Trust the process, or just trust trust
At the inaugural CERN Bootcamp this week, four teams are spending five days looking for answers to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. My team is trying to find ways to visualize climate change for consumers at the moment they’re making purchasing decisions.
It’s a complicated challenge, which requires us to have some understanding of the science of climate change, human behavior, business concerns, government policy, communications, and more.
Over the first two days of the bootcamp we poured our research onto the wall of a big red bus inside CERN’s IdeaSquare, and added a behavioral analysis of three archetypal personas.
I’ll be honest — by the end of Day 2, I was a bit nervous. I knew we had tons of information and the seeds of lots of ideas, but I wasn’t sure we had enough focus to turn all that into a meaningful solution to our design challenge by the end of Wednesday. (Thursday was reserved for prototyping and Friday to prepare and give our final presentations.)
We started Wednesday with a quick review of our notes, some chit-chat about the various ethnic groups scattered around several of Spain’s northern autonomous regions (we tend to digress), some coffee and snacks (we like to eat and drink too), and then started going over the various ideas we had parked over the first couple days, grouping them loosely on a new wall.
Part of what made me nervous was that all our activities were group discussions, and I’m usually quite skeptical of unstructured group work — I largely agree with Jake Knapp that the best ideas tend to come from individual work.
I also have been really inspired recently by the ideas behind Liberating Structures — that “conventional structures are either too inhibiting (presentations, status reports and managed discussions) or too loose and disorganized (open discussions and brainstorms) to creatively engage people in shaping their own future. They frequently generate feelings of frustration and/or exclusion and fail to provide space for good ideas to emerge and germinate.”
But as this project was part of my Master’s Degree work, I was more interested in seeing how others would drive forward a process like this than leading it in my own ways. So we brainstormed away. As a group.
And as we talked and talked and talked some more, a strange thing happened — a few clear, good ideas began to emerge.
I noticed that while I tended to describe my ideas in fully fleshed out sentences on post-its — to ensure everyone would grasp the complicated thoughts bouncing around in my head — others would simply put a word or two on a post-it, while others rarely added any post-its at all, but would add helpful thoughts to frame or adjust what someone else had suggested.
One of our team members would be quiet for long periods of time, but then step up to the wall with a brilliantly expressed idea that encapsulated bits of what others had been saying while adding her own details to make it concrete and feasible.
And full credit to Heidi — the other service designer on our team — for corralling all the various bits of information floating about into three (or maybe four?) intriguing and promising ideas.
At the end of Day 3, I was very pleasantly surprised with what we had come up with, and on reflection I think the main reason we were able to achieve something so concrete and useful was because, as a group, we trusted each other.
One of my teammates said she thought it was the process that got us there, but I think it was something more human than that. Good processes and expert facilitation can help imperfect groups achieve good outcomes. But in our case, I think we were able to achieve good outcomes with a somewhat loose structure because we had developed a very strong personal rapport over the preceding days and weeks.
Despite having only met a few weeks previously, we had hung out (via Google) in each other’s living rooms. One of us joined the chat from her family holiday. Another held her son on her knee while we talked over the research plan. We had wandered the streets of Geneva like tourists. We discussed hobbies and family life, and when the energy got low in our meetings, we taught each other yoga and fencing lunges to get the blood flowing again. And we joked regularly about how we seemed to spend as much time taking coffee breaks as designing services.
But we also did really good work together and on our own. We prepared for the week by developing a well-researched and well-evidenced 31-page report we were all quite proud of. We each brought different skills and expertise and contributed them liberally to the group as needed — from marketing and communications and behavioral science to writing and visual design and project management.
The combination of personal consideration and professionalism we showed each other generated the mutual respect we needed to discuss things freely, without fear of being judged or having ideas dismissed.
Ultimately, better ideas emerge when diverse thinkers feel comfortable and encouraged to build on each other’s ideas — to develop solutions that are both creative and feasible. The camaraderie we had developed meant we felt free to build on each other’s ideas in our own ways, without succumbing to the neuroses, fears, or other social obstacles that so often trip up less cohesive teams.
So don’t discount all that time spent on the soft stuff — as long as there’s good work happening in between. A team that spends time building trust will ultimately get much farther… and often in less time.