Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It ain't the walk, it's the talk.

I have a new column out today in UXmatters. It has to do with managing design tensions, but I talk a little in it about Action Science.

During my doctoral research, in which I studied how development teams learn collectively during usability tests, I came across a field called Action Science, which analyzes dysfunctional communication with a focus on resolving contradictions between stated beliefs and theories in use. In cliched terms: A lot goes wrong when there is a disconnect between our talk and our walk. When confronted with such disconnects, most of us tend to blame our walk for failing to meet the standards of our talk—and we vow to do better. But Action Science also challenges the validity of the talk. Many times, it provides a surprisingly simple answer: Stop saying what you obviously do not believe. You’re just confusing people.
It seems we carry a lot of scripts with us that are so ingrained we never question them. Yet, they don't seem to really work for us, so we behave to a different set of norms. What I personally found so liberating about Action Science was the throwing out of these scripts that just confused me and those around me.

As I say in my column, however, we have a natural response to beat ourselves up when our walk doesn't match our talk, as if we are failing to meet our standards. As we get ready to go into the new year, I invite us all to review some of our talk that doesn't match our walk and ask ourselves if we are reading from irrelevant scripts.

Some examples:
  • When I hear writers discuss the writing process (including many a writing professor) they invariably say "Start with an outline." I said that for years. But I never actually started with an outline, and most writers I have observed don't either. Most of us jump in and do some stream of consciousness writing or we jot down disconnected snippets of ideas that we don't want to lose. Later, we start to see a pattern or structure emerge and then we start rearranging the pieces. So why do we say we start with an outline? There's a script I plan to throw away.
  • Companies love to talk about teams and how they evaluate employees based on the success of the team. Yet, I've never been called in for my annual review as a team. It always feels like it is about me. Why can't companies say, "We will certainly consider how well you support teams we put you on, but essentially you will be evaluated and your raise based on your individual performance."
  • For many years I worked in management because my script said "I want to coach others." I was unhappy and the people I managed weren't all that thrilled. Finally I threw away the script that said "I want to be the coach," and replaced it with what I really wanted:" I want to be the quarterback." Nothing wrong with that. I'm happier and all the folks who do not work for me should be delighted as well.
So think about this. At this stage in your life, there is a good chance that you do a lot of what you do because IT WORKS FOR YOU! If you find a big disconnect between what you say and what you do, don't forget to challenge what you say with the same rigor that you challenge what you do. It might not be your walk, it could be your talk.