It’s been a good week. Some days you go home wondering what you accomplished; other days you feel like you really earned your keep. That’s the kind of week I had.

Here’s the situation: I was coaching a team through the Contextual Design process. Now, this team has two people from my client’s organization on it, both female, both very bright, but very different personalities.

One of the two has a mind like a freight train—totally focused, totally driven, she clamps down on an issue or problem and just drives until it’s solved. She doesn’t get distracted by side issues, and she doesn’t have a lot of patience for fooling around.

The other woman has a mind like a New Orleans jazz band. It’s like there are half a dozen different characters in there, each playing her own instrument, each headed apparently in her own direction, but somehow it all adds up to something coherent. Every problem presented to her suggests five other issues; every solution suggests five other situations where it might or might not work. Not only can she not get through a design discussion without starting a few side conversations along the way, she can barely get through a sentence without being distracted.

Not surprisingly, these two were getting on each other’s nerves in a major way. Ms Focus couldn’t understand why Ms Jazz couldn’t stay on topic and saw her incessant off-topic ramblings as a major obstacle to getting work done. Ms Jazz saw Ms Focus as a control freak who kept shutting her down and didn’t want to listen to her legitimate concerns.

One of the fun things about being a coach is you get to see lots of different people and teams in lots of different situations. And you learn how very different personalities and thinking styles are critical to developing a good design. Yes, these two women each had a legitimate beef. What they didn’t have was an appreciation for the value of the way the other approached the problem.

So, during the course of the week, I had a chance to talk to them about this. They did a paper prototyping interview and afterwards, started to get up in each other’s grill about it. What I said to them was something like this:

“So, Ms Focus. What you’ve got is this great ability to see the main point and stick to it. That keeps you and the whole team focused on the real problem. What you have to recognize, though, is that your ability to stay focused can lead you to overlook problems. There’s always lots of different facets to a problem, and what you do is choose one to pay attention to.

“Now Ms Jazz—what you do is what we call associative thinking. Everything reminds you of something else—every issue or design idea reminds you of five other things that matter if you’re going to discuss that issue. And what happens is that all five things come tumbling out your mouth at once, so you get overwhelmed and frazzled. And yet these are real issues—you’ve got to deal with these links and connections because design is always about making all the different parts fit together.

“So Ms Jazz, what you need to do is give Ms Focus permission to focus you. What she’s good at is choosing among lots of issues the one that matters most right now. If you’ll let her do this, you don’t need to be frazzled.

“But at the same time, the issues you’re thinking about are real and you don’t want to lose them. So Ms Focus, you need to recognize that Ms Jazz is finding real holes in your design. You need a way to capture them as you go, without getting distracted by them, so you can deal with them at the right time.

“How about creating a ‘Jazz Worry List’ on a flip chart? Keep it on the wall, and when Ms Jazz starts doing her associative thinking, you capture her issues on the list. Then Ms Jazz knows they won’t be forgotten—so she can stop worrying and get back to the topic—and you can organize these issues and think about the right time to address them.”

Some points about this:

  • By raising the underlying issues explicitly, I took what appeared to be an interpersonal problem and made it a process problem, which could be dealt with by neutral mechanisms.
  • By talking to each about their thinking style in front of the other, I was able both to validate their thinking styles and raise awareness of the associated problems. I also gave them permission to talk directly to each other about this in the future.
  • By giving them a tangible approach to handle the problem, I dealt with the way the thinking styles were messing up the design process.
  • By making Ms Focus responsible for updating the list, I ensured she had ownership in making sure that Ms Jazz’s issues were heard—the list became a team tool, not something Ms Jazz was doing on her own.

How often do you get a chance to fix the relationship between two decent people and give them some tools to improve their collaboration? I’ve been on the road consulting now for 16 years. If you wonder how anybody can stand that kind of life—it’s days like this that keep me going.