Stress Points and Shock Absorbers


Jason Clark
Jason Clark

on 6/20/2016

In any project workflow, points of stress exist. The priorities of one discipline can be naturally counter to the priorities of another.

For example:

  • An account manager is charged with delighting the client.
  • A designer is charged with solving a problem.
  • A developer is charged with writing code that executes the solution.

Hopefully for short amounts of time, these priorities run counter to each other and create points of stress. Each role has an expected outcome that may be tangible or intangible, and wildly different based on that expectation.

  • A client could have expected a different solution.
  • A designer could have misunderstood the challenge.
  • A project manager could have miscommunicated the complexity.
  • A developer may not have enough time or budget to execute a solution.

In our industry nearly every project consists of creating something from nothing: making the invisible visible. Since none of us are mind readers, expectations are the hardest things to manage. As a Creative Director, what I envision is almost never what an Art Director creates. Does it make me see red from time-to-time? Yep. Does it matter? Nope, because the Art Director usually solves the problem. Only differently than I would have.

Shock absorbers

I have been in professional situations where the natural shock of these workflows created unreasonable stress. Shitty emails, shouting matches, weeks long passive aggressive behavior. Tears. Heck, I was cussed out by a client once in a logo pitch. I later found out that he was manic depressive, and he personally apologized. (They’ve been using the logo happily for 10 years now.)

Engineers in the physical world, and mother nature herself has solved stress problems with soft parts. Hydraulics, gaskets, oil… The metaphor extends into the world of human interaction. This is where soft, flexible, and fluid approaches are critical.

Step 1: Identify the stress points

Again, in any workflow, these stress points are necessary and important. Identifying where they exist is key. We can’t get rid of them, because nothing would get done without individual disciplines. Despite this stress, the friction is VERY productive if we use it to fuel the outcome with additional insights. Our work is always stronger when we get through these situations.

Step 2: Build Empathy

My former business partner was a genius at empathy. When I first joined VIA Studio I would sit through meetings where the first 45 minutes of an hour long meeting was talking about anything but the project. Kids, sports, music, fishing, more sports. It drove me crazy! When were we going to get to the work?

What I was missing was empathy. If I don’t care about the client and the client doesn’t care about me, the task becomes entirely transactional and you become a commodity. You can’t do your best work, because you don’t care about the person and the human need of the situation.

Last week I participated in a kickoff for a branding project. We spent an immersive 2 and a half days with planners, estimators, interior designers, investors, architects. It was glorious. Everyone was a bit nervous on the front end, but when we all left, we were exponentially more invested in the outcome. This is only achieved through empathy.

Step 3: Work on YOUR Soft Skills

It’s easy to see the flaws in others. It’s challenging to identify our own flaws. It pays to just assume that you always need work on soft skills, in addition to the technical skills relevant to your career. An entirely non-comprehensive list of soft skills could consist of:

  • Communication Skills
    I’m not being dramatic when I say that the words that come out of your mouth literally create the world around you. The things that you don’t say also create the world around you. Being pleasant to the person you see at the coffee shop in the morning not only gets you out of your own head, it sets the stage for the rest of the day.
  • Collaboration
    Collaboration begins with the assumption that you don’t have all the information, and that interacting with other people will lead to a better outcome. There’s science to support that big ideas come more from collaboration than from individual “geniuses”.
  • Time Management
    A particular drum that I beat on around here is that being busy doesn’t cause stress. Trying to hold 1000 things in your head causes stress. Learning how to compartmentalize tasks and effectively utilize your time, including time for communication and collaboration, are vital to a project’s success.

Step 4: Awareness

I almost called this “Self-awareness”, but it’s bigger than that with the work we do. Virtually every tense interaction happens at the stress points. Identifying where they happen and being hyper-aware when you are in that situation can become a shock absorber. Rarely is a painful interaction personal, it’s almost always taking up for what you understand your role to be. Adding some flexibility to that interaction is a shock absorber, just like a gasket, just like water. Flexibility implies that there is no reason to ever be “right” in a situation. We’re all invested in a successful outcome. We’re all on the same team.

Keep the oil changed

As the theme of this post implies, the areas of stress will always exist. Your challenge as a professional is to use them to your advantage. This is a critical point at which insights and real collaboration happen. With the right people and trust in the outcome, beautiful work is made. When you see stress in a project, chances are they live between disciplines and need your collaboration more than ever.


(Thanks to Pat Sheehan for the lovely illustrations. <3)

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