Moving in place: staying motivated across uncertain waters

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Tuesday morning at the office. Look familiar?

Motivation through change
If you’ve been working in the design industry for a while, you might have experienced the sensation of working as hard as you can, doing things the right way, but seeing nothing change or move forward. Sometimes people change their mind, markets shift, and technology evolves. The projects you have been working on might get a scope change or be completely shelved. Often these decisions get made without your input and with no warning. When these changes happen, it feels like no matter how hard you push, you’re getting nowhere.

Whenever I encounter these moments I feel powerless and frustrated. It feels like your best years have passed and you’ll never be productive again. Failure, so you think, lurks around the next corner.

When this feeling hits, it’s important to remember a few things: you’re not the first person to experience this and (hopefully) this phase is a temporary one. So if this ever happens to you, as it did to me recently, here are the things I fallback on whenever I get a case of the helplessness heebie-jeebies.

1. Define your influence
Congratulations! This time you are the user, so roll up your sleeves and start understanding the pain points. Take a step back and try to pinpoint what the core problem is and when you started feeling stuck. What are your main blockers? Who do you depend on to get stuff done? These answers will help you realize that you cannot control everything around you. And that’s OK. The soonest you accept this reality the easier it will be to define the things you can influence and those you cannot. Don’t forget that your design process also works for personal challenges, so define, refine, test, fix and of course rinse and repeat.

2. Do what you can
Knowing what and who you depend on is a crucial first step in getting out of your rut. It’s hard to admit that even though you might think you have all the answers (and you always do, right?), you cannot do everything on your own. Now that you’ve defined what you cannot control, it is important to narrow your focus and push forward with the things you can change that will move the project forward. At first it may feel like you’re moving at turtle speed and the end goal isn’t any closer. But as long as you are moving towards the objective, you are fulfilling your end of the bargain, doing your job and leading by example. Focus on your immediate team, near-term deadlines and upcoming meetings where you can begin to stimulate change. The key is: less complaining and more doing. Last time I checked complaining is only good material for comedians and late night TV hosts. For designers, not so much.

3. Speak up
Now that you know what the problem is figure out who to work with and go talk to them. State your point, raise the flag, blare the alarm, or (respectfully) yell if you have to. Whichever way you choose, make your concerns known to your team. Take the lead and ensure your team doesn’t fall victim of the Abilene Paradox. On many occasions silence is the worst cure. Gather your team and discuss the situation with them. People are more empathetic than you think, and maybe others have the same concerns.

Focus on how you are feeling and, without any personal attacks, explain how certain behaviors or processes may be impeding you and the company from achieving success.

People’s ears perk up with the mention of negative impact to the company or revenue loss. Remember, it’s not a you vs. them issue but a way to allow you all to do your best work together and deliver on agreed milestones.

4. Look back & remember
It’s easy to be negative and laser-focused on the problems you are facing. However, for your sanity and that of your team, remember to savor every small win and don’t forget about the past successes that got you where you are today. Go back in time (mentally of course) and recall the moments where your team overcame tough times and how you were able to do so. If hindsight is 20/20 use it to your benefit; looking back you might find the solution to the current pain you’re experiencing. It’s important to identify the rough moments, but try to recognize the victories you’ve been part of and humbly build from them. Injecting yourself with some positivity might energize you and help you overcome the rut you’re in.

5. Curse ambition
Since childhood, many of us were taught to be competitive. Ambition was a good quality to have and you needed to strive to be the best. Yes it’s vital to aim to do better, to be a better you. But, challenging the status quo and innovating every day is not for everybody, and again that’s OK. Ambition has two sides: your self-evolution and your evolution over others. If you are to shake out of this slowly-moving phase you should focus your energies on the former. Put aside your goal of being the next Steve Jobs for a moment. Try focusing on the small improvements you can make to your product that will ultimately make your end-users happier. How to begin? Glad you asked. That brings us into the last step.

6. Don’t do it all by yourself
Be humble. Take a deep look at yourself and see if there are things you need to improve upon in order to get back to your productive self. Maybe you’re stuck because you need to grow professionally or simply got bored of the same daily tasks. Don’t be a lone wolf. Communicate with your team and stakeholders and keep them in the loop of what you’re feeling and about the personal improvements you’re trying to make. Ask for their help, input and support.

Are there things they need to change to improve your collaborative process? Are some of your skills weaker than you’d like? If so, do something about it.

Look for workshops, classes or mentors you can connect with to help you evolve personally and professionally. Maybe the rut you feel is a personal one, and not directly related to the way your team’s work output or productivity. So ask for help and break through that wall with an invigorated hunger to improve and grow.

Yes, and…?
There’s no magic potion for constantly feeling motivated, productive, and engaged. Teams are made of people and people go through phases and changes. So it’s natural, and necessary, to go through moments of despair and uncertainty. Occasionally these moments are catalysts for identifying how you can become a better designer and human being. It’s easy to preach empathy and problem-solving skills in our workplace but fail to apply them to ourselves when we feel kind of meh.

Next time you get a case of the helplessness heebie-jeebies, step back follow these steps and see if they help. Worst case scenario is that you’ll have built some empathy across the team, accepted your vulnerability and opened yourself to the opportunity of strengthening your personal and interpersonal skills. That in itself is something you’ll take with you in your current job voyage or the next one.

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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