Designing Teams

“As design begins to tackle a wider range of problems – and to move upstream in the innovation proccess – the lone designer, sitting alone in a studio and meditating upon the relation between form and function, has yielded to the interdisciplinary team.”

– Tim Brown (Change by Design)

As I read Change by Design by Tim Brown, I couldn’t help but stop every couple of pages and be lost in thoughts about all the ideas that he was conveying. The first chapter’s name itself – “Getting under your skin”, seemed more like a promise, as I realized how deeply thought provoking are some of these concepts. This, coupled with a reading our professor suggested at the start of our quarter, Teamology – by Doug Wilde, makes for a perfect blog post, to make an attempt to join the dots and cross the “T”s…

The quote from the first chapter is simple and clear, and the moment I read it, I remembered the experiences I had working in various teams at ThoughtWorks. Yes the teams were multidisciplinary in the sense that every individual had a set of core skills that would directly contribute to the end deliverable to our customers, and yet there was always something more. I could never truly articulate what it is that made working with those teams so much fun. No idea would ever be shot down during a brainstorming session, we were noisy and extremely expressive, and yet, would always listen to the other’s point of view, and then try to view the world from their perspective, leading to another flurry of loud exclamations, joy and at times epiphany moments. They were interdisciplinary teams, where a visual designer isn’t afraid to participate in a monetization brainstorming exercise with a marketing expert, a business analyst, lead quality control and a developer. Tim Brown accurately explains the need for teams to be “interdisciplinary” rather that just “multidisciplinary”.


[Courtesy of Noise to Signal © Rob Cottingham]

The key to such a interdisciplinary team is the “T”-shaped person , made popular by McKinsey & Company. The vertical axis represents the depth of knowledge a person posesses, whereas the horizontal represents the willingness to accept ideas from other disciplins as well. Tim Brown refers to this as having the “breadth to collaborate” in a truly interdiciplinary team.

“Design Thinkers cross the ‘T'” – Tim Brown (Change by Design)

The first time I was in a brainstorming session four years ago, I remember thinking, “How can a group of people ever agree on one thing, will that one thing be the right thing? or just the popular opinion?”. GroupThink, it turns out, is that phenomenon that could constrain creativity among groups. However, as I read the next sections in the book, it became clearer that groupthink is harmful when decisions are made by the group without considering the opinions of every member, without being “empathetic” about others’ perspectives. And Tim Brown argues that, Design Thinking should help foster creativity rather than constrain it.

“…it just makes sense that organizations whose ‘product’ is creativity should foster environments that reflect and reinforce it. Relaxing the rules is not about letting people be silly so much as letting them be whole people – a step many companies seem reluctant to take.”

– Tim Brown (Change by Design)

He argues that people should have the freedom to fail. I remember this as being one of the core tenets of being a ThoughtWorker, to “Fail Fast”, where the culture doesn’t need “permission to fail, rather allows forgiveness afterward”. The environment needs to be able to support such teams, we can’t drop “T” shaped people in the corner of a multinational company, lock them in a room, and say “just do what you can do”. We need to inculcate these ideas into the foundations of organization, allowing such people to interact with other disciplins, only then can the benefits of Design Thinking emerge.

I still wonder how will this way of thinking apply to larger groups and teams? Certain projects do require large teams. Does it mean that Design Thinking can work only in startup-ish kind of environments? As I think back to one of the projects I was on, where there were close to 150 people which comprised of the project team, however, the teams on the ground were broken down into smaller sets. Some teams were just 10-15 people, while others whee 15 to even 30. Activities like brainstorming, product envisioning, or initial roadmap was done long before these teams were formed, and just with 4 to 5 people of varied roles and backgrounds. As I read subsections in the book, describing this exact phenomenon, where, in Tim Brown’s words, “inspiration phase requires small focussed groups”

Though what about remote collaboration? Technology has advanced to allow for “telepresence” encouraging distributed teams to engage each other at any point in time. However, as quite rightly pointed out in the book, nothing can replace the physical aspect of being present face to face, making the space available into the “team space”. Post-its and various sketches stuck all over the place, and all the assets visible to the team, allows for easier synthesis of ideas, rather than them being stuck in excel sheets and powerpoint presentations. Technology has advanced, but is not yet better than physical presence for such collaborative activities. There are a few examples though who have tried to bridge this gap. Cisco’s “telepresence” system attempts to make it happen. Certain web based brainstorming and retrospective tools like “IdeaBoardz” allow quick collection of ideas, based on which a telepresence meeting can be called for.

How can an interdisciplinary team be formed, can we simply find those “T” shaped people, mix and match different core skill-sets and put them all together? Or is there some method to this madness? It turns out, based on research conducted at the Stanford University, that to make a team truly productive and efficient which would not only yield results, but also work well together, we need to match their personality types along with skill sets. The basic principle is that the more psychologically diverse a team’s personalities are, the higher the chances of success. Personality information is determined by using the famous abbreviated form of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

I was introduced to this concept recently during team allocation process for a grad school project by my professor. He was inspired by the work of Doug Wilde and his book “Teamology”. We took two personality tests – Jung Typology test and Social Styles Inventory, which would yield an abbreviated Myers-Briggs Type Indicator along with the Social Style. This information from each individual allowed the professor to form teams with all necessary personality types. Our team is extremely diverse not just culturally but also in terms of personalities.

The fact that each of us knew the other’s “personality type”, made it easier to set the expectations  within the team. As weeks went by and we as a team went through dozens of discussions, arguments, debates and epiphanies together, I realize how well we work as a team. At the end of the day, we are churning out information, analyzing and implementing much faster than we would individually. As one of my team-mate puts it, “Individually we can’t do as much as we can achieve as a group”. We have developed an openness to opposing opinions, which, I feel has been one of the best learnings thus far.