I started playing ice hockey as an adult, which is generally a really stupid idea. Ice hockey is arguably the hardest team sport in existence. The strength, speed, and agility required to skate are enough to make ice skating an individual sport unto itself. Combine that with a small hard rubber puck and long sticks and you’re really asking for it (“it” being injury or looking extremely foolish). Thankfully I played a lot of road hockey as a kid so that part wasn’t as challenging.

I knew from the start I was never going to be Wayne Gretzky but I loved the thrill of the sport, the adrenaline, the speed, and the intensity of the action. When I do something, I am highly competitive and want to win, but I am also generally a nice guy who wants to help people. So I had to find my role on my team and ensure I wasn’t the worst guy on the ice at all times. That’s usually the best way to learn but that’s a whole other story.

Over the years my team has gelled into a pretty consistent group with a consistent lineup. We have a simple but effective strategy and a couple of set plays. But most importantly, we all know the strengths and weaknesses of one another, and we all work together to play our role to do the thing teams do, which is win.

Hockey is the most dynamic team sport, due to the speed created by the ice. It means that every player out there has to play their role and do their job while at the same time quickly react to whatever is happening and make rapid decisions about what to do. If you get sucked into a play where you don’t belong, you create an opportunity for the other side to break out. But if you don’t seize the opportunity and take a risk, you won’t tilt the ice in your favor to create scoring opportunities.

The point is that every player on the ice is responsible for knowing the game plan, following the game plan, creating opportunities, and being creative and taking risks when the time is right.

Creating lean digital products works exactly the same way. Your primary role or deliverable of comfort might be creating user stories, sketching interactions, or writing code. Generally you’re going to focus on that domain, much as the defense on the hockey team is going to stay close to the blue line when the puck is in the zone. But there are times when you’ll have to step outside of that comfort zone because it’s what makes sense for the product at the time. It’s about the greater good.

As our design director likes to say, we are all designing when we are solving customer problems. We might be a designer using a user story to frame a problem and a solution or articulate value propositions. Or we might be a developer sketching out an interaction. You might be a defenseman carrying the puck coast to coast. Your fellow team mates have to constantly be vigilant and read the play and always support one another to be effective and to win.

Main photo from ArdeeSN.