Design Thinking that works


What is the impact beyond the Classroom?

Design Thinking as Context

Design Thinking methodologies have the potential to enrich Business Schools’ courses combining techniques from Art and Engineering to enable their students to approach business problems in novel ways. Companies increasingly rely on them also for in-house training. Students love these courses and the interactive, fast, tangible experiences they enable. Yet, we know very little about the transferability of what is learnt. Once out of the classroom, when students become managers again, do they take different decisions? Or do they take the same decisions differently? The objective of our current research is exactly to assess the transferability of lessons learnt through design thinking methods. In particular, as our team is engaged in a variety of such courses, we take stock on our own experiences as mentors and participants to Design Thinking courses at ETH to develop the categories and methods we need to reliably evaluate these classes, and what skills they actually enable our students, and ourselves, with.

Students’ and Teachers’ Transformation

Besides the ‘technical’ learnings of the Design Thinking experience, i.e. prototyping and rapid ideation exercises, a social environment is created in which mistakes are accepted. Our students consistently highlighted the atmosphere in class as one of the most decisive –and original- components that enabled them to generate out-of-the-box ideas. From a teacher-viewpoint, the development of this ‘judgement-free’-like atmosphere stands out as crucial success factor. And a very difficult one to implement. Short warm-up games in the beginning and the playground-like lecture room, lay the foundation to open up and leave institutionalized ways of problem-solving and team interaction behind.

Yet, it takes time and effort. Students still expect to be evaluated. Teachers still tend to fit the role of content-expert. Towards the end of the term, when students walk around with sitting cubes on their heads during group discussions, one can observe and breathe a different atmosphere. An atmosphere that allowed everyone to share their thoughts in an unfiltered way without worrying about the perception of everyone else. Curiosity and intuition were put in the foreground and the generic ruling-out of ideas that seemed unfeasible was unwanted. Yet, we know little about how to transfer such an atmosphere back in daily professional life. 

Method and Approach

Empirical evidence on concepts that explain how Design Thinking works is limited; much less so the transferability into our professional lives (Johannson-Sköldberg et al., 2013; Seidel and Fixson, 2013). This mainly stems from the multi-faceted nature of the method. For that reason, we are tackling this issue with a study design that follows triangulation. In collaboration with a medium-sized manufacturing company, we plan to collect data before and after a design thinking workshop. Besides the pre and post dimension, we will include in the sample also employees who did not participate in the Design Thinking intervention to account for behavioral changes they observed in their counterparts (if any). Potential methods include observations, learning diaries, interviews, cognitive tests and data from wearable sensors.
Stay tuned to find out more about our final results!

by Sonja Förster, postgraduate student ETHZ


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