The Art of Business: Juggling Mixed Messages
By Eric J. Adams
You're in your comfy office, so glad to be working on a project for Company X. From your initial meetings with the client you have a clear picture of what's expected and how to produce it. Life couldn't be finer.
Then the phone rings. Another job, maybe?
No, it's a second person from Company X, with a new set of goals, directions, and desires. A day later, yet someone else from Company X calls with a third set of operating instructions. Your task, once so clear, has become a confusing muck, and you're stuck trying to reconcile the directions from three different but very important people.
Sometimes it's worse than a benign case of poor intra-company communications. Sometimes you and your project are deliberately selected to be used as a political football within an organization. You become the unlucky pawn between two great executive superpowers looking to battle each other. One says give me a conservative look, the other says make it bold and contemporary. One wants steak, another sizzle. Whatever the case, the instructions from these two contacts are so completely contrary there is simply no way of fudging it all to make everyone happy. And you, lucky graphic designer, are smack dab in the middle of a very delicate tactical and political tug of war.
Your first inclination might be to simply ignore somebody. You agree with Sheila, so you follow up on her suggestions and blow off Harry and John. Bad news. Harry and John won't be happy with you, and they'll talk about it inside the office and out. Plus, it's plain unprofessional to ignore anyone and his or her opinion. You're paid to listen and help create what the client wants.
On the other hand, you might harbor that generous gene that attempts to accommodate everyone. It's important and valuable to listen to everyone and make an attempt to incorporate their feedback. But as the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and if you start diluting the vision of the work to accommodate every stray opinion, the project will wind up a muddled mess. When the ribbon is cut on the project, if the results are mediocre, rest assured you'll take the blame and nobody else.
So what to do? In cases like these, there are several options available to you, none of which are ideal, and all of which carry the potential for serious fallout. But, hey, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Meanwhile, consider these options when faced mixed messages:
- Begin an audit trail. Despite all the confusion, you can be sure of one thing: someone, somewhere down the line is going to take some flak, or even a fall, for all these mixed messages. Don't let it be you. As soon as you perceive a problem, begin an e-mail audit trail. When someone starts looking for someone else to blame, you can simply say, "Wait a minute, let's follow those teensy morsels I happened to have left behind and find out how this really came to pass."
- Ask for a single contact. As soon as the problem rears its many heads, gently request that you work with one person only. Ask the person who hired you who the inside contact should be, and let the new point person be responsible for reconciling different opinions.
- Be a facilitator. Gather up all the parties either via conference call or in person, and use all your interpersonal skills to create a consensus among the parties that is both beneficial to the project and acceptable to all. It's a great solution if you're really good at working in a group. If the process isn't handled correctly, you'll be stuck with an untenable solution or a great solution along with a fair share of resentment on the part of those whose suggestions were jettisoned.
- Be an advocate. Here may be the best option, risky as it is. Listen to everyone's opinion, then present your own. Do your best to persuade others of what you feel is best. If you do a good job, you'll convince everyone, do right by the project, and be seen as a valuable asset to the company.
Craft your e-mail messages to make note of all the conflicting ideas thrown at you and your valiant attempts at reconciliation. Do this with some tact and no one will know that you're actually creating an audit trail as you go.
This option still has its problems, however. For one, the new contact may give a direction you don't agree with and then you're really stuck. Secondly, you may find yourself working with someone without the clue. Or, finally, you might find yourself removed from the decision-making process – not the place you want to be if you've touted yourself as a creative consultant of the highest order.
If your attempts fail and your ideas rejected, it's still okay because you know in your heart you did everything possible under the circumstances to move the project forward in the direction your thought was best. There's nothing left to do but to follow directions and give the client what he or she wants as best you can. Regardless of the outcome, most everyone will appreciate your valiant attempt to champion your ideas. Should the project be criticized later, it's clear you would have preferred to proceed in another direction.
In these days of budget cuts and economic uncertainty, it's possible that your contacts within a company have been reassigned, and you may find yourself working with a new roster of personalities. Keep your head. It takes a smidgen of interpersonal skills and a keen sense of political and artistic judgment to deftly handle mixed messages. Once mastered, it's a skill that will come in handy time and again.
Read more by Eric J. Adams.