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TSPA Values and Principles

The Core of How We Work

Published

15 March 2024

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Studio

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TSPA values & principles define what is essential for us. As a team, we reimagined the values & principles that are at the core of how we work and have a renewed sense of what TSPA is. They reflect our axis as individuals and professionals, but also, the goals we have in our internal dynamics and projects. They are about cooperation, teamwork, a shared philosophy of honesty, excellence, joy, and the creative potential to constantly learn. They are about providing job security for our team while also increasing the common good. 

These values and principles were the starting point for our office transformation - they helped us to transition from one person's company towards a team structure in which we think of individuals as a whole not only as employees or a work function.

A Teal Organisation

TSPA realized 4 years ago that the organization’s structure needed a change to reflect the growing dynamics of the team. Big fundamental questions arose around what conditions needed to be established to have trust, collaborative communication, and non-assertive problem-solving. A lot of the organisational literature that was available in 2020 was read. Self-management and holacratic decision-making stood out as a potential approach to increase agility, efficiency, transparency, innovation, and accountability.
Inspired by the evolution to teal organisations as described in Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations, the team held a retreat to go through all of the big fundamental questions.

How could self-management work at TSPA? What values and principles could be collectively decided upon to underpin this structure?

The 14 Principles That We Think Define TSPA

Each principle is illustrated with a short story from office life.

A was working on a submission that occupied her entirely, leaving no time for lunch. J decided to take a weight off her shoulders and shared his lunch with her. It might have left him a bit hungry, but this small act saved A some time and kept her going through the day with food in her stomach.

Instead of shaking off the situation and hoping for everyone to resolve their problems individually, we think of each other as a group.

During an international project, the team went the extra mile to fine-tune all the map details and graphics. Even though this exercise was tedious back then, it turned out to be an asset for future projects – the quality of the local competition maps wouldn’t have been possible to achieve without the knowledge F had generated previously.

We understand that going the extra mile can be tedious yet can also be an asset for future projects, given the knowledge generation that is able to occur.

E is passionate about policy advice, and S loves hand drawing.

By finding our passion in what we do, we are easily excellent at it and enjoy what we do. Together with rationality and precision, it lets our projects have a beautiful balance of creativity and reason.

N locked herself out of her apartment in the middle of the night and asked for help in our office chat. Everyone in the team immediately reacted to her message, offering a place to stay overnight, instead of treating the message as another work-related notification or ignoring the problem. 

We show lots of empathy and compassion towards each other, prioritising mutual respect, support, and genuine care for colleagues.

While working on some structure plans, M & V were most of the time laughing, being playful, working together from one computer. An outside observer might interpret this jaunty dynamic as unproductive or unprofessional.

Yet, working closely together and discussing things leads to outstanding creative results, with much fewer errors, while having fun and learning.

For project design, the team struggled finding room for a very large train depot. The project brief was unclear whether it should be included in the site or not. Instead of addressing this directly and early, the team hoped for the best and assumed it was optional, carrying on with more exciting parts of the project. It turned out the client did not see the depot as optional, which resulted in lots of additional work later in the project.

People tend to avoid subjects that are not their strength. Instead of skipping or postponing them, we give them a priority. Facing challenges is hard but worth it.

Our transformation of TSPA’s management and core structure is the best example of this.

We experiment with different concepts and principles to improve and innovate. We do not know the end result but are improving through experimenting.

Just after joining TSPA as a starter, A selected and presented sites as sample focus areas for a local competition. Despite, or because of, knowing Berlin so less, her input was valuable and made the selection much easier.

It is the perspective, creativity, and the knowledge that defines who is being listened to, not age, gender, or position. Leaving space for more varied inputs often also leads to new solutions: quality through quantity. Constant learning and open-mindedness keep us being cutting-edge, creative, and good at what we do.

For one of our international projects, TSPA produced beautiful maps, which would look great in our portfolio. Still, it turned out they were not suitable for the client - small municipalities might not even have a colour printer to print. The team decided to adapt and change the graphics so that they would still be readable even if photocopied in black and white.

The projects we do make sense, help the client, and can be implemented. We adapt to the varying realities of the clients and regions we work in.

While working for an international project, T faced the issue of not being able to travel abroad for an extended mission and workshops. Instead of forcing the situation and going there despite the conflicts, he asked A to go in his place and represent the office, even if she was very new in the team. This arrangement was excellent, both for T, A, and TSPA: T could take care of the other projects, A felt recognized, responsible, and trusted. The Office benefitted from the great project results.

We embrace trust through radical honesty, fostering an environment where individuals can rely on each other’s integrity and transparency to build strong and authentic relationships.

A was researching different urban block typologies in Berlin. During a team meeting, she learned that C already did a very similar study, which C happily shared. Knowledge sharing makes TSPA resilient: the company still works fine, even if someone is absent. This dynamic represents the level of transparency, trust and shared knowledge that we aim to have in the team.

Everybody wins through sharing, communication, and openness - rather than keeping things to yourself.

After implementing our circle strategy, all members of the IT circle were on holidays. Y, the only person available, was able to restart the server and take care of technical issues even if this was not her responsibility. She didn’t necessarily have the expertise to do it.

Being part of a team means we not only share the knowledge but also a sense of responsibility beyond our tasks. We want to feel accountable and proud of our work.

There was disagreement with one of our partners, regarding efficiency and workload. The unconformity got stronger and stronger. We decided to address the underlying issues and have this painful; still necessary conflict. It went very well: by addressing the issues – in this case, different communication styles – we got to discover a common interest. The relationship and workflow between both teams improved enormously and the project achieved remarkable outcomes.

Conflicts are unavoidable, the question is how do we resolve them. We aim to face the conflicts, understand the other side, and look for common goals, so that we can learn from ourselves and others and move forward.

Conflicts are unavoidable, the question is how do we resolve them. We aim to face the conflicts, understand the other side, and look for common goals, so that we can learn from ourselves and others and move forward.

There was disagreement with one of our partners, regarding efficiency and workload. The unconformity got stronger and stronger. We decided to address the underlying issues and have this painful; still necessary conflict. It went very well: by addressing the issues – in this case, different communication styles – we got to discover a common interest. The relationship and workflow between both teams improved enormously and the project achieved remarkable outcomes.

Meaningful Contributions

These values and principles form the backbone of our work, guiding us not only in our day-to-day interactions but also in our overarching goals and ambitions. We want to make sure that an environment is created where each team member is empowered to contribute meaningfully. This ultimately leads to more innovative solutions and a shared sense of responsibility and achievement. 


There have been some tough decisions made in the past few years. Nonetheless, we have found a model that works for us and have prepared the ground for a sustainable way of working and developing personally. As Thomas Stellmach, urbanist and founder of TSPA, wrote in a reflection about the organisation’s transformation,

In the end, this is about happiness: being part of an institution that represents our personal beliefs and where we have the power of shaping our future.
Team Retreat Summer 2023