Design, Research

Shifting the Diversity Curve: Thoughts on Group Dynamics, Creative Resilience, and Designing the Design Team

Conducting a design research project alone was difficult. While ambiguity and complexity were certainly factors in this, I found the most challenging aspect of the project was going through it alone. Without a team, it was difficult to ‘check my back swing’.

And while group work comes with its own set of challenges, it also presents an entirely new set of advantages stemming from the diverse backgrounds and experiences of team members. The group benefits from this particularly in the ‘performing’ stages of team formation. A major factor in team performance, this leaves me curious about the role that diversity plays in projects, teams, and organizations as they evolve, and what that means for design.

One of the most difficult parts of working alone on a project as important as basic user research was the absence of real-time feedback, constructive criticism, and collective inquiry in challenging my own findings. While the pace of individual work can be liberating – ebbing and flowing through work uninterrupted and without the need to slow down to convey meaning – the benefits of having a sounding board and multiple perspectives are lost, and surely felt.

Now, several weeks into a new design project, this time with a group, our team is beginning to perform. Polite reminders and gentle nudges are gradually being traded in for probing inquiry and penetrating questions – and this is great. We are critically thinking not only about our own independent work in between team meetings, but about the quality of research we put forth, the meaning of our findings, and the methodologies by which we will drive forward through the project.

This is a delicate, but important balance. It represents the power of diversity within groups consisting of talented individuals, especially those who are tasked with uncovering new insights and generating unexpected solutions to wicked problems.

In thinking about the relationships between these concepts – diversity, quality of insights, and team dynamics – I found myself thinking about the possible following tensions.

(A quick note: this is largely speculation as I attempt to forecast the results of a process I have admittedly not been through in depth before. These theories may or may not hold up over time. I will report back.)

The Relationship between Diversity and Time

Quite simply, group efforts to develop, communicate, and contemplate research findings often take more time than they would individually. For those more comfortable with individual production, this can mean a significant shift in work styles.

While working independently, decisions are subject to only one person’s perspective (their own). This means that no matter how conscious one may try to be about biases, assumptions, and viewpoints, that person only needs to wade through their own perspective on new findings and insights.

In group situations, however, the decision-making process is subject to a range of perspectives. This takes time. People outwardly communicate ideas in different ways and, therefore, interpret those ideas in different ways. It forces the group to critically analyze individual findings and build upon them in order to come to a collective understanding of how to present those ideas. Instead of a single individual making decisions against their own self-developed criteria of understanding, decisions are subject to the numerous mindsets found around the table.

This, however, is the beautiful part. On a group level, the team begins to see things from a new point of view, which takes into account the input of everyone. Together, and only together, we see things in a way that we likely did not see them before.

From an individual standpoint, we alter our own perspective, becoming acutely aware of our biases, oversight, and assumptions when they are constructively criticized and built upon by those of our team members. As individuals, even when we go back to our desks and continue individual work, we are better for it.

The tradeoff between the individual efficiency of producing work and the group effectiveness of producing work is differentiated by the amount of time it takes.This is the tension between Diversity and Time to Output. Diversity, therefore, is a critical component of the ‘slow, complex, and hard’ aspect of design thinking. It slows things, and for good reason. The Output, whether a decision or a deliverable, takes longer to produce, but benefits greatly from the Diversity of the group in the form of quality.

The Relationship between Diversity, Team Formation, and Quality of Insights

Relating this to the natural team formation process, and therefore team performance, I am curious about whether there are diminishing marginal returns of Diversity with respect to the quality of insights a design team can deliver over time.

That is, at a group and individual level, are the experiences and feedback of my peers more useful at the outset or performing stages of the team formation and gradually less useful as the project progresses? Once I receive the benefits of new perspectives thanks to my peers, do I ‘own’ that new point of view and will it inherently impact my own work in the future, making the diversity benefits of those peers decreasingly impactful over time?

Once a design team enters the performing stage, the relative benefits of diversity deliver diminishing marginal returns to the quality of work the team produces.

In a design context, I am particularly interested in observing this over the course of a range of team dynamics while working on design research projects. The human-centered design research team represents a new type of group dynamic for me in that knowledge is developed collaboratively through observational research and insight generation, whereas in general corporate task committees, for example, authority figures tend to be brought together who are already subject matter experts in their own representative areas and are largely there to disseminate knowledge.

Speculating about a Diversity Curve, or ‘Something’s Gotta Give’

 If the above is true – that diversity delivers diminishing returns to the performance of a design research group over time if all else is constant – I then wonder if this might become an obstacle to a team’s growth in the long run, slowing the acceleration of creative insight generation when relative diversity falls below a certain point.

Here, I imagine two curves (shown below). One depicting Relative Diversity and its benefits to the team, the other depicting that team’s quest to deliver Quality Insights throughout a design project or design projects over time.

image-9

While the team aspires to continue generating quality insights throughout the entire design process, the team struggles to improve output quality and move upwards along the Quality of Insight Curve, as relative diversity eventually caps the team’s ability to produce creative solutions at a constantly accelerating pace.

For example, from time to time while working together, our group faces an ambiguous or difficult decision to make and we sometimes get ‘stuck’. Here, none of us has the required experience, has conducted a wide enough range of research, or is familiar with a situation-appropriate framework necessary to keep insight generation moving at a steady pace. Our ability to continue to work towards quality insights is capped by our relative lack of diversity. In other words, something’s gotta give if we plan to keep progressing.

At a basic level, the design team might try to introduce an alternative method of brainstorming or synthesizing in order to push through process. To me, this represents the introduction of a new element into the design team which either directly infuses Diversity and/or provides a vehicle for amplifying diverse thinking within the group. This could be an example of what we might consider ‘shifting the Diversity Curve’, which I depict below in the shift from D1 to D2.

In order to move along the Quality of Insights Curve, then, the design team must try to shift the Diversity Curve upwards by introducing some new element: people, experiences, environments, frameworks, or research.

Here, the only way to move up, along the Insight Quality Curve towards better creative results is to shift the Diversity Curve from D1 to D2. My speculation is that the Diversity Curve can be shifted by altering the following elements within the control of the design team. Those elements seem to consist of:

  • People – bring their own perspectives, biases, assumptions which make for richer analysis/insight
  • Experience(s) – means an individual/group has more to draw from and therefore more pattern- finding ability
  • Frameworks – reframing the work introduces new vantage points through which individuals/ groups can explore the production of outputs
  • Environments – change perspectives and provide new context
  • Research – data collection and synthesis to expand knowledge and, therefore, improve insights

The success of the design team, then, is directly correlated to (1) the team’s ability to sense change and the need for shifting the Diversity Curve, and (2) the team’s ability to adapt to this change by successfully intervening and altering one or more elements making up their Diversity Curve. This realization closely resembles, and is influenced by, Andrew Zolli’s essay The Verbs of Resilience, in which he outlines a framework for peoples’ ability to continue to progress despite disruption.

Even in our early stages of working as a design team and watching new people be introduced to new methods for solving new problems, I have become fascinated with my suspected connection between the design team’s performance and this form of creative resilience. If the design team is able to reach new levels of performance and insight generation through sensing and adapting to evolving team dynamics, this is perhaps a new way of thinking about building project teams over the medium and long term. Just like the design process benefits from rapid prototyping and iterative improvement, so too, perhaps, should the design team.

Some of the measures we have put in place which might build some capacity for this sensing and adapting of the Diversity Curve include:

  • at the beginning of each group meeting, we individually ‘check in’ with self-reported scores for how we are doing personally, and how we feel our project work is doing. Here, we use metrics, although subjective, to signal where team members might be sensing trouble spots
  • we are conscious about deliberately reflecting on each sessions’ work at the end of meetings
  • we rotate responsibility for planning and facilitating methods and frameworks in working sessions as a way to allow each team member a chance to step in with what they feel (and therefore what they believe, and value, and perceive) is needed to drive us forward

Thinking about performance and design team formation in recent weeks has allowed me to form new ways of thinking about team work which I feel might be critical in the role of the modern, collaborative problem solver; recognizing the importance of the Diversity Curve and the role it plays in our ability to effectively design the design team.

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