Four Stanford Biodesign Innovation fellows and Douglas Rait, PhD, Biodesign's director of team learning and design, were gathering online for their regular team check-in. Even though the meeting was virtual, the opening was the same. "So how are you feeling?" Rait asked, looking at the bright faces displayed on his screen. "Really."
The trainees, all highly-accomplished in medicine, engineering or business, were nearing the end of the fellowship program. In it, they had worked together for nearly a year to identify and solve an important problem in health care by developing a new digital or device-based technology.
Rait was checking the team's progress on their project and on new efforts related to COVID-19. He also wanted them to share their experiences during California's shelter-in-place order.
"I encourage the fellows to share all of who they are," Rait said. "The goal is to create a safe environment where team members can take professional risks, but also personal ones in terms of being vulnerable or asking for help. All of this can be especially difficult for high-performing people."
It's an unusual approach for a technical team. But over nearly 20 years of training aspiring innovators, the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign faculty have learned that nurturing a healthy team dynamic is as important as choosing the right health care problem to solve. Today, it's more imperative than ever.
"I think our sessions with Doug are even more important since going virtual," said Francis Wong, MD, a 2019-20 innovation fellow. "Although our team tries to keep in touch as much as possible, we miss all the impromptu conversations we used to have. And it can be draining to be on multiple video calls each day, glued to our screens. Doug has helped us find new ways to connect."
Rait, who is also chief of Stanford's Couples and Family Therapy Clinic, has built his professional career around group dynamics, helping couples, families, teams and organizations improve their functioning and well-being. "I have always been fascinated by the importance of interpersonal interactions and the possibilities of working with more than one person to create change that can benefit everyone," he explained.
For the Biodesign Innovation Fellowship, Rait's involvement starts at the beginning, with candidate selection. "When I first came to Biodesign, we were often selecting the 'best athletes.' We thought that we could put them together on teams and somehow they would magically push each other to do great things," Rait said. "Now we're looking for really capable, energizing people who can actually work together well."
Once the 12 new fellows arrive and are formed into teams, Rait uses design-thinking principles to help each group of trainees build an "intentional team." He explained, "The team itself is an innovation that matters because it is the vehicle that will make it possible for them to achieve their larger project goals."
Steps for building that team include establishing group goals, such as authenticity, clear communication and integrity; defining behaviors that support those goals; and identifying signals that would indicate that things are beginning to break down, such as disrespecting a teammate or avoiding difficult discussions.
In addition to bi-weekly check-in meetings, Rait is available for extra support during the most challenging parts of the innovation process. For example, when the teams go through the painstaking process of narrowing their list of potential projects from more than 200 down to just two or three. Or when a global pandemic erupts.
"Doug has helped us continue to check in on one another and has given us space to recognize the impact beyond Biodesign that COVID-19 is having on each of our plans, lives and families," Wong said.
That effect includes exacerbating another already challenging time in the fellowship: the end of the academic year. "Many fellows want to leverage everything they've learned by launching a start-up," Rait noted. "But some of the fellows have other plans, especially now."
Rait helps teams dive in and deal with "the messy, hard process of sorting it all out."
"There's almost never an upside to avoiding dealing with diversity and difference. The fellows need to do the hard work of identifying and valuing each team member's true perspective," he explained.
Regardless of the direction each fellow chooses, they all leave with a better understanding about how to build and maintain a strong team.
Amanda White, a 2018-19 innovation fellow, said one of the most valuable aspects of the training was the focus on team dynamics.
"Doug was a huge asset, both in helping us self-regulate and in teaching us a collaborative way of deciding what was important," she said. "When we made a decision as a team, with everyone's input, it increased the group's commitment to the goals we had set for ourselves."
Rait said he was glad to be there for the fellows-- especially as the pandemic adds another dimension to their mission to find unmet needs and innovate to help improve people's lives.
"As the fellows expand their already rigorous workload to focus on COVID-19, I'm there to help them elevate each other, so that they can do life-changing work," he said.
Photos courtesy of Stacey Paris McCutcheon