In my position at Rice University I consult with many authentic teams completing the design process with real-world clients. One of the groups I am most proud of having a heavy hand in is Rice’s chapter of Design For America. ┬áThe DFA National blog recently highlighted some of the mentors that play a role in developing chapters and teams. I am one of the mentors featured in the piece.

The article highlights our roles as creating a culture of feedback. This is a very complementary view of exactly what we are trying to accomplish with our DFA chapter. Here at DFA Rice we have set up a system designed to “train up” leaders. When students join DFA they work on a team for a semester-long project. In their second year with DFA they have the opportunity to become a Team Lead, a role that places them charge of a project team. While working in this capacity they serve both as a project leader and a TA, one foot invested in the success of the project and able to do work with/for the team, and the other foot perched as a mentor in the design process.

Once a week, all of the Team Leads, Studio Leads, and myself meet for lunch. In that meeting we discuss where all of the teams currently are in their process. We’ve done our best to encourage the Team Leads to be vocal in their questions, concerns, and missteps. We have tried to get them to open up about their failures. In each case we try and diagnose and solve problems together as a team. Team Leads give opinion and advice to other team leads from their experience and understanding of the design process. Peers mentor peers. This is only our second iteration of the program but from my perspective we have been able to avoid some common pitfalls that design teams struggle with: procrastination, fixation, dwelling in one step to long.

Later in the week the Studio Leads have a planning meeting which I also attend. In this meeting Studio Leads hold an executive level discussion about the state of the studio, discuss timelines, and strategize/plan next steps. Team Leads who are interested in being a Studio Lead can attend these meetings and provide input; The current Studio Leads are former Team Leads who have been “trained up.” In these meetings I try and provide counsel where needed but I am vocal that I want the students to manage and run it themselves. Sometimes I do much of the talking, in vocal opposition or providing best practices, sometimes I do almost no talking. Now in my third year of mentoring this club I am speaking less than ever.

The strategy of growing leaders from our DFA members is central to our ability to create a high-functioning organization capable of providing authentic leadership and team experience tackling real-world, authentic community-based challenges. This process is designed to grow new leaders on a regular basis and we hope that eventually any of our Team Leads could step up and serve as Studio Leads and many of our team members could serve as Team Leads. From a faculty standpoint I see this is as critical to establishing long-term institutional memory. From an organizational standpoint we look at this as a strengthening of the organization which will allow us to work on more complex challenges for local communities.

Thanks to DFA National for shedding some light on faculty mentors and for the hard working Team and Studio Leads of Rice’s Design For America chapter.

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