On September 2nd – 4th, 2014, design managers from all over the world met at the Academic Design Management Conference to discuss their insights and past experiences. A good opportunity to have Janaki Kumar and Tobias Haug, the team leaders of the Design and Co-Innovation Center (DCC) from SAP, share their retrospective with us on the founding and development of their teams.

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So where does one start telling a story of design and co-innovation?

First, of course, we need the protagonists who are, in our case, multidisciplinary teams of designers. Janaki remembers: “We were trying something completely new in enterprise software, […] creating a team of User Experience (UX) designers in SAP to help transform user experience for customers”.

The aim was to assemble specialists with the ability to identify customer needs within highly complex problems; And UX designers proved to be the right ones for this job, having the open mindsets to find original solutions through iterative working processes. “As a designer you have to ask for feedback and you iterate. It’s so important for design and we have to explain that to our customers – If we constantly involve feedback, we can even be better”, explains Janaki.

Why diversity? – perspective-sharing as a guiding principle

While recruiting, Janaki and Tobias went for multidisciplinary teams with t-shaped people, meaning that the single designers specialize in one core skill but have other peripheral abilities which enable more fluent interactions within the team. Indeed, the teams in Germany and the US both struck with a multitude of backgrounds, ranging from visual and interaction design over multimedia and prototyping to user research.

Different working backgrounds enable a multifaceted view which is helpful with complex problems. Tobias remarks that as economy brings up more unique markets, the challenge for designers is to make products which are adaptable to customers’ needs. “This requires a different approach that we call design thinking. It is a method where we put diverse skills together, so you can solve problems – and design plays a role there”, he explains.

Cultural diversity as challenge and inspiration

Other from their skills, the DCC teams also display a broad cultural background: The European team alone has 12 different nationalities. With the global virtual team meetings every two weeks, the German and US colleagues connect on a regular basis.

Of course, multinational teams require thorough co-ordination and communication. Especially when it comes to time-zone differences, managing global teams can become quite challenging. “Meetings which are early for us are late for them. It’s hard to find common working times and that is indeed the biggest challenge for us”, Janaki considers. “But we’re motivated to work around that and solve the problem, which is why I learned to respect people’s different time management”.

This example vividly demonstrates that living in different cultures can become a complicating factor in some cases. So why keep up diversity? “When working with people of other cultures you get other perspectives – it’s energizing and inspiring”, Janaki explains. The global team calls, thus, serve to share the teams’ experience on projects. The exchange is carried on via online channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. As we see, perspective-sharing is also the keyword here.

Teamwork makes the dream work: Design management challenges and new leadership strategies

Creative processes often don’t proceed linearly – and designers need an environment to grow and to develop a working dynamic. What does it take for managers to deal with this working  style which lives from a little turmoil and border crossing? “I think you need extreme flexibility and open-mindedness”, Janaki states. “It helps if you have been a designer, so you have empathy for the creative process. The creative process is not linear, there are iterations and jumps. And you need to be able to respect this, in order to let the team be at their creative best.”

This is why Janaki and Tobias came up with a management style which is adapted to the uniqueness of their teams’ working practices. Both emphasize their supportive roles. “My job is to support them, inspire them and take away impediments from their tasks” Janaki explains. In order to achieve a working culture like this, trust plays an important role; Tobias adds, that more often than not, it is useful to step in the background in order to see what grows out of inspiration and daring: “Often you have to let go. You’ll never get a strong dynamic and all the benefits if you try to control it. As a manger you’re responsible for enabling the creative environment, to empower your team members”, he states.

Looking back – most important learnings to share

“Well -” Tobias thinks a bit and laughs “- I like that saying: If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together. Design managers need to enable teams to go far.” Having this inspiration in mind, the DCC can be confident and curious about the way ahead.

Janaki+Tobi

Thanks to Janaki and Tobias for their insights.

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