10 posts categorized "Leadership"

How Project Teams Actually Work: Six Insights to Help You Create Better Workplace Teams

How project teams actually work.

Congratulations. You’re now in charge of a project team that’s kicking off in a few days. Your boss sends you an email that ends with: “Let me know if you want some advice when the team starts Storming.”

Why the capital “S” in that email for “Storming”? A few Internet searches later, you’re buried in a pile of Wikipedia entries, recent articles from the New York Times, and academic books talking about how groups develop over time. In your reading, you find that way back in 1965, psychologist and professor Bruce Tuckman proposed a theory that shapes how many of today’s businesses approach team building. You’ve heard some of these terms come up before at work, but they didn’t make much sense at the time: Form. Storm. Norm. Perform.*

This. Is. Awesome. His work really resonates with you. Now you have better perspective on what you’ve experienced before when you were working on project teams. And now as a team leader, you’ll do your best to help coach your team through the challenging Storminess to as much Performance as possible. Onwards to the project kickoff!

Whoa. Not so fast there.

Tuckman’s theory is catchy and easy to explain to people. His different group stages capture an essential quality about how we label group behavior, often in retrospect. All of us have told stories about when our team was “Storming” or “Performing” in a water-cooler conversation or over a late-night beer. Tuckman’s group stages have gained enough cultural currency that we’ve done little to question their validity and how his theory applies to workplace teams. (Ourselves included, and we teach this stuff.)

But Tuckman clearly stated when putting forth his theory that there was no empirical data to support it. His work was derived from studies of therapy groups, HR training groups, and laboratory groups, not business or classroom environments where people are actively working together in teams to solve problems as part of a larger organization. Few studies were conducted with the intent of validating it rigorously. We had to go back and read everything Tuckman wrote about his theory to get a handle on this detail, and then we had to dig into the literature that followed his to see if anyone else had empirical proof that his framework… well… worked.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years had passed that Pamela Knight at Defense Acquisition University (DAU) attempted to validate Tuckman’s ideas and see if they applied to project-based teams at her school.

Knight tracked the efforts of small, short duration technical teams composed of 4 to 8 team members. The teams worked together on projects at DAU over a short duration, no more than 40 interactive hours during a single month. These university attendees had substantial workplace experience and came from multiple government agencies, often collaborating with other companies to solve major challenges. Though these teams were in a classroom, Knight argued that their behavior was more like that of work teams “because [their] assigned tasks… emulate real-world problems that the team members are asked to solve in a work team environment within their own organizations.” Teams were presented with complex problems, requiring both analytic and creative effort from the cross-disciplinary members: conducting requirements analyses for missile systems, preparing for and conducting contract negotiations against other teams, creating case studies and estimates for weapon systems, and so forth. Not easy stuff.

Knight discovered that these types of project-based groups do not work in the same way as Tuckman’s theory. Her findings also diverge from what we’ve seen in articles across the Internet, where Tuckman’s group stages are described as events that a team may complete and then move onward from without revisiting them. Unlike Tuckman’s model of teams moving through explicit stages, the teams at her school shifted dynamically between Norming, Performing, and Storming after they were Formed.** We like to visualize it like this:


From our experience working on and leading hundreds of project-based teams, we are inclined to agree with Knight’s DAU model as being applicable for workplace teams. As a result, we’ve changed our approach to teaching team building to include the following insights from her research:

1. Forming is a critical first step for starting a project team. The first interactions you have with your new team are the most important ones. In fact, if you don’t plan out how you work with your team in the first few hours you’re together, you may have missed the best opportunity to make the team successful. You will not be able to return back to this Forming step. The attitudes and behavioral patterns of your team members are set at the start, and they can be hard to change afterwards.

2. Forming requires paying attention to both what you’re trying to accomplish as a group and how you want to relate to each other as a group. When starting a project team, focus your attention first on understanding your co-workers separate of work tasks. What do they want to accomplish in life, and how does this project relate to their personal and professional goals? Make sure you give each team member equal time and space to share.

3. As part of Forming a team, everyone will need to be aware that Storming is a leading indicator of team performance, not an undesirable behavior to be rooted out. Knight saw in her research that “a team that Storms much more than usual is not an indicator of below average performance. In fact, the percentage of Storming decreases as team performance decreases.” Or, to put it another way: If your team is avoiding dialogue about issues both large and small, then performance is likely to suffer. Team members need to be able to share what they’re thinking, even when the sharing points directly to Storming.

4. Storming and Norming should not be labeled as a negative or positive phase of your team’s behavior. While Performing is often considered an “ideal state,” Storming or Norming are necessary at key times to advance the team’s efforts. We tend to think of Storming as a negative or undesirable behavior. However, Knight reframes it as a balance of both “cooperatively challenging, reevaluating, and improving the overall team process as they work together to accomplish the task they were given” as well as interpersonal conflict, friction, or hostility independent of task activity. You may need to signal or trigger events and label them as Norming, Storming, or Performing behaviors, rather than to say that a team is in a Norming stage or a Performing stage.

5. Storming events will happen while the team believes they are Norming or Performing. Storming isn’t a phase that your team passes through and then sails on through calm and balmy waters. Try to label events as Storming and work with your team to help them reflect on why there is conflict and what impact it is having on team members and the overall project. Allow the team to develop vocabulary to describe both productive and destructive Storming behaviors.

6. Storming may not always be visible to team leaders. Storming behavior—whether negative or positive—may happen less frequently if a manager is present or participating in team work, compared to other types of group interaction. “Cooperative professionalism is encouraged while emotive conflict, resistance, friction, and hostility are often discouraged when a neutral authority with significant power (the instructor or the boss) is observing the process,” says Knight. If you’re managing the team, continue to talk with your teammates individually to understand if there is unproductive Storming behavior occurring that needs to be addressed. You should encourage team members to avoid triangulating issues, and directly address Storming behaviors with members of the team. This can help build trust between team members.

Do these insights resonate with your experience? Do you have wisdom or additional research to share about what leads to high-performance workplace teams? We’d love to hear your stories regarding what’s worked best for you on your projects, no matter what industry you work in.

—David and Mary Sherwin (a.k.a. The Sherwins)



* In case you don’t know much about Tuckman’s theory, he splits the activity of groups into two realms: group structure, which focuses on how people relate to each other personally separate of their shared tasks; and task activity, which is about how people interact with each other regarding accomplishing tasks. Group-structure activities and task-oriented activities can happen on their own or simultaneously. The stages of group behavior often get visualized like this.

** If you want better indicators regarding whether your team is Storming, Norming, or Performing, these are indicators derived from the Diane Miller Group Process Questionnaire which were used by Knight to acquire data for the DAU model:

Forming: At 0–25% of project timeline

  • The team attempted to discover what was to be accomplished.
  • Individuals tried to determine what was to be accomplished.
  • The team tried to determine the parameters of the task.

Norming: At 40% of project timeline, switching back and forth with Performing

  • Individuals identified with the group.
  • Group norms were developed.
  • The team felt like it had become a functioning unit.
  • Group cohesion had developed.

Performing: At 45% of project timeline. switching back and forth with Norming

  • Solutions were found which solved the problem.
  • A unified group approach was applied to the task.
  • Constructive attempts were made to resolve project issues.
  • Problem solving was a key concern.

Storming: Happens throughout the project timeline through discrete events

  • There was conflict between group members.
  • Individuals demonstrated resistance towards the demands of the task.
  • The group was experiencing some friction.
  • Group members became hostile towards one another.

Designing the Destination

Designing the Destination

A few years ago, I hated flying. I'd been deathly afraid of it since I was a kid.

I knew this was a completely irrational fear. I knew the odds: only a 1 in 20,000 chance that anything might ever happen to me in my lifetime. Compared to the odds of dying due to cancer or a heart attack, I had bigger fish to fry.

Flying was something I knew I needed to do, especially as I grew up on the East Coast and have lived on the West Coast for eleven years now. Whether to see family and friends or take off on an adventure, I'd have to fly. But whenever possible, I would try to avoid flying. Even for most vacations, I was content to stay in Seattle or drive to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year, I had an epiphany that helped me to better understand this fear, and make some peace with it.

It was on a plane flight two years ago, commuting to Austin to help lead a work session. We were at that fulcrum point in the project, where you start moving from the initial immersion and research into full-on design. There wasn't any more work I could really do to prepare, or try to stave off how most designers feel at this point in the process: a mixture of excitement and fear.

I was staring out the window of the plane for a really long time. Just sitting with the discomfort: my fear of flying, blurring into my excitement for us to get there and start doing our design work.

At a certain point, I realized they were almost one and the same. Excitement, because we were about to create solutions that were going to help people in need. And fear, because we didn't know exactly what we were going to make yet. This fuzziness, in the journey we take when we work in a creative discipline.

When you get on a plane, it's really easy to imagine the journey. Through the magic of technology, you'll be thousands of miles from your home in a matter of hours. San Francisco to Boston. There'll be a crappy in-flight movie. Some peanuts and soda. Germs and crying babies.

My fear about flying was all about the reasons why we might not reach Boston, or Austin, or Madrid. And I realized those are some of the same hurdles that stand in the way of someone who wants to lead a design team.

When you're a design leader, you're the one getting on the plane for the trip and you're the one flying it. But it's not clear if you're going to Boston, Shanghai, Toledo, or some borderland between countries that no one has ever visited. Would you tell someone flying on a plane that's where you're going when you take off? A city that does not yet exist, with an airport that needs to be built while you're in transit.

This is the challenge for a design leader: making awesome s*%t real. You could argue that any designer is a futurist. But the best design leaders that I've worked with, the ones that inspired their teams to go far beyond what they thought was possible, were able to describe a place to travel that did not yet exist and say, "Go there." They didn't exactly know where we would end up. But they knew by attempting to get there, the right destination would emerge from the haze. That excitement and fear blurred together again, as we discovered where we could travel next.

The only risk is that where you're at in a project may not feel like a natural end. You would have to go somewhere new before you had a sense of the destination where you'd arrived.

That is the journey that we all take as leaders, and the vision that it takes to sustain that journey, trip after trip, year after year.

And you'll have the frequent flyer miles to prove it.

How Should a Design Leader Behave?

There is no subtext to anything I have said over the past four years on this blog. None whatsoever. Except for the secret access codes for an offshore bank account, hidden cleverly in blog post images.

Here's a question for you: How should a design leader behave?

My hypothesis is that any effective design leader must know how to coax, push, cajole, and conjure awesome work out of their team (and themselves).

Leaders coax stellar work out of their teams by creating space for creativity to flourish. This space is protected from harm, so incursions such as rogue client feedback or organizational politics will not derail ongoing effort.

Leaders push their teams towards a vision, no matter who suggested or informed that vision. It can come from anyone on the team, then be harnessed collectively. However, the leader must motivate the team to realize that vision. The best leaders know how suss out internal motivations and encourage them, rather than enforce a motivation from an external pressure, such as deadline, quality bar, fear of failure, and so forth. The leader can also choose to allow others to lead, trusting their direction and encouraging ownership in the process.

Leaders cajole through critique, by asking the right open-ended questions—at the correct time—to encourage the flourishing of great ideas. To quote Pelle Sjonell, Executive Creative Director of BBH LA: "If creative direction is done right, you should never have to select. You never need to resort to the role of a bouncer. Or simply giving things thumbs up or thumbs down."

Leaders must also conjure compelling design work in their own right, when pressed into service. Otherwise, they may just be serving in a managerial capacity.

Design leaders that employ these modes effectively, in concert with design teams jamming on well-considered design work for engaged clients, is what can make working at a design business transcend being mere work and become delightful.

What do you think? What would you add, remove, or change? I'd love to share your perspectives at next week's Design Business for Breakfast on Design Leadership.

Being a Responsible Consultant

Elephant in the Dark

As the design community continues its slow evolution from a craft-based industry to a powerful pivot across lateral, yet related disciplines—such as business strategy and technology—we are often reduced to being hired to create artifacts first and foremost, crossing off item after item on the list of required deliverables in the contract we duly executed a few weeks back.

This is professional practice, but it is not always responsible. Design may be a service industry, but that doesn't mean you should be a servant. You should be a responsible consultant.

These are a few traits I've observed from watching responsible consultants working in our design profession. Feel free to add more via the comments.

Continue reading "Being a Responsible Consultant" »

Becoming a Design Leader

The following are the notes I'd written for my presentation with Justin Maguire, "Work in Progress: Some Thoughts on Design Leadership" that we'd delivered on April 14 for AIGA Seattle's "Design Business for Breakfast" Series.

I'd like to pose a question to you: What does it mean to be a design leader?

My provisional definition is: Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and growing their designers in the process. We could pile a lot of other things onto this definition, such as organizational development, contributing to the profession through sharing expertise publicly, and so forth. But that wouldn't be very effective, would it?

The real definition of design leadership, however, is a bit more blunt:

Design leaders make awesome shit happen.

You can see the work of a great design leader in the work, first and foremost. On a gut level. Hartmut Esslinger of frog put it, "When we have a 'concept' and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder." A leader knows how to push, coax, cajole, and otherwise conjure that level of work out of themselves and their team.

Note I'm not using the term "design management" here, and I want to be sure not to confuse that specifically as "design leadership." I see the two primary attributes of a design leader as being a combination of strategic planning (left brain) and creative vision (right brain). The left side of the continuum is often where design managers play.

If you're not familiar with what design management is, here's a definition off Wikipedia:

"Design management is the effective deployment by line managers of the design resources available to an organization in the pursuance of its corporate objectives." —Peter Gorb

That's MBA-speak for squeezing the most out of designers, like they're some sort of oranges to be squeezed into a delicious smoothie. While managing people is the most important thing that any design leader does—after all, a leader can't be on the ground, executing work through every single day—it isn't the only thing that a leader needs to worry about.

When I first started working as a graphic designer, I thought that I wanted to be a design manager. And I worked at a number of design firms where that's whom I worked for—design managers. It wasn't until I'd been exposed to working with a really broad range of creative talents before I realized that there was a difference between being a design manager and providing vision. That is, until I had contact with a few with real creative vision.

There's always a tension between focusing on the creative work and focusing on people that are creating the work. And depending on the kind of company that you work for (or run yourself), there's a fine line between being a creative leader (focusing on the work) versus a managerial leader (focusing on the people creating the work). Both of these types of leadership, however, require our talents as designers.

What further complicates this is that we're tasked as part of our daily work, in the words of designer Brian Collins, to "make hope visible." We're futurists. As Brigitte Borja de Mozota says, "Designers have a prescriptive job. They suggest how the world might be; they are all futurists to some extent."

Design leaders are charged with understanding what desired outcomes should be independent of the artifacts that the designer will create—and then driving towards making that possible future real. Planning is often considered a management activity, while fulfillment for a designer is often thought to be when you're "creative." But both planning and fulfillment are the sandbox that a design leader must play in, while both flexing their creative and their managerial chops.

When talking about desired outcomes—these vary, from discipline to discipline. You may be planning and fulfilling the creation of beautiful logos for your clients, or multi-national ad campaigns, or web applications, or a more flexible straw made of corn plastic. And of course, they've got to be awesome. That's the desired end goal for your organization as a whole, embodied in some kind of tangible things. It's almost like drawing a forest, and suddenly real butterflies start flying out of the drawing.

Now, beyond the work, it's not just about creating desired outcomes for clients. You've got to help fulfill desired outcomes for your designers too, as part of how you organize your team. If the people creating the work don't get something out of it in the process, then it isn't likely they'll stick around.

This is the big mistake that most design firms make. They make awesome work, at the expense of sustaining the people making it. This rarely happens the other way around, because if you don't do great work for your clients, you won't have employees. You could argue that great creative direction can happen without consideration to other people's emotions... but this is usually why design firms churn and burn. And as you hire and grow an organization, you need the full range of people, from planner to visionary, to force the necessary friction that leads to great work without rampant overtime.

Continue reading "Becoming a Design Leader" »

Slides from "Work in Progress: Thoughts on Design Leadership"

Here's the slides from my AIGA Seattle presentation from last week about what it means to be a design leader.

In the coming weeks, I'll be unpacking a few of these slides and sharing out some of my notes on the subject.


The Elements of Design Studio Experience


For some time now, I've been questing for a template that describes the ideal components of a self-sustaining design studio. This template would be something that any designer could use to start determining the kind of studio they would want to own, or work at in the future.

In partnership with David Conrad at Design Commission, who helped me with creating the content for our presentation regarding fiscal sustainability for AIGA Seattle, I think we've finally stumbled upon the beginnings of a useful tool. Apologies to Jesse James Garrett, whose framework I've massacred.

Continue reading "The Elements of Design Studio Experience" »

Strolling to Conclusions


Roads lead to alleys. Alleys lead to dead ends. And you can't see them all before you've entered into a client engagement—no matter how much of a "design expert" you say you are.

"I've done a ton of logos, so this project is a cinch for me. In the client meeting, I'll share with them some design themes I've been exploring when drawing up my estimate. Just some riffing, really... nothing too serious that I can't back out of when the paperwork is finalized... It'll just help me land the gig."

What a bad habit. Sure, we get excited about the possibility of a new project and start sharing initial impressions that come to mind. But sharing your opinion like that—off the cuff—can be very damaging for the project you're looking to start, your long-term relationship, and the design profession in general. It belies an assumption that you are more important than the gazillions of people out there that form the basis of your client's design problem.

Let me provide a few examples.

Continue reading "Strolling to Conclusions" »

Permission Granted: The Heuristics of Design Decisions


Clip out the above coupon, pin it to your corkboard, and fill it out and use it whenever you're struggling to commit to an idea that just feels right.

These past few weeks, a number of people have shared with me truly game-changing design ideas. Most of those people were on the fence regarding whether they should execute on them. There was a fear that their ideas needed to scrutinized more closely before they were made real.

In every single case, without reservation, I told them to go for it. Not just because I thought their ideas were great (though they all were). My actions were grounded in recent research into heuristics, and how they can apply to design thinking.

Continue reading "Permission Granted: The Heuristics of Design Decisions" »

The Virtues of Great Creative Managers

Optimism. Patience. Willpower. Flexibility. Lack of Ego. Vision.

Notice I didn't say creative. People with a creative instinct, as opposed to a creative impulse, are the ones that will set you free.

Why would you want a creative manager that isn't creative?

I've had a ton of creative managers that are top of their game in design, copywriting, web development, account management, and even project management. All of them had empathy, intuition, and logic in equal measure, and understood how to look at the work and speak to it in a way that made it sing.

However, the best creative managers I've ever had all shared one characteristic: the ability to properly identify and make use of the creative thinking of their staff. Whenever possible, they don't impose -- they expose. They cede control of details to ensure the big picture is still pleasing when the last few strokes are painted into place.