Measuring the Performance of Design Thinking Teams

How do we know that we are we a good team and that we work well together?

Both project sponsors and team members themselves have an interest to know how well the team performs in its innovation work. However, before a team gets stable and can work together as one, it usually goes through different stages, which psychologist Bruce Tuckman called Forming, Storming, Norming, and eventually Performing.

So, before striving to measure a team’s output, and this is what decision-makers usually do, it is therefore advisable to first look at team composition and dynamics. For example: how complementary are their skill sets and learning styles? Or, how supportive are team members to each other? The latter is often difficult for decision-makers to judge from the fence, which is why team members must hold each other accountable or, in the best case, have the support of a design thinking coach (see also the Team Interaction Notation). A team coach is trained to pay attention to team interactions and behaviors and can facilitate team health checks on a regular basis.

So, if you start your project, make sure to create a team contract and agree upon how you will hold each other accountable . This is important because progress depends on the enabling and blocking behaviors each member displays. And settling conflicts and work-related issues within the team first before escalating them to any »superior« is one of the hallmarks of an agile, self-organized team, isn’t it? So keep track of your activity metrics primarily for yourselves. Only report them if applicable and relevant for your project sponsor. What counts more for the latter are your project output metrics as only they indicate progress in their eyes.

Example: Evaluating a team before, during, and after running projects in sprints

Team Activity Metrics

Indicators and constructs that show you are a team that has potential:

Psychological safety

This seminal construct, developed by Amy Edmondson, popularized by Google, measures the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” . It can easily be incorporated into your team health checks. Please note that psychological safety is about way more than just other team members. It’s also based in the blockers, enablers and leadership styles that might influence team behavior in an organization.

Team health checks and retrospectives

Here you might use criteria such as :

  • Clarity of project mission gets and stays established
  • Fair load sharing of work in progress (WIP)
  • # of unsolicited support for each other
  • Rotating leadership works to everyone’s satisfaction
  • Truly multidisciplinary team composition
  • # of laughing/moments of fun
  • etc.
Team Output Metrics

Indicators showing you are a team capable of making progress:

Assumption-to-knowledge ratio

You perform an initial Assumption Mapping when starting your project. You then keep track of your (in)validated assumptions and report them on a regular basis à la “we believed — now we know …”.

Reconstructible portrayal of ‘blameworthy’ and ‘praiseworthy’ failure

You can show yourself and others that you failed smart via testing hypotheses and experimentation (praiseworthy failure) and not due to inability, inattention or laziness (blameworthy failure) . You do so by presenting synthesized user research data and test results from experiments (see also: project metrics).

Innovation process improvement(s)

When teams mature they can not only improve their design thinking practice but also the one of the organization by sharing their learnings with colleagues. » Example:  You show how your organization’s innovation process(es) got better due to your interventions and changes. 

Innovation capability building

The depth of a team’s innovation tools and methods repertoire increases with each project and makes them more efficient at the next one. So ask yourself: What is the variety of methods your team has mastered and can now apply quickly in other projects too?

As you can see there is a fluid transition from team metrics to project metrics. Once your team manages the transition from norming to performing it no longer has to look inward so much, but can focus on the real goal: driving its project forward.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384–399.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.
Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Strategies of learning from failure. Harvard Business Review, 89(4), 48–55, 137.
Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T. (2021). High-Impact Tools for Teams: 5 Tools to Align Team Members, Build Trust, and Get Results Fast (1st edition). Wiley.

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