In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced me to the idea of Mitigated Speech a linguistic term describing deferential or indirect speech inherent in communication between individuals with a perceived High Power Distance. Gladwell defines mitigated speech as "any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said." The greater the perceived difference in social status between individuals (Power Distance), the more difficult it becomes for an individual of lower status to communicate in direct terms with the superior.
There are 6 degrees of mitigation with which we make suggestions to authority:
Command: "Strategy X is going to be implemented."
Team Obligation Statement: "We need to try strategy X."
Team Suggestion: "Why don't we try strategy X?"
Query: "Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?"
Preference: "Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives."
Hint: "I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course."
The term Power Distance was coined by Dutch organizational sociologist Geert Hofstede who defined it as: "the extent to which a society accepts hierarchical differences." Power Distance is determined by measuring people's attitudes in a series of questionnaires, and, not surprisingly, it turns out that different cultures have different levels of Power Distance. Some cultures have small Power Distance (e.g. Australia, Austria, Denmark). In these cultures, people tend to relate to each other more as equals, and subordinates are more comfortable challenging those in positions of power. In cultures with large Power Distance (e.g. Malaysia and Slovakia), people expect relationships to be more autocratic. Subordinates accept the power of their superiors based on their hierarchical positions. In cultures with High Power Distance it is much more difficult for subordinates to communicate in direct terms than in cultures with Low Power Distance. This can raise significant cross-cultural issues.
So, what does any of this have to do with design? If Mitigated Speech can bring down an airplane, surely it can bring down a product development program.
Gladwell illustrates the degree to which mitigated speech can be detrimental in high risk situations which require clear communication--including a number of commercial airline crashes in the late '90's. He offers an example of an airline crash investigation that showed how, because of mitigated speech, the control tower was unaware of an emergency onboard an incoming aircraft. The aircraft's co-pilot [subordinate] who was communicating with a control tower (superior) hinted at a serious problem ("we're running low on fuel") rather than being clear and direct ("We have an emergency. You need to bring us in NOW").So, what does any of this have to do with design? If Mitigated Speech can bring down an airplane, surely it can bring down a product development program. In the ideas around mitigated speech, I see a connection to my own experiences in product development. In a studio environment like ours at Artefact, complex programs are tackled by work-teams comprised of people of different levels of experience and responsibility: junior people, senior people, principals, and directors. Counterparts in our clients' organizations and in our partners' organizations also span the range from junior to C-level. Decision making happens at all levels in both cases. Add on top of this the dynamics of a client-consultant relationship, and it's easy to see that our environment creates plenty of hierarchy and, consequently, plenty of mitigated speech.
Senior people, who are involved in top-level issues and client-management, have a high level of decision-making responsibility but are often not intimately aware of all issues. Junior people are immersed in program details and often have a high degree of understanding of issues, intricacies and trade-offs etc, but a low level of decision-making authority. This can be a recipe for disaster. I have been on both ends of this equation--at the receiving end of an exec swooping in at the 11th hour and push a program into an unfortunate direction; As a leader, I have also made rush judgments about design direction, committing to clients without sufficiently involving the team only to find out I was wrong. I did not enjoy either.
Successful product development requires we make good choices throughout. Un/under-informed decisions are usually bad ones, and I believe that the ideas around Mitigated Speech offer insight into how to create a culture that avoids those. Here are some of my ideas on cultivating Low Power Distance:
1. Build a shared definition of success. It is important that all stakeholders agree on the mission. What is the target? What are we aiming for? How will we know when we get there? This may seem like an obvious one, but too often a program is re-scoped late in the game because someone forgot to share a key bit of information. Two points are important: first, project teams don't usually include the execs who in many cases hold final approval. Access may be difficult, but obtaining their buy-in on the requirements and being really clear on their definition of success is critical. One way to ensure stakeholders are represented is to ask how decisions will be made, who will make them, and to make sure all decision makers contribute to the criteria. The second point is that design programs involve balancing both the "hard" (left brain) objectives and the "soft" (right brain) ones. Since the latter are much harder to quantify, we need ways to get objective about the subjective issues. Building a common understanding about what it means to be "cool", "iconic" or "exciting" is difficult but important. Focusing on the "why" of a project as much as the "what" can help build this kind of objectivity. A good list of success criteria should include technical specifications, business objectives, product attributes as along with schedule and financial requirements
2. Treat the macro and the micro as equally important. It's natural to assume the big ticket items are the most important ones, but both "god" and "the devil" are in the details. Challenger's o-rings, Apple's magnetic power connector, Toyota's floor mats are great examples (I'll let you sort them in their respective buckets). We have to recognize that making good choices on both the macro and the micro level is critical. All the decisions we make during a program contribute to the program's ultimate success and everyone who contributes to the program must be recognized as playing an important role. It is obviously not practical to have all stakeholders participate in all decisions: the technical contributors will be making many decisions that impact the program every day--they should be enabled to make good ones. Having a good definition of success provides a good framework for making decisions--it also provides guidance for which decisions should be escalated. Decisions that impact "critical to function" criteria or primary objectives are the important ones that deserve extra attention.
3. Focus on the "merit of an opinion" rather than the "source of the opinion." You know what the program objectives are, and you know that both macro and micro level decisions are important--so put all egos aside, and focus on the issues. The person most informed about the issue at hand is probably best equipped to make a good choice. The standard we should hold the team to is that we make informed decisions--and we should challenge each other to make sure our rationale is sound. While this can be difficult for the "right-brain" objectives, it is no less important. There is tremendous power in asking "why?" or "could you explain?" "Because I say so" is never the right answer.
4. Actions speak louder than words. In a Low Power Distance culture all team members, regardless of experience or title, contribute their informed opinions, challenge other team members, and hold each other accountable. This type of environment is ideal for creative, collaborative product development. Building such an environment requires that senior people recognize that it is intimidating for a junior person to stand up to them. Senior staff must encourage junior staff to speak up, offer their opinions and even challenge authority, without fear of reprisal. If a junior person brings an issue to the table, senior people must also take that issue seriously and act accordingly. Dismissing the person or the issue, or failing to take action, sends a clear message that the opinion was unwelcome. It is ultimately up to the leadership of a company to encourage this behavior and build this kind of culture, not only in their words, but especially in their actions.
5. Awareness. While you can impact Low Power Distance in your company, you may not be able to do so for your client. Open communication is equally important between the consultant and the client, or between the consultant and other design and development partners. Dealing with different companies, each with their own cultures, increases the complexity of communication. A focus on issues, objectives and content, even when it comes to the more subjective aspects of a program, is key. Awareness of Power Distance in your client company might lead you to change how you relate to that company: for High Power Distance (hierarchical), you may have to involve a principal, in companies with Low Power Distance (flat ones) bringing in a principal may send the wrong message.
I believe the days of the lone designer as visionary superstar are over, and that a well-functioning team will outperform a group of individuals every single time. The more complex the design challenges we face, and the higher the stakes, the more important teamwork becomes. Awareness of Power Distance, Mitigated Speech, how they manifest themselves, and an awareness of how these may differ across different cultures, provides a framework for building more effective communication, and ultimately more powerful teams. As for our company, I will continue to be a proponent of Low Power Distance, open communication, and a focus on substance.
Fernd van Engelen is the Director of Industrial Design at Artefact. With 25 years of corporate and consulting experience, Fernd is an accomplished industrial design leader whose experience spans consumer, medical and technology segments. He has been honored with more than 30 design awards including IDSA, ID magazine, Red Dot and iF.
Artefact is a Seattle-based creative consultancy that synthesizes the disciplines of research and design to deliver breakthrough products and experiences. Since 2006, Artefact has partnered with major industry players like Microsoft, Intel, Panasonic, Apple, HTC, HP and RIM to deliver innovative solutions and user experiences that people love. Artefact has also earned industry recognition winning awards from IDSA, AIGA and I.D. Magazine.