Building Creative Teams without Your Gut

I am on the product design team at Fullscreen, which is one-third of the greater Product, Design, and Engineering (PDE) organization. We have many talented and intelligent people on our team, and we’re growing fast.

The risk of any organization growing fast is that it grows incorrectly. This can mean failing to welcome and culturally assimilate new hires, which can degrade company culture. It can also mean hiring the wrong balance of people. In nature, good growth is called adolescence; bad growth is called cancer.

Our design team needs to grow to keep up with the blistering pace of development at Fullscreen. So HR tasked us with writing job descriptions and formally posting job listings for newbies on our team.

We sat down together with the prompt: what skills are you looking to add to your team? This initiated a line of dialogue that is so simple and obvious, I’m embarrassed to admit that, up until that moment, I had never had a conversation like it at this company or any other in my career. The conversation: what are our skills, how experienced are we at them, where are we strong and where are we weak as a team?

I have a hypothesis about why we’d never explicitly had this conversation: this is the realm of managers, and managers usually go by their gut. They’ve got their finger on the pulse of the team (theoretically), and they know the ideal, future makeup of the team they’re trying to build (ideally).

Guts don’t scale. And they sure as hell don’t work in your absence.

Going with your gut is great. It seems to be a sophisticated, sub- or super-conscious way of processing lots of information quickly. In the mind of someone with the right experience and intelligence, it can work wonders. But here we get to the real purpose of this post, and something that, if you’re a manager of a creative team, should keep you up at night. Guts don’t scale. And they sure as hell don’t work in your absence.

So here’s our team (Justin, Stephen, Sean, and me), having this explicit conversation about what our strengths and weaknesses are as a team, and the GUT PROBLEM comes up. What does any good product design team do: we took to the whiteboard.

After many abandoned doodles, we had our first draft of a tool to visualize the skill-makeup of creative teams — to try to attribute rules and imagery to the GUT PROBLEM.

A sampling of some of the types of design, platforms, skills, etc. that we came up with in our exercise.

What we came up with was a list of all the skills we could think of that a product design team could want or need: User Experience Design, writing UI copy, prototyping capability, and so on. All told we came up with roughly thirty attributes we ascribed to an ideal product design team. This is obviously a lot, and not all skills are of equal importance to our team and our products at this time. We decided to rank and average out the skills in the interest of prioritizing them.

Here’s what we came up with, sorted from most to least important (TO OUR TEAM):

Then we decided to rank our personal levels of experience in each of these areas. The immediately obvious way would be to rank how “good” you are at interaction design, for instance. But this started leading to really dicey territory and sensitive feelings.

The method we settled on was this: roughly, in numbers of years, how much experience do you have using each of these skills. For example, I personally have no experience designing software for the “living room” as they say. I’ve never built an app for Roku or an Xbox or an Apple TV. Therefore, I’d give myself a 0. I have been designing mobile apps since iOS App Store debuted in 2008, so I’d put 7 next to mobile design. You might split mobile design into tablet and phone, or into Android and iOS. It’s really up to you.

This was the eureka moment. All of a sudden, we could very clearly see all of our different skill sets forming patterns and shapes.

After ranking this all out, we hunted for a data visualization that could show multi-polar information together, and settled on the lovely and under-appreciated radar chart.

This was the eureka moment. All of a sudden, we could very clearly see all of our different skill sets forming patterns and shapes. Sean looks like a Batarang, while Stephen looks like an asteroid. The insights started flowing (Pac-man shapes are people weak in mobile design!) and allowed us to quickly assess where team-members’ skill-sets were redundant, where they needed to grow to be well-rounded, and how a potential new team-member might effect our aggregate skill-set. It became clear how healthy our team’s “biodiversity” was, and what we needed to do to strengthen it further.

As with many things, the first attempt had some problems: it was based on very loose data, and there was no real intellectual rigor behind where we placed our “poles” on the radar chart in terms of what skills were similar to others.

We decided to take another pass and try to group skills that were similar, or had slightly overlapping ways of thinking. We put prototyping next to interaction design. We put interaction design next to animation. We lumped graphic design near user interface design, and put information architecture opposite them.

We began to be able to group this set of skills into roughly three major thematic sets: skills that were primarily visual, technical, or conceptual. Version 2 of our skill radar has these three themes arranged in a tri-polar chart whose axes very loosely equated to User Experience (UX) design (the conceptual pole), User Interface (UI) design (the visual pole), and Interaction (IX) design (the technical pole).

We clearly began to see that the shapes of the resultant charts could show clear and immediate insights: junior designers cutting their teeth anew were like small darts or circles, close to the center of the chart. A UX Generalist was like a spilled liquid falling north. A fabled “unicorn” would be a maximal, perfect circle — equally experienced and competent in all areas of product design.

We also started to realize, as we zoomed out, that the general skill-sets that applied to product design on a micro-level, mapped shockingly well to an entire company’s Product, Design, and Engineering organization. With those departments at each of the three poles, you can immediately see in which direction your company’s priorities are stacked.

Tangentially, it’s my opinion that great creative teams are made up of people who are super talented and experienced in their field, but have curiosity and a little experience in other fields, as well. An ideal engineer might dabble in design, a great designer will consider the point of view of product or engineering in their designs. I started a data visualization with overlapping orgs including teams that were self-competent but other-curious, and liberally using overlay mode, came up with this:

The “eye” of your Product, Design, and Engineering organization.

We think we’ve stumbled upon something really powerful here, and we encourage you to riff on it, make it better, and poke holes in it. But having a quick way to immediately visualize your team’s experience and strengths in a reproducible way feels to us like a tremendously powerful thing. It can be a useful tool when considering where you need to “level-up” in your career, when coaching and encouraging junior team-members to grow, and when finding the best new people to hire to complement and strengthen your team.

Thank you for your time. Let me know what you think. And I look forward to carrying on this conversation with you in the future. I know it’s rather un-scientific, but it is only meant to be a tool to help your organization go beyond its gut. Sometimes you have them at your disposal, sometimes you don’t. That’s why we build tools and encourage others to benefit from what we’ve learned.

Fullscreen is hiring! We’re looking for digital product designers that are strong in mobile design and interaction design, and if you have experience in designing for the living room, that’ll put you at the top of our list. If you live (or would like to live) in Los Angeles, CA, check out our job boards and apply there:

This post is dedicated to Jay Stakelon, the closest thing to a unicorn I’ve ever met.