Sharing unfinished work is one of the first things I learned to embrace at People Rocket. I quickly saw how it helped create alignment with other team members, facilitating collaboration and better quality work.
But what does it mean and what does it look like in its best practice?
To start with, “share unfinished work” does literally mean that — there’s no secret to decode here. It’s about sharing work and asking for help, feedback, or collaboration before you’ve reached a ‘final’ product.
While it might feel anxiety-inducing for the perfectionists among us to share a piece of work or an idea that is not yet ‘complete,’ this vulnerability is key to both effective collaboration and trust building, which we think ultimately creates better results and more equitable design outcomes.
Never come to a meeting empty-handed.
Let’s start here. By this I mean bring anything from the seeds of an idea to a sketch on the back of a piece of paper. Develop something to talk through during the meeting rather than waiting for it to come up in discussion.
For most projects, I work through unfamiliar content by sketching. I use these visuals to help explain my understanding of the work to other team members while simultaneously inviting them into my process. This is especially helpful in a virtual environment, as it helps get us all on the same page. If you already have some thoughts or concepts swirling around in your head, you are less likely to waste time in meetings — and it has the added benefit of pushing the process along using creativity.
Showing an idea that’s unfinished is different from showing work that’s unfinished.
Unfinished ideas and concepts are not the same as unfinished work.
Let me ground this in something tangible. There’s a difference between pulling together notes on a handful of incomplete thoughts or ideas and presenting an unfinished draft. The first one is unlikely to push the work forward — if I haven’t even fully developed the concept in my own head, how can I use it productively with my colleagues or a client?
In the case of unfinished work, on the other hand, you might have a prototype that is incomplete. The difference is, you’ve already done a lot of the thinking that will go into the final result. Because of this you can easily point out what is still missing and acknowledge what remains to be clarified or tightened up. You can share the prototype, the lingering gaps, and what you plan to do about them with the folks on your team. In this way, your colleagues can hold you accountable and together you can align on what needs to be done before the product is considered ‘complete.’
Hold ideas loosely.
The very first thing that comes to mind is rarely good, and holding too tightly onto these initial ideas can prevent us from creating the quality of work we’re hoping for.
That’s why I like to remind myself that none of the ideas I have are intrinsically valuable. I have to give myself permission and create space to tinker, iterate, and crucially, throw things away and move on when it is just. not. working.
Sharing your thread of unfinished work and the process to get to the final product can be powerful. It’s not only a great tool to invite inquiry by bringing in various perspectives, but it also builds trust with your teammates that you value their ideas enough to bring them into the process.
Be willing to collaborate.
Even if you know you can push a piece of work over the finish line on your own, that might not be the best way to create the most viable product. Sometimes it’s more valuable to invite others into the process when the work is unfinished, and together you can build something great.
This is also important because the work is never really finished. If it’s the first time someone sees the work, particularly when dealing with superiors or clients, your work is subject to critique and refinement. In other words, go ahead and show the unfinished work: no matter how finished it feels to you, it will likely still be transformed, at least a little bit — and often for the better.
Have a toolkit.
Spend time developing a set of tools that you can reference when working, such as articles, mood boards, photography, or trends. And never stop building on it. With this toolkit, you have a set of resources at the ready to help form ideas quickly. They may also help you finish your work later on.
Another key component of my toolkit is setting up a digital space for exploration. Essentially, I keep a digital sketchbook (in my case, on Miro) that’s populated with ideas that aren’t necessarily tied to any particular client or project. It serves as a notepad for ideas that I’m trying out, scribbles, or exploratory research. It also gives me a space to revisit ideas without real world implications or constraints.
Be intentional and know when to hold back.
I know I’ve spent this entire article championing unfinished work, but I have to add one small caveat: we have to know when it’s appropriate and set expectations accordingly.
Sometimes, people can accidentally use something you’ve created before it’s actually user-ready. Knowing your audience is important too: some people may see value in being shown how a project is progressing, even if the product isn’t complete. But showing incomplete work to a colleague or client in a critical moment may just breed anxiety and distrust.
Put simply, set norms and expectations around unfinished work and be intentional about what you put in front of your partners. Sometimes, clearly labeling something with “unfinished” or “draft” can be enough, but it’s critical that the people you’re inviting to look at and critique the work know that it’s in an unfinished state.
There is no “right” way to create and share unfinished work, but the above tips have helped me get more comfortable with doing and embracing this process. What you find most useful may look different from what I have outlined above. The most important thing is remembering that sharing unfinished work creates a higher quality of work in the end, and even more critically, builds trust and drives collaboration with your teammates or clients in the process.