It’s been two years now since I was asked to build the Design Team at Innovatika. I’ve never been in such a role before and, what complicated this project even more, my previous experiences were related primarily to the formation of project teams dedicated to specific projects rather than long-term team building. However, I believe that my experience can show you a new way of thinking about designing a new team or department in a company. Read on and see what we did to establish a new department in Innovatika.
There has been no such department yet in Innovatika. But it simply had to be built, since Innovatika offers professional services related to digital products. It was a brand new subject to all of us, but we felt that we knew what we want to achieve together. And we succeeded! The design team is currently a strong asset to our company. They know their role in the organization, they are associated with it and with each other. We can honestly say that people feel they belong to the company and share common goals.
In this article, I would like to tell you how the chosen tools and project approach helped me inmy team building challenge. I will tell you:
- How one apt question helped me figure out whether a given person has the right mindset?
- When should you give a recruitment task, and how not to overdo it?
- How have we created the competence maps in our team?
- How to engage designers in the strategic work?
These are issues that absorb every HR department and management staff worldwide in their own team building challenges. I’m deeply convinced that you’ll get something out of our experiences!
A persona for team building
In general, this is the perfect member of your new team. Various attributes and factors define them. Naturally, you have to establish them. In other words, you have to create their profiles. Who is the employee you are looking for? What qualities (professional and personal alike) must they possess?
Of course, the list of complete professional features that an employee ought to have is a necessity. Things complicate when it comes to soft skills, which are immensely difficult to measure. And what about the effective strategy to reach the right people? What about your communication channels? There are lots of questions you have to answer before you start!
To solve this problem, I took inspiration from the tool we use in designing personas. I believe the way they are defined has to be adjusted to every project. There is no place for the copy-paste strategy here. However, this time, I decided to decline Excel tables and fancy PDFs. I simply imagined a perfect persona and put all of my ideas together.
At work, I often hear, “We need a second Karol!” or “This is the second Marta, just calmer.” This way, it’s so much easier for us to communicate the needs we have regarding the people we have to hire. The measurable qualities and competencies are naturally crucial, but in general, we simply look for nice, friendly people that you get along with well.
And this way we are back at the soft skills, which are not only immeasurable but inexpressible as well. Before I started looking for employees, I imagined such a person. A person like those I know, I like to work with, I trust. A person who’s visiting similar places, communicating similarly, and meeting similar people. In essence, a person like me. This is a good tip on how to create your persona when you do not have any research data. Base on the people you know, and you like to work with!
The combination of a job description (measurable competencies and skills) and a persona (immeasurable traits) can be a powerful and effective tool that will allow you to find the best employees.
I decided to ask each candidate one crucial question. It was, “What are the characteristics of a well-designed product?” As you may know, Tom Greever, the author of the book “Articulating Design Decisions”, asks his students and employees the same question. Why so? The reason is twofold.
- Most of the designers do have their portfolios. But I perfectly realize that you shouldn’t assess a candidate’s worth only on the basis of their portfolio. It’s a truth no one knows better than us. We work a lot, we have practically no time to take care of our image on the web and portfolio updates, and our work is often based on creating elements for validation, and not necessarily the final product. Granted, lack of portfolio does not mean that a candidate is not worth meeting.
- Secondly, it is also a great question that provokes a conversation about values in design. Long story short – If the answer coincides with our values, we are on the right track. For me, an important aspect is the products’ functionality, which is to be expressed through the way they look. By talking about the beauty of the products I mean it should be examined in the context of usage.
As you can see, the answer to this question gives much more insight into a candidate’s mind that any portfolio can ever give. Be in no doubt, I do not want to diminish the value of a portfolio! In practice, it is often a useful, filtering tool, just like a resume or a cover letter. But still, it’s not sufficient.
The trial task
On many occasions, even an interview, a vast portfolio, and a flawless resume aren’t enough. When exactly? As my experience suggests, you can indicate at least two such situations:
- The first situation is when you are strongly convinced of the candidate’s worth (the sixth sense?), but, unfortunately, they haven’t performed tasks similar to yours in the past. The projects’ specificity in each company varies, and it may be a severe challenge for a freshman.
- The second situation is when you have two candidates so similar that you can’t decide between them. Sometimes, at the end of the recruitment process, you have two strong players, and you cannot decide who is the best, who will cope better with the specific challenges in your company.
In both these circumstances, a trial task is your best bet. Moreover, I strongly advise you not to give a trial task to every candidate. It’s your ace in the hole, don’t waste it! What’s more, you have to follow specific rules to make this trial task fair and efficient.
This is a list of the trial task commandments for you:
- Always pay for a trial task. A candidate has sacrificed some of their time and skills. Therefore they should be rewarded.
- Make it brief and specific. Don’t expect your candidate to spend hours on your assignment.
- Design a task that undoubtedly solves all of your concerns. It has to be purposeful!
- In many instances, it’s good when a trial task is strictly related to the project a candidate will work on, but it’s not a necessity.
- You can devise an intellectual assignment if you’d like.
In many facets, the recruitment process is like dating. You have to present yourself and your company to the employee. However, I strongly recommend it to you – be honest about both the advantages and disadvantages associated with working in your team. Everyone realizes that an ideal workplace does not exist. Every decent employee values honesty over pulling the wool over their eyes.
As I was growing the design department in Innovatika, I had to point out at the beginning of every interview that we probably won’t always deal with significant, fancy projects. We are developing this department, and we need everyone to work hard on strategy to achieve our goals. Thanks to this transparent approach, people understand why sometimes they have to abandon their regular duties and deal with matters related to the development of the company and not their own.
The Triangle of Competence
Then we looked at our triangles and discussed how we can exchange tasks, and where we have overstretched our competences. We negotiated who will be responsible for what and how to develop weaker areas with available resources. Triangles do not have to be advanced and detailed. Later, I did the same exercise myself and repeated it during individual development talks with the team members.
I created a tool called The Triangle of Competence, which, as it later turned out, was similar to The T Competence Model created by Tim Brown from Ideo.
- At the top of the triangle, we have highlighted each member’s strong competencies/skills.
- At the bottom of the triangle, we put two competencies/skills (one per each vertex) that someone had to some extent, but wanted to improve.
- Outside the triangle, each team member entered areas that they certainly did not want to enter, did not want to get tasks from (it was vital information, as it turned out later).
When I had my full team on board, I decided to organize a workshop where all of us talked about our competences and discuss our strengths and weaknesses in the context of the organization and our challenges. The idea was for the team to know each other well not only personally but also professionally.
It is also worth to combine the team’s strengths and weaknesses with the company’s product offer. What should we give up? What help should we look for outside? What should we develop? Each of us, after such a session, also ascribed themselves certain areas of responsibility. For instance, Marta was responsible for solving critical issues related to UX, and Gaba was accountable for all of the branding issues etc.
The Golden Hills and the conclusion on team building
Finally, it is worthwhile to set a common goal we all pursue as a team. It is obvious that we want to earn money for our work, but sometimes the less material questions are equally as important. I think of overcoming your own weaknesses, getting better, achieving the Golden Hills. By The Golden Hills, I mean exactly the goals we can pursue together. You have to create a story every team member can identify with. This will win you their engagement!
If you want to tackle team building from scratch, you have to follow these steps:
- Define your persona
- Remember about the importance of the soft skills
- Devise one, crucial question you will ask every candidate
- When in doubt, assign one, specific trial task
- Be honest to your future employees
- Analyze either strong suits and weaknesses of every team member
- Show them the Golden Hills – tell them a story they can identify with, and set a common goal
The aforementioned path doesn’t have to work at your company. It all comes down to the energy of the team you build and the specifics of your work. But you can (and in fact should) use my path as an inspiration to design your own, as none is perfect and universal when it comes to team building.