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Using Design Thinking Methods to Promote Collaborative Problem Solving

Wednesday, August 3, 2016
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For more than five years, the ATD Forum has incorporated the principles of human-centered design (HCD) to transition from a focus on formal training to one on learning in the workflow to drive performance impact on business needs. According to LUMA Institute, one of the primary design thinking organizations, the essence of HCD is creating something that is driven by the needs, desires, and context of the people for whom we design. In its book Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, the organization shares 36 methods sorted into three groupings: 

  • Observe human experiences (Looking).
  • Analyze challenges and opportunities (Understanding).
  • Envision future possibilities (Making). 

Generally, individual design methods are used in combination with one another and are referred to as a “method set.” The idea is that all methods in the set help clarify a different facet of a challenge. While the LUMA collection works as a group, they also enhance other design thinking tools as well as other collaborative problem-solving tools and techniques such as Six Sigma, LEAN, and Gamestorming. Building on recent discoveries in cognitive learning theory, we now have evidence-based proof that these tools and methods work. 

For talent development professionals, design methods, tools, and techniques are a means to an end—not the end. ATD Forum members are finding multiple uses for the H-CD tools, including using them to assess internal practices and processes, to design learning assets as part of a curriculum, and for brokering performance support. These design methods are most helpful for engaging others. According to Margie Meacham, author of Brain Matters, there is a connection between these design methods and the motivation mechanisms of the brain: “When we are working with others, our brain gives us a rush of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex. This is experienced as pleasure and motivates us to keep that great feeling going by increasing our collaboration with others.”

Therefore, we can improve training by using collaborative experiences even if it is an event. More important, talent development professionals can also support the transformation from training as an event to continuous learning within the actual workflow by using a variety of collaborative tools, techniques, and HCD methods.

During the ATD 2016 International Conference & Exposition, ATD Forum members demonstrated the use of design thinking in a breakout session. The method set included Ideation; Rose, Bud, Thorn (RBT); and Affinity Clustering. The goal for the activity was to identify all the issues related to a common problem, sort them into categories, and then group them into topical clusters. Based on the new insights, participants gained more clarity and generally reframed the problem, thus initiating an opportunity for a better solution.

In this method-set process, ideation starts with a specific trigger question. Without talking, individuals write every idea they have on a sheet of paper. Once all their ideas are documented, they sort them into categories using RBT.

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The RBT process allows individuals to analyze and group the issues into successes, challenges, and opportunities. This is accomplished by using the terms rose, bud, and thorn. Aspects of the issue that support the transition, change, or issue in a positive manner are identified as roses. Those aspects having potential to support the change or issue are identified as buds. Problems or obstacles that have a negative impact on making a change are identified as thorns.

The collaborative part is most important. In round-robin format, group members post their individual ideas related to the trigger questions or topic. As one member posts an idea, others can comment, ask questions, or post similar ideas. This posting and discussion can add clarity and generate more ideas to post. The value of the design method is to look at the various issues systematically. And, as with most tools, the discussions and real-time reflections generated by the experience provide the meaty, rich points that allow team members to probe further and develop a common understanding.

Generally, an Affinity Clustering either follows the RBT, or the two activities are done simultaneously. The cluster enables patterns and priorities to emerge, thus separating the most relevant and important facets of the issue. An analysis of the method-set results can lead to new questions related to the challenge.

Whether your goal is to improve the curriculum development process or transition to a performance-focused approach, knowing the issues that must be considered and understanding whether they are successes that contribute or challenges that inhibit progress can jump-start an action plan. The RBT and Affinity Cluster method set can serve as a catalyst to encourage discussion around expanding successes  and eliminating pain points. Discussions can also probe thorns to determine underlying root causes and options for turning them into prize-winning roses. This deeper insight allows a more definitive point of view, which in turn enables more expertise in framing a problem prior to solution generation.

HCD methods help practitioners and customers by providing a disciplined approach to observing human experiences, understanding challenges and opportunities, and envisioning possibilities. Using these practices can create a mindset or mental habits that promote opportunities for questioning the status quo and getting away from back-and-forth discussions and brainstorming. Using the methods supports testing hypotheses with rapid and iterative prototyping, thus creating low-risk, directed options that are also innovative. Collaborative design thinking methods, especially when used in sequence with one another, help a group move away from quick problem labeling and solution finding toward a more systematic and shared approach for “what-if” analyses. “The ‘what-if’ approach engages our brain’s ability to predict future outcomes based on past experience,” says Meacham in Brain Matters.

The bottom line: A problem that is clear and framed accurately has a better chance of being solved in a manner that uncovers the root cause, thus improving the current system rather than serving as a bandage. As employees get better at solving small problems and making decisions based on collaboratively generated data, they can more naturally integrate the process into their daily habits and thinking. With this framework, they have another way for transforming learning from just a training event into something that’s part of the workflow process.

For more information, visit the ATD Forum.

About the Author
MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.
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