5 Tips to Empower Your Team

I run a bespoke design consulting firm, Monkey Republic Design, and our most important asset is the team. UX isn’t just about the design, the product or the process. At the end of the day, if you don’t have a great team that’s all working towards the same goal, you will not be successful.

The Everyday Matters

While team building activities such as happy hours, nature trips, and Escape the Room outings lets your team get to bond personally and problem solve socially, what I would like to focus on is how to create a truly collaborative team of designers on a daily basis.

Whether we are reviewing designs internally or presenting to clients externally, MRD’s team philosophy runs through our actions and attitudes day in and day out as a subtle undercurrent, manifested in our workflow and the way we communicate to one another. Within these ongoing processes and habits is the skeletal framework from which the company culture is created and expressed.

Here are our guiding principles for creating and maintaining a collaborative design team, drawn from my experiences running a design studio for the last 5 years.

  1. No one is the smartest person in the room.
    Everyone comes to the table with a unique set of life experiences and perspectives, so it is wonderful to see which ideas will cross-pollinate when we all listen and contribute. I write this as Tip #1 for team leaders because it is the easiest for the ego to forget. As a manager, CEO, or company founder, you know that you will ultimately make the final decision — so resist the need to prove your point to your team. There is no need to showcase that you’re the smartest or most powerful person in the room. Get everyone’s input, make a decision, state that decision and share your vision.

Do this: Make it imperative for yourself to listen and understand — especially to dissenting voices — before you make the bigger decisions. Do more than just give everyone a fair chance to speak. Create a safe atmosphere where opposing opinions are heard, understood, and valued to ensure that your team members feel confident speaking up in the future. Do not make it so that bringing up concerns or unpopular ideas becomes a personal risk for the speaker, because when that happens, you’ve lost the value of their true input. You’ve hired your team to be the subject experts of their jobs, and they are in the details everyday, so take heed of their observations and insights. Which brings me to Tip #2:

2. Trust your team.

Competent designers are successful in their craft and their careers in part because they are meticulous and detail-oriented. But if you are a designer (or any type of “maker”) who is switching to a managerial role, letting go of direct control can be frighteningly challenging. Delegating tasks inevitably conjures up the small but nefarious voice of internal doubts: What if the comps submitted to the clients are peppered with typos and Engrish? What if the next drop doesn’t go out by the deadline? It’s that insinuating voice within your mind that you will need to subjugate and manage, because you cannot operate efficiently if you need to oversee your team members’ every task and decision.

Do this: Build a team of people you can trust — you must learn to trust them, or fire them. One of our mentors, a bright CEO and tech veteran, told us that we can allow up to 20% of mistakes. If the team member makes mistakes >20% of the time, then the problem isn’t the team member, the problem is us and we’ve made a hiring error. It may be more work to find the right candidates in the beginning of your hiring process, but this will save you hours of headache and heartache down the line — the extra time and effort to get a good round of people together will pay in qualitative dividends many times over.

When you have a stellar team of people who are intelligent, passionate, and reliable, you can truly trust them to create and execute. So what if someone makes an error intermittently? You can correct it, coach them on ways to improve and avoid making the same mistake again, thereby pushing their professional development as well as your own leadership skills. The long term bonus is that when tactical details are covered by your trustworthy team members, your time and energy is freed up to focus on other fun big picture items, like strategy and innovation.

3. Build on the best Ideas.

As you internalize Tips #1 & #2, what will naturally, effortlessly manifest is an approach for building on solid ideas. When you trust your team and personal egos aren’t interrupting the creative process, it’s easy to evaluate ideas as they are, refine and pick the best ones, build on them, and then refine and build again.

Do this: Determine is what’s the best idea, and refrain from phrasing it as your idea vs. my idea. This is how we communicate at MRD, and it matters not whether we are brainstorming initial design concepts or getting feedback from a client of the latest comps. This way, no one’s sense of confidence and value are threatened because the discussion is just about the ideas, without the attachment of whose brainchild each belongs to. And ultimately the project is comprised of the best of all of our ideas.

4. Take it and run with it!

Surprisingly, collaboration is actively discouraged in many design firms and software companies, rarely deliberately but often inadvertently. This happens when the organization fosters a sense of individual rather than team ownership of products and designs, or when friendly competition emerges by pitting designers against each other in seeing who can come up with the “best” concept. In the short term, this competitive spirit will garner additional excitement and creativity, but over time this drives each designer to focus on his or her project exclusively to create the “winning” design. What you end up with is now everyone is too busy to help each other.

Here is our tried-and-true way of preventing the above phenomenon: at MRD, we often pass the baton to each other not just while screensharing on Skype, but we go as far as working off each other’s files. A Designer A will work on Concept A, Designer B works on Concept B, and then Designer B will work on Concept A while Designer A continues on Concept B. I often liken what we do as a cross between a relay race and a collective art project.

Do this: Play musical chairs, and swap team members so that they take over for someone else doing a similar role in a different project. For people who are possessive of their work, this would seem extraordinarily anxiety-provoking — what are they going to do to my project?! As a team leader, if you embody the previous tips and instill those values in your team — absorbing everyone’s input, trusting the team, and building on the best ideas — your team will also implicitly learn to do the same, and everyone learns that all the projects are our projects.

This may take more coordination for non design teams, but what happens magically when everyone works on all the projects is that we now have everyone’s ideas in every assignment, so no one was in charge of a “losing” idea — the client didn’t pick a specific direction and no one will take it personally. This improves morale, but also broadens everyone’s horizon — within each project each team member will see how a colleague executed something in a nuanced way. The original designer who started the work learns from those who add to it; the designers who add to it learns from the initial design idea.

5. Be gracious and spend the time.

Now that you’ve delegated most tasks to your team and you trust them to do execute well, you are now basking in a new world of excess time and energy to ponder the big picture things — but remember that one of the big picture things is to keep your team morale high. So invest some of that time back into keeping the team collaborative, cohesive, and happy.

Do this: Spend the time with your team. There is absolutely no shortcut for this one. Spend the time and show appreciation, talk to them about their work, give them constructive feedback, see if they have questions or concerns, learn what you or the organization can do to make their jobs easier and better.

When prospective clients come to MRD, we show samples of our past work and we describe our design process, but neither the logical grayscale wireframes nor the emotive colorful visuals demonstrate how we work at MRD.

I deeply believe that building a supportive company culture and a truly collaborative environment profoundly affects our quality of work life. I’ve also seen how this approach helps make clients feel satisfied with the project outcome, because they feel that their input is valued and they see their ideas seamlessly blended with ours in the final project launch. It’s exhilarating to hear when our clients’ customers appreciate the user experience of the app, but what’s perhaps even more rewarding is when our clients tell us they’ve enjoyed the user experience of working with us.

Granted, MRD has the advantage of a small nimble team of designers, but as our team grows, the greater the challenge to maintain the same collaborative culture. Being collaborative, rather than competitive, is the only work environment I find acceptable and am inspired to create. What are some of the ways you build a supportive team culture? What challenges have you faced doing this on a larger scale, and how did you overcome them?