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Wicked Problems: A Case for Design Thinking in Research Administration Change Management, Part 3: SPO Training Case-Study

By SRAI News posted 05-12-2022 12:53 PM


Wicked Problems: A Case for Design Thinking in Research Administration Change Management, Part 3: SPO Training Case-Study

This is the final in a three-part series about how research administrators can apply design thinking principles to solve their “wicked problems.” So far, Part 1 introduced design thinking and Part 2 described the design thinking process in more detail. In this third piece, we present a case-study of the design thinking process in action. 

To set the scene, in early 2019, the authors were tasked to improve the training and onboarding program for new sponsored projects officers (SPOs) in our quickly growing central office at a medical research institute. Neither of us were particularly experienced in training models, but as solution-minded individuals, we chose to try the design thinking approach favored in the business and marketing world to ensure that new hires received training that was relevant to help them understand and excel in their roles.

  1. Empathize – First, we wanted to know what our new hires’ experience was like during the current onboarding and training model, so we invited a small group of newly hired SPOs to join us in a two-hour focus group. We used journey maps to map each employee’s training journey to determine whether it was good, neutral, or bad and to also identify key touchpoints in the process. We wanted to gauge their perspectives of how the first day went, how they felt about their training plans, how training sessions with both managers and peers went, their experience with learning/working in our grants management system, trying new tasks for themselves, and finally receiving their caseload.
  1. Define – Secondly, we needed to define clear problem, or insight, statement for our new hires that we could use in the design phase - a clear, concise, prescriptive statement focused on our user’s needs. Defining the problem turns what’s been learned into personal, actionable direction for innovation. We knew the point of view statement should include a specific user, a need, and an insight. With the help of our SPO focus group, we defined the problem as: “A busy, entry-level professional need to learn more about research administration at our organization.  Working remotely is also an important consideration.” The key here was to frame the problem in a user-centered way, not “We (trainers) need…” but “New SPO hires need…”
  2. Ideate – Next, we wanted to generate as many divergent ideas as possible before deciding on a few ideas to prototype. The focus group individually listed their successes and challenges regarding various aspects of the training process on a set of post-it notes. They then added their ideas to the wall and then the group discussed and voted on the top three issues or suggestion items in each category (content, structure, presenters). This enabled us to determine if there was a pattern with how individual staff felt about the onboarding process.  We collectively decided on a winning approach by asking each participant to place a sticker on the idea they thought was best.
  3. Prototype – After that, we met with the management team as well as other senior SPOs who were responsible for one-on-one training, to debrief on what we had discovered and to design what an improved onboarding and training process could look like. Using a storyboard technique to make our ideas tangible, we sketched out each step in the process: what worked, what could be improved, our questions, and our ideas. Making these small-scale experiments is a crucial part of refining the concepts you want to test and winning the support of your decision makers, like our senior managers.
  4. Test – Finally, we have continued to test and iterate the revised training process with each new hire. To monitor the process and progress of each new staff member, Yolande (who is now a supervisor) regularly asks the trainers to provide feedback.  And during weekly check-in meetings with each trainee, they discuss what is working and not working regarding the training process.  This way we can quickly identify and implement additional changes that might be needed.  Of course, the biggest test of the process was when we all went home for two weeks one day in March 2020 and needed to onboard new SPOs remotely for the next two years! 

Now that we’ve explored the design thinking process and our case study in this series, we look forward to hearing how you’ve used design thinking to solve your own “wicked problems” in research administration.

Authored by

Kimberly Pratt, MA, CRA, Research Development Specialist (formerly at Abigail Wexner Research Institute)
Ohio State University

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