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Perspectives

Team Alchemy: What Happens in the Spaces Between People

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Chelsea VandiverOctober 12, 2020 / 15 min read

Great things often occur when four distinct types of people interact.

Several years ago we had an especially prolific creative director at Ziba, the design consultancy where I serve as director. Her uncanny ability to generate concepts that no one else could see made her extremely valuable, and won us client after client through the sheer abundance and frequency of her ideas.

She also had trouble completing projects. Those same clients she bowled over with creativity and insight grew increasingly frustrated by missed deadlines and blown budgets — not just occasionally, but on nearly every single project under her control. Around that time, a smart young intern at the studio was promoted to full-time project manager, and paired on a new client project with that brilliant-but-challenging creative director. Almost immediately, things went differently. Together, they hit deadlines, stayed within budget, and ended up with a solution that delighted both the client and the project team. Ziba has enjoyed a productive, creative relationship with that client ever since, working with them on more than a dozen projects.

This was no fluke, either: every time these two paired up, the work was spot on. Yet independently, this gifted CD struggled to deliver. We soon realized that the crucial element wasn’t the competence of either person, but the specific way the two of them worked when they were together — something we call Team Alchemy.

It’s a vague term, I’ll admit, but it describes an approach that’s proven itself repeatedly and stood up under rigorous scrutiny. Not long after we discovered the link between that manager and creative director, Ziba’s head of IT performed a statistical analysis on some of our recent projects, as part of his MBA studies. Together, we compared dozens of projects from the previous few years, scrutinizing their on-time performance, budget adherence and rates of client return.

One thing we didn’t find was a correlation between specific team members and project success: a great designer might hit it out of the park on one project while wallowing in indecision on another. What we did find were strong, recurring patterns of certain combinations of people: neither Designer A, Director B nor Manager C possessed the key to a winning project, but A+B would always produce better results than A+C. In a field that loves to enthuse about rockstar designers and maverick creatives, we were surprised to realize that in many cases, the individual mattered less than the team.

Individual skills and talent are crucial, of course, and this realization doesn’t make that any less true. When we hire designers, researchers, strategists, or anyone else at Ziba, we scrutinize their portfolios and subject them to round after round of interviews to ensure a high level of competence across the board. But what we’ve realized since then is that the teams these talented people work on require just as much scrutiny as the people themselves.The pattern was so powerful and potentially valuable that we started to codify it, and over the course of several years, a reliable, repeatable system emerged that we now apply to a range of project teams. It begins with four key roles that show up in any creative group: Generators, Editors, Makers and Collaborators.

Rule #1: Generators need Editors

The CD in the example above is a classic example of a Generator, and the project manager who paired with her so effectively is one of our finest Editors. Their relationship is pretty straightforward: the Generator develops concepts and pushes her team to explore further; the Editor identifies the most useful ones, offers feedback and focuses effort.

Given how productive their relationship was, it might seem strange that it took so long to establish. In our experience, Generators don’t often seek out Editors, preferring the company of other Generators. They thrive on the energy of constant creation and would rather throw ideas back and forth all day than pick one and move forward. Editors, for their part, are rarely drawn to highly generative people, viewing their massive output as chaos in need of order. It’s possible for good teams to assemble naturally, out of mutual affinity, but in my experience, it’s rare. A steady, productive tension is what more often produces great work.

Rule #2: Generators and Editors need Makers

Real estate developer Gerding Edlen is known up and down the West Coast of the U.S. as an innovator in sustainable urban housing, and a client with whom we’ve collaborated repeatedly to great effect. Their developments tend to attract defiantly non-traditional buyers, who demand a unique sales experience customized to the project and its specific story. Designing that experience is how Ziba has helped several of Gerding’s projects succeed — in one case, a high-rise in downtown Portland called The Civic managed to sell out its entire stock of apartments in the midst of the 2008 housing crash. That was later in our relationship, though.

Our earliest projects with Gerding Edlen faced serious difficulties delivering on concept. Asked to work on a collection of luxury buildings on Portland’s South Waterfront, Ziba assembled a team of Generators and Editors who rapidly converged on a promising solution: a casual, interactive sales space that focused visitors on the benefits of the neighborhood rapidly growing around it. The client loved it and asked us to proceed. We came back with another presentation that delighted them even more, and they asked us to proceed. Then came another presentation. And another. Eventually we received a very direct question from the client: “When can we open?” Despite everyone’s agreement on the beauty of the solution, the project was nearly out of time and money, and no one had built anything.

The problem was, the team on this project was perfectly tuned to develop and refine the solution, but not to execute it: Generators and Editors are fine if a presentation is the final goal (as in some strategy projects), but their allegiance is to the idea, not the implementation. What’s needed is a third creative role, the Maker.

Makers are in love with the act of creation. Nothing brings them professional satisfaction like seeing the abstract become real. To someone in the Maker role, plans and blueprints are magical things, because they form the starting point for a creative process. In the sculptor’s studio, they wield the chisels; in the electronics firm, they’re soldering boards. “Tell me what it needs to be,” a Maker tells the rest of the team, “and I’ll make it happen.” We assigned two new members to play Maker roles on the team, and the project was completed in three weeks. A month after that, the sales office for the South Waterfront’s flagship development opened to glowing reviews and robust sales.

Rule #3: Large teams need Collaborators

Li-Ning is often called ‘the Nike of China’, and the challenge they brought Ziba was the most complex we’d faced to date. Here was a Chinese company with more than 25 years of legacy, in a country full of newly affluent consumers eager to embrace homegrown brands, even while they looked outward for new ideas and influences.

What Li-Ning lacked was a coherent design and retail strategy on par with foreign competitors like Adidas and Nike. Defining one was a massive undertaking, demanding a project team that grew to involve nearly a third of Ziba’s entire studio—over 30 researchers, strategists and designers in all. In contrast, we’d tackled even the most complex Gerding Edlen projects with teams of four or five.

The creative director who led this mammoth team was an outstanding Editor, with a team of highly-generative designers and researchers, plus a highly competent production staff to fill the Maker role. But the size of the team and the size of the project led to problems in collaboration that earlier projects hadn’t encountered. The research teams had come up with plenty of valuable insights, the creative teams back in the U.S. had developed brand and retail strategies that everyone agreed were right on target, and the client was happy with our progress. But none of it connected. The architects, fixture designers and graphic designers we’d contracted in China still didn’t have a coherent package to implement.

Enter a new creative director, with a dramatically different style than the Editor she came in to support. A quiet, thoughtful woman with a keen eye for connections, she preferred casual small-group discussions to formal meetings, where she spent most of her time listening and offering occasional gentle nudges:you two should get together and compare notes; this insight reminds me of what the Hong Kong team was doing last month; these signage systems aren’t aligned yet, but they’re close—can you work on that? She’s what we call a Collaborator, and her impact on the project was rapid and dramatic. Within two weeks, teams that had been spinning for months started shipping final deliverables.

Collaborators can be great team leaders, but they don’t have to lead to be effective. What’s more important is that they be genuinely fascinated by the capabilities and needs of the people around them, and find it nearly impossible to ignore opportunities for connection. Regardless of where they come from, Collaborators can be a large team’s greatest asset. They’re rarely necessary on small teams, though. Business magazines have written a lot in recent years about the Startup Model: the idea that larger firms should emulate smaller ones, move more quickly and with less formality, and encourage experimentation and risk-taking. The advice aimed at Fortune 500 executives seems to have taken hold, as major corporations hold ‘startup days’, or attempt to create internal incubators modeled on the startup image.

The intent is good, but its execution shows that most companies don’t realize that startups can behave like startups because they’re small. A young firm with 20 employees enjoys a commonality of purpose that’s hard to maintain with greater age and size. There’s a huge difference between a group of people who know each other’s first names and a corporate structure that takes an online directory to navigate. The task of sharing information and insight is second nature in a small, focused group. In larger ones, it demands a dedicated specialist. That’s where Collaborators are at their best, instinctively building the connections that keep the rest of the team working efficiently, so they can concentrate on their own jobs.

Different Forms of Competence

What ultimately makes Team Alchemy such a useful concept is that it recognizes that there are different ways to be competent. Moreover, this presents a strength to be harnessed, rather than a flaw to be corrected.

Forming effective teams, though, is more involved than just finding a pair of people who collaborate well. Just as every project requires a different mix of skills, every team size works best with a different mix of roles. There are plenty of combinations that work, and many more that don’t, but following are a few combinations that we’ve repeatedly found to be effective:

  • A two-person team where one (but not both) of the members acts as a Generator. Generators pair well with Editors, as in the first example, but they can also flourish in the company of Makers, who tend to provide feedback through prototyping rather than a formal editing process. In either case, the project gains much-needed focus, and avoids the pitfall of constantly shifting goals that can plague a two-Generator team.

  • A three-person team consisting of one Generator, one Editor and one Maker. As long as roles and responsibilities are well-defined, this can be incredibly productive.

  • A four-person team with one member in each role. This is similar to the Generator-Editor-Maker combination, but more fluid. With a Collaborator on hand, the other three are able to work rapidly in parallel, without having to pause as often to re-group.


As you might guess, the prominence of the different roles will vary as a project progresses. Most design and business projects can be broken down into three functionally distinct but overlapping phases: Define, Design and Develop.

As a general rule, an Editor leads the Define phase, works closely with a Generator in the Design phase, then steps back to give primary responsibility to a Generator and Maker in the Develop Phase. More complex projects can involve several Generators and Makers, though rarely more than one Editor unless they’re assigned thoroughly separate tasks — conflicting editorial input can be worse than no Editor at all. The larger the team, the more valuable a Collaborator becomes, to orchestrate tasks, synthesize work, and ensure that the various Generators and Makers are communicating enough to align their useful efforts and avoid redundant ones.

No matter how a team is composed, if you want to get the best alchemy, you have to embrace the possibility of team members filling different roles at different times. A Collaborator, like the CD who brought the Li-Ning project together, might act as an Editor in the project’s early planning stages; her collaborative tendency might not show up until the Design phase, when additional Generators and Makers come on board.

Makers can also serve as effective Editors in the Define stage. Since they’re the ones responsible for implementing what gets designed, Makers bring a keen eye for practicality to early discussions, helping to weed out unworkable concepts before they attract too much effort. More generally, nearly anyone can serve as a Generator, regardless of their other talents, provided they’re given the right environment and direction. Effective brainstorming is based on this capability, in fact, and it’s not uncommon for CDs in our studio to recruit engineers, project managers and writers as well as designers in the Define phase, asking them all to act as Generators for an hour or two.

The key is to recognize that the Team Alchemy approach is not a method of categorizing people, but roles. Like so much in the creative world, the roles people take depend heavily on context. Some of the finest Editors I’ve seen, for example, need three or four prolific Generators around them to really get going, and many Makers won’t start making unless they’re being fed clearly articulated ideas by an Editor. It’s up to the conscientious team manager to pay attention to these behaviors and the settings in which they arise.

Skeptical readers might wonder if we’re simply using the idea of a ‘bad team’ to excuse unqualified workers, and they’d have a point. All of the examples and frameworks described herein are based on an assumption of competency: that everyone is fundamentally good at his or her job, and wants the project to succeed no matter what the obstacles may be. But there has to be more. If there weren’t, the U.S. Men’s Basketball ‘Dream Team’ would win Gold at every Olympics (instead of settling for Bronze, as they did in 2004) and Ishtar would’ve been one of the great films of the 1980s. Team Alchemy doesn’t replace individual skill or talent. It doesn’t even replace personality or good communication skills. But it does allow each of those qualities to reach its full potential.

In a simple world, all designers are Generators, all creative directors are Editors, all project managers are Collaborators and all engineers are Makers. The real world is considerably more complex. The reality of design work, as in business, is that you rarely have the right people for the project at hand. We’re told that you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want, which might be why modern militaries prefer flexible, modular units over the monolithic armies of antiquity.

A similar strategy suggests that smart business leaders look for diversity as well as competence when they seek out new talent, and that they learn how that talent is affected by different groupings and situations. This means avoiding certain team pairings in favor of others, but it also means looking for the unexpected. We regularly put employees in new situations to see how they react: the challenge keeps them engaged, and often reveals aptitudes that make the whole company more flexible. If you’ve hired good people, they will astonish you with their range of capability.

In closing

We can be tempted to think of a project team as a kit of parts—the sum of the abilities of its members; but experience shows that it’s simply not true, regardless of the kind of work being done. Creative insight is crucial to the success of nearly any business, and it’s rarely the product of a single mind, no matter how brilliant. No matter the project, good Team Alchemy expects you to see every professional around you as a whole person, not just a title, resume or portfolio. It depends on your willingness to accept that individual competence depends on task, team and resources. It demands that you separate the person from the role. All of this is complicated, and a lot more work than simply assigning the people with the right titles to a project. But understanding the alchemy of the team can make a small company infinitely more nimble, and a large one more creative.

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