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Anxiety Party

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Daniel Burka

Contributor

Daniel Burka is a design partner at Google Ventures.

We have a somewhat unusual design team at GV. There are six of us. Four product designers, a researcher and a team coordinator. Each of us held fairly senior design positions previously, and we each have a lot of experience. Because we’re all experienced, we function as peers —  no one is at the helm… or maybe we all are.

We maintain a fairly flat organizational structure at GV, so we’re tremendously lucky that we’re given the autonomy to work within our own operational teams. This is mostly excellent. But, the flat structure means we don’t have the traditional day-to-day feedback you might typically receive under a traditional management system.

A couple of years ago our little team was sitting on the couches in our San Francisco office for our once-a-quarter planning session. In the middle of a discussion about improving our teamwork, Jake Knapp went out on a limb and mentioned how much he missed getting critical feedback on his performance. He felt like some of the normal checks and balances were missing from his work life. We all nodded; we felt the same way. Something was missing, but what was the best way to get useful feedback?

The first suggestion was also the most obvious — we’d do peer reviews. Each of us would be randomly appointed to review one of our fellow design partners. Perfect. Except, what the heck would we critique about each other? As Jake summed up, “Guys, I don’t mean to sound uncritical, but I either think you’re doing a good job or I don’t work closely enough with you on a daily basis to really have much to say. I honestly don’t know what I’d write about any of you.” Come to think of it, I had the same problem — and so did everyone else.

This got me thinking. What were we really trying to achieve with feedback? Were we really just looking for an outside perspective on our work, or was something else going on? Like Jake, I also didn’t know what I’d write about my colleagues. But, if I was honest with myself, I knew what I wish they’d write about me. I had a bunch of anxieties; I needed to know if they were well-founded or if I was worrying about things that were largely in my own head.

At that time, I’d wake up late at night anxiously worrying about a few things. I was anxious that I wasn’t enough of a team player (I was working on a few projects very independent of the overall design team). Or that my feedback in coaching sessions was too much from my personal experience. Or that I wasn’t prioritizing my time on things the whole team thought was important. Or that I was too critical and not gentle enough in my design critique with designers from the portfolio. Or… well, you get the idea. These anxieties swirled around and around in my brain.

Maybe we didn’t need peer review at all. Maybe what we really needed was a structured time where we could be vulnerable and get our anxieties out in the open.

So what did we do? We threw an Anxiety Party. In a quiet meeting room, we spent 10 minutes individually writing down our biggest anxious questions on a private sheet of paper. For the next two minutes we ranked them in order of severity  —  which anxieties worried each of us the most? Then we began.

For about an hour and a half we went around the circle and took turns asking an anxiety question out loud. Then our colleagues spent a few seconds scoring how much the issue troubled them, from zero (“It never even occurred to me that this was an issue”) to five (“I strongly believe you need to improve in this area”).

It turned out that many of the anxieties we had were entirely baseless. I asked my colleagues if they perceived me as an absent “lone wolf” from the team. It turns out that it was zeros and ones all around  —  they enjoyed working with me but didn’t mind if I was off on a project on my own for a few weeks at a time. Phew!

However, some of our anxieties were well-founded. For instance, I was worried that I was placing too much emphasis on conferences and networking events over other priorities. It turns out that it did irk my colleagues. They gave it a few threes and a four. So we discussed the pros and cons and came up with a new plan together. It felt like a breath of fresh air to have the issue out in the open.

Anxiety Parties are a regular event for us now — we do them twice a year. And, at least for me, it works beautifully. I’m much less worried about the things that used to swirl in my late-night brain. The things I used to be anxious about are now mostly resolved. And even new anxieties that arise are less debilitating because I know I can table them for now and raise them at the next scheduled Anxiety Party.

I’m very aware that this may not be the perfect (or even a possible) solution for all teams. It requires an unusually high level of trust and respect to be so vulnerable with your colleagues. But if this sounds a bit like you and your team, maybe give it a shot and let me know how it goes by tweeting with the hashtag #anxietyparty to @dburka.

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