Design Thinking, Remote Work, and Resiliency

How to build a resilient team that can use design thinking to thrive while working remotely

Xindeling Pan
Oct 20 · 8 min read

Life as a consultant has changed dramatically. I was traveling and working closely with my clients to help create a vision, design products, and facilitate workshops at their campus. However, ever since the outbreak in the US, I’ve been working from home, and at this moment have no idea if I will see my clients in person again.

The pandemic has challenged every one of us, both personally and professionally. This caused concerns for our stakeholders about our ability to deliver what we had originally committed to completing. Despite the challenging situation, my colleagues and I were able to quickly adapt to the change and continue to produce high-quality work. Recently, our Sales Transformation project won the Best Delivery Innovation in a COVID-19 World Award at IBM Global Business Services.

Looking back, our team’s resilience to a rapidly changing work environment is due to three attributes we gained by practicing design thinking: empathy, autonomy, and focus. In this article, I’ll walk through how design thinking philosophy can help a product team adapt to working virtually thus continuing to deliver business results.

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

First, it’s all about developing empathy

The core of design thinking is to use a human-centric approach to solve problems. This means cultivating empathy with the TEAM (people). We spend a lot of time designing the best experience for our customers, but your team also needs attention. As we work from home every day, our personal time begins to intertwine with our working schedule. And now more than ever, we need to take care of our mental health. Being empathetic can help connect people with a feeling of kindness, respect, and care for each other. As the team becomes comfortable with each other, it helps boost confidence and trust within the team. Therefore, this supportive team will have each other’s back when things change.

“Empathy: first with each other, then with our users.”
— —
IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

Developing empathy with the team can start with small acts. Here are some examples.

Start a meeting by celebrating success

It’s challenging to develop empathy without a positive mindset. So keeping negative energy away from the team has become increasingly important. A simple way to begin is to celebrate success since everybody loves encouragement. For instance, in the last planning meeting, a stakeholder from my project shared that revenue had increased because of a newly released feature from the last sprint, everyone felt happy and excited about making plans for the next quarter.

Be mindful of time zones

This wasn’t something we paid much attention to when we were working from the same location. As many of us have moved back to our home state, being empathetic means being respectful to everyone’s designated working hours and specifying a time zone when communicating time. Otherwise, it can cause some chaos like what happened to a recent workshop. Not long ago, I received a roadmap meeting agenda from a vendor based in California without a timezone specified. The agenda said the meeting would start at 1 pm to 4 pm. However, I worked from Massachusetts and the majority of my stakeholders were in Texas. It was very confusing when we were trying to determine who should present and assign time. And if the agenda was in Pacific time, people from the east coast might have to work till 7 pm. Be more considerate of time zones can avoid confusion and any unpleasant feeling it may bring to the team.

Host regular virtual Happy Hours

During this pandemic, psychological symptoms like cabin fever have hurt many individuals. Gone are the days when we could just walk to someone’s desk to have a quick chat or grab a coffee downstairs. Having regular happy hours can help the team to unwind, and feel supported as well as connected socially. For a team with many introverts like myself, I find playing games like Categories or Skribbl helps to keep the conversation going. It’s also a great way to welcome new team members and help them to get to know everyone else.

Next, empower the team

To survive this remote working environment, building a collaborative team is the next thing to tackle. Enterprise Design Thinking (EDT) from IBM is one of the design thinking frameworks that’s tailored to drive business outcomes at speed and scale. Its principles encourage the collaborative team to be not only diverse but also empowered. It’s not difficult to find diverse teams that can bring unique perspectives and expertise, but a truly empowered, autonomous team is much harder to find.

I’ve seen teams that are collaborating (A LOT!) and their calendars always look full. However, their projects don’t move forward. Especially during the pandemic, we spend hours and hours on phone calls and video conferencing. Everyone is overwhelmed and there is not much time to do the actual work. Often, those teams find themselves going back and forth between meetings and calls with various stakeholders and leadership trying to gain alignment, which leads to many many review meetings on the calendar.

My team had experienced something similar. In a retrospective meeting, our scrum master brought up an issue that we waited too long to get sign-offs from senior leadership on user stories because they often had other priorities. We could be more efficient with our time if we didn’t have to get approval on every user story. Our solution was to have our product owner from the core team to review and close stories. He was responsible to determine if there was a need to involve the leadership. Empowering the core team made us feel entrusted and motivated.

EDT suggests that this requires effort from both team leaders and team members.

“As a team manager, your responsibility begins with staffing teams with the diversity of perspective and expertise they need to be successful. As a team member, your responsibility is to cultivate inclusive behavior, harness conflicting perspectives to generate new ideas, and take the initiative to achieve a great outcome.”
— — IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

(Further reading on how to build a self-contained team can be found here.)

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

One thing I want to emphasize is that having trust between the team and leadership is the foundation to form such a team. Without trust, it’s hard to imagine a manager will allow individuals to make decisions or a team member will feel comfortable taking initiatives. To develop this trusting relationship, it comes back to being able to build empathy.

Finally, stay focused on outcomes

Having a defined outcome helps guide a team working toward the same goal. The challenging part is to keep everyone focused and aligned throughout the project, particularly in a remote workspace. Taking workshops as an example, when we can meet in person, it’s very common to spend 8 hours a day in a 3-day workshop. However, it’s hard for anyone to stare at a screen and concentrate for that long without being distracted. To ensure we can deliver the results at the end, it’s important to start being more intentional about the outcomes and formats when planning any working sessions that will have an impact on deliverables. This translates to establish an achievable goal and design a working session that can help accomplish it.

Define a user-centric outcome

In EDT, writing Hills is a common technique I use to gain alignment by determining what I want the project to achieve. Hills are implementation-agnostic, user-centric, and measurable statements of intent. Oftentimes, they’re used to define a project goal, but they’re scalable, that can also be used to help shape the purpose of working sessions. Here is an example.

An example of Hill
An example of Hill

Step by step instructions on writing Hills can be found here.

It’s okay if you have another preferred way to define the outcome, just remember the key here is to establish a user-centric and achievable one.

Design an engaging meeting with activities

Running an activity that everyone can participate in has proved to be effective when trying to achieve something in a remote setting. While web conferencing, it takes longer to explain activities as we lose the ability to use our body language to help clarify. Additionally, compared with in-person meetings, remote sessions tend to have fewer active participants because it’s too easy to multitask or hide.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Converting a “talking-centric meeting” to a “doing-centric meeting” can help teams achieve the desired outcome of the session. By introducing EDT exercises that are specifically designed to gain alignment and drive user outcomes for enterprises, it turns a meeting into a working session that will end with tangible artifacts. These artifacts can be evolved by the core team or individually, allowing the team to maintain that forward momentum. Many clients had mentioned they also enjoyed participating in those exercises.

A surprising benefit of doing those activities online versus in-person is less time spent on digitizing/documenting. Using remote collaboration tools like Mural or Miro, we were able to quickly collect the artifacts and dedicate our effort to synthesizing and analyzing.

There are many EDT exercises available for you to leverage, but sometimes you may need to be creative to design an exercise that can make the working session meaningful when working remotely. Knowing your team can help choose exercises that will be the best fit for them.

Here are some common EDT exercises that can help move project forward:

To conclude, design thinking can help create a resilient team that will adapt to the virtual working environment. As a framework designed for enterprises, EDT has some specific principles to guide us approach and solve business problems. I hope you’ll find it as helpful for your team and companies as it has been for me and my teams.

Xindeling Pan is a Product Designer & Design Thinking Coach at IBM iX based in Cambridge, MA. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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