As design people, we’re predisposed to celebrate the tangible achievements of our work. Design is a process, but our most cherished accomplishments often involve solutions to a problem, or more broadly, our ideas.
We celebrate great work, we post to Dribbble, we demo at IxDA. We venerate usable, useful, and compelling products. We look on in awe (and perhaps subtle envy) at everything from a beautiful piece of architecture to a clever digital product. At our core, we celebrate ideas. We respect people for their ideas.
This seems like a noble thing to do.
Our obsession with ideas means that over time, we may begin to define a designer’s worth — and perhaps beyond that, identity — in terms of ideas and their manifestation. Jony Ive is great because of his design vision at Apple. Zaha Hadid is revered for her architectural output. Walter de Silva is great because of his pioneering work with Audi (and VW). Erik Spiekermann gained popularity for his meticulously-crafted typefaces.
There are certainly designers, both real and fictional, known for their personality, salespersonship, leadership, or collaborative spirit. But for many people, it’s the work that stands out.
But if we believe that ideas define the value of the designers we see around us (or the designers we idolize), we begin to hold ourselves to a similar metric. And while there’s nothing wrong with recognizing great work, this can cultivate an unhealthy obsession with credit.
In other words, if we believe our ideas define our worth, it’s only natural that we become deeply attached to them. As humans living in an uncertain world, we crave ownership of and credit for the thing that is central to our sense of value. But in a team environment, this mindset is a blocker to high performance.
To achieve great outcomes on a team, we need to actively work to detach ourselves from our own ideas. We need to relinquish control and ownership, as scary or daunting as that might be. Why is this important?
They’ll Become Better When They’re Not Your Ideas
First, when we donate our ideas to the team, we enjoy the benefits of a creative commons. When we openly relinquish ownership, we invite contribution and innovation. Team members receive de facto permission to remix, adapt, and enhance our (the team’s!) idea without the quiet concern that toes might be stepped on.
To be clear, I’m not merely talking about sharing ideas. Sharing is not enough. Recall the last time a teammate shared an idea but emphasized his or her authorship — did you feel comfortable providing critique? Did you feel compelled to build on or add to that idea?
To extend the creative commons metaphor, we need to use the most liberal copyright license available. Attribution should not be a requirement.
Objective Assessment is Easier When They’re Not Your Ideas
Second, when we detach ourselves from our own ideas, we make objective assessment easier.
As designers, we’re trusted to pursue the best possible solution for a given design challenge. We’re obligated to suspend our own preferences in the interest of delivering an optimal product or service experience. If we can consciously and truly donate our ideas to the collective of the team, we free ourselves from the nepotistic impulse that comes from the artist in all of us.
Yes, great designers inject a bit of their own soul into every piece of work. But once that’s done, it’s time to set that chunk of soul free to be judged equally alongside all the other happy soul-chunks.
It’s Easier For Others
Finally, in a creative team environment, buy-in and support for great ideas is easier to achieve when egos and identities aren’t involved.
When an idea is yours, it comes loaded with the baggage of you. You might have a great working relationship with your colleagues. But you’ve also probably encountered a few personality conflicts. In either case, if an idea is inextricably bound to you, it will be judged not purely on its merit, but on the basis of all the messy human interactions that have come before it. People are complex beings, and even the most levelheaded and objective team members will struggle, to some extent, to separate an idea from its author. In this case, an author who actively disconnects from an idea can improve the chances that others will see the idea for the idea.
Then… Who am I?
If in a team environment we must forego personal credit in the name of team success, how do we maintain our designer identities? If we accept that our ideas, once introduced to a team, now belong to that team and not to a particular individual, from where do we derive our sense of value?
It starts with looking at design as an ongoing activity, rather than a finite output. We need to take pride in the knowledge that we’ve contributed key aspects to a solution, without getting personally attached to those aspects.
I believe that we need to shift our ego away from our ideas and towards our ability to continuously generate ideas. Over time, our teammates will come to recognize our value in that ability, rather than any one achievement.
In fact, they likely already do.
Taking the first step to relinquish control and embrace this view of one’s self-worth is challenging. But if you’re part of a team with a shared aspiration, open communication, and trust, I can almost guarantee that you’re in the right environment to try.
If you’re not — if you feel apprehensive because someone might steal your ideas — it might be time to re-evaluate your team and its potential dysfunctions. But above all, remember that you need only be scared of people stealing your ideas if you’re not confident you can come up with new ones.
When we achieve great outcomes as part of a team, we can all take equal pride in the result. We can pat each other on the back for a job well done, and bask in the success of our collective effort. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And getting rid of credit culture is a good first step towards prioritizing the whole.
P.S. — I Lied
There is at least one instance when taking ownership of your ideas is critical to a high-performing team, and that’s when they fail.
Exploring failure to understand where you’ve contributed is critical to reinforcing the importance of accountability within your team. And when you demonstrate this ability to reflect and adapt, your team will develop even greater respect for your designer self. But that’s for another soapbox…
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