Adam Connor Gives Good Vibes

Happy February, creatives! We hope you had just as much fun as we did at last month’s event. We could not have been happier to kick off the new year with a sold-out event, new swag, a kickass speaker and, of course, donuts (RIP #whole30). 

Adam Connor of Mad*Pow gave the community an instructional on how to find harmony in the feedback process, AND luckily we had stunning notebooks to write down every word. Or doodle. Or play hangman with neighbors. 

We did some more Q&A with our bearded hero for you, because we know you just can’t get enough. 

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One of the most interesting points you mentioned in your presentation was about practicing critique. How can eager humans like myself practice? Does writing Yelp reviews count?

Sure. Yelp reviews can count. Whenever you think about giving feedback, you can think through the four elements of critique:

  • intent or objectives of the creator
  • related aspects of the thing(s) you’re analyzing
  • the effectiveness of those aspects
  • and why they are or aren’t effective

But perhaps more importantly is to remember that the best critique comes in the form of a dialog, both parties–the giver and the receiver–are able to ask questions and gather more information. To that extent, it’s important to look for ways to practice that provide opportunities for discussion. Ask someone for 15 minutes of their spare time to look at something with you. Try asking different kinds of questions in meetings and reviews to see what happens. If you’ve got a local design community like UXPA or IxDA, try using that network or it’s meet-ups.

What’s the most memorable piece of feedback you’ve ever received?
In my first year of film school, there was an end of the year film festival. Students from all four years were required to show their final projects in an auditorium full of film students, faculty, friends, family, and students. After each film, the student was required to stand at the podium in front of the auditorium and take questions and comments. My film, “World’s Finest,” was about two friends debating over who the better superhero is: Batman or Superman over the course of a day. It was effectively an homage or ripoff  (depending on whether you like me or hate me) of Kevin Smith’s films. After it ran, I nervously walked up to the front of the room and waited. After a brief silence, one professor decided to take the allowed 5 minutes of comment time to berate me and trash the piece. I honestly can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was full of expletives and questions about any possibility of me ever making a worthwhile film. I was lucky in that, another professor later took see under their wing and taught me what critique really is. I later dropped out of school for a brief time and then enrolled at another school in a different major. I don’t attribute my leaving film school to that incident, but I don’t doubt that it made the decision to do so a little easier.

You spoke about the lack of honesty in work environments today. Is there such a thing as too much honesty?
Yes. Humans are emotional beings. Critique is an analytical process. It involves logic, rationality and inductive reasoning. If that was all humans needed in order to take action then the world would be a very different place. The fact is that we need more than that, we need motivation, and very very often, motivation is closely tied with emotion. And emotions are so embedded in our cognition that most of us can’t separate them. This is why emotionless characters in films and stories tend to stand out to us.
Understanding where there might be too much critique or honesty has to do with sensing where it is becoming counterproductive by demotivating someone. Helping someone understand where their idea needs additional work is great, but if it has the side-effect of leading them to give up on doing anything with their idea at all, then is it really worth it? I talk a lot about the importance of designers separating themselves from their creations. And it is hugely important, but I don’t think it’s really possible to do it completely. And I think that there are benefits to the attachment as well. Finding the balance between detachment, honesty, and motivation is not easy, and it really only comes from practice, both on the part of the recipient as well and the person or people giving the critique (and often collaborating with the recipient).

Empathy seems to be a buzzword at design and tech companies right now. Is there a right or wrong way to instill empathy in workplace culture?
The classic designer answer of “it depends” applies. The most common challenges I encounter with teams around empathy have to do with balance in one way or another. For example, empathy – typically emotional empathy – can often be a catalyst for action. When we feel pain or discomfort because of a situation someone else is in, our empathy can cause us to take action to try to improve the situation. It doesn’t sound like a bad thing on the surface, but sometimes the actions we take may end up being detrimental. Think of how many stories you know from your own past with friends and family, where someone was just trying to help but ended up making things worse. This is a situation we hear about often in health and financial industries. Emotional empathy needs to be balanced with cognitive empathy, and both need to be balanced with an understanding of the various “systems”, contexts, and constraints of a situation in order to find the most effective course of action.

Who are your mentors? How have they shaped your approach to work?
My greatest mentor outside of my parents is Jennifer Fabrizi. Jen and I worked together at MassMutual for years where she was my manager. I was pretty young, stupid and had a bit of an attitude problem, especially in my early time there. I had a tendency to get overly frustrated at business and IT partners who just couldn’t see things the way I saw them, and the processes, infrastructure, and legal hoops that made things feel like the were slower than molasses drove me crazy. Jen taught me so much about pragmatism and how to take the empathy and understanding we were so focused on for our customers and turn it inward toward our partners. There is a line she used to say to me when I would get all riled up about something and start running my mouth, “Are you adding more light or heat?” which essentially means, “Is what you’re saying (or about to say) furthering the conversation by uncovering new information or is it just adding energy without rallying moving things forward?”

What sort of magical powers do you hold in your beard?
My beard is where I keep all of my good ideas.

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If you want to hear more from Adam about organizational design or how to send positive energy into the universe, be sure follow him on Twitter, and check out his new book Discussing Design

Photos courtesy of The Danger Booth and Dan Powell