By: Fellows in Residence

The Stanford’s 2016–2017 Teaching Fellows, Stephanie Szabó, Holly May Mahoney and Kareem Collie reflect on their experience working together as a cohort and share a new experimental tool – The Team Cohesion Kit – to promote creative collaboration.

Every team has its challenges. As designers working with other designers, it’s especially challenging because while we're trained to be open-minded, we’re also often expected to approach problems with a strong point of view. When this works well teams unite to create a powerful cocktail of creativity. When this doesn’t work well it yields disparate voices and little, if any, collaboration. Our experience as designers working as a team of Teaching Fellows surfaced challenges that led us to consider – how might we help individuals unite to become a more cohesive team?

Team Challenge 1

How do you start acting like a unit?

When we met together for the first time, it seemed like we had a lot in common. At face value, all of us were established designers, coincidentally had previous careers in graphic design, were new to Stanford and looking to improve our design chops through teaching. As time went on, we discovered that there were many more differences between us than commonalities – such as varying expectations for the year ahead, communication styles, teaching experience and understanding of Design Thinking, just to name a few.

Without knowing the ‘right way’ to begin, we took an intuitive approach to teamwork. We held work sessions on campus, shared lunches at our homes, and presented our portfolios to each other. The single most important activity we did to start acting like a team, was really listen to each other. Yes, just listen. It seemed trite at the time, but in hindsight, formally sharing our histories (be it a portfolio, anecdote of how we arrived at the, or our goals for the future), became the foundation for a key shared value: developing respect for the individual by understanding where they come from. Getting to know Kareem, Holly and Stephanie as individuals, one-at-a-time, was no doubt as time-intensive as it was formative; active listening is how we started to become a unit.

Team Challenge 2

How do you co-create content together?

Our first formal challenge as a cohort was to co-design and teach the seminal class – Design Thinking Studio. There was a lot of details to consider as a team of designers creating learning experiences. What do our students need to know? What’s the best way to present material? How can we accurately assess understanding? Who are the right partners to shape our design projects? Aren't there cliff notes for this sort of thing!?! We initially had many more questions than we had answers, but there was something about being in a sea of ambiguity together that gave us the confidence to address these unknowns in our stride.

Creating a set of constraints is what ultimately helped us co-create as a team. In our case, this meant developing a shared framework that our individual content could scaffold onto. Our collective approach? We as a team agreed that as designers, despite our individual differences, we all still saw things, thought about things, made things and told things. And so, SEE, THINK, MAKE and TELL became our simplified framing for how to teach Design Thinking to non-designers in 10-weeks. Our co-creation process was by no means quick or easy, but it was made possible because in taking the time to listen to one another, we respected each other's differences. Forming this framework was a critical moment in building our team cohesion, because it forced us to align into a shared voice while also allowing for the nuances in our individual personalities to shine through. Lesson to remember when co-creating as a team: if you don’t have a shared point of view, create one!

Original STMT Framework

Original STMT Framework

Team Challenge 3

How do you collaborate better with those unlike you?

As design instructors we saw our class struggle when working in mixed teams. We were asking our students–diverse groupings of doctors and physicists, introverts and extroverts, undergraduates to PhDs–to work with those unlike them. Despite them sharing the 'language’ of Design Thinking (which encourages multidisciplinary collaboration), students were unable to fully, productively and happily work with one another as well as we had hoped.

In reality we weren't working well as a team either. We were acting like a unit and co-creating content, but we weren't experiencing the affordances of true team collaboration. We assumed that reaching consensus equaled effective teamwork. Wrong! Through much trial and error, we discovered that playing to each others strengths is what enables better team collaboration. It was from our shared struggle of not working well together, that a tool for creating team cohesion was born. We wanted to help teams embrace different ways of creative problem solving, before these differences become problems themselves. At the end of our fellowship we can now wholeheartedly agree that the ability to struggle in, maneuver through and emerge out of different ways of approaching challenges is what, over time, creates a cohesive creative team.

Image: Patrick Beaudouin

Image: Patrick Beaudouin

The Team Cohesion Kit is a suite of activities to move you from working as individuals being a team. Whether it’s for new teams building individual understanding or old teams testing group assumptions – teachers or students alike can use this tool to foster cohesiveness in their teams through exposure to different ways of working. The kit celebrate our three individual voices and brings them together as a cohesive whole. And we’re all better off for it.

Psst! This is a prototype, we welcome your feedback.


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