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Designing with Renaissance Teams

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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President and Chief Operating Officer, The Freeman Company Chief Executive Officer, Freeman

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#15 New Wicked Problems Demand New Wicked Teams

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

In the 15th century, the Italian Renaissance was characterized by a renewed belief in the power of learning, spurred by curiosity and revealed through the rigorous consideration of the world from multiple perspectives. One of the interesting things about the Renaissance period is that it was still possible (if not likely) for a single person to master the basics of Western knowledge. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are both held up as “Renaissance Man” poster boys — artists who also mastered the essentials of military strategy, science, literature, engineering, architecture and other disciplines.   

Today, we can point to a few big-brains who seem to have more than their share of multidisciplinary accomplishments. But the truth is, in the 21st century, the body of information — the expertise required for any big project or piece of business — is both too vast and too deep for any individual to master. The problems are too complex and thorny — too wicked — for any one person or discipline to get their arms around. And that’s why, as Bruce points out, we need to form new wicked teams that combine everything we might need to tackle these complex, wicked challenges.

When Bruce was working with noted polymath Bill Buxton, the developer of Maya and SketchbookPro who now serves as Principal Researcher at Microsoft, he observed that Bruce’s way of working involved the formulation of Renaissance Teams. “You can work create a Renaissance Team to behave like a Renaissance person,” Bruce explains. “And that’s the underlying concept here… none of us can really master interactivity, architecture, new materials, the science of communication, all of that. We can’t master that individually, but we can master that as a group.”

We know that the design process is essentially a collaborative process. And this 15th principle explains why we want to work in Studio Teams that include as many disciplines as possible — whatever it takes to master our complex new reality. We want to give our process the kind of collaborative engine it needs to keep running at full speed, because that’s the pace of innovation in the world around us.

Trade shows used to involve a straightforward parade of attendees who moved through an exhibit space and perhaps engaged in a sales pitch. Today, the live experiences we create have evolved to include a physical interaction with the environment that’s augmented by a layer of digital, virtual engagements. Data helps us understand the dynamic. Strategy helps us apply the data on a personal level. Synthesis of these new disciplines is the key to success. That means that to design this new medium of live experience, we must assemble teams that reflect that same vital complexity — informed by diverse perspectives.

“If I just have exhibit designers or architects designing the visit, they don’t necessarily think in terms of time. They think in terms of space, so they’re designing it spatially,” Bruce says. “But if you ask a movie maker to do that same thing, they’re going to do it as a series of storyboards. They’re going to design it from the perspective of time. So, they’re going to bring a time-based medium to the solution. And if you ask a digital person, they’re going to bring a kind of reach into content — a way of accessing knowledge — as the principle way of looking at it….  And so, designing the team is really the first part of the design.”

What kind of people do we want to include on our Renaissance teams? Bruce put together this list of seven essential qualifications for Renaissance Team membership:

  1. Expertise – each person must have deep knowledge in the field they represent.
  2. Curiosity – a Renaissance Team player WANTS to know about other things.
  3. Empathy – they must know how to listen, be respectful of other people, and have the ability and willingness to imagine other experiences and perspectives.
  4. Confidence – each member of the team must be willing to lead. Depending on the solution the team designs, it may make more sense for one expert to lead it into execution (i.e., the digital expert, or the data guy, or the film producer).
  5. Humility – each member of the team must be willing to follow. Don’t assume everyone has this skill.
  6. Independence – each expert must have a mind and voice of their own and the ability to offer an outlier’s perspective, even a critical one.
  7. Courage – members must be willing to share imaginative, even crazy ideas and trust the team and the iterative design process.

This approach is essential to the design-thinking approach we have adopted at Freeman. Having all the disciplines represented on a team at the outset changes the dynamic. Instead of simply embellishing existing ideas, we have the opportunity to bring our customers completely different, new thinking.

This kind of innovation is only possible when we diversify the talent, experience, and expertise of the group. When we get in the habit of working in Renaissance Teams, it’s amazing what we can do. It may not result in a new Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel. But you can bet it will be wicked cool. 

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