How what we don’t know about each other is killing us

It’s no surprise that the environments, cultures, and contexts we work in largely influence what gets made and how. It’s surprising the fuel behind this is largely ignored. 

After researching innovation, collaboration, and design culture, I’ve concluded that it’s not how many white boards you have, nor how many post-its are on the wall. Collaborative IntelligenceIt’s the collective attitudes and relationships that exist in a room that beat out any other element in contributing to a healthy and productive design culture. Furthermore, it’s our ability to productively structure relationships based on people’s inherent strengths and tendencies that lead to productive design culture. This is under-recognized.

This doesn’t mean you have a bunch of people all on the same page constantly agreeing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and that’s the irony of it. It’s like a nuclear fusion reactor, holding together what wants to radiate in every direction is what constantly fuels our creative engines.

It’s creative abrasion – fueled by emotional intelligence, and more specifically, a nuanced concept called collaborative intelligence. Knowing how our own minds work, our own thinking talents, and collaboration preferences to better work with and think with others.

collaborative intelligence

Design is rarely an individual event. And there’s no denying that a great team can run laps around even the most proficient designers. Yet it’s slightly shocking that in our desires for immense design collaboration, we don’t recognize or identify what position we each play best.

According to Dr. Markova and Angie McArthur in their book Collaborative Intelligence, one of the first steps to building productive teams, is to have everyone recognize how your own mind works. Recognizing that our minds are in one of three states: focused, open, or sorting, and what triggers those states: seeing, hearing, or doing, is a fundamentally important place to start if we want to be better team players in design collaboration.

This is important because while talking out loud might help one person focus in on the problem, it could cause another to space out and go to big picture ideas. These two kinds of people often get upset in this situation because they’re pulling in different directions. However, once we recognize that different stimuli (seeing, hearing, or doing) naturally and unavoidably trigger different thinking modes, we can better understand and tolerate these differences.

teamwork in designTo be specific, this is a more nuanced perspective on psychology than whether someone is simply a visual or auditory learner.

Digging deeper, and to ultimately achieve a healthier design culture, we need to recognize the thinking talents we each have. Some of us have analytical or procedural tendencies. Or perhaps your strengths are in coming up with new ideas or building relationships. As Harvard’s Howard Gardner posited some years ago, we have multiple intelligences, and recognizing our strengths and weaknesses can better inform teams during collaboration.

Ned Herrmann, American creativity researcher, has surveyed more than 130,000 people and found that there are four primary “cognitive styles.” Left brained analytical and procedural, and right brained relational and innovative. “While we are born with the capacity to use all four of these cognitive styles, we we mature we tend to develop preferences.” (pg 108)

Looking into work done by Herrmann and the Gallop organization over 30 years, they found that the more people were able to use their strengths at work, the more the productive the company was. They identified 34 “signature strengths” and found that most adults have five:

Analytic: Making Order, Thinking Logically, Collecting, Seeking Excellence, Fixing It

Innovative: Innovation, Loving Ideas, Love of Learning, Thinking Ahead, Strategy, Adapting

Procedural: Reliability, Thinking Back, Getting to Action, Having Confidence, Focusing, Equalizing, Taking Charge, Precision

Relational: Optimism, Inclusion, Connection, Creating Intimacy, Peacemaking, Enrolling, Storytelling, Particularizing, Believing, Mentoring, Feelings for Others

Talents in All Quadrants: Wanting to Win, Humor, Thinking Alone, Goal Setting

“Herrmann’s findings were that 7% percent of adults have one cognitive preference; 60% exhibit two; 30% show three; and just 3% have equal preference for all four styles” (pg 127).

What all this means is that we’re all uniquely different with different talents to bring to the table. This isn’t a new concept, but to realize it with such precision is an opportunity to make this phenomenon more actionable.

>> So I pose this question: why don’t more companies, particularly those engaging in collaborative design, recognize, identify, and act on this information to create more productive teams, more idea sharing, and ultimately, more innovation??


  1. We’re all unique
  2. Working together well is super important for design cultures
  3. We know the ways in which we’re unique and how we compliment and supplement each other’s strengths and talents
  4. Even though this is super important, few people are doing anything about it



Markova, D., & McArthur, A. (n.d.). Collaborative intelligence: Thinking with people who think differently.