Applying Design Thinking to Boost Federal Agency Problem Solving
Author: Lisa Pacitto
Our world and workplace are increasingly being aided by artificial intelligence, from personal assistants like Alexa to robots working on assembly lines. But, in most cases, people’s needs must remain front and center if we hope to solve our most difficult and complex problems. Enter design thinking.
Design thinking is an alternative approach to problem solving based on the broader discipline of human-centered design. It starts with a focus on the human perspective as the inspiration for innovative solutions. A design thinking approach often involves observing the problem and its effects in context—then brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and implementing possible solutions.
MITRE’s Awais Sheikh and Cynthia Gilmer were co-principal investigators of a study designed to explore how government agencies apply design thinking to solve difficult problems. The study, funded by MITRE’s research program, sought to assess the effectiveness of design thinking on improving government processes and to identify the metrics used by agencies to measure impact.
“Design thinking is a concept that’s interesting and has already received a lot of attention,” Sheikh says. “But we wanted to get beyond the anecdotal accounts of success and start to measure what’s working and what’s not working.”
Their big takeaway? Getting people engaged in the problem-solving process in new ways can yield unexpected, positive results—the kind of results that arise from pioneering together with your partners, something MITRE has plenty of experience with.
A Fruitful Collaboration with Academia and Government
The study led to a partnership with Dr. Jeanne Liedtka from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Liedtka is the author of several books and articles on design thinking in the private and public sectors.
Liedtka introduced the MITRE team, which also included Marilyn Kupetz and Dr. Lynette Wilcox, to her contacts at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Innovation Lab. OPM works in collaboration with federal agencies to support the federal workforce by providing leadership and services for human resource management. The OPM Innovation Lab has offered training in human-centered design since 2012. More than 1,500 staff members across the government have attended Innovation Lab classes. The MITRE team collaborated with the OPM Innovation Lab to survey alumni of their human-centered design training. Then, the MITRE team interviewed 26 alumni to collect their stories. The team analyzed these interviews and shared its findings with the OPM Innovation Lab.
At the start of the study, the MITRE team hypothesized that the outcomes of applying human-centered design methods would be innovative products and services. While OPM Lab alumni frequently mentioned innovation during the interviews, MITRE researchers were surprised at how often people from different agencies cited engagement of employee participants as an outcome of design thinking.
A Complement to Classic Systems Engineering
Sheikh described how design thinking complements the classic systems engineering methodsoften used at MITRE.
“These techniques are a way of bringing together people who work in different silos or disciplines of an organization,” Sheikh says. “People who participate like the design thinking method because it gives a forum to share their ideas. It provides them with the opportunity to do something new and creative.” (And sometimes good ideas come from unexpected places. For examples of design thinking in action, see “Real World Success Applying Design Thinking,” below.)
When employing human-centered methods, investigators often observe end users in their element. This allows observers to view the problem they’re trying to solve from differing points of view, as well as gain possible ideas for solving the problem. Participants then evaluate Ideas by going through quick iterative feedback loops to see which ideas (or combination of ideas) might work. Classic systems engineering comes into play once a solution concept is selected, built out, and implemented.
“It’s not an either-or situation,” he says. “Design thinking techniques help us frame a problem area for our sponsors and come up with alternative concepts for how we might pursue a particular solution. We would then use systems engineering practices to flesh out some of those solutions and make them work together.”
Spreading the Word in Academia and Across Government
The study benefitted from the diverse backgrounds brought to the research by the MITRE team, Professor Liedtka—a well-respected scholar who studies and teaches design thinking—and the OPM Innovation Lab leaders. “Each of us had a particular perspective as it relates to human-centered design,” Sheikh says. “Collaborating allowed us to bring our respective strengths to the table. We could further the conversation on applying a design thinking approach to problems, validating the outcomes, and measuring those outcomes.”
After collaborating with the OPM Innovation Lab, Sheikh and his team have looked for ways to systematically introduce design thinking to those who are not yet exposed to its benefits, and, where possible, work with and learn from agencies that have sustained its use over time. For example, Sheikh and Gilmer along with their colleague, Dr. Suzanne Geigle, demonstrated the power of design thinking at the 2017 Academy of Management Annual Conference.
They conducted a workshop that used design thinking methods to help attendees—all of them management professors and graduate students—develop new approaches to communicating academic research findings in ways that practicing managers could understand and use. The team also presented its research at a Design in Government Conference, an informal conference of design practitioners from various government sectors.
Recently, a paper describing the results of the MITRE, Liedtka, OPM study was accepted by the 2018 Academy of Management’s Annual Conference reviewers, who selected the paper for inclusion in their “best paper” competition.
The MITRE team has briefed the results of their study to government agencies that have already adopted design thinking, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The study also has generated interest among other agencies that are considering how the approach could help them address complex problem in their domain, including the Department of Homeland Security. Government agencies increasingly recognize that engagement among stakeholders has positive impact beyond what’s been previously considered.
“It’s definitely a mindset shift for many who have been trained in engineering, policy, or technical disciplines,” Sheikh says. “Yet what we’ve seen from our research is that once people experience and participate in design thinking exercises, they really buy in to it. They see the benefits of engaging with people in this way to solve problems.”
Strategic Communications Senior Writer Lisa Pacitto covers innovation and technology for MITRE. She created the MITRECRAFT campaign for the 2017 Idea Market and has written for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe and MIT’s Technology Review magazine.
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