Teamwork & Design

From WikID

Why is teamwork important?

Sometimes great inventions are the result of the ingenuity and effort of an individual. But in most cases designers do not work on their own. Francis Jehl, one of Thomas Edison’ long-time assistants, once explained that, “Edison is in reality a collective noun and means to the work of many men”. He referred to the team of engineers that worked with Edison (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006). Today, products become increasingly complex and therefore cannot be designed by one person alone. They require diverse expertise in different fields of technology, in user research, in manufacturing and production technology, and in marketing and distribution. This is normally too much for one person. More people can also share the workload and thus develop products in less time. Hence the normal way of developing products is in teams where different people contribute part of the knowledge and effort (Lauche, 2007).

Integrated product development (Ehrlenspiel, 1995)

The better the team works together, the more efficient they will be. The idea of integrated product development is that people from different functions and areas of expertise collaborate early in the process so that the requirements of users and of production can be considered in the concept stage. Spotting potential problems early means they can be fixed before it becomes labour-intensive and expensive. Thus cross-disciplinary collaboration helps to shorten time-to-market and to reduce development costs.

The curriculum at IDE Delft is aimed to prepare you for this kind of collaboration by exposing you to a lot of project work in teams. At the best of time, teamwork is fun: it can be inspiring and stimulating, it motivates you to give your best and there are other that can support you and from whom you can learn. But it doesn’t always work that well: teamwork can also be very demanding if you have different perspectives, and it can be frustrating and unfair if you have to sacrifice good ideas for an unhappy compromise or not everyone is really contributing. Teams can be less effective than an individual and they can develop very unproductive dynamics.

The good news is that team working is a skill that can be learned and practised. Even if your team is not working as well as it could, there is usually a way to improve things. Teamwork in New Product Development is especially challenging, because projects are complex and team members fluctuate – but it also offers very good changes for developing team skills (Edmondson & Nembhard, 2009). The following sections explain what you should be aware of and what you can do to improve teamwork.

What to keep in mind?

  1. Teams are often the only option to get a job done, but doing everything with everybody might not be the most efficient way of working.
    In the same way that too many cooks can ruin a meal, too many people on a job can mean that nobody really feels responsible. If everybody thinks that somebody else will do it, then often nobody actually does anything. This is called “diffusion of responsibility” and is more likely to happen in large teams.
    What you can do to prevent diffusion of responsibility it to clarify roles and responsibilities and to make sure that no more people are assigned for a specific task than are actually needed. If you look closely at the figure above (integrated product development), you can see that two or three people are working together at a specific task – not everyone with everyone.
  2. Teams need time before they can perform at their best.
    Before you can be really productive in a team, you need to get to know each other and establish a common way of working.
    Phases of group development according to Tuckman’s model
    Tuckman’s model of team development says that teams go through phases: in the forming phase, people are polite and careful and want to get to know each other. In the storming phase, they will start to explore what is possible and acceptable in the team and how dominant, how laid-back or how cheeky they can be. Once the boundaries have been tested, the group enters the norming phase in which it establishes its own norms and standards of behaviour. Only after that a group will reach the performing phase and will be able to operate at their full potential (see Lewis).
    Not all groups go through all stages, or they might encounter conflicts and storming again at a later stage. But it is good to keep in mind that establishing a good basis for teamwork takes time. You can shorten the time by doing activities together that help to get to know each other, and you can discuss goals and expectations to make the storming and norming more explicit.
  3. Diversity usually helps to be more creative, but can make coordination and shared understanding more challenging.
    There has been a lot of research on the effect of diversity in teams in terms of gender, age, educational or cultural background, and the findings are mixed. The consensus that seems to be emerging is that diverse teams come up with more diverse and more innovative ideas, because they have a broader range of experiences to draw on. But they find it more difficult to create shared understanding about the task and communication is more difficult. The effect of diversity also depends on people’s personal preferences: those who enjoy complexity and don’t mind if it gets more difficult, also work better in more diverse teams. Those who prefer the world to be simple and straightforward can find diversity disturbing and frustrating.
    So to make the most of diversity, invite people to bring in their varied experience when generating ideas and diverging. For converging and decision-making, try to establish a shared goal and a procedure that all team members feel comfortable with. This will allow you to become more cohesive and effective.
  4. Groupthink can happen
    Groupthink refers to a very cohesive group where people become so focussed on a consensus within the group that they are uncritical and forget what is happening around them. The historical example for this is Janis’s analysis of the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s (see Levi, 2007) in which the advisors to the president became very inward-oriented and failed to consider the adverse consequences of their decisions. Groupthink means that teams consider themselves invulnerable – nothing can go wrong –, they think of themselves as much higher than everyone else, and can believe they are inherently right. They therefore fail to think in alternatives and do not seek the advice of outside advisors.
    Examples from new product development include a case where a whole team working on a plastic bag dispenser did not properly analyse the market needs because they were so focussed on the technical problems. The best precaution against groupthink is to be open to criticism and to reflect and question what the team is doing on a regular basis.

What you can do?

There is no recipe that leads to guarantee success in teamwork. But there are a number of things that you can do to build a good basis or to deal with problems if they arise.

  1. Clarify your goals: It is always a good idea to make sure that all group members have the same goal and vision of the project – it helps to maintain motivation and to sort out misunderstandings early. Discuss the requirements of your assignment together and question the task: what is it that you are trying to achieve? Also talk about your expectations: What do you personally want to get out of this? How good is good enough for each team member?
  2. Create an open atmosphere in the team where people feel safe to say innovative, weird, new, critical or awkward things. The more open your team is, the more likely it is to be really innovative. You can contribute to this by phrasing your own criticism as constructive suggestions and by taking other people’s comments as feedback and further development of your ideas, not as an attack. Design teams are at their best when you can no longer distinguish who contributed what to the final solution (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006).
  3. Use a combination of techniques and creativity methods and alternate between working with the whole team and assigning tasks to individuals. This will enhance your creative output (Paulus, 2000), and it also provides different ways of working to suit different personal working styles.
  4. Hold regular review meetings within the team where you discuss the progress on the task and the quality of the teamwork. This helps to get feedback and to spot potential problems early. Regular self-evaluations help teams to learn what they are doing well and how they can improve, and they have been shown to lead to better outcomes (Busseri & Palmer, 2000).
  5. If there is a conflict, talk about it. If you have different ideas about the design or the process that should be followed, or some people in the team do not feel valued or well integrated, it is best to address this. Some conflicts disappear over time simply by waiting, but most can be solved faster and more productively if you talk about the differences. The best strategy is to be polite and friendly in tone, but clear in what you want to achieve. Remain fair and treat the other side with respect – this makes it more likely that they will do the same with you. You can then explore options that ideally meet the needs of both sides.
    Usually conflicts can be solved within the team. If you find yourself in a situation where you have tried your best without a satisfying solution, it is a good idea to look for outside help, such as the course coach or the student counsellor.

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References and Further Reading

  • Busseri, M. A., & Palmer, J. M. (2000). Improving teamwork: the effect of self-assessment on construction design teams. Design Studies, 21, 223-238.
  • Edmondson, A. C., & Nembhard, I. M. (2009). Product development and learning in project teams: the challenges are the benefits. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 26(2), 123-138.
  • Ehrlenspiel, K. (1995). Integrierte Produktentwicklung - Methoden für Prozessorganisation, Produkterstellung und Konstruktion. München, Wien: Hanser Verlag.
  • Hargadon, A. B., & Bechky, B. A. (2006). When collections of creatives become creative collectives: A field study of problem solving at work. Organization Science, 17(4), 484-500.
  • Lauche, K. (2007). Sketching the product strategy: Team processes in early design innovation. Journal of Design Research, 6(1-2), 45-60.
  • Levi, D. (2007). Group dynamics for teams. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Paulus, P. B. (2000). Groups, Teams, and Creativity: The Creative Potential of Idea-Generating Groups. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 49(2), 237-262.
  • Smulders, F., Brehmer, M., & van der Meer, H., (2009) TeamWorks: Help Yourself, By students for students. Mosaics Business Publishers and Delft University of Technology


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