The Management Complexity of Managing Complexity: An accelerated case study of design team dynamics at Design Ethos 2012Posted by Matt Cole on April 25th 2012
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I recently had the pleasure of being involved in the Do-ference portion of the design-for good-focused Design Ethos Conference held at SCAD April 19 - 21, 2012. Answering the Design Ethos call for “talking less and doing more,” the Do-ference portion of the conference organized a mix of students, designers, conference speakers and community members into six teams with distinct focuses derived from the City of Savannah’s Waters Avenue Revitalization Initiative. Tasked individually with Empowering Community, Empowering Business, Empowering Youth, Empowering Culture, Empowering Place, & Empowering Renewal, each team had three days to immerse itself in those respective problems, ideate, refine and present a concept to the full conference.
Each team had roles assigned for design voices and community leaders. For my team, the Cultural Identity Team, John Bielenburg, Project M Founder, and Josh McManus, Curator and Lead Inventor at Little Things Labs, served as our design voices. Jerome Meadows of Meadowlark Studios was our partnered community leader. The outcome of our approximately two and a half days together was an “adoption service” targeting the 28 abandoned concrete planters that line both sides of the portion of Waters Avenue where the efforts of the Do-ference were focused. This framework for taking ownership of the “400lb Baby” planters served to begin the process of establishing value in already existing elements of the community as well as inspiring ownership through cultural artistic expression of maintaining the planters. Both our concept and presentation appeared to go over well with conference attendees and community members. I was proud of where we landed in such a compressed time frame.
While our positive output as a team can take some credit from the talent and hard work of the group, it is safe to say that a major factor of this “success” was due in large part to the team dynamic and team management. Essentially, when working in a diverse team environment, the efficient management of both the team members’ talents and the decision making processes can be the make or break point in the development of a sound concept. It was in the management of our team that I would like to pause for some small reflection.
We began our work with Jerome Meadows on Wednesday, visiting his studio and walking a portion of Waters Avenue to get a grounding on the background of the community and the work done up until then. In this first day, as we introduced ourselves, Josh McManus made it a point to ask of us what sort of skill sets we had, both design-related and from out in left field. He made note of the fact that this was to establish an inventory of talent for later in the workshop process. Later that day, John Bielenburg made a call for us to work toward what he calls a “little bet,” a small, highly creative concept that can be rapidly developed and deployed. At the end of this first day, Josh gave us a homework assignment for each of us to ponder on our own that evening: to ideate on a potential overall direction (or "little bet") for our assigned problem. These ideas would be shared back the next morning to the full group.
On the second day, we did share back our ideas to the full group and we did vote as a group on the direction we believed had the most potential for our assigned problem. However, post-voting our group became somewhat bogged down in what to do next and the direction we had all voted on sort of mutated in front of our eyes into a diluted version of where we were when we started the day before. At this point, both Josh and John had left the group to give their talks. What we were lacking was someone who could take point and shape what we had on the table into a solid direction and say “go.” When Josh arrived back from his talk, he did just that, sorting through where we had landed and finding a direction to push toward in unison.
The remaining night and day saw us focused on executing tasks based on our expressed “talents,” adhering to a timeline of deliverable “due dates” established first thing Saturday morning. We essentially switched into production mode, only making group decisions where absolutely necessary. Oftentimes, the groups making the decisions were comprised of just those team members for whom the specific question at hand had particular relevance instead of the full group (Jerome and Josh were the two who had the most obvious connection to every step of these processes). All told, we made our deadline and produced a concept and presentation we were all proud of.
Though I didn’t get to attend his talk, I know Josh spoke to the balancing act that must occur in a group setting between collaborative group decisions and the solo creative process. This is a topic that I had taken note of in a recent New York Times editorial. The final 24 or so hours of our time together as a team brought to life an accelerated example of how these two facets of collaborative work environments must be thoughtfully managed in order to navigate the dangers of getting hung up in process.
While it is ideal to work collaboratively in brainstorming processes, it is oftentimes beneficial to break apart and have time for creative ideation in solitude. In coming together for a share back, the opportunity lies for combining and mixing and matching these individual ideas, which returns them to the collective sphere of the group. Furthermore, being able to fluidly read when a group’s creative momentum is beginning to stagnate is a necessary skill for the management of design teams. It is at these points that breaking a group up to work separately presents an opportunity to prevent the process from getting bogged down in fruitless, circular thinking.
It is also worth mentioning here, that having one or more members of a team who are comfortable with pulling the trigger on conceptual directions are a crucial asset to team environments. This was the case for our Cultural Identity Team. While it remains an imperative to collaborate on a problem as much as possible, the need still remains for a person or persons who can say, “This is it, let’s go for it.”
While this case study of managing collaborative design workshops took place in less than three days, this same scenario has a tendency to repeat itself in larger and longer projects. It’s in the creative management of design teams that the deliverable for design problem can narrow in from a loosely defined collection of process to a solidified, actionable idea.