Solving Problems with Design Thinking:The relationships between practitioners' use of Design Thinking, problem specificity, and perceived team cooperation

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King, Andrew, Business Administration - Darden School of Business, University of Virginia
Liedtka, Jeanne, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia

Organizations constantly face complex problems that they must solve in order to serve their stakeholders. These organizations rely on their employees to identify and solve these problems in order to provide their stakeholders with value. Organizations cannot always rely on highly experienced individuals and teams to solve every challenging problem that arises. In order to accelerate problem-solving across diverse teams and individuals, some organizations have recently started to use the Design Thinking (DT) process as a method to help employees systematically identify and solve problems.
However, DT, like any methodology, is not a panacea. Organizations’ recent willingness to accelerate the adoption of DT raises questions about the nature of the problems the method is useful for solving, and which tools contribute most to solving them. Particularly interesting questions revolve around DT’s utility regarding problems’ level of specificity as well as DT’s relationship on the employees and teams using it. DT’s association with ill-defined problems has dominated the literature, while less research has investigated how well-defined problems relate to the application of the DT methodology. Regarding teams, recent research has looked at the degree to which specific DT activities influence innovation and teams in isolation, while research that examines the influence of the holistic DT process on teams’ cooperation is scarce. As a result of this omission in the research and pressing need to better understand this widely deployed methodology, this dissertation explores the questions: Does the level of specificity in the problems that DT practitioners wish to solve influence their use of DT; and does the practitioners’ selective use of DT influence their levels of perceived cooperation within their teams?
To address these questions, this dissertation investigates the relationship between the DT tool-based problem-solving methods, the specificity of problems to be solved, and the perceived team cooperation. This research, by combining concepts from strategic problem specification and team cooperation, proposes a model that relates the phases of the DT methodology to problem specificity as well as perceived team cooperation. This research explores the degree to which problem-solvers specify their targeted problems relates to their utilization of tools in certain phases DT tools, and the subsequent effect of practitioners’ focus on these DT phases on the perceived cooperation within the problem-solving team.
The research context is a six-month long practice-based training program designed to help employees at a global company use DT to manage complex problems in their respective divisions. To test the hypotheses, this research utilized detailed problem statements from 305 participants in the training program, evaluated surveys administered to the participants at the official end of the program, and reviewed training materials from the course.
Important implications for this research include addressing the current gaps in management literature regarding the relationship between the types of tools used in the DT methodology, problems to be solved, and cooperation within innovation teams. The findings also provide DT practitioners with insights on the diversity of appropriate problems for the method and which activities can further foster individuals’ ability to work together in problem-solving teams.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Design Thinking, Innovation, Management training, Team cooperation, Problem formulation
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