Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Irony of Diverse Teams

I've just completed my fourth academic quarter teaching a design-thinking course in a and I'm finally able to articulate an irony that's been nagging me for quite a while. The irony is that introverted students tend to have a lot of ideas, which go unarticulated, while the extroverts’ one or two ideas get indulged. In team settings, most design students are introverted, capable of generating dozens of ideas in a short amount of time, whereas business students tend to be extroverted and generate significantly fewer ideas than the design students. In team settings the leaders that emerge are likely to be extroverts; thus, it’s the one or two ideas of the business students that get pursued. This is precisely what often happens in my classes when the students are put into teams: the extroverts push their one or two ideas forward and the many ideas of the introverts get ignored.

Generating ideas is like taking pictures. A skilled photographer shoots hundreds of shots to increase his or her chances of capturing one stunning image. We idea generators should want to follow the same practice: the more ideas we have, the more likely it is that we'll find a remarkable one. And this ability that designers have to generate ideas fluently is not only useful at the front end of the project, but at every step of the way. Yet, their introversion prevents them from sharing their ideas, especially when their team is already excited about an earlier idea, which is likely the first idea the team had come up with.

So, what to do. The spring quarter starts in two weeks and I would like to help the designers find the courage to share their ideas, and to persist in articulating those ideas. And I would like to help the business students take advantage of their own leadership talents to empower introverted designers to articulate the reservoir of ideas they have to offer.


  1. Brilliant observation! Sadly, what you are seeing in the classroom also occurs in the workplace. However, introverts do not necessarily FEAR sharing ideas - we live in an inner world of ideas and that is what energizes us. In contrast, extroverts are usually louder and more persistent, to the point where they often overpower us. The noise and constant interaction that energize extroverts simply exhausts introverts and we clam up.

    The group leader (in this case, YOU) needs to set the tone in class by making sure that every student is given the opportunity to speak WITHOUT interruption. Most introverts are not shy - we are just quiet. As a result, we are often overlooked, misunderstood and/or disrespected. However, when given the opportunity to share our thoughts and ideas in a forum in which negative criticism and interruptions are not allowed, we usually thrive and can provide some unique and innovative perspectives.

    Good luck! Thanks for the great post!

  2. hi there

    i really enjoyed reading up your post and do recognize the problem. Myself i have been working for years with outspoken diverse (product development) teams consisting of very introvert engineers, softspoken designers and loud commercial managers just to name a few archetypes. I have to admit i am considered to be extrovert myself and have more than once regretted not taking up one of the whispered ideas in an earlier stage.

    we tried before the 'you can not speak unless given the 'allow me to speak stick' without big improvements.. hence i tend not to expect too much from anonymous' proposal because you push the introvert person to speak up for the whole group. this forces them out of their comfort zone which is a good thing if you want them to grow their capabilities but is not necessarily a guarantee that they will open up their ideas in a convincing manner. meanwhile the extrovert person will feel caged by the idea that he is not allowed to speak till its his turn. to overcome this problem we have decided to give the stage to favorite tool of the idea generators : the sketch/notebook.

    it might be worth trying to organise a 'silent' idea speeddate. we did this a few times with very interesting results as it prohibits any type of speaking. all students or group members get a little notebook and sit 1 on 1. they have eg. 10 or 15min to write or draw each other their ideas... each time they finish their contribution they switch the notebooks and comment on their counterpart's idea or sketch. when time is up you move evervbody from one side a position (with big groups this might become too less though) further and each starts up their written conversation once again. at the end of the exercise you ask each student to summarize the ideas in their notebook by using post its or pictures/drawings. these can then be used to start regrouping the most promising ideas.

    biggest accomplishment we got by using this technique is the total elimination of oratory skills thus prohibiting extrovert people to overpower their peers. by pushing them to start drawing or sketching out their ideas you force your students as well to start brainstorming visually which leads often to different insights. not to mention that it is fully in line with the designthinking principles :)

    good luck and remember your students that diverse teams deliver the best results provided they manage to overcome their (communication and interaction) hurdles !


  3. The first thing that springs to mind is making people do some kind of idea exchange so that they are forced to present someone else's idea- but that still would probably result in the extroverts tending to dominate the proceedings. B's suggestion sounds very promising.

    Other possibilities- a 'hot seat' where each person in turn gets a chance to present and respond to questions and suggestions from the rest of the group. Or have introverts and extroverts paired as teams and have them take turns having to present each others ideas. (This has the advantage that each gets a chance to try both roles which should lead to a greater appreciation on both sides of the strengths of the other.)

    I think there are other differentiations beside the introvert/extrovert divide that might be usefully explored. What about kinetic types who can't think unless they're moving? Crafter types who need to have a physical model of ideas in order to understand them? Intuitive vs. deductive types?

    Maybe the best thing would just be to present the idea that structures may be limiting the ability of some people to contribute to the extent they could and ask each of your students to explore what structure might bring out their own talents to the fullest.

  4. @anonymous - introverts DO live in an inner world of ideas. I agree 100%. Often they are encouraged to "overcome" their shyness and I think that's the wring approach as it would disturb their way of being in the world

    @mrBisBack - I really ike your sketchbook idea. I made an effort to incorporate writing this past quarter bc introverts do seem more comfortable communicating that way. But your sketchbook idea takes that to another level. I will try it and let you know how it goes.

    @Sarah - your discussion of learning types is near dear to my heart. I do put emphasis on kinetics and making so your comment validates that effort. Thanks!

  5. Great post! Always a challenge getting introverts and extroverts to play nicely. You inspired me to write a post on my own blog about how I've handled this issue in the past.

  6. hey there

    any outcome on the sketchbook concept ? did it work out ?
    best regards

  7. Thanks for the followup question. I've integated a lot more writing into the course and this seems to bring the introverts' ideas to light.


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