Six rules for successful teams

3 minute read

Design thinking, or human-centred design, is pivotal to identify future market opportunities and enable people inside organisations to work with agility. By creating interdisciplinary teams, everyone feels responsible for the overall solution

Sian Harrington

T person


Design thinking is about creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems by empathising with the people who will be impacted by the resulting solution and enhancing the user experience at every touch point, be it your customer or employee.

It involves challenging assumptions and traditional approaches to solving a problem. This is achieved through taking an iterative approach, that is taking a step back, challenging and looking at what has been developed so far from a different perspective, repeating the process again and continuing to do this to get ever closer to an improved, user-focused product or process.

Today, design thinking underpins the creation of new business models, products and services, organisational ecosystems and processes. It is key to identifying future opportunities and enabling people to work in an agile way. As the authors of The Design Thinking Playbook, Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link and Larry Leifer, say: “We cannot develop products today with the mindset, design criteria and needs from the past. Both the users’ needs and the way we work have changed and we must have the necessary freedom and skills to develop the products and services, business models and business ecosystems with agility in a digitised world. If we do not transform our organisations, failed growth initiatives will pile up.”

In design thinking, it is important to learn and iterate at a fast pace and this means creating a team that comprises different experts with in-depth and broadly-based knowledge. According to Lewrick, Link and Leifer, in these interdisciplinary teams (teams comprising several disciplines, departments and hierarchical levels), ideas are produced on a collective basis and everyone feels responsible for the overall solution.

Interdisciplinary teams

The advantage of an interdisciplinary team over a multidisciplinary team is that each team member in the former builds on each other's expertise to achieve common, shared goals while, in the latter, each team member is an expert who approaches the issue from his or her own perspective, resulting in a solution that is often a compromise.

multidisciplinary teams

To create an interdisciplinary team, you need people who have skills and knowledge that is both deep and wide – so called ‘T-shaped’ people. The vertical bar of the T stands for the specialist skills someone has acquired. The horizontal is defined by empathy and the ability to collaborate.

T profile

Here are six simple rules for a successful interdisciplinary team:

  1. The team has a common vision that must be fulfilled as a team. In a best-case scenario, it will be an answer to the ‘How might we...?’ question
  2. Every step in the design thinking process is led by the respective expert (vertical bar in the T profile) on the team, who suggests a clear direction and tried-and-tested methods while offering support in the implementation
  3. The team has adopted common values. They have been developed together and are visible by everybody at all times. Thinking in hierarchical structures is a hindrance to free idea generation so, for example, adopt brainstorming rules such as not having general introductions where people announce their role and beginning a session with a warm-up that makes people smile. Such rules are a good basis on which collaboration on the team can be adapted and expanded
  4. There is an atmosphere of trust in which everybody has respect for, and accepts the experience of, the next person – at least when the role of expert is taken on
  5. Only those who know the expectation and to what extent they can be met can become better. The more comprehensive the feedback of the team is, the more specific will be the way in which the entire team and its individual members become better and ultimately act in common
  6. Shared common processes and quality standards are determined so that everybody always knows the procedure and the necessary requirement for the desired result and can orient themselves to them

Pi profile

To further develop the team, think about helping members move from T-shaped to Pi-shaped people, those who are not only able to steep themselves in the discipline of their colleagues but who also have the ability to respond to challenges of everyday working life and educate themselves accordingly. This results in more flexibility.

It is also important to ensure team members feel able to make mistakes without being afraid of losing their jobs. People who feel safe, secure and comfortable, and who are supported and appreciated, will be highly motivated and deliver a great performance


The Design Thinking Playbook is a People Space Top Read. It is written by Michael Lewrick, visiting professor teaching design thinking at various universities and author of Design Thinking: Radical Innovations in a Digitized World; Patrick Link, professor of product and chair of industrial engineering at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland; and Larry Leifer, professor of mechanical engineering design at Stanford University. It is published by Wiley

Published 7 November 2018
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