5 Lessons from a Leadership Exchange

How exploring client needs across disciplines influences your work

by Lynn Metz

Lynn Metz, LEED AP, is a registered interior designer and Vice President of Sales, Architecture, and Design, for Haworth North America. With her expertise in space design and demonstrated history of working in the furniture industry, she engages in the understanding of human behavior and realizes the importance and impact it has for a successfully designed environment. As a member of Forbes Business Development Council, she is a contributing writer to Forbes CommunityVoice™, a digital publishing platform that connects experts directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content and participate in the conversation.

Here is her article about five key takeaways from a unique cross-functional leadership exchange, which first appeared on Forbes.com.

I recently participated in an exchange program that included leaders from the commercial real estate industry—everyone from brokers and project managers to manufacturers, designers, and architects. We went into this exercise acknowledging there are issues with the way we all provide services to the client. Also, we all knew that our perspectives were different, but we agreed to be open to questioning. We wanted to explore why some things weren’t working and do a deeper dive. The experience was curated to involve meeting face to face on multiple occasions and in inspirational spaces to discuss strategies for and problems with our industry. A key part was unplugging from our fast-paced schedules and spending quality time with colleagues.

For over 18 months, this group connected by getting out of windowless boardrooms, experiencing unique activities with one another and understanding the nature of every participant through strength-finding exercises. Our brainstorming sessions taught us how to overcome adversarial relationships and experience positive affirmations to help understand the value of each stakeholder’s role and the perspective of various disciplines.

It’s difficult to sum up this unique experience and what I learned, but let’s start with my top five takeaways.

1. When there is no single right way to do things, it isn’t always a problem. But sometimes it is.
Think about when Uber started up. There wasn’t a single right way to get a taxi, but almost no one enjoyed it. There wasn’t an inherent problem, since taxis were still functionally getting you from the airport to downtown. And, remember when taxis tried to provide a way to pay electronically? It worked, but you knew the drivers hated it. I believe Uber solved a problem that wasn’t really a problem. It provided a better way to do it—and one that still isn’t the single right way.

Of course, we need to acknowledge that there are some industries and processes where a single right way of doing something is necessary for safety or in a time of crisis.

But remember: In every industry, there is also an Uber situation waiting to happen. Question the single right way of doing something.

2. Project postmortems can be the single best thing you do.
For the office furniture industry, we can’t think the job is over when the client moves in. Creating an expectation with the client that everyone will circle back after three to six months allows you to identify what is working and what isn’t. There are absolutely things that can’t wait that long, but I've found that the longer-term findings are usually the most beneficial for future projects and creating stronger relationships.

Too often, we quickly move on to the next project that is burning a hole in our desk. Do yourself a favor and hold a postmortem meeting with the key stakeholders after your next big project. It can provide value.

3. Over-focusing on Millennials might lead to neglecting other demographics in workspaces.
Attraction and retention are huge issues for many organizations right now. And it isn’t limited to just one generation. Companies typically need recent college grads as well as more experienced specialists and managers.

If you are trying to hire an experienced manager, what will they think about your space? Those kegs and beanbags might not reflect a culture that would be willing to accept an experienced outsider. And, it might be alienating to other existing employees. You can still have an energetic workspace that balances appeal for your employees. Those Millennials might not even value the kegs and beanbags as much as you think.

4. It's easy to create accidental adversaries.
Our exchange discovered tension in our processes, but it was no secret. We knew it was there. It was incredibly interesting to have open conversations about why there was tension. And, I discovered that most of this tension happened by accident.

Have you ever found yourself working on a project where the information was “handed off” to you and you wished you had more of an opportunity to clarify what you needed to do your job well? Has your manager ever directed you to conduct your work in an unrealistic time frame? Typically, these scenarios result in incomplete or subpar work that influences the success of other members of the team, which creates accidental adversaries.

The core of these accidents is often a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities. Additionally, I've noticed another tried-and-true element: trust. It’s a core element of working together in general and is especially important for the discussions about how you accidentally create adversaries. Trust starts at the onset of the project when the stakeholders work together to understand the client’s goals, the roles and responsibilities, and what each stakeholder needs to be successful.

5. Clarity leads to understanding—the true sweet spot for stakeholders.
As our exchange program moved along, we discovered that we all cared about the same things but had different names for those things. For instance, we all cared about having a successful project. The client may define project success as within budget and has happy employees. Designers may define success on that same project as providing “thoughtful design,” which includes achieving function, efficiencies, and comfort, while working within the budget. Project managers may define that project’s success by ensuring successful stakeholder coordination while working within the budget. I realized that taking time to understand what success looks like to each stakeholder, and having a common understanding of how the customer defines success, can eliminate miscommunication and discrepancies.

Additionally, some problems stem from the fact that processes can be decades old and need refreshing. The cliché works: Just because it has always been done that way doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

If you ever have the opportunity to be part of a cross-functional or interindustry exchange, do it. The chance to see different perspectives and effectively question the best approach to explore client needs can exponentially increase your understanding of what you do.