When design leaders think about how to grow their businesses, they usually don’t stop at one product or service: they imagine all of the different ways they can expand, even if they’re not quite sure how to get there. What if we could break into *this* new market? Add *this* type of product? Work with *these* kinds of clients? What if, what if, what if?!
David Galullo knows this well. When he became CEO of Rapt Studio in 2011, the San Francisco-based firm was primarily focused on commercial architectural projects. But over time, Galullo sensed there was an opportunity to help clients with more than just their physical spaces. Today, Rapt—which has worked with Ancestry, Dollar Shave Club, PayPal, and other high-profile brands—is equipped to help clients tell a more consistent and engaging story through a multitude of touchpoints, including interiors, websites, and events. During a recent project with a dental startup, the company even designed hygienists’ uniforms.
The key to making it work, Galullo has found, is in bringing together a diverse group of people to tackle each and every project. Instead of having departments for interior design, strategy, copywriting, or any other expertise, Rapt is truly interdisciplinary, with people in a variety of fields working together on a single project from Day 1.
It’s a model that Galullo believes results in more innovative solutions. “We think what we’re doing is a great way to think about the complexity of the world, and we think others can benefit from it,” he says.
Of course, having people with varying skills and knowledge sets work so closely can be a headache as well, especially when it comes to managing egos and keeping projects moving. In a recent interview, Galullo shared his best advice for building an interdisciplinary team that works.
1. Leave room for real dialogue
At a time when many of us are running around from meeting to meeting and switching gears minute to minute, Galullo’s recommendation is a breath of fresh air: leave room so that real work can get done. While teams at Rapt are often working on several projects of a time, they try to limit the loss of brain power that occurs with jumping between tasks. For example, instead of having someone work for two hours on one task and two hours on another, the whole team might work for three days to complete something together. This helps ensure that people know everything that’s going on, and also allows for the debate and questioning that comes with bringing diverse thinkers together. “There’s a language and pace of thinking that comes with each discipline,” says Galullo. “It’s like bringing together someone from Maine, Southern California, and Louisiana together to tell a story—they’re speaking the same language, but some of them speak slower, some speak faster. In design it’s the same: you have to leave some room for people to speak in real terms and really translate their ideas to one another.”
Team size also plays a role here as well. At Rapt, which has 80 employees across its offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, the average team size is seven. Galullo has found this is the perfect number for efficiency and productivity—anything bigger would mean having to create subteams, which would make it harder for everyone to be on the same page at all times.
2. Create a ‘psychologically safe’ environment
Research has shown that teams are most successful when the people feel they won’t be punished for a mistake. It’s a concept known as “psychological safety,” and Galullo is a big believer. “When people feel that each of their team members has their back, they feel safe throwing out crazy ideas and can bring as much creativity to the table as possible. That’s when teams excel,” he says. With the impetus to ensure teammates feel beholden to one another and the work at hand, the company recently introduced unlimited PTO (paid time off). This means teams must communicate openly and work with one another to figure out when and how the work will get done. “Every aspect of our process has been reengineered to allow for a consistent internal team feedback loop, allowing for the team to self-manage, for honesty to prevail, and for the team to know that their individual successes is meaningfully linked to the success of the team as a whole,” says Galullo.
3. Hire for curiosity
A key quality of interdisciplinary teams is that they consider many different expert approaches to find the best overall solution. But not everyone has the willingness to work in an environment where their ideas might face rigorous questioning by colleagues in other fields. That’s why it’s so important to look for people who value curiosity. “You have to find people who are extremely talented and have great expertise, but are also open-minded and don’t suffer from the ‘Why is this person questioning me?’ dilemma,” says Galullo. “It’s a struggle.”
4. Let teams self-police, but have a system for managing decision-making and conflict
While Galullo believes teams should be given freedom to work as they see fit, he also believes in creating a framework that keeps the team moving forward together. Every team at Rapt has a team lead whose job it is to remove barriers so that the team can perform its best. Teams also have an account director, who acts as a surrogate for the client—if a team is really stuck or in conflict about where to go with a project, the account director will intervene.
5. Look for opportunities to foster community and creativity in the space around you
“With clients, we often start our processes not asking what kind of spaces people need, but what kind of interactions you want people to have,” says Galullo. The same principle can be applied to Rapt itself, which has designed its offices to facilitate communication, warmth, and interaction. At its San Francisco office, the company has a coffee stand and barista instead of a reception desk so that employees and clients feel welcomed in a way that they’re used to. In LA, there’s an outdoor dining area full of plants and a huge, inviting communal table. For Galullo, these sorts of design choices are all about giving people the chance to do their best work. “If you want people to bring their best selves, to look at things with curiosity, you can’t expect them to stand at the same desk for 10 hours a day,” he says.