Structure of Team Science: Opportunities for Design

A space for creativity: Stanford's New D-School Building :

Last week’s conference on the Science of Team Science at Northwestern University provided two and a half days of thought-provoking presentations and discussion (for examples, see here, here, here and here) on the challenges and opportunities of team science and how it has the potential to (and indeed, already is) transform research.

One word that was nearly absent from the conference was design. While much attention was paid to the who (scientists, practitioners, policy makers, interdisciplinary interactions), the why (more productivity, better able to tackle wicked problems), a little on the what (what is the what of team of science), some on the how, and only partly on the where (with places like Northwestern and UBC leading the way). It is the last place, the where, that might be the most important.

As the Science of Team Science conference unfolded, another event was taking place that could be equally as important — if not more so — than what was being discussed at Northwestern: Stanford prepared to open its new d-school (design school) building. The picture above, from Fast Company’s story on the new school’s home, illustrates the look and feel of the place. It’s safe to say this is not something that would be seen at most places of research such as universities and laboratories (at least, not during office hours when the professors are around and the grad students aren’t left alone) .

The Institute of Design at Stanford University is set up to succeed in creating new ideas and transforming them into innovation. Sounds a lot like what universities and scientific laboratories are supposed to do isn’t it? Yet, how many institutions are set up like this? This is not about money — not entirely — it is about vision. Stanford’s dschool’s mission and vision fits on a napkin.  They see themselves as a place to bring together multidisciplinary groups to tackle hard (maybe wicked?) problems and provide space for interactions to take place and interact.

A quote from one of their team members (note, this isn’t “staff”, “faculty” or “students” — its team member)

We couldn’t be more different, except for our shared values. And that makes working together enjoyable

The new dschool building is designed to be “homey” for people who want to create, sketch, collaborate and be what I call artists in the service of innovation. They have designed their space and their program to be in the service of ideas and useful products, not just themselves. Look at the modern university, discussed recently by Seth Godin as an institution ready for a meltdown, and ask yourself if that is a venue for innovation? Are we creating the space for innovation and the structure of buildings and organizations to really promote the kind of creative process that Stanford’s dschool does or that the attendees at the Science of Team Science aspire towards?

It’s time to bring design into that conversation.

2 Comments on “Structure of Team Science: Opportunities for Design

  1. Hey Cameron,

    Nice lateral thinking!

    As I recall, you were frustrated by the architecture in our conference venue – those large pillars blocking the view were annoying; the lack of electrical outlets was also (at least potentially) a barrier. Meanwhile, I’ve also been noticing other concurrent events, especially another conference on a related theme and the fact that it, too, was conducted in traditional didactic fashion.

    I disagree, however, that architectural innovation alone will suffice in generating all the conditions necessary for the discovery and implementation of solutions to wicked problems. The physical, built environment can make it easier or harder to communicate, but the social architecture is where change that matters will originate. What we need are alternative conference designs that enable cross-pollination and collaboratively-created focus.

    Valdis Krebs, in a recent email, distinguishes “communication” and “collaboration.” One of the features of discourse at the Science of Team Science conference was the way that “social network analysis” came to stand in for the concept of “team.” A tool replaced a process. This is not something one person did or didn’t do, nor is it a failure of planning. This is a feature of the group-level discourse that reveals where a certain gap or hole exists in both the conceptualization and the implementation of team science.

    And this is, therefore, a matter of social/transactional design! I’ve been reading a popular text on engineering by Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1982/1992). He writes, “Failure analysis is as easy as Monday-morning quarterbacking; design is more akin to coaching” (p. 188). I am not saying there has been any failure! Only that researchers and practitioners of team science need to understand the implications of designing conferences in much the same way as we want engineers to take into consideration all factors relevant to obviating structural failure.

    Petroski also writes, “What complicates the design game is that the engineer does not always realize all the implications of the design move he himself is making” (p. 186).

    With teams and wicked problems, there is never going to be one coach or one leader who serves the right purpose at all times for every matter under consideration. Team members need to develop deep transactional skills for communicating with each other about what is known and what is perceived. Knowledge must be combined with inspiration in order to flag missing pieces, identify errors, and generate solutions that satisfy complex criteria.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this post. I agree with you regarding the concept that architecture is not the whole solution. The concept of social/transactional design is probably a far better term to use and your references and analysis are exceptionally useful.

    John Thackara, a design scholar, has stated that “80% of the environmental impact of any product is determined at the design stage” and I think that fits with human interactions as well. When we set things up, we determine the course of action that becomes difficult to challenge once initiated. In complexity terms, this refers to the systems sensitivity to initial conditions and the fitness landscape of the environment created in the process of setting up social interaction space.

    Design thinking is a concept that challenges us to consider the manner in which we create things — physical and social environments — and how they can relate to others in a manner that produces value. Like all terms, it can benefit by guiding our thinking about how things relate and a priori creating conditions optimal for interaction rather than assuming that they will “just form naturally” . On the downside, it could be compared to the concept of ‘social engineering’ which gets tied to Eugenics, Nazis and all of that other grotesque stuff.

    The matter of a coach or coaches is still one I wrestle with. Leadership, like design thinking, can be oversold in favour of celebrity leaders or co-0pted as means of taking power away from teams, however I’m also aware that leaderless organizations do have a lot of problems and are not always the solution. A coach can help.

    So much to consider. Thanks for offering your thoughts!

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