Are you better off alone? Mitigating the underperformance of engineering teams during conceptual design through adaptive process management

  • Joshua T. Gyory
  • Jonathan CaganEmail author
  • Kenneth Kotovsky
Original Paper


Teams are a major feature of engineering and are commonly thought to be necessary when solving dynamic and complex problems. Even though teams collectively provide a diversity of knowledge, skills, and perspectives to problem-solving, previous work has demonstrated that in certain scenarios, such as in language-based and more spatially oriented configuration design problems, the production by a team is inferior to that of a similar number of individuals working independently (i.e., nominal team). This research explores this comparison of individual versus group problem-solving within the domain of conceptual engineering design. Thus, a behavioral study was run with freshman engineering students, who solved a conceptual engineering design problem individually or collaboratively in a team. Results corroborate previous findings, exhibiting that individuals outperform teams in the overall quality of their design solutions, even within this more free-flowing and explorative setting of conceptual design. Exploiting this result, this work further considers whether adaptive feedback from a process manager can lessen the underperformance of collaborative design teams compared to individuals, by helping teams overcome potential deterrents that may be contributing to their inferior performance. Teams that are under the guidance of a process manager end up performing better than teams that are not in terms of solution quality, and almost as well as individuals, though not significantly different. This result suggests that process managers are able to mitigate some of the deficiencies in design teams. In an attempt to uncover some of the cognitive rationale and strategies that may be beneficial throughout problem-solving, the managerial interactions with the design teams are then investigated. Furthermore, to determine the reason of the collaborative teams’ underperformance, the effect of verbalization is studied as a possible cognitive hindrance. In the end, this work expands growing research on team problem-solving in engineering, and suggests that collaborative teams may not be optimal in every circumstance, but under the proper process management, can become substantially more effective.


Engineering design Teams Conceptual design Process management 



This work was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFSOR) under Grant nos. FA9550-16-1-0049 and FA9550-18-1-0088. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsors. Portions of this work were presented at Design, Computing, and Cognition Conference 2018 and ASME International Design and Engineering Technical Conference 2018.


  1. Agogué M, Kazakçi A, Hatchuel A et al (2014) The impact of type of examples on originality: explaining fixation and stimulation effects. J Creat Behav 48:1–12. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alnuaimi OA, Robert LP, Maruping LM (2010) Team size, dispersion, and social loafing in technology-supported teams: a perspective on the theory of moral disengagement. J Manag Inf Syst 27:203–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bellamy L, Evans DL, Linder DE, McNeill BW, Raupp G (1994) Teams in engineering education. Report to the National Science Foundation on Grant Number USE9156176, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZGoogle Scholar
  4. Brooks LR (1968) Spatial and verbal components of the act of recall. Can J Psychol Can Psychol 22:349–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brun J, Ezzat H, Weil B (2015) Managing the impacts of non-verbal devices on idea generation: a new challenge for creative leaders. European Academy of Management-EURAM, VarsovieGoogle Scholar
  6. Cicchetti DV (1994) Guidelines, criteria, and rules of thumb for evaluating normed and standardized assessment instruments in psychology. Psychol Assess 6:284–290. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Comer DR (1995) A model of social loafing in real work groups. Hum Relat 48:647–667. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Diehl M, Stroebe W (1987) Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: toward the solution of a riddle. J Pers Soc Psychol 53:497–509. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dong A (2005) The latent semantic approach to studying design team communication. Des Stud 26:445–461. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dong A, Hill AW, Agogino AM (2004) A document analysis method for characterizing design team performance. J Mech Des 126:378. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dutson AJ, Todd RH, Magleby SP, Sorensen CD (1997) A review of literature on teaching engineering design through project-oriented capstone courses. J Eng Educ 86:17–28. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ezzat H (2017) Leader for creativity: modelling and experimenting defixation-oriented leadership, Doctoral dissertation, PSL Research UniversityGoogle Scholar
  13. Ezzat H, Camarda A, Cassotti M et al (2017) How minimal executive feedback influences creative idea generation. PLoS One 12:1–11. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ezzat H, Agogué M, Weil B, Cassotti M (2018) Specificity and abstraction of examples: opposite effects on fixation for creative ideation. J Creat Behav. Google Scholar
  15. Faure C (2004) Beyond brainstorming: effects of different group procedures on selection of ideas and satisfaction with the process. J Creat Behav 38:13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fu K, Cagan J, Kotovsky K (2010) Design team convergence: the influence of example solution quality. J Mech Des 132:111005. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Girotra K, Terwiesch C, Ulrich KT (2010) Idea generation and the quality of the best idea. Manag Sci 56:591–605. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Goldschmidt G, Casakin H (1999) Expertise and the use of visual analogy: implication for design educatio. Des Stud 20:153–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goucher-Lambert K, Moss J, Cagan J (2018) A neuroimaging investigation of design ideation with and without inspirational stimulidunderstanding the meaning of near and far stimuli. Des Stud. Google Scholar
  20. Gyory JT, Cagan J, Kotovksy K (2018a) The effect of managerial intervention on engineering design team performance. In: Gero J (ed) Design computing and cognition’18. Como, ItalyGoogle Scholar
  21. Gyory JT, Cagan J, Kotovsky K (2018b) Should teams collaborate during conceptual engineering design? An experimental study. In: ASME International Design Engineering Technical Conference. Quebec City, CanadaGoogle Scholar
  22. Harman D (1986) An experimental study of factors important in document ranking. In: SIGIR’86 Proc 9th Annu Int ACM SIGIR Conf Res Dev Inf Retr, pp 186–193.
  23. Hey J, Linsey J, Agogino a M, Wood KL (2008) Analogies and metaphors in creative design. Int J Eng Educ 24:283–294Google Scholar
  24. Hoffman LR (1965) Group problem solving. In: Berkowitz L (ed) Advances in experimental social psychology, vol 2. Academic Press, New York, pp 99–131Google Scholar
  25. Hsi S, Linn M, Bell J (1997) The role of spatial reasoning in engineering and the design of spatial instruction. J Eng Educ 151–158Google Scholar
  26. Isaksen SG (2013) Facilitating creative problem-solving groups. Accessed 12 Dec 2017
  27. Janis IL (1972) Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Houghton Mifflin, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  28. Jansson DG, Smith SM (1991) Design fixation. Des Stud 12:3–11. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jones PE, Roelofsma PHMP (2000) The potential for social contextual and group biases in team decision-making: biases, conditions and psychological mechanisms. Ergonomics 43:1129–1152. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Karau SJ, Williams KD (1993) Social loafing: a meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. J Pers Soc Psychol 65:681–706CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kavadias S, Sommer SC (2009) The effects of problem structure and team diversity on brainstorming effectiveness. Manag Sci 55:1899–1913. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kim MS (2007) Analysis of team interaction and team creativity of student design teams based on personal creativity modes. In: Proc ASME 2007 Int Des Eng Tech Conf Comput Inf Eng Conf 1–13.
  33. Landauer T, Foltz P (1998) An introduction to latent semantic analysis. Discourse Process 25:259–284. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Laughlin PR (2011) Group problem solving. Princeton University Press, PrincetonzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  35. Lee CS, Huggins AC, Therriault DJ (2014) A measure of creativity or intelligence? Examining internal and external structure validity evidence of the remote associates test. Psychol Aesthetics Creat Arts 8:446–460. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Linsey JS, Tseng I, Fu K et al (2010) A study of design fixation, its mitigation and perception in engineering design faculty. J Mech Des 132:041003. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Linsey JS, Markman AB, Wood KL (2012) Design by analogy: a study of the wordtree method for problem re-representation. J Mech Des 134:041009–041009. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Liu S, Boyle IM (2009) Engineering design: perspectives, challenges, and recent advances. J Eng Des 20:7–19. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Liu YC, Bligh T, Chakrabarti A (2003) Towards an “ideal” approach for concept generation. Des Stud 24:341–355. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maier NR (1967) Assets and liabilities in group problem solving: the need for an integrative function. Psychol Rev 45Google Scholar
  41. McComb C, Cagan J, Kotovsky K (2015a) Rolling with the punches: an examination of team performance in a design task subject to drastic changes. Des Stud 36:99–121. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McComb C, Cagan J, Kotovsky K (2015b) Lifting the veil: drawing insights about design teams from a cognitively-inspired computational model. Des Stud 40:119–142. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McComb C, Cagan J, Kotovsky K (2017) Optimizing design teams based on problem properties: computational team simulations and an applied empirical test. J Mech Des 139:041101. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mills JE, Treagust DF (2003) Engineering education—Is problem-based or project-based learning the answer. Aust J Eng Edu 3(2):2–16Google Scholar
  45. Mittal S, Frayman F (1989) Towards a generic model of configuration tasks. In: IJCAI Proceedings of the 11th international joint conference on artificial intelligence, vol 2. pp 1395–1401Google Scholar
  46. Moss J, Kotovsky K, Cagan J (2011) The effect of incidental hints when problems are suspended before, during, or after an impasse. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 37:140–148. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Myers DG (1976) The group polarization phenomenon. Psychol Bull 83:602–627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Putman VL, Paulus PB (2009) Brainstorming, brainstorming rules and decision making. J Creat Behav 43:23–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rickards T, Moger S (2002) Creative leadership processes in project team development. Br J Manag 11:273–283. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rietzschel EF, Nijstad BA, Stroebe W (2006) Productivity is not enough: a comparison of interactive and nominal brainstorming groups on idea generation and selection. J Exp Soc Psychol 42:244–251. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Schmidt A (2013) Groupthink. Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved from
  52. Seat E, Lord SM (1999) Enabling effective engineering teams: a program for teaching interaction skills. J Eng Educ 88:385. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Shah JJ, Smith SM, Vargas-Hernandez N (2003) Metrics for measuring ideation effectiveness. Des Stud 24:111–134. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Siggelkow N, Rivkin JW (2005) Speed and search: designing organizations for turbulence and complexity. Organ Sci 16:101–122. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sio UN, Kotovsky K, Cagan J (2015) Fixation or inspiration? A meta-analytic review of the role of examples on design processes. Des Stud 39:70–99. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sio UN, Kotovsky K, Cagan J (2018) Silence is golden: the effect of verbalization on group peformance. J Exp Psychol Gen 147(6):939CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Stempfle J, Badke-Schaub P (2002) Thinking in design teams—an analysis of team communication. Des Stud 23:473–496. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Taylor DW, Berry PC, Block CH (1958) Does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking? Adm Sci Q 3:23. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Tesluk PE, Quigley NR, Tekleab AG (2009) A longitudinal study of team conflict, conflict management, cohesion, and team effectivenss. Gr Organ Manag 34:170–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Thompson G, Lordan M (1999) A review of creativity principles applied to engineering design. Proc Inst Mech Eng Part E J Process Mech 213:17–31. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Turkalj Z, Fosic I, Dujak D (2008) Conflict management in organization. Interdiscip Manag. Google Scholar
  62. Wielinga B, Schreiber G (1997) Configuration-design problem solving. AI Des 49–56Google Scholar
  63. Yilmaz S, Seifert C (2010) Cognitive heuristics in design ideation. In: 11th Int Des Conf Des 2010 1–11Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joshua T. Gyory
    • 1
  • Jonathan Cagan
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kenneth Kotovsky
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Mechanical EngineeringCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

Personalised recommendations