methods that work socially for their work environment.
Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’m certain people will misconstrue the meaning and have fun with it.
I enjoyed the article. Just want to say that the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie would be a great addition to anyone who is involved in dealing with people.
“Try pulling together a smaller group of people that can influence the direction of your project before you get to the main kick-off”
Thats what i did at my workplace, had a big project to lead and it didnt started very well for me.. Leading a Team isnt so easy what many people out there think it is. Thank you Keith, i really enjoyed reading your Article
Thanks, Tommy! It’s nice to know people are using the advice and getting positive results. Best wishes.
Thanks for very interesting article. btw. I really enjoyed reading all of your posts. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view”¦ makes you think more.
Keith, i really enjoyed reading your article. As a manager myself in a sales team, i had really encounter some of the point you have made. Your article made me put on my thinking cap. Guess i need to put some of your pointers into work! Thanks!
“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).”
That is why successful stuff start from the “non giving up”.
I’m a little late to the discussion, but thanks for the article. You’ve illustrated quite well the necessity for poise, calm-but-quick thinking, and pulling everyone into the project in a way that manages all assets. This would work for large companies as well as smaller ones. Kudos.
I agree with you on this topic. That is wahy I keep coming back to read this blog over and over.
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