Thoughts on Teaming

Long ago I used to have a blog called Design Thinking Digest that has long been lost to the ages. I’m posting some of my older writings that I still think have value on Medium.

Originally published on October 26, 2006.

The Institute of Design is a school that I recently had the pleasure of attending, completing an MDM in 2006. I recently had the honor of teaching a one-day workshop at the school for students on teaming and collaboration that was based on some previous work I did that looked at the landscape of teaming and design at other businesses, schools (both design and business) and the large body of printed content that exists on the subject.

It was wonderful to be able to give back to a program that gave me so much and it was also compelling because the faculty actually participated in the workshop with the students (not a first, but rare enough that it got the student body’s attention).

One of the first things I covered in the class is an overview of some of the principals identified in the book entitled Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith. The word team gets abused a lot and part of the reason is that we often don’t know what type of team to use for a given project, or how much effort or overhead it’s going to take for that team to succeed.

We then discussed the variables that really need to be in place for ANY team to work, which are:

· Teams need to be small

· Teams need to have complimentary skills

· Teams need to have a common purpose

· Teams need to agree on how to work together

· Team members need to have mutual accountability

If we think about the above and our own experiences, we can probably see where this all leads. In my own experience teams start to derail if I get more than seven folks working on something, if I’ve got more people than that it usually means it’s time for me to think of breaking up a problem we’re working on into smaller and more manageable units.

Complimentary skills are important too, when everyone on the team has similar skills and interests and abilities creativity and intelligent risk-taking often get left behind, never underestimate the power that diversity brings to the problem solving mix.

It probably goes without saying teams need to have a common purpose. If the team leader is trying to save the world but your real goal is to make a better tennis shoe that’s a disconnect that needs to be addressed.

Working together was another challenge that is often poorly addressed, teams can get bogged down in communications channels, collaborative tools or simple file compatibility between tools they use. For example, using Adobe Creative Suite or even Microsoft Office across platforms or between different versions can cause nightmares if you don’t plan carefully.

Finally, the last concept we talked about was having mutual accountability in teams. In academic environments teams are rarely measured as teams, it’s all about the individual. This represents a misalignment of incentives and good team work in an academic setting needs to make sure incentives are aligned.

We didn’t stop with these concepts in the workshop however. We then moved on to understanding how some diagnostic tools could help us develop teams with complementary skills and how to work effectively with those that are different than us. In future posts I’ll discuss two techniques we used, one involving Meyers Briggs and the other involving a great tool developed by a Business School Professor called the Creative Problem Solving Profile. Finally, we covered how to get teams ‘unstuck’ by exploring some concepts developed by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro.