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Embracing playfulness to overcome the fear of measuring

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The UX team has an aura of mystery and creativity. They are the magicians who have the freedom to move and create elegant solutions for complex challenges. Being a member of the UX team is prestigious.

Things we do and methods we use follow specific logic and processes. Every action has a meaning and valuable outcome. I have structured our work to lean process modules, which are easy to combine, measure, and optimize. It is easier to explain everything to the rest of the organization to grow awareness and gain support and appreciation for the craft and dedication of the UX team. Process maps, project plans, dependency charts, ROI estimations, metrics, measurements, and what else to define and translate creative work to business value. But it all comes with the cost of introducing the fear of being measured by output by the hour to the UX team.

Pixar Animation Studios is the epitome of combining creativity and business value. They are famous for emotionally complex and imaginative animation features. Most of it is enabled by unique organizational culture and production processes. “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull describes their approach to incorporating playfulness into everyday work by film director Pete Docter. He has directed and worked with almost all the studio’s films. He has lived through all the beauty and complexities of nurturing creativity in a public corporation – which must earn revenue for its stockholders.

Pete does not trust the feeling of being in control of the story, that the plot has been figured out and ready, and that ‘failure is a healthy part of the process.’ Every idea goes through multiple iterations and complete rewrites for the story, characters, and everything else. The team can only build a story with interesting characters and twists through continuous discovery – a series of emotional turmoils where everything is in constant change. However, even if this is accepted and expected as part of the process, the pre-production chaos and time pressure are frightening and highly demanding for the team. The only way to do this is by encouraging people to play, experiment, and forget the reality, at least for a defined window in time.1

If people anticipate the production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas — so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change. 1

My communication has been effective with the rest of the organization. We have created enough awareness of our work and process. We have secured resources and more time to focus on valuable actions. But still, the UX team’s perception of being measured limits them from opening up and walking on the wild side. New members have been onboarded to the team with the understanding that everything is possible and newness is encouraged. However, members with longer histories spread the fear of everything being measured.

Even though we have plenty of good examples, the culture in the team carries outdated stories of being limited. The limitation comes from within, like the self-help book story of an experiment with five monkeys, a ladder, a banana, and a water spray. This experiment demonstrates how learned behaviors can be passed down through a group, even when the original reason for the behavior is no longer present. In the context of the UX team, this story illustrates how the fear of being measured can persist, even when it’s no longer necessary or beneficial.2

I need to lead the team to the state of play and experimentation while facing uncertainty and accepting the fear of waste and perceived unreasonably. Robert Cialdini has described socially accepted behaviors and ways to model them in “Influence.” Hierarchies matter. What is allowed and modeled by managers is less influential than behaviors modeled by peers and coworkers. I can only create the environment for cultural change by orchestrating positive experiences with several team members who would trigger social proof between peers as a new norm. 3

In Pixar, the key is making everyone understand that the leadership actively encourages the team to goof and play. They have created and nurtured a secure environment for the team to act unreasonably, waste time, fail – to bet on novel opportunities, share ideas, and explore together. The team has enough time, space, budget, and support from leadership. By skillfully navigating the team’s fear of change and loss of control, Pete guides the team closer to creating a mesmerizing movie for kids and adults.

The same applies to me – my team communication approach has to be changed. I must make everybody explicitly feel and trust my support for experimentation and play. Team members have perceived my focus on communicating the UX team’s business value as out of balance and threatening because of its history and prior experiences. By modeling successful examples with some, the rest of the team will take notice and adjust.

Thank you, Annemarie Steen, for inspiring and encouraging us to step into the state of play to experiment with alternatives.

  1. Catmull, E. (2023). Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration (The expanded edition). Random House. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Pflughoeft, B.-D. (2011, November 4). Answer to ‘Was the experiment with five monkeys, a ladder, a banana and a water spray conducted?’ Skeptics Stack Exchange. ↩︎

  3. Cialdini, R. B. (2021). Influence, new and expanded: The psychology of persuasion (New and Expanded). Harper Business. ↩︎