We're back. In fact, we've been back for a while, but the experience of leading a design team at SXSW required a bit more time to digest than I'd anticipated. Recovery has also involved a regimen of tea and moments of silence to nurse a voice lost to an excited team of six, a workshop of nearly 60 people and large crowds during the off-hours at the most jam-packed conference of the year. http://instagram.com/p/lyTATOBm2V/
The d.school sent a team of four people to Austin earlier this month: fellowships director Justin Ferrell, fellow Caitria O'Neill, lecturer and former fellow David Janka and me. We were accompanied by a team of three others from IDEO.org, including Amplify director Sean Hewens, senior editor Aaron Britt and community manager Jacqui Watts. IDEO writer Sarah Lidgus, OpenIDEO community manager Nathan Maton and Lallitara founder & CEO Bijal Shah also joined as coaches. We led about 60 people through a four-hour design workshop. The prompt, as Caitria wrote prior to our arrival, explored "what micro-volunteering might look like for SXSW attendees one year from now."
Many of the experiences I've had over the past seven-plus months surfaced during my time leading this workshop -- my third, full design-team leadership experience. My rollercoaster -- er, class -- experience in d.leadership was winding down when I boarded the plane to Austin, so I had just about every tool one could ask for prior to leading my team at SXSW. I did my best to implement at least four insights I had gleaned from the class regarding what I wished to see in my own leadership style:
- You are only a leader insofar as you develop a leadership capacity within the members of your team. (I have Greg McKeown's guest lecture to thank for that.)
- Learn from your past leadership experiences and ascertain one thing about your style that you've sought to change — and change it.
- It's easy to get sucked into the design work your team is doing. Remember to remain open to periods when you need to step back and let your team find their own way out of a situation. Let them lean on the process in order to learn it.
- Be honest with your team. Don't sugarcoat failure, but don't penalize it either. If something isn't working, tell them.
Some of these points came from formal instruction in d.leadership, while others were learned doing day-to-day work. I also channeled the fellows while I was in the workshop: there was Melissa Pelochino (Clap twice if you can hear me!), Guido Kovalskys (Keep your energy up!), Margaret Hagan (Draw it, draw it, draw it!), and Anne Gibbon (Fully embrace new people and experiences!). I stole a page from Matt Haney, Melissa Kline Lee and Kim Jacobson (It doesn't matter how big the system is, you can change it!), and Fred Leichter (Always embrace the opportunity to think creatively!).
Overall, the workshop went well. My team designed a prototype nicknamed "Voluntinder" (if you've ever used the dating app Tinder, you get the idea). The prototype was an app that would match SXSW attendees with volunteer experiences throughout the conference. It tested moderately well, although time limitations stood in the way of deep empathy work.
That said, we made a few discoveries: Conference attendees are concerned with losing their place in line outside of workshops, panel discussions and events. Time was the most valuable part of any participant's experience. There was never enough of it, and it could always be better spent. Attendees also wanted to see a physical manifestation of their good works in the world: a meter that rose the more volunteer opportunities they engaged in, or an object -- say, a tower -- that grew as they gave more of their time.
The prototype, while useful in exploring the potential for micro-volunteering at SXSW (and eventually SXEve, set to launch next year), wasn't the most valuable part of the experience for me. The real value came from seeing how quickly participants could go from knowing nothing about design thinking to throwing themselves into the work. There was a moment when the light switch went off for each team member, such as when one discovered that a prototype could be as simple as a piece of paper.
Their knowledge growth could be compared to a timelapse video of a seed growing out of soil. There were hiccups, of course, as habits are hard to break. At one point, the team became mired in questions of scale and feasibility: What if participants don't want to use their mobile phones -- or can't due to dead batteries? How do we make sure they are near the volunteer opportunity that comes up on their phones? The questions were all legitimate and to be expected. But I would continually come back with the same direction -- the one I believed to be most true to the process and their learning.
Test it, I would tell them. The only way you're going to know is if you test your prototype early and often.
In retrospect, of the four insights I took with me, I was weakest on the second-to-last one: stepping back. It was hard for me to retreat and let my team lean on their learning to test their grasp of the concepts. But when I did, it paid dividends, like when one team member assembled a group of bystanders around her through the sheer power of her passion for testing the prototype.
I've come to deeply enjoy leading design teams -- traveling the arc from preparing the challenge to completing a workshop. There's an energy it gives me that's difficult to gain in other work I've done, an energy to rival even that of the fast-paced whirlwind of SXSW.