The one critical trait for design teams

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Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen via Unsplash

I’ve trained a lot of people in human-centered design. I’ve used lots of different tools and methods. I’ve used different types of training scenarios although I’m clearly partial to working on real projects. It’s in those projects, training internal teams to innovate or training entrepreneurs to develop new business models, that I see most clearly the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t.

It has nothing to do with smarts. I train lots of smart people in design thinking who develop quite poor solutions. It has nothing to do with “creativity” (or rather what people seem to expect creativity to look like). I train lots of people who have backgrounds in creative positions or education who develop very mediocre creations.

Design teams that succeed have this: they have one or more persons committed, devoted and unyielding in order to create positive change, by pushing the limits to create new things that provide value to other people. They meet and encounter resistance, skepticism and worse by pushing, muddling or breaking through. This dedication almost always comes from a desire to have maximum impact to make someone else’s life better.

I see this when I’m training internal teams in organizations, even when the stakes are not that high. I see this when I’m training entrepreneurs, even when others take easier paths. I see this when coaching design teams, even when they have the systems they want to change stacked against them.

You can call “it” by various names: Grit. Perseverance. Fanaticism isn’t quite right. Grim determination feels like a good description: when you know that you can’t give up until it’s impossible.

When these people show up on teams, they infect and inspire their teammates. They imbue them with bravery. Now the teams act with that bravery to push through their design process to make something better, something that matters.

In a number of instances, the leadership team was the main point of resistance. The design teams had found key insights, based on real customer interactions, and were ready to act on them. Leadership had other ideas, their own ideas, based on their own assumptions they had created in their heads. They had expected a specific outcome and where the design team was headed wasn’t it.

The design teams who had people with the commitment, devotion and dedication to create positive change stood their grounds. They made their cases and often had to withstand blistering feedback. Sometimes it got personal and very uncomfortable. But the design teams who didn’t back down, who stood for their customers, pushed through.

And in almost every instance that this happened, at the end of the rounds of prototyping and testing, the leadership team felt elated, energized and impressed by the results. They responded by acting wowed and surprised by the team’s engagement and innovation (although they shouldn’t have been). The best quote I’ve heard in these instances was when a CEO admitted to me, in a private meeting, that he was embarrassed to admit that his teams had succeeded in spite of him.

Just to be clear: this trait isn’t about ego, or power. Those traits show up in design teams too. They all have a similar feeling of being unyielding. The person with the ego trait always makes it about him or herself. Their “proof” or drive lies in their expertise and maintaining their position, rather than putting the customer proof or needs first. The person with the power trait feels that he or she must be right. They push through to make sure that they make the decisions, rather than empowering the team to make the customer’s life better.

At first glance, it’s not always easy to tell the difference, to be honest. Over time, though, the truth will out. You can see it in the way people interact with each other on the team, and with their bosses.

I have to admit, I’m not sure how to create this dedication, this drive to create change. What I do know is that when it shows up, you need to support and foster this trait in any way possible. As a teacher, coach and leader, it is our responsibility to nurture those who have the commitment to make things better.

Sometimes that means having difficult and serious conversations with the design team. Sometimes that means having uncomfortable conversations with the leadership team. Every time it means being present with the design team with this one, immutable message: I have your backs.

Let’s face it: not every design team has even one person with this dedication. Despite trying to inspire, prod or energize the team members, the efforts fall flat, and the results tend toward the obvious and mediocre. For many, that’s enough.

But when I see it, and I have the resources and time to help these dedicated people change their world, that’s when the design magic happens.

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, design-driven entrepreneurship at YALI Dartmouth, VPR commentator, now playing in Sweden.

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