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How's your social capital?

Here at Erskine Design we’re a relatively small team of eleven awesome individuals. In actual fact though, this small team is made up of a number of micro-teams. We’re mostly designers and developers but that can be broken down into visual and interaction designers, front- and back-end engineers and technical architects. On top of that we have responsibilities for client and team management, project and product management, marketing, sales, accounting, and personnel. The list goes on and should include customers, suppliers, external client teams and stakeholders. What all these people rely on and need from one another is trust.

Trust is hard to define

After reading up on the subject I’ve found that sociologists refer to trust as social capital. They’ve found that it’s event driven and that small, frequent gestures or events enhance trust more than larger gestures made only occasionally.

The example I read used the scenario of what happens after you’ve been on a date (let’s stick to first base, OK?) You go on a date, have a great evening, and at the end of the night go your separate ways. In one version of this scenario you hear nothing from the other person for weeks. This leaves you with a feeling of uncertainty and confusion until one day a huge bunch of flowers or a similar grand gift lands on your doorstep from said person. In another version of this same post-date scenario, 10 minutes after you go your separate ways you get a text message telling you what an enjoyable night it had been and suggesting a repeat soon. Which version of events would leave you with the best feeling about, and therefore trust in, the other person?

The point of the story is small gestures cost nothing but they do build more trust than large, expensive gestures presented only occasionally.

Building social capital through iterative delivery

I’m sure we can all relate this story to the work we do and our relationships with clients and colleagues. How many times have you put yourself under unnecessary pressure due to attempting to deliver a grand gesture because you think this is what’s required to build trust and please the other person? This pressure often causes you to limit communication or “go dark” as we affectionately refer to it. Milestones are often missed because in your mind the gesture isn’t quite grand enough or polished enough when the time comes to deliver. Worst of all, when your big bunch of flowers do finally land on the other person’s doorstep, their blooming brilliance, whether a polished design, functioning product or detailed specification, is often diluted by the feelings of shear relief felt by everyone concerned. Inadvertently, the uncertainty and confusion you’ve caused has done some damage to the trust the other person has in you.

I’ll be honest with you and say we know we could be doing better at this. One of the things we’re looking into as part of our process is how we can begin delivering smaller, more frequent, high quality releases on our projects rather than putting out larger releases less often. We all know there are numerous good reasons to do this but the one I’m interested in is that it builds trust between the various micro-teams and stakeholders.

Small, frequent gestures in communication

Here’s another little story for you. Earlier this year James, Garrett and I worked together creating a website for Simon’s musical adventures. James and I were in the UK but Garrett was still in Texas, with a time difference of 6 hours. Every morning I’d fire up Basecamp and find an update message from Garrett. They weren’t lengthy affairs and no one had asked him for them; they were just a few simple bullets points outlining what he’d been working on the previous day.

I was having a catch-up with Simon via Skype and he mentioned Garrett’s messages. “They’re fantastic!!!”, he said in his standard excitable way. Garrett, knowingly or unknowingly, had created and distributed social capital among his colleagues and his boss (who doubled as the the client for the project he was working on) simply by writing and sending a few bullet points at the end of each day.

Trust makes everything easier

No matter where you are in the value stream in your team or the position you hold, if the people upstream or downstream from you have complete trust in you, everything suddenly becomes easier.

Erskine Design
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