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Teaching Team Work in Systems Oriented Design

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Learning & Education

Andreas Wettre and Birger Sevaldson

Systems oriented design (SOD) is rooted in systems thinking. SOD is considered one approach to systemic design. Systems thinking is also representing a way of approaching therapy as one of its specific applications. Many of the approaches in management have emerged from the knowledge developed in and around therapy. The way to look at an individual or a group of people as a system is one of them. Systems thinking helps where a traditional root-cause analysis fails to give us the necessary understanding.

In a seven-week bachelor studio course at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), systems oriented design was the main approach and topic. The students were working in teams with a complex task with a company as a partner. The company is developing and marketing solutions for charging electrical vehicles. The brief given by the company was to develop new charging solutions. Such design teams are systems in their own right. This is realized both by second-order cybernetics and by, for example, the three-dimensional model of Lurås (Lurås, 2016). In our work with the educational program at AHO, we wanted to create a higher understanding by combining SOD and systems thinking applied to teams and individuals. The teams were constructed to ensure that all teams had individuals representing product-, interaction- and service design.

As the students developed their understanding and ability to map the systems around charging electrical cars, we wanted them to use the same kind of thinking to understand the team dynamics and how each individual is affected by the team, and how the individual behaviour affected the team’s ability to move towards the goal of utilizing the diversity. The CMM theory (Barnett Pearce og Vernon Cronen 1980) describes how any communication is happening in a system of contexts, and in a team, we create a common social world when communicating. The co-creation of a common understanding of the contexts is essential to grasp the complexity and creating breakthrough design.

We started out by letting the team define their purpose. Creating a common and deep understanding of the team’s purpose is proven by Bang & Midelfart (2012) to be essential to a management team´s performance. We have lots of experience, from business consultancy using SOD’s GIGAmapping to create a common understanding in the team of the complexity within it to fulfil its purpose. A team of designers that are set to create a design utilizing the diversity in the team faces most of the challenges a management team will face. Such as agreeing on the team’s purpose, communicating within the same context, knowing when a topic is raised how they as a team and individuals can add value, stopping each other when distracting the discussion, being curious at the others and not fighting for one own view etc.

Gigamapping works well, allowing the team not to follow a structured approach but rather an unstructured discussion going from one context to the next and back again. This unstructured discussion helps everybody grasp the holistic perspective of the complexity. Unstructured discussion is also crucial when design teams or other management teams work with complex (wicked) problems. Typical for such work is that predefined briefs are unsuitable to use. The projects tend to have an open-ended nature where issues are explored during the projects, and learning is integrated into the process.

To deepen the understanding of the purpose, the team members were challenged to understand how we can look at one person as a system linked to his/her surroundings where changes in the internal system (behaviour) will affect changes in the external system (team?) and vice a versa. We used “Social constructionism” and Kenneth Gergen´s perspective on reality being constructed in relations, and nothing is considered real before we agree that it is (Kenneth Gergen “Realities and Relationships” 1997).

As a tool to improve communication around reality, common purpose and how to use task conflicts to create better solutions, we examined Chris Argyris´ Ladder of Inference (The Ladder of Inference was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.) This concept helps us understand how our assumptions are formed and that being part of a system will influence how we filter information and form assumptions. Being curious about others’ assumptions will open new insight.

There are many similarities in using mapping techniques to understand systems in SOD and understanding our own and our fellow team member´s assumptions and behaviors. Developing skills in using the right questions at the right time is essential in both cases. To dig more into this, we trained on dialogue using the four main elements of a) believing that you can learn from your fellow team members b) respect even when disagreeing c) exploring different views and d) build on each other. The basic idea is to use task conflict in a constructive way; exploring different views will generate better solutions. To create the right atmosphere we were using Karl Tomm´s categorization of questions, starting with the fact oriented questions before moving into relational questions, to hypothetical questions before ending up with the more strategic, leading questions (Interventive Interviewing: Part 111. Intending to Ask Lineal, Circular, Strategic, or Reflexive Questions?* KARL TOMM, M.D.t 1988).

To understand group dynamics and organizational behavior even better, we used Stacey´s theories about the complexity of organization and how the old dominant logic fail in trying to plan up front and not considering the relational knowledge that will emerge (Solsø & Thorup, Ledelse i kompleksitet 2015 ). We wanted the students to use the learning from the emerging design project and adapt that also to the emerging competence and diversity in the team – to help the team make the right decisions and develop innovative design.

The sub-goal of the project is to make designers understand that the team is a system itself and understanding the individuals and team dynamics will help creating new design, where harmony is not necessarily an aim, and where conflict might be productive. A high performing team has the ability of using task conflicts to create better design without creating relational conflicts. We wanted them to use many of the same methods as they use in design and apply them to team development. We hoped that their ability to understand team dynamics and their own role in the team as a system would increase by using many of the same methods they use in understanding the different possible solutions in design.

We believe that the teamwork perspectives presented here also are relevant for building functioning democratic cultures on a larger scale.

In the presentation, we will discuss the reported experiences of the students.

Keywords: systems oriented design, therapy, teamwork




Citation Data

Author(s): Andreas Wettre and Birger Sevaldson
Title: Teaching Team Work in Systems Oriented Design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 12 October 2017
Last update:
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404
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