On the importance of tension

Unsolicited career advice for people in R&D

One of the best pieces of advice I have for people who are early on in a career in R&D is to learn to hold tension and sit with it, rather than seeing tension as negative or to be resolved.

When I look back, I can see that many of the things I struggled with earlier in my career came down to a worldview that assumed tension is bad. I spent a lot of time trying to resolve things that didn’t need resolution rather than recognizing tension as an opportunity to learn, interrogate ideas, and eventually reach an outcome that’s more thoughtful and resilient because of the tension.

Here are some examples of tension that I see people trying to resolve all the time when embracing it would generally result in better outcomes and happier people:

I love lucy show — trying to do thing fast

Very early in my career I worked at an agency and one of the things we loved to say was “You can have two out of three: cheap, high quality, or fast. Pick.” Working inside companies, this balance is achieved a bit differently and usually sits somewhere between scope, quality and speed. Teams often act like they need to choose either quality or speed as though prioritizing one makes the other go away. The tension between quality and speed helps us focus on what matters most. You absolutely can ship high quality features and products quickly, but only if the scope is such that you’re not building a spaceship when what your users really need is a lawn mower.

Hold the tension. You don’t need to choose between quality and speed — you need to find the right balance between them and remember that they’re both relative and contextual.

I’m always surprised when companies cloister designers away into studios in closed parts of a campus so they can be with other “creatives” and make things unencumbered by distractions like product managers and roadmaps. To anyone who has never worked in big tech, this probably sounds bonkers, but I assure you it happens and is even common. I’ve been interviewing VP level engineering candidates recently and one of the most common complaints I hear from them about working with UX is that it’s hard to collaborate with people who do most of their work inside of a walled garden.

Portlandia artists says “Cacao!”

Creativity is crucial to developing vision, strong opinions, and taste — it can be what takes a product from good to great. But creativity is improved through collaboration with engineers, operations and marketing people and yes, product managers. What’s more, constraints and a dose of pragmatism enrich creativity. Without constraints you’re more likely to end up with something ridiculous like the last few Tarantino movies (Hateful 8 — UGH).

Hold the tension. Creativity and practical distractions (like deadlines, business needs, and budgets) are in tension with one another and this serves a purpose. You aren’t meant to resolve it.

People shouldn’t have to choose between these two things in their software but unfortunately, most software forces this tradeoff. If you want power, it’s going to be complicated, hard to use, and it’s probably going to make anyone but the expert user feel a little bit stupid. On the other hand, if you want approachable software, functionality will be limited and it probably won’t grow with you — as your needs grow, you’ll need to investigate those more powerful but terrifyingly complex alternatives.

Lord of the rings image — you have no power here

Consumers should not have to make this tradeoff because it’s nonsense. Building features and products that are powerful and approachable is possible and should be a baseline expectation, but it requires R&D teams to do the work to hold the tension.

Holding the tension between competing ideas isn’t all that hard but it takes practice:

  • Acknowledge when things are in tension and talk about it. Make it safe to disagree and debate ideas.
  • Notice when you’re being dogmatic or defensive — sometimes we fight for things out of fear or insecurity.
  • Imagine tension as a bridge between two points — if you remove either point, everything falls down. In most cases, your job is not to pick one side or the other but to find the right balance between two or more things depending on the circumstances.
Nothing to do with the article, I just like the dog floating under a bridge on a flamingo.

Hold the tension.

Writer and reader. Director of UX for Store Management at Shopify. Formerly designed with words at Facebook. Based in Toronto. http://amythibodeau.com