The 5 dysfunctions of a design team

Design isn’t an assembly line. So it’s strange that so many teams operate like one. Everybody might be working on the same project with a generally shared understanding of the objectives, but they’re working in their respective silos until time to hand their work off to the next step in the process.

There’s no use collaborating when you’re just assembling a design — as long as the work gets done, it’s done. And then it’s time to start again on the next thing.

How incredibly boring.

Great design must be thoughtfully and systematically achieved, never assembled. In order to do that, your design group must be cultivated as an effective team where each member has trust, humility, perspective, a healthy embrace of fear, and empathy. A truly functional team built with these values is the key to design-driven success in business.

One of my favorite business books is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In it, author Patrick Lencioni uses a leadership fable about a struggling tech company to explain how teams can be more functional and cohesive by overcoming 5 fundamental failures. I drew inspiration from this book to pinpoint the 5 values I believe design teams must have in order to be functional and highly effective.

So let’s go over the importance of those 5 values — trust, humility, perspective, fear, and empathy — and how you can lead your team to embody each one.

Dysfunction #1: Lack of Trust

True collaboration doesn’t happen without trust. Neither does healthy, constructive conflict. And feedback? May as well not waste your breath because nobody will hear it.

High-functioning teams trust the approach, trust the tools, trust their instincts, and trust each other. They’re able to deliver honest feedback and ask questions without fearing that they’ll upset or alienate someone. They never make assumptions or hold grudges.

They’re able to confidently march into ambiguity knowing their approach, process and teammates will lead them to success.

Signs your team lacks trust:

  • Nobody is actually soliciting feedback.
  • Collaboration feels like arguing.
  • It’s clear that rifts and grudges are developing.
  • The rigor of research and divergent ideation is lost to the easiest, first idea.

How leaders can fix this:

  • Lead by example and admit when you’re having trouble and ask for help.
  • Train yourself and your team to speak freely and at length when approaching conflict within the team.
  • Frequently and openly recognize good work and accomplishments.
  • Encourage individuals to ask for feedback early and often.
  • Adopt a habit of repetitiously describing the values and methodology of your approach.

Dysfunction #2: Lack of Humility

Even star players can’t cover all the bases. The most functional teams realize each person brings different perspectives, disciplines, and ideas to the table — and they use that to their advantage.

Letting individuals steamroll projects just because they’re the loudest voice in the room causes teams to lose that extra value of the “greater than the sum of its parts” mindset. Trust comes into play here, as people need to trust each other in order to feel comfortable enough to acknowledge their limitations.

While each person on your team might be outstanding at something different, they’ve got to remain humble and strive to get better every day. Design is always evolving, and designers must evolve with it.

Signs your team lacks humility:

  • They rarely say “we” or “our” — it’s all “I” and “they.”
  • People tend to do the same things over and over and work looks similar from project-to-project.
  • Individuals are quick to take credit for accomplishments and don’t acknowledge others’ help.
  • Certain roles or disciplines appear as support or oversight instead of collaborative contributors.

How to fix it:

  • Know and acknowledge your own strengths along with the strengths of every person on your team.
  • At the same time, know and openly acknowledge what you’re not good at.
  • Support a mix of experts, in addition to generalists, who can each contribute a special skill to a project. Going with experts means each person brings a different set of eyes to the table and can see something another person can’t.
  • Encourage “shout outs” during collaboration sessions and team stand-ups and make sure each person is able to acknowledge each other person’s contribution and accomplishment.

Dysfunction #3: Narrow Perspective

Let’s revisit that assembly line. If you’re laser-focused on your tiny part of the production, you probably have no idea what the final result looks like. If you stepped back for a moment, you’d see every working piece and how they all fit together. From that view, maybe you’d notice a small detail that could have a huge impact.

Designers, and even entire teams, will focus sharply on one thing — the specific problem they’re solving, the touchpoint they’re creating, the copy they’re writing — without ever looking up and out to get a view of the broader user journey and broader business system and objectives. This narrow-minded perspective can be great for focus, but it leaves designers blind to the bigger picture.

Holistic, system thinking as a designer in a team gives you a better perspective on what your teammates are doing and thinking, how your decisions impact and are dependent on the bigger picture in the business, and, most importantly, the journey and environment of the user you’re designing for.

Signs your team has a narrow perspective:

  • Not every person on the team can clearly articulate the project, business and user’s objectives.
  • You hear these phrases a lot: “I don’t know,” “That’s not my department,” “Somebody else is working on it.”
  • When designs get handed off, developers always point out that it’s impossible to implement or too complicated.
  • Nobody is able to answer the question, “Who are you designing for?”

How to fix it:

  • Force the entire team to become intimately familiar with the users and the problem space before they focus on solutions.
  • Rally everyone around a Problem Statement.
  • Include the entire team in context building exercises such as Customer Journey Mapping and Service Blueprinting.
  • Take the time to walk the team through the actors, dependencies, and touchpoints within the business system you’re designing for.

Dysfunction #4: Fear

The three biggest inhibitors for designers: fear of ambiguity, fear of criticism, and fear of constraint. When teams are too afraid to charge ahead, they take the easy way out — or they just get totally stuck.

Teams should never look at a constraint as a reason not to do something — that can be toxic to creativity and innovation. Instead, they should see it as a challenge to overcome together. That huge road block ahead? Instead of turning back, huddle up and look for a path around it that’ll still get you where you need to go.

And when projects lack clear direction or guidelines, it might feel like you’re designing in the dark. Together, your team can light the way. This goes back to trust — if you don’t have it, you can’t overcome fear.

Signs your team is crippled by fear:

  • People are afraid to give honest feedback, so they tend to agree with everything and never speak up when something isn’t right.
  • Guidelines are followed to a T, and there’s no creativity.
  • There’s a lack of divergent thinking and limits aren’t challenged or pushed.
  • Design feels transactional and no real new thinking is happening.

How to fix it:

  • Embrace ambiguity — let it drive divergent ideation.
  • Encourage and reward risk-taking.
  • Create containers within your team’s communication and processes to contribute safely.
  • Encourage thinking wrong.

Dysfunction #5: Lack of Empathy

As designers, we have to toss our own perspectives, ideas, and experiences way off to the side and understand that the people we’re designing for are very different from us. We’ve got to walk a mile in their shoes to learn about their problems, what motivates them, and where they’re coming from.

That’s empathy and, as designers, we’re familiar with it’s power in the design process. However, it’s not only key to have empathy for your users, but also for your clients, teammates, stakeholders, and anyone who’s deploying the products you’re designing. We have to understand all of the humans involved in the success and failure of our work in order to truly operate from a basis of information rather than our own bias.

Signs your team lacks empathy:

  • Feedback is taken as offensive.
  • Design decisions aren’t described in terms of why they would benefit the users.
  • People don’t know anything about each other.
  • People talk at each other, not with each other.

How to fix it:

  • Take the team outside of the work environment so people can get to know each other on a personal level.
  • Practice and encourage active listening during one-on-one and collaborative sessions.
  • Help members of the team become familiar with what each unique discipline does and why.
  • Habitually reference personas and the various artifacts that describe users and their context.

Perhaps the most important design project you’ll ever manage is the design of your team

…and that means not only identifying these five dysfunctions, but leading by example to fix them. On successful teams, each person embodies trust, lack of fear, humility, perspective, and empathy. Trust acts as the foundation so that teammates aren’t crippled by fear, while also enabling healthy conflict that paves the way for better ideas. Humility motivates everyone to learn more and get better together, with the mindset that taking others’ perspectives into account pushes ideas further. And with empathy, decisions are made with humans in mind, and teams taking action based on empty assumptions.

Patrick Lencioni says it best: 
“Teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make teamwork so elusive.”

Is your team currently working like an assembly line? Let’s talk.