Last month, Ryan, Samuel and Mark took a trip to Chicago to attend the Balanced Team Conference, generously hosted by IDEO. Balanced Team Chicago was a unique event of lectures, workshops, hallway conversations, and karaoke. The event was limited to a relatively small number of attendees of design thinkers, problem solvers, and unicorns.

Here’s a brief recap of some of the insights we gained at Balanced Team Chicago.

Moses Hohman of Human Practice, kicked off the event with a talk on Customer Centric selling. In essence, customer centric selling means rooting out the customer’s needs and then proposing how your product or service provides the solution. Too often, product development starts the other way around, with product in hand, trying to convince customers to adapt their lives to the product.

Go deeper into agile methods and customer centric selling by checking out Moses Hohman’s detailed online material.

Jared Spool discussed the popular model of the “T shaped” employee, where each team member is deeply skilled in one area and broadly skilled in others. He posited that a team of T-shaped employees simply wasn’t efficient, because in most cases there isn’t enough work to keep an extreme specialist occupied consistently. It is better, he said, to be like a broken comb, with a few deep specialties and a general knowledge of the larger industry.

A generalist becomes a specialist, he says, when there is enough work in one area for them to go deeper. People who are trained to be specific before they are general are essentially compartmentalists, which is a relic of manufacturing. Ultimately, market demands will set the balance between generalists and specialists. It’s best to be adaptable.

Read more of Jared Spool’s thoughts compartmentalists, generalists, and specialists.

Paul Pagel of 8th Light introduced a valuable concept for engaging with clients through “Productive Partnerships”, in which he points out how common software purchasing models fall short. Charging for time and materials puts completion pressure on the purchase. On the other hand, however, fixed bids put pressure on the company when estimating.

Pagel suggests an agile method of charging through fixed features. All parties appropriate risks through fixed features, which are small deliverables. This turns each feature into a commodity. In addition, each discipline (such as design or development), has its own deliverable. The fixed feature method creates more transparency and gives the client the ability to control their own dependencies accordingly. An interesting market emerges from this kind of relationship, Pagel says.

You can read more about Pagel and fixed feature budgeting here.

Jon Wettersten and Paolo Lorenzoni from IDEO paired up next to build on the concept of “design thinking“. Wettersten has a background in both design and development. Lorenzoni has a background in startups and designing businesses from scratch. They argued that, in creative industries like IDEO, design and business philosophies interlock in indispensable ways, and that the natural contributions of both designers and developers must be respected.

One must understand the difference between enabling and constraining design, and not making design subordinate. Business creates a context for design, but design creates business. Business is the mechanism through which design has impact, but design is a pillar that any creative business must stand on. Through this lens of mutual dependency and respect, they cite Martin’s ideas on “inductive logic” and the importance of taking calculated leaps of faith.

Browse through more of IDEO’s prolific work here.

Finally, Tom Knight of Evergreen Growth Advisors spoke to something that isn’t often discussed: “Collaborating to Develop Customers: Increasing Teamwork between Sales and Product Design”. He suggests that businesses thrive when the tracks between sales and product design are well oiled. This requires a very clear process by which two seemingly disparate departments can communicate closely. Knight states that, in his research, only 42% of companies say they have an actual process, while only 35% say they use it consistently.

As studied and insightful as these talks were, some of the greatest takeaways came from the workshops and open discussion. It was great to have leaders from different, yet related companies all under one roof, speaking spontaneously of their specific dilemmas and solutions. Balanced Team Chicago is a fantastic workshop for any tech-based and creative company who can make it out. Keep an eye on Lanyrd to learn when they’re releasing details of next year’s conference.

In the meantime, here are some additional resources that were recommended at the event:

Inspired by Marty Cagan
The life and work of Karl Weick
More resources from Balanced Team for becoming a UX unicorn.

We’ve come away with a newfound respect for our colleagues at Balanced Team Chicago, including IDEO, their business, and the strength of their industry leadership. We’ll definitely be applying some of these ideas in our own work going forward.

If you have any thoughts, comments, or questions on the topics we mentioned, feel feel to drop us a note at humans@mutuallyhuman.com!

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