We often talk about design thinking in terms of generating creative and user-centered insights and solutions. Less often do we talk about design thinking as a way to align and empower teams and individual contributors. Despite best intentions, teams can revert to hierarchies and groupthink, instead of enabling equal participation and representation of people and ideas around the table. Avoiding these traps is possible through thoughtful facilitation and setting of expectations.
Here’s three ways you can use design thinking to make your team more democratic.
Design thinking is more than a workshop or a toolkit, it’s a way to get your team aligned around a common purpose. With a “how might we…” question to answer, a user to design for, and/or a set of objectives to meet, design thinking’s non-linear approach always brings teams back to their underlying goal. When practiced well, a design thinking team will start with the goal in mind, with regular check-points to validate their work against the goal before moving forward. This isn’t just for small teams — it can be used toalign teams across a massive organization.
Artifacts — from maps to grids — also align the team, as long as they are built collaboratively and live transparently in an easy-to-access location. The making of artifacts helps teams understand, track, and validate their assumptions, findings, and insights, and achieve buy-in as it’s created and iterated upon. That is, as long as you don’t mistake your artifacts for insights.
As Sarah Gibbons from the Nielsen Norman Group explains, a shared vocabulary can also help teams align around getting work done.
Using design thinking to align teams ensures everyone understands and is continually working towards a common purpose.
Silent ideation is essential to any democratic team. It’s easy to jump straight into sharing ideas. It’s more beneficial — to creative ideas and group dynamics — to leave time for silent thought before group work.
In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, organizational psychologist Adam Grant refers to a technique called brain writing which will be familiar to many design thinkers. He describes how individuals generate ideas on their own and then come together as a group to do what groups do best — evaluate with the “wisdom of crowds.”
“What you see is that if you take five students and put them in a brainstorming group together, you will get fewer ideas and less original ideas than if you had taken those same five students and let them work independently, in separate rooms, by themselves,” Grant explained.
Grant goes on to share that first generating ideas through individual ideation and then evaluating and selecting ideas as a group helps avoid three things: 1) “production blocking,” where some people talk more than others and some aren’t heard at all; 2) the threat of a bruised ego, or of sharing bad ideas that will be shot down; and, 3) conformity, or groupthink, where everyone jumps on the majority bandwagon and other original or radical ideas are ignored.
There is a noticeable difference in ideas generated when individuals silently diverge, and then as a group converge upon common themes, compared to traditional brainstorming sessions when ideas just get blurted out. The dynamics of the group also changes. Hierarchies go out the window, and it’s no longer one voice being heard over others, because everyone is writing anonymously on 3×3 brightly colored pieces of paper. Convergence will emerge from the discussion, but not before every person and idea gets a shot at being considered.
Empowering Individual Contributors and the Group
Design thinking teams empower individual contributors to share their ideas and outputs, for the betterment of the group. This means that every contributor, no matter their seniority on the team, is engaged in sharing and evaluating ideas, understanding the user, and moving the work forward. Design thinking methods — like anonymous “dot-ocracy” voting — help make this non-hierarchical, equal contribution possible.
Individuals can be empowered in a number of ways. First, through the silent ideation process and everyone allocating an equal number of votes to their preferred ideas. Second, by incorporating more individual breaks into your teamwork — people process information and work at different paces, and that needs to be accounted for. And third, through fostering a “yes, and” culture on the team where every idea is a great idea, at least to start. When individuals aren’t afraid to share any idea that’s top of mind, no matter how divergent, that’s when the real creativity starts flowing.
As I recently heard at a design training, once an idea hits the board, it’s no longer an individual’s idea, it’s everyone’s idea to build upon. This means that while individuals should be empowered to contribute equally, once it’s time for group work, the team’s overarching purpose trumps everything else. It’s no longer about a single idea or an individual’s role on the team, but how the purpose will be achieved — together — based on what the team knows and the resources it has.
Design thinking is not about just the individual or just the group, but what the two can do together.
Design thinking is not workshopping. It’s about transforming how you work. Your team won’t be more democratic, user-centered, and creative just by adding more workshops or design exercises to your schedule. It will be more democratic if you practice adopting the design thinking ethos — the concepts behind design thinking, not the exercises for implementing it. This ethos should drive how you build your team and culture, and how you communicate and work together. Like our democracy, it’s not as easy as it sounds. But as Alexander Woollcott said, “I’m tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We are supposed to work it.”