RE: Write
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RE: Write

Do Roles Stifle Innovation?

Working with other people is hard. Let’s just put that out there. I don’t think there's any sense in beating around the bush and trying to avoid the truth. When you bring together different personalities, working styles, and communication expectations things are bound to go a bit awry.

However, once we recognize that working with others is difficult, it then falls on us to understand how we can ease the process.

What tools do we have in our toolkits to encourage and enable successful team environments?

Photo by Barn Images on Unsplash

What role do we assume in a group environment? This is the crux of what I want to address in this piece of writing. How do assumed and/or assigned roles play into group dynamics, engagement, and innovation?

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to recognize the patterns we fall into around others. An example that I think everyone can relate to is family. We grow up in a world where we are told how things operate and how we should engage with people and things around us. Yet, when we leave home the world becomes our oyster. All of a sudden we get to decide how we want to eat, what products to purchase, and how we want to interpret and interact with new scenarios.

Perhaps you’re an adult now, or old enough to live your life different from your parents. All of these new lessons seem to evaporate when we’re with our families. Speaking for myself, I notice that I fall back into a role. A role that places me as knowing less than my parents, defaulting to my older sister, and hesitant to bring new ideas to the table because that just isn’t how they know the world to be. I feel grateful that my family is open to hearing new opinions and thoughts, however, I know that many aren’t as lucky.

It takes a lot of effort to change a person's expectations, let alone many peoples. At times it can feel like you’re pushing multiple boulders up a steep hill, juggling the expectations of different groups. The human mind loves expectations for safety purposes. If we are able to predict how someone is going to engage with us or a particular situation then it removes a need for us to be on alert. Our brain is wired for survival so understanding and predicting how someone will act is a default function.

Group mentality and working as a team has helped humans survive and evolve into the species we are today. While we’ve strayed from this mentality of working for the betterment of everyone, we still categorize and role assign. Within a team or group having roles is vital to success and productive execution. However, oftentimes people are relegated to one role. Essentially we can get pigeonholed into a position within a team/group. This assignment of roles, while crucial, can also contribute to a slump in team engagement and innovation.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Hear me out for a moment.

When we are assigned roles our thinking becomes focused on that one assignment. We limit ourselves from thinking outside of the box because ‘that’s not our job.’ In doing so we inherently stifle innovation and connection with other people in our team.

As an example, perhaps the person delegated to marketing may have insights surrounding a different topic but since they weren’t assigned that role they don’t think critically about any problems outside their sphere.

I am interested in this dynamic because as we move throughout this program and our lives we are bound to interact with many teams and groups, either professionally or personally.

I am curious about how we set teams up for success while not pigeonholing folks into a single role. I think that it is important to set expectations for roles, but on the other hand, encourage collaboration and innovation with those who play a different ‘role’ within the project.

We as team leaders and group members need to be aware of the expectations that we subconsciously put on people depending on their role. Recognize the job someone is being asked to do, but don’t let that stop you from asking a question that may be out of their ‘wheel-house.’ Innovation is at its most successful when people from different backgrounds and disciplines are brought together. Thinking and ideating is not a linear process and we shouldn’t try to treat it as one. Each person has a set of expertise that they bring to the group and we need to be cognizant that we don’t block people out of participating just because they don’t ‘know’ as much.

Oftentimes if you are not well versed in a particular area you have more flexibility to think outside the box, because you are not constrained by what you already know. When we know too much or are too attached to a concept it limits our ability to develop far-fetched ideas. Therefore it’s too the benefit of team innovation that we encourage people to step outside their ‘role’ and participate in a new way.

Please understand that I think team roles are vital for team success. But, I also think that encouraging people to think outside of their assigned roles is equally important. I’ll admit that sometimes this can lead to chaos, but that is when your Team Working Agreement comes in handy. Knowing who has the final say about a particular project is always beneficial and helps keep the train on the tracks.

As we move forward with group work, let’s be kind to ourselves and each other. Let us recognize our roles and challenge ourselves and others to think beyond our one job. Let’s encourage our team members to push their thinking out of their comfort zone, and recognize that they too can get stuck in an expectation box.

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

Moving forward let’s be aware of the roles we play into and let us be brave enough to sweep those roles to the side.




Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters program at CU Boulder, dedicated to re:working, re:designing and re:imagining the world of design and technology.

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Heather Kraft

Heather Kraft

Designer. Strategist. Innovator. Wondering why the first questions we often ask people is, “what do you do?” Currently being educated @ The Studio (CU Boulder)

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