What college football and killer design teams have in common

Your company can’t win at design by throwing a few star players at it.

By Suzanne Pellican
November 8, 2016
Football field. Football field. (source: Daniel X. O'Neil on Flickr)

For corporate America, building a killer design team has become as much a national obsession as college football. Companies are hiring ace designers in hopes they can help them out-muscle and out-think the competition. The goal? Winning at customer-focused, design-based product excellence.

I’m a diehard Ohio State Buckeye, and I can tell you that college football is a complicated game, built on 11 different positions working together on the field at any given time. Athletic competition explores the limits of strategy and execution, with team building and coaching at the core. Elite teams and up-and-comers compete to achieve one thing: a championship performance.

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And just like college football, your company can’t win at design by throwing a few star players at it. Having a design team built holistically for overall team success is crucial.

My own company’s journey reminds me of my beloved Buckeyes’ path to becoming the powerhouse they are today. Ohio State, for decades, was known for its defense: Woody Hayes, Earl Bruce, John Cooper, Jim Tressel—all of those head coaches led defensive teams with great pride. Now we’re into season five under Urban Meyer, an offense-driven head coach. But Meyer didn’t simply change course when he came on board. He remained committed to the Buckeye defensive game, and added his style of offense to it.

And it’s thrilling.

Similarly, at Intuit, we have deep roots as a customer-driven technology company. You might say that for years we operated like a really solid, defense-driven football organization. And then we added depth to our offensive game with design and design thinking.

We invested in building innovation skills across our employee base, and we have come a long way. Now we are not only a design-thinking company, we’re a design-driven company. Design isn’t a function or department; it’s how we deliver benefits for our customers companywide.

I like to think that like Ohio State, we’re playing the whole field.

As you look at building your own design team, remember that you don’t have to search for the “perfect” hire who can solve every need. But yours should be known as a fun and motivating team to play on. Following are some thoughts to inspire your own playbook:

Recruiting the right way takes time and effort

You can talk about offense and defense, and whether or not your team is stronger at one or the other. But everybody knows that the secret sauce is recruiting the right talent, which is a multi-year journey. You have to be able to spot new talent from a long way off and in non-obvious places, and then nurture it—take a person from second string to first string to leading you to the championships. In college football, a team might find a diamond-in-the-rough high school recruit, or a multi-sport player like NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter, who was recruited to Ohio State for both basketball and football in the 1980s. In design, because there are so many different trades in the craft—research, visual design, interaction design, design engineering, writing—there are many places you can find great talent. For design engineering, for example, you might start with people who are self-taught. Perhaps they were a really technically bent person in design school, or an engineer who is an artisan on the side and found their way into design.

Look for people who care about craft—and values

Shared mission is the tie that binds, whether that’s college ball or a strong design team. A hotshot wide receiver might be insanely good when it comes to the art of catching the football, but if all he cares about is a passing game and gets ticked when coaches run ground plays, he can be toxic to the team. Similarly, most of the time you are better off passing up incredible designers who are more driven by the craft itself than by what their craft is going to be a service of. There should be a culture and a value system that unite.

Apply the same rigor across the organization

It’s not just the players on the field who make a team successful. It’s all of the coaches, physical trainers, and the entire staff that enable a team to shine. And it’s about practicing, earnestly, every week. You must apply the same rigor in staffing for those positions at your company as you spread the fervor for design. In the corporate world, that means making sure you have the best product managers, the best engineering and QA team, and the best marketers all working together day in and day out with the designers—that’s what really changes the game.

Give early career talent a chance to shine

“How deep is your bench” is an analogy that comes straight from sports. College football teams have their starting lineups and other players ready and waiting to step in to help carry the effort forward. Again, recruiting and mentoring is key—you have to let people know you are an organization that can support their growth. Avoid falling into the trap of giving early career talent Gatorade duty. At Intuit, seniority does not dictate the position you play or which string you’re in—craft does. It’s all about delivering for the customer. Sometimes we have a senior quarterback on a project, but often a freshman quarterback with the right skillset gets called up.

Looking ahead, the game—and our world—is changing fast. Technology has had an impact on many aspects of college football, down to the player’s equipment and the viewing experience for fans. Perhaps most notably, data insights have revolutionized the way the game is analyzed, practiced, and played. In the corporate environment, your design team can be an innovation catalyst for your entire organization to meet changing customer needs as technology reshapes expectations and experiences.

Post topics: Design