In 2005 I listened to a lecture of a politician who discussed a difficult paradox. He stated that from a humanistic perspective, people living in poor countries have the right for the same standard of living as we have. But if all people obtain this lifestyle, all resources available in the world would be exhausted within a decade, leaving the world an inhabitable place. He had no answers. The lecture annoyed me and I had a long discussion with him afterwards. Not because the paradox is unreal, but because it was framed in an ‘either/or’ kind of argument. He did not believe that people could actually solve the paradox, as I put forward. Probably he considered me a naïve designer and I considered him a cynical politician. The discussion articulated the distinctive ways of thinking between a politician who has to decide wisely between options, and a designer who thinks in options. Either way: I learned that I truly believe that people are creative and can solve problems, even if these are large, and even if we are the cause of the problems. More important: I became aware that solving complex problems isn’t a personal endeavor: these require the skills and knowledge of many persons together. Many specialists need to work together in order to devise solutions none of them can conceive on their own. The question is: how do teams of specialists ‘think collectively’? And: how can I contribute to these teams as a designer?
These questions incited a personal quest and resulted into a PhD thesis about New Product Development (NPD) teams. The main part concerns team cognition: how teams of persons with rather distinctive expertise ‘think together’. For example, to solve problems, even if the problems are incomprehensible each of the team members. Or to come up with exciting possibilities no one ever could have conceived on his own. The perspective adopted concerns the social dimension of product development: interacting individuals. Strangely enough, precisely the level of interacting individuals in teams is hardly studied nor described. Studies and theories always take a black box perspective. There is a good reason: the more researchers are willingly to abstract from a set of phenomena, the easier it becomes to model the phenomena at hand. With minimal assumptions on the inner workings of an NPD team, the NPD process can be modeled in such a way that it is a predictable system: a means to an end. This way of studying NPD boxes and resulted into an excess of process management oriented methods.
However, there are limitations to this ‘objective’ generalizing, as Herbert Simon argued in his seminal book Sciences of the Artificial: “then the properties of the inner system ‘show through’. That is, the behavior of the system will only partly respond to its task environment; partly, it will respond to the limiting properties of the inner system.” The inner world of NPD teams in-the-wild seems to have a poor fit with the neatly ordered models and the anomalies force scholars and managers to reconsider the paradigms on NPD, establishing new vocabulary and models. A well known example is the adaptation of the modeling of NPD processes to accommodate the fortuitous and messy character of the ‘fuzzy front end’. New anomalies surface as a result of the open innovation paradigm, that has considerable benefits, however, also imposes serious burdens for the team members. The inner world of the team must be understood in order to progress. Stated differently: the black box of NPD needs to be opened – we need to understand team cognition.