What Can Product Teams Learn from Bob Marley?

I once attended a talk by a documentary filmmaker about Bob Marley that described how he and his band The Wailers were able to deliver timeless recordings but also deliver amazing live performances. At the height of Bob Marley's career (before his untimely death) the filmmaker once attended a rehearsal waiting to get an interview with Bob. What he described struck me as both intense and deliberate. The interviewer witnessed the band practice a single song for more than 8 hours. From time to time Bob would stop the rehearsal to discuss his vision for the song and how it could be improved. Periodically Bob would call out "switch" and each band member would move to a different instrument and pick up the song from the top. Flabergasted by what he'd just experienced, when the time was finally granted with Bob he asked about what he had just witnessed. Why would a band rehearse the same song for so long but also learn the instrument of other members of the band? What Bob had to say was telling of his perfectionism but also his dedication to his craft. He described how important it was for each band member to know their parts, but to also have an appreciation for how each instrument worked with their own to become something more. 

What does that have to do with product design?

Software design and development are a team sport.  It starts with vision but requires flawless execution by a team to deliver an exceptional product. I don't feel many organizations recognize how important shared vision and appreciation of each members contributions are. Bob Marley relayed his vision for a song and then he and his band did more than practice to perform their best, each member developed a sound appreciation for what each contributes by learning one another's instruments. I feel software teams can do more to develop a product vision, practice and cultivate an appreciation for what each is contributing.


A vision is important. It is not a pithy statement about becoming the best, but something bold, meaningful and compelling.  

 A vision serves to unite people and harness their energy.

What makes a vision? Vision is a product of deep understanding of the state of industry (technology and human values) and a desire to explore what is possible. This is no recipe for creating a compelling vision some would say it's a matter of thinking deeply and systematically removing the limitations for the current state of the industry. A vision is driven by "What if?"  Ask "What if" questions for every limitation your product or industry currently has.  

  • What if we could produce computer chips half the size of todays chips?
  • What if our software could run twice as fast as it does?
  • What if all cellular data packages were unlimited?
  • What if a quality laptop could be produced for less than $100?

Perhaps you can see Nicolas Negroponte's vision of One Laptop per Child in the last question?


How is it possible to practice when you have an aggressive schedule and endless deadlines? The same way other professions do it; make practice part of the schedule. Practice should be scheduled as team building events and should be fun. Fun ideas for practicing skills and techniques might include events like design improv (Interactionary by Scott Berkum) or exercises from the Stanford d.school. An event I helped create at IBM involved developers designing a planned program for Take Your Kid to Work Day. This event put a team of developers in the role of experience designer with mentorship from a seasoned experience designer. It was a fun way for developers to learn about experience design and grow their appreciation for the role. 

Find your own ways get teams involved in one another's work.  Whether that is events like those described or information sharing sessions and job shadowing. I believe a better appreciation for each others skills build better teams and better teams build better products. 

Are your products exceptional?

Is your product team operating at it's potential?

Perhaps it is time to listen to Bob Marley and cultivate your vision and your team?

Design and the Magic of Spirograph

When I was a boy my sisters were much better at drawing and art than I was.  I remember feeling frustrated and dejected by my lack of skill, until one Christmas discovering Spirograph. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirograph  If you aren’t familiar with Spirograph it is a set of specially designed cogged wheels with holes for a pen that allows anyone to produce stunning symmetrical images by using the tools provided.  With a little practice and experimentation I was producing stunning images of color and symmetry.  By using different shaped cogs, pen positions and colors I was able to produce something slightly different each time. While not exactly the same as the free form drawings my sisters were producing I was proud of my new found skills and experimented with the kit extensively.  By using that kit, I development my confidence to experiment and practice other forms of art.

Fast forward to today where I work as an experience designer and design educator, I find myself thinking about ways to help teams streamline producing great products.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were a system like Spirograph that could allow teams to learn and gain confidence while producing exceptionally designed products?  A team could gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction like I did as a boy just by using a kit of tools to guide you like I did with Spirograph. 

Historically the only way to learn the tools and techniques of design was to enroll in a university program like industrial design, architecture or HCI or through years of practice and independent learning. Thankfully some specialty programs have arisen that teach the techniques of design for high tech. Programs like Stanford University’s d.school, Jon Kolko’s Austin Center for Design AC4D, Jared Spool’s Unicorn Institute are a few examples of programs that teach user research, interaction design and evaluation.  If you are planning to go to school to become a designer one of these programs is likely to be life changing. Given the opportunity I highly recommend formal education for anyone with the time and funds to enroll. While these education programs provide invaluable experiences for individuals lucky enough to enroll, what about a whole product team within a company?  How much impact can an individual with a design education have on a product team’s ability to understand and integrate design affectively?  

From my own experience producing an exceptional product is a team endeavor. Exceptional products are produced by teams who together care about all facets of their product together.  Business people, engineers and designers need to understand and respect the commitments and goals that each are responsible for, and work to harmonize their goals throughout the project.  From my experience I have noticed that design is the least understood within a corporate environment.  This leads designers to often be isolated from business people and engineers. Isolation causes significant friction when it comes to delivering products since the goals of business, design and engineering do not get harmonized.

I believe courses like the ones mentioned are a good first start towards design education but are ineffective at reducing friction and creating lasting change in an organization.  I believe that design is a team sport and the best products are produced by teams who practice “design” together.  To do that everyone on a product team needs to understand the fundamentals of design in order to play an effective role (and that goes also to understanding business and engineering).

To affect the lasting change a product team needs I use a different approach.  I work with product teams on their project to teach the fundamentals of design, to harmonize the goals of business, design and engineering which will reduce friction.  Using a curriculum of exercises specifically tailored for your situation your team must learn to design together using a real problem under a real deadline.  While most corporate education uses case studies that are artificial and “safe” (with a set of known answers); case studies may not be directly applicable to the problem your team faces.  By integrating design education into a project no time is lost and the outcome can be compared to previous projects.

I consider my approach to be a lot like Spirograph.  I provide guidance, training and mentoring for teams to learn the skills that produce great designs that build confidence together.  Much like the cogs in Spirograph my design exercises lead to effective outcomes a team can build on.

Drop me a line I’d love to chat about your team and your specific challenges.