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Three Ways to Leverage Cross-functional Teams for Design Innovation

A recent 60 minutes segment highlighted the innovative approach used by California-based design firm IDEO and founder David Kelley to incorporate human behavior into the design process. Known as “Design Thinking,” the methodology advances innovation through a deep understanding of customer needs, wants and behaviors. How are they gaining this insight? By putting together teams of diverse individuals to brainstorm and build on the ideas of others, they are taking the problem analysis, barrier identification and solutions vastly farther than one could alone.

The idea of design or layered thinking aligns with the Lean process beautifully and shouldn’t be considered “new.” Strip away the trendy terminology and at the core of Design Thinking is the power of bringing together a cross-functional team to focus intensely on a specific opportunity. As I thought of the many successful small teams we’ve helped form and facilitate over the years, three points from the segment stood out to me as key to enabling great teams for big-picture thinking and better outcomes.

Diversity: Enables Out-of-the-Box Thinking

While you need subject matter experts keenly familiar with the problem or process at hand, don’t omit players from up and downstream processes. In fact, it may be best to include some that are far outside the process to ask the “obvious” questions that those too close to it may overlook

As an example, one of our corporate clients had a technology manufacturing unit that had begun leading frequent Rapid Improvement (Kaizen) Events as part of their Lean focus. Event designers there took the idea of “outside eyes” very seriously and recruited nuns from the adjacent Catholic university to participate. Rationale? Close by, no cost, well-educated, observant, know nothing about manufacturing, excellent penmanship, polite, used to long hours, and, very passionate about trying something far removed from their normal day. Outcomes? Some of the nuns’ questions were way out there. Yet, there were many winning ideas that helped frame meaningful change. And, talk about “holistic” change. Everyone had fun too!

Proximity: Speed Collaboration by Getting Closer

Getting very different people to open up and collaborate requires more than a conversation around a conference room table — especially if trust isn’t running rampant through the organization. A good way to speed engagement? Get moving!

Take your team and have them physically walk the process (go to the gemba!), observe and ask questions. This provides an opportunity for communication and feedback between individuals who, based on their backgrounds, are bound to see the different things in the scene unfolding before them. Process more virtual than physical? Have the team collaboratively build the value stream map of how the process works today. The physical act of standing at a wall together (e.g., hashing out the process steps, writing and placing Post-it® notes, etc.) helps take the focus away from “us” and “them” and instead zeros in on why things work how they work. Always eye-opening, we guarantee you will hear a lot of comments like “I didn’t know that,”, or “Our team does it like this,” or even “That step doesn’t happen there.” With these gaps revealed, then you have some meaty issues to work on solving together.

Empathy: To Develop Consensus Understanding

If there’s no agreement on how the process works today or clarity around roles and responsibilities, there’s likely a lot of frustration and finger pointing going on in the background. Once the team is all seeing the same thing and agrees how it actually works (warts and all), then it’s easier to look at the problem areas from a different perspective.

A recent experience with a global engineering company clearly demonstrated the power of “layering” team experience by partnering with one of their high-tech equipment suppliers to resolve technological failures for end clients. With the current state map established and agreed to, both parties provided insights on problem areas and root cause data. While there were areas of improvement to be addressed independently for each organization, the teams were also able to constructively identify interfaces where they could do more to help each other. This resulted in improved overall service quality for the end user but also strengthened their relationship as partners working towards a common goal.

While not every organization needs to construct a team cocktail quite as exotic as IDEO does, bringing new ideas to old problems will always have tremendous benefits. What’s the most interesting set of “outside eyes” you’ve ever involved in a team?