Watching Your Blind Spots
Have you ever walked out of a meeting realizing that the project you’ve been working on is more complicated than you thought? This has happened to me many times — I think I understand the scope and scale of a problem, but after meeting with other stakeholders I realize there are additional layers of complexity I did not even know about. These are the “unknown unknowns.”
They’re tricky: Unknown unknowns lurk under the surface, ready to derail even the most carefully planned project. By definition you cannot readily identify and root them out, but you can take steps to increase your likelihood of discovering them early on in a project. Cross-functional collaboration, continual communication, and casual collegial chatting are some of the best tools I have found. Making the time to work together, pool knowledge, and discuss feasibility is a great way to increase project success and ultimately save time and effort. Combining diverse experience, expertise, and viewpoints is a great way to create more innovative, valuable, and impactful outcomes.
Unknown unknowns lurk under the surface, ready to derail even the most carefully planned project
For a project I’m currently working on, we’re redesigning an internal tool. The tool has evolved organically over time, adding features and fields as needed, without much strategy or planning. It has become a bit of a Frankenstein, and it’s long overdue for a makeover. We started with background research and spoke with internal associates in a variety of roles in order to reduce our chances of overlooking important components, considerations, and use cases.
After synthesizing our research, we came up with three new information structures and presented them to our stakeholders for feedback. Consulting with stakeholders during this early conceptual stage was invaluable. Instead of limiting ourselves to one solution, we were able to explore the pros and cons of a few different ones and make a more informed decision. The product and engineering departments pointed out technical and backend considerations that we were unaware of previously. Taking the time to check in with our stakeholders and get early feasibility feedback saved us significant time and effort.
Based on our stakeholder discussions, one information structure became the clear winner. Next we translated our high-level concept into more basic wireframes. We met with an engineer responsible for the current tool and walked him through the flow in detail. He explained how some of our design elements were incompatible with our backend data storage methods. This had never even crossed our minds, which is why it was so important to get his feedback before we jumped into full-on designing mode.
After uncovering these significant technical considerations, we were able to tweak our approach and update the designs to work within the system’s constraints. Having ongoing conversations across stakeholders helped us identify key blind spots that otherwise would have derailed the project. Had we not continuously communicated and collected feedback, we could have spent a few months designing and perfecting a solution that would’ve been completely infeasible.
Taking the time to check in with our stakeholders and get early feasibility feedback saved us significant time and effort.
How to identify and eliminate blind spots
1. Hold kick-off meetings for new projects
Invite a diverse range of stakeholders and make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. Discuss the scope, timeline, and overview of the project. Check in early and invite people to share any concerns, challenges, dependencies, or limitations you should be aware of.
2. Seek out different viewpoints
Make sure you talk to a wide range of people with different viewpoints, experiences, and expertise. This will help you be more confident that your research is thorough and valid.
3. Identify assumptions
Work with your team and see what assumptions you’re making. Explore what you actually know, what you think you know, and what you don’t know.
4. Think about what could go wrong
Brainstorm what failure might look like and what could cause it. Being aware of pertinent challenges and vulnerabilities can help you avoid or prevent them.
5. Share updates and progress early and often
Don’t be a perfectionist. Sometimes it can be scary to share unpolished work, but make sure you’re regularly updating your team members. Err on the side of over-communicating.
6. Collect feedback continuously
Don’t assume that background research is sufficient. Make sure you’re having ongoing discussions and collecting regular feedback so you remain on the right track. Talking with other people will help you identify and root out assumptions.
7. Be flexible
Don’t be overly wedded to your ideas. Seek out and review feedback with an open mind. Avoid confirmation bias and adapt to reality as needed.
8. Ask for help or guidance when needed
If you hit roadblocks or uncover blind spots, seek help ASAP. Don’t wait for someone to notice and offer help. Be proactive and find people who can help you.
Casual conversations with coworkers can often be goldmines. Candidly chatting with others about what is and isn’t working can be a great way to cut through the bullshit and be honest. If things have veered off the path, speak up! If you have a suggestion, share it!
It’s great to take a breath and step back to think about the bigger picture. What is the overall goal? Is your work furthering this goal? What else could you be doing? Who could help you?