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Challenges with Working on Multi-disciplinary Teams September 25, 2009

Posted by cindy333 in Design Thinking.

Beckman and Barry’s paper on innovation, design thinking, and the learning process was an insightful conceptual framework for understanding individual paradigms within teams and how innovation can be institutionalized in different contexts. After reading the article, I was left with a much richer appreciation for different learning styles and their vital roles during unique stages of the innovation process. Oftentimes, “design” and “design thinking” bring to mind a certain type of person — someone hip, who wears cool sneakers (as evidenced by Tim Brown’s custom neon converses last Tuesday!), maybe dark rimmed glasses. But what I enjoyed about Beckman and Barry’s article is that it identified four different learning styles and how they each made distinct contributions that were all necessary to create the most complete set of imperatives and design solutions. To me, Beckman and Barry democratized the design thinking process from one where “they” (= hip, converse-wearing designers) came up with a brilliant solution, to one where people of varying backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets can all add value.

In addition, Beckman and Barry’s paper has powerful implications for teams and workplaces. Too often organizations view cross-functional or cross-department teams as sufficient inputs to fostering creativity. For example, last semester I took a civil engineering design course (Design for Sustainable Communities) where I was working on a team consisting of one mechanical engineer, one environmental engineer, one structural engineer, and an MBA. However, without having a concrete design framework for pushing the process along, we often found ourselves stuck with no “ah-has”, interesting stories, and general confusion and frustration. The individual team members all had distinct personalities (and correspondingly different learning styles) and we found ourselves at a stalemate halfway through the semester. The mechanical engineer viewed himself as more of a designer than an “engineer” engineer, and fit more closely into the diverging and accommodating style. The environmental engineer had a diverging style, while the structural engineer and I both fell squarely into the assimilating camp. Lacking someone with the converging learning style, who was able to articulate a high-level vision and goal and keep moving the team forward, was perhaps a big reason why we were stalled in the middle of the innovation process. A strong understanding of different learning styles (reflective observation vs. active experimentation, abstract conceptualization vs. concrete experience) and the accompanying design process can help companies create hotbeds of innovation and creativity within their organization.


1. Sara Beckman - November 28, 2009

This raises an interesting question. It seems that business school students tend towards the convergent learning style. If we are teaching business students to be less convergent – maybe even seeking out less convergent thinkers in the admissions process – then who will perform the convergent thinking role on design and development teams in the future?

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