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Field of Dreams: Leveraging Design Thinking to Manage a Winning Team

Professional american football stadium

Field of Dreams

Leveraging Design Thinking to Manage a Winning Team

Design Thinking is more than just a punchy phrase to describe an approach to problem-solving. It is a highly effective framework used to impact the way organizations approach product and system development, systemic challenges, and organizational culture. In Design Thinking teams practice empathy to discover insights through interviews and observations that enhance an understanding of the experiences of others. The goal of this approach is to synthesize findings across a variety of perspectives to brainstorm and develop many high potential solutions. Therefore, relying on others is a key element of this practice. The Design Thinking philosophy believes that the better one understands the problem, the greater success one will have at creating and testing solutions.

Design thinkers move from divergent thinking (opening to multiple perspectives or ideas) to convergent thinking (focusing on the most effective place to start). This dance between abstract and confined thinking is one that takes practice…and a great team.

As most things in life, Design Thinking cannot be achieved alone. Much like a sports match, let’s say a football game, Design Thinking victories require an awareness of both individual and collective roles. The most effective way to build a team that is great at Design Thinking is using the practice itself! And since we’re still recovering from the blown Saints call from this past season, we’re going to shake things up and look at designing teams through the lens of another local allegiance: our beloved LSU Tigers. Let’s take a look how the Tigers program can inspire stronger teams in our own organizations.

Lesson 1: A team must be comprised of players with diverse skillsets.

In Design Thinking, teams must be intentionally diverse. A team approaching a challenge like smart energy usage in cities might include a teacher, a financial guru, an engineer, and a politician. In this way, each player can contribute their expertise, just as a pocket-passing quarterback (like Joe Burrow for the diehard fans) relies on receivers for catching and agility. Given this diversity of skillsets, each team member needs a specific role. Similarly, defensive backs are even more successful when the line effectively lays the foundation for its work upfront. At the end of the game, the most diversely skilled team takes home the victory. The same is true in Design Thinking where the most implementable ideas arise from a combination of different skills, backgrounds, interests and personalities.

Lesson 2: Teams using design thinking leverage collective learnings to pivot when facing roadblocks.

Design Thinking deeply understands that no one player has all the answers, and team members are often encouraged to ask questions and gather information from others. On a well-designed team, leadership (A.K.A. the coaching staff) incentivizes their team to experiment, try new approaches, and find creative solutions to sticky challenges. This is exactly why Coach O empowers Aranda to use a multitude of schemes and formations to design the Tiger attack. When a player gets injured the LSU coaching staff may have to scrap the plan and rely on their team to perform. An organization that relies simply on historical expectations can be detrimentally caught off guard and therefore paralyzed when situations go awry. Agility starts at the top, and the more strongly leaders empower their players to exercise smart flexibility and critical thinking, the happier and more effective the team will be. On top of fulfillment, flexible teams have developed the skills to react quickly, try something different (iterate), and keep the ball moving in the face of adversity.

Lesson 3:  Design thinking teams practice steadfast optimism.

Design thinkers frame challenges with a simple question: How might we? This phrase is universally applicable to encourage action in the face of struggle. It is a simple question that translates seemingly insurmountable challenges into to more manageable questions that inspire both thought and action. By huddling around a strong how might we question, such as “how might we design a system that teaches individuals the value of energy sustainability from a young age,” we break the gargantuan issue of energy sustainability into something that we can investigate, ideate solutions to, test practices around, and view from a lens of possibility rather than resignation.

Similarly, the Tigers have the goal of winning each game, but it must be broken down into a series of attempts throughout the game to sack the opposing quarterback or make it past massive linebackers. They must view every play as an opportunity, and trust that their team, their training, and their motivation will persevere. In the same way, organizations must reframe challenges as opportunities to discover an innovative solution, improve a system, and/or learn something new.

Lesson 4: All teams must learn to cope with failure.

A team that can fail fast will learn quicker: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Some ideas can be implemented flawlessly from the first attempt, others need to be totally scrapped, and some just require iteration and re-testing. As fans know, a loss early in the season can be the catalyst for redirection that results in winning a national championship.  The key is to learn along the way. Design teams value each failure as an experience that leads to a stronger result in the end. Hopefully for the Purple & Gold fans across the state we won’t have to worry about this final truism… Undefeated National Champions certainly has a ring to it! Geaux Tigers!