The theme of week six of the Shattering the Meme Novena is guilt. Built into our profession is a need to please and to feel responsible for our client’s decisions and actions.
If you find yourself often “made wrong” by others and feel an endless need to overcompensate for your mistakes through self-deprecation and lavish make-up efforts, you are trapped in a cycle of guilt. No, you don’t get a hall pass to be a screw up, but you do need
to recognize a good meme for what it is. The atonement meme is all
about feeling like your efforts are, at their core, inadequate.
Accordingly, any criticism you receive must not only be accurate, but
proof of an inexorable flaw you must make up for at every turn. The
education and internship phase of a career is especially ripe for
instilling this guilty mindset. Modeled for us in the profession is the
desire to slavishly cater to a client’s every whim. Trained by our
industry to expect perfection, our clients then pick apart our every
effort, becoming cranky if we are not always available, armed with
answers and willing to take on all of the responsibility for the
outcome, even in the areas where we had no control. And we not only
accept it, we feed the meme by looking for ways to overcompensate.
Your resources have value
Resources include your time and energy, not just the “project deliverables.” However, we act as though we somehow don’t feel that our fee or expertise has real value, because we keep giving these other resources away as some kind of “value-add” when instead, we should hold the line. Here’s a great example: You can’t get the user group to meet at all over the next month due to their busy schedules for a project they consider critically urgent to get done ASAP. Yet, you accept responsibility for getting the client to have their priorities in order. Obviously, they aren’t willing to make this project the priority they claim it to be by rearranging their schedule to meet with you. But the meme tells you that you are responsible for their prioritization problem and that it will be your fault that the schedule for the design phase has slipped. So you over-deliver in the form of offering meeting way outside of business hours at a time totally inconvenient to you, when you should have just reminded the client of their self-imposed deadline and asked them to make the choice about whether to meet with you on designing their project or be available for other obligations.
Who really wants this?
You cannot want the project to succeed more than the client does. Therefore, if they are not willing to make the commitment of their own time and resources, as well as being open to innovation, you will never succeed in forcing it on them. You will end up selling them on your big ideas, which involve collaboration, then unilaterally be responsible for delivering them. I can smell the failure of that from here. The message needs to be communicated pre-design that your process has benefits, and that it requires their full participation to succeed. To the extent that they don’t engage with you, spell out clear consequences to the project. No matter what schedule or budget constraints exists, what client wants to waste their limited resources to build something that is mediocre and only partially solves the problem?
Release the guilt
Distinguish between the job responsibilities that are yours and those that are not. Make sure that others you are working with, both inside and outside of your office, clearly understand this. Ask yourself why you would feel bad if things that are not your responsibility go astray. If it is because you fear being unfairly blamed, think about why you are letting that happen to you. Do you need to have a meeting to clarify your role on the project? Do you need to fire a toxic client? Do you need to leave a passive-aggressive work environment? If it’s just your own perfectionism and need to be a control freak, work on letting go. See the ways that you can still contribute the things that you are passionate about to the project and focus on promoting those benefits to those working with you.
Shatter the meme:
Doing things because you feel you have to is a losing proposition. Doing things because they feed your soul and meaningfully contribute to making people better means dropping the guilt complex. Stop feeling responsible for holding up someone else’s end of the bargain, and trying to make your efforts enough for all parties concerned. Let your clients and co-workers be meaningful participants in generating priorities and make sure all involved understand their role as a stakeholder in the outcome. Make sure that the consequences of milestones not being met are also clearly established and agreed upon. Then relax and concentrate on your role in facilitating the design end of the equation. Don’t allow others to offload their responsibilities onto you, trigger the consequence if they don’t meet their agreed to obligations. And above all, don’t allow yourself to feel bad about it.