Keeping teams strong during tight deadlines

4 min read
Justin Kunkel
  •  Dec 15, 2015
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Last month I participated in the Jefferson Health Hack, a multi-disciplinary event hosted by Jefferson University and sponsored by IBM, Comcast, Microsoft, and others. 250 designers, physicians, and developers spent the weekend designing and prototyping technology, products, and processes to improve healthcare outcomes.

Luckily, I fell in with an amazing team, and we won the the “Reducing Readmissions” track of the contest. Our product was the Care Cube, a connected home device that allows patients with chronic conditions to continuously update their well-being to physicians through a simple, analog action. We created Care Cube—from idea to an actual, physical product—in just 2 days.

The Care Cube.

Before coming to design, I worked as a journalist, and there are some precepts to success on a deadline that I was reminded of during this event. They’re universals to remember when you’re working quickly, no matter the medium.

Refine your idea first

When you’re developing a product, create rules for yourself.Twitter Logo Write them down, get everyone on your team to agree on them, and put them in a highly visible spot so they’re impossible to forget.

“You have to deliver work that you’re proud of without being distracted by the constraints.”

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With Care Cube, we wanted to create a physical device that allowed the patient to answer just one question. It was a simple concept, and we forced ourselves to stick to it. There’s a temptation to change rafts in the middle of the stream on any project, and for some reason, it’s especially alluring to jump when your mind is racing on a deadline.

That’s why you create rules. Don’t jump to a new raft—just modify the one you’re on.Twitter Logo

Set clear goals

We wanted to make the prototype collect data and signify status to the user through a system of LEDs—something that actually worked. That sounds obvious, but doing this in 2 days was an aggressive goal.

We sacrificed sleep and a lot of effort in other areas to make it happen, but that focus was vital. Simply aiming for completion isn’t necessarily a recipe for success when you’re in a time crunch. Completion is a vague idea and a moving target. Give yourself something discreet to aim for.

Set reasonable expectations

An editor of mine once told me a good writer must be equally capable of a 3-minute story, 3-day story, 3-week story, or 3-month story. Each has its place, and it’s some of the best advice I ever received.

“Understanding which ‘story’ you’re writing is vital to success on deadline.”

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Understanding which ‘story’ you’re writing is vital to success on deadline.Twitter Logo We understood that the prototype wasn’t going to be perfect. We had limited experience (none, actually) with laser cutting acrylic, so to expect something flawless would have been foolish. Creative people often want to do more than they should because they’re desperate to do their vision justice. But when you’re short on time, doing less means you’ll be able to deliver higher-quality results instead of just lots of mediocre stuff.

Trust your team

When you’re on a deadline, even the most cohesive team can begin to fall apart. Observe teams working together on a deadline and you’ll often hear a variation of this: “Can you… well… forget it—I’ll just do it.”

You don’t save time by cutting off communication.Twitter Logo You end up with overlapping work, inconsistencies, and, inevitably, rework.

“Trust your team.”

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Our team included another designer, a physician, and a programmer, and we quickly developed trust for each other’s expertise. When time gets tight, you can’t abandon process. In fact, that’s the time when you need it most.

Know your audience

Creatives have to sell their work and ideas. When you have to prioritize efforts due to a lack of time, it’s important to know the wants and needs of the people you’re selling to.

We knew that an engaging, functional prototype would appeal to a broader audience, but we also knew that the judges were going to be thinking in dollars and cents. So we backed up our prototype with information about estimated manufacturing costs.

“You don’t save time by cutting off communication.”

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When the deadline came, Care Cube was far from perfect. But that’s the thing with deadlines: you have to deliver work that you’re proud of without being distracted by the constraints.Twitter Logo We should have engraved the icons onto the acrylic when we were laser cutting it, but we didn’t plan ahead as well as we should have.

We had some missteps working with technology that was relatively new to us. At one point I was over-caffeinated to the point of near admittance.

Even so, working in tight time constraints can be inspiring. Do what you always do, but avoid the mental clutter that comes with working fast.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard