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Self-organization and Sense-making in Architect-Engineer Design Teams: Leveraging Health Care’s Approach to “Managing” Complex Adaptive Systems Open Access

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Traditional, corporate-level risk mitigation procedures and management-led performance improvement efforts tend to ignore the relationship dynamics of Architect-Engineer design teams, and instead focus on the credentials and abilities of the individual designers, the contractual framework surrounding the individual projects, and the process for inspecting and controlling the quality of the team’s output, the design. Management may tacitly acknowledge the complex nature of the design process, but the notion of design teams as complex systems, or more precisely, Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), with their inherently unpredictable behaviors, is not typically considered. The research herein analyzed the team dynamics of 113 Architect-Engineer design projects to determine if teams that leveraged or embraced (deliberately or unknowingly) the self-organizing and sense-making properties of CAS, to include improvisation, an emphasis on intra- and cross-boundary communication, broad participation in decision-making, autonomy in managing resources, and deliberate use of conflict and uncertainty to alter standard behavior patterns, delivered more successful projects than teams whose leadership attempted (again, deliberately or unknowingly) to overcome those same CAS properties with detailed design or quality control (QC) procedures, a strong organizational identity that informed behavior, concentrated decision-making authority with a focus on efficiency of effort, and swift resolution of conflict. The parameters for measuring project success included adherence to schedule, project profitability, design errors, contractual disputes or litigation, and customer satisfaction.An analysis of the data utilizing non-parametric analytical tools, to include Mann-Whitney Rank Sum analysis, calculation of Kendall’s tau-b, and ordinal logistic regression, reveals that while encouraging a design team to improvise can improve project outcomes, fostering or allowing self-organization in general is not associated with improved project performance. On the other hand, an environment that promotes team members’ sense-making abilities (although the use of conflict or noise as tools to promote adaptive thinking remains problematic) leads to improvements in project success factors. Finally, the results suggest that Architect-Engineer design team management is not a linear enterprise, and that in determining project success, the relationships between design team members may be as important as the technical competency of the designers and the design or quality control procedures they follow.

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