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Wicked Problems: A Case for Design Thinking in Research Administration Change Management, Part 1: An Introduction to Design Thinking

By SRAI News posted 03-09-2022 03:35 PM


Wicked Problems: A Case for Design Thinking in Research Administration Change Management, Part 1: An Introduction to Design Thinking

This is the first in a three-part series about how research administrators can apply design thinking principles to solve their “wicked problems”. Parts 2 & 3 will delve further into the design thinking process and provide a case-study example of design thinking in action. 

As research administrators, we are often reluctant to embrace new technologies and innovation in our own practice even though innovation is an important foundation of research that we support through our daily tasks. After all, we tell ourselves that doing things the same way every time is important for consistency’s sake or we’re too busy to learn new ways of working, or very often we’re at the mercy of outside forces.  But as famous inventor, engineer, businessman, and holder of no fewer than 186 patents Charles Kettering once said, “If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” 

So, how can we innovate, and why should we? If you’re like most of us, you have a challenge or two to solve, so there are benefits beyond seeking innovation for its own sake. One tool we can use is Design Thinking, a human-centered and multi-disciplinary design process involving research and rapid ideation (or idea generation). 

The goal of Design Thinking is to better understand the unmet needs of the people you’re creating for. This strategy reduces the risk associated with launching new ideas, products, and services to create the best user experiences possible. Design Thinking teaches hands-on problem solving, breaks down silos, and shows participants how to challenge their assumptions—a recipe for innovation and teamwork. It also encourages creative thinking, allowing us to combine imagination, artistry, and intuition with logic, analysis, and planning.  At the same time, more than many other change-management processes, Design Thinking requires active and effective leadership to keep efforts on a path to success.  

Even though Design Thinking as a term has become something of a buzzword in recent years, it has been an evolving field since the 1960s, when American sociologist and psychologist Herbert Simon characterized design not so much as a physical process as a way of thinking. In 1992, design theorist Richard Buchanan connected fellow design theorist Horst Rittel’s term “wicked problems” to Simon’s Design Thinking when he published “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” In this landmark essay, Buchanan proposed using design to solve the world’s most extraordinarily persistent and difficult challenges. By 2005, the Stanford School of Design (commonly known as the began teaching Design Thinking as an approach to technical and social innovation.  

Today, design principles can be applied to develop corporate strategies or to improve systems, to help organizations work better and work better together.  As research administrators, we too can use the design thinking process to address our own “wicked problems.”

Authored by Yolande Hall, MS, Lead Sponsored Projects Officer
Abigail Wexner Research Institute, Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Authored by Kimberly Pratt, MA, CRA, Research Development Specialist
Ohio State University