Five Tips for Super-Charging Creative Teams

There is a lot of hype about design and creativity in big out there. Teams should be filled with oddballs and wanderers. They should be given permission to play and to fail (or iterate, depending on who is writing). Bring in philosophers and engineers, writers and office managers. The more diverse the points of view, the better. These articles share one common characteristic, and it isn’t insight. They are like the written version of candy. Sweet and easily digestible but essentially empty.

When I read the articles I feel like they are written by people who have very little experience with teamwork. They seem to be tourists in the land of the creative team, barely skimming the surface of what it means to be either creative or part of a creative team.

I’ve been working in teams most of my life now, and at times it’s been difficult, disappointing, frustrating, and exciting. I remember listening to a bunch of museum directors wax poetic about the powers of ideas, when, in reality, ideas are the easiest thing to come by for any creative team. It’s challenging those ideas and the hard work of making them take shape that’s difficult.

Here is an overview of what I’ve learned over the years.

1. It takes two to tango. My experience shows that the best teams are small — teams of two, in fact. Any larger and you need a project manager.

2. Survival of the loudest. Research shows that teams are most likely to follow the first one to speak — the extrovert, the bossiest, the most (over) confident. This has certainly been my experience with teamwork over the years and accounts for the multiple ways in which it’s been a failure.

3. Shared leadership makes for a productive team. In a team of two leadership is shared. Ideas are shaped and reworked in a truly collaborative and exciting manner. The team of two has room for reflection, introversion, and iteration. I learned this working at Cooper in the late 1990s.

4. Teams of two have super powers. Given the right support a small team can get work done quickly and efficiently. Think of how hard it is to make decisions about dinner or a movie with a group of people. Now imagine how much more effective a team of two can be at solving problems and creating innovative design.

5. Successful multi-tasking is a myth. I think we all know what happens when we multi-task. Nothing gets full attention. Living in a world filled with stimuli makes that painfully obvious. Team members should be allowed to focus on their work, one problem at a time. And I don’t need to tell you to close Facebook, do I?

The Force of the Small Team is Strong

When I look back at the work I did with my team partners way back in the caveman days of the internet, I don’t cringe. It’s definitely withstood the test of time. There’s work we did over a decade ago that could be implemented today with little or no revision. Unfortunately, most of the work was for start-ups that never implemented it — perhaps because it was too innovative for the time. We designed a purchasing application for media buyers with data visualizations that I’d love to have today. There was the planning application for manufacturers that allowed them to collaborate all along the supply chain, but was seen as too revolutionary by the software giant that requested it. Trust me, they have learned since that those ideas were not at all revolutionary but instead filled an existing and real need.

The Yin and Yang of a Good Team

A good team needs two types of people: one should be good at generating ideas and the other should be good at riffing on them. At least one member of the team needs to be empathetic — able to embody other people. One should be a good writer. The other should be able to draw. At least one needs to understand what’s possible and have a handle on the limitations.

Both need to be able to listen.

They need to be people who love puzzles. People who can see and understand the outlier. People who can anticipate the future.

Both team members should be capable of creating mental models — envisioning the whole problem and using that vision to create design work. I often tell people to practice creating mental models on something they already know well: their bedroom, their motorcycle, their neighborhood. One team member may be better than the other, but both should have an idea.

Support Your Teams

To be really successful, the team should be embedded in a supportive organization with other teams working on similar and different problems. That way when they hit a snag, they can grab others to help them untangle it. They shouldn’t be alone.

They need administrative support. They need the help of others who can make appointments, smooth ruffled feathers, proofread, and other essential tasks. The team shouldn’t be expected to do it all — even though they often are.

You Can’t Do it Alone

Good design is just good design if there’s no buy-in.

There are times to bring in larger groups. The design team needs the support of engineers, marketing, the works. Those people should be brought in regularly to increase buy-in. You can’t leave them out and expect the work to succeed on its own merit.

The work needs to be built. Its value may be clear to you and your teammate, but it still needs to be sold to the others. You’ll be most successful if you ask for help at key moments. By doing so, you give others outside the team a sense of ownership. They can and will bring ideas that are useful. They may have key insights that will surprise you. While you may not want to spend eight hours a day at the whiteboard with them, an hour or two here and there can go a long way to making the work successful.

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