What design thinking can teach us about teamwork in a world on pause

Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt / June 2020 / Experience & Design
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How might we create trust and psychological safety in teams when some of the assumptions of being and working together are challenged? The truth is that every challenge creates opportunity if we take the time and make the effort to ask the right questions and build for tomorrow.

Design thinking, or human-centered design, can help us do that. By focusing on the human needs, we can navigate ambiguity through empathy, expansive thinking, and experimentation. We as leaders, innovators, and designers, can use the following three mindsets and tools to help navigate the future in these times of crisis and change.

Embrace empathy

In times like these, we need to listen more than usual. Designers focus on understanding human needs and shift their perspective using techniques borrowed from cultural anthropology and psychology. Empathy helps you take inspiration from people’s needs, feelings, and motivations, so you can start creating meaningful solutions to actual problems.

Listening deeply to understand what people actually need is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You might find that you’ve made some assumptions about others based on your own needs. Challenging those assumptions helps to create a solution that is essential and useful.

We believe that empathy is one of the most important skills of the future.

At Google, we believe that empathy is one of the most important skills of the future. We provide our leaders and Googlers chances to practice empathy with small acts, such as virtual meetings in the morning and evening to check in with each other on a personal level. My team’s weekly meeting starts with a mindful ritual to simply “breath together.” We’re also doing an experiment in which a team member shares an artifact important to them and the emotion it evokes, giving the rest of us a chance to put ourselves in their shoes.

Ask the question, “How might we…?”

Most people think that innovation starts with a great idea, but the truth is that it starts with a great question — a problem to solve. Most of us are great at having ideas. We are also good at noticing problems, especially when we try something new. A key skill we all can improve on is expansive thinking by framing problems and turning them into questions — good questions — which we then can solve for.

Let’s frame good questions using a design- thinking tool called the “How might we” (HMW) question. For example:

  • Problem: We are required to work from home and training sessions might not establish that crucial human connection. HMW: How might we make training via video conference even more useful than those delivered in person?
  • Problem: Working from home is tough for me. I struggle to stay focused and I’m distracted by family. HMW: How might we help people at home accommodate a range of working styles?
Once we turned a problem into a question, creative ideas to solve this problem began to flow.

I recently led a “questionstorm” with The Google School for Leaders to be able to surface all the questions on people’s mind. The same rules as with brainstorming apply: Go for quantity, defer judgment, be visual, build on ideas, write headlines, go wild. After that we were able to select the most important questions to focus on moving forward. Once we turned a problem into a question, creative ideas to solve this problem began to flow.

Cultivate your experimental mindset

After exploring what’s possible, it’s time to tap into your experimentation mindset. Experimentation hearkens back to that old mantra: “Fail fast.” But it’s not about failure — it’s about learning from failure. By failing, you quickly find out what works and what doesn’t work so you can build toward a solution.

Experimentation can be hard; our brains want to save energy, so we pursue the ideas and solutions that we know worked in the past and shy away from trying something new. That’s why we need to establish an environment where people and teams feel safe enough to take risks and experiment with new things — even virtually. This means encouraging teams and leaders to push the boundaries and be vulnerable with each other, and invest in psychological safety. When that happens you can better evaluate ideas, truly understand your users, identify your strengths as a leader or team, and experiment toward a desired future, faster.

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