Developing High-Performing Teams: A Design Thinking Led Approach

  • Heath KeighranEmail author
  • Sisira Adikari
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9746)


A highly functional team is fundamental to the ongoing business success, and organizations spend a significant amount of resources on improving team performance. Creating a high-performing team is far more challenging than imagined in an enterprise with continuously changing business demands. This paper examines how the application of design thinking can lead to developing highly functional teams that deliver effective team performance and outcomes. This study involved embedding design thinking into co-design as an approach to develop and implement strategies that satisfy a high-performing team structure. Four dynamic teams of total seven team members actively engaged with two business designers in co-design. Upon the setting up, all team members worked with the new team structure for seven weeks. A questionnaire was administered to team members to assess their new experience, perceptions on performance and outcomes in the new team structure followed by a focus group workshop. The results of the subsequent data analysis indicate that team members performed significantly better in the new team structure and delivered higher levels of team outcomes.


Co-design Design thinking High-performing teams 

1 Introduction

The dynamic nature of today’s enterprise is complex and faced with many challenges such as resource limitations, increased competition between similar enterprises, and continuously changing business demands. The primary goal of an enterprise is to maintain a sustainable development and meet business objectives effectively. The people factor is the main driving force in the business where teamwork has become an essential element. It has been identified that highly functional teams are fundamental to the ongoing business success of organizations [1]. Organizations recognize the importance of the higher level of performance and spend a significant amount of resources on programs that aimed at improving team performance [2]. A high-performing team is an asset to the enterprise and contributes significantly to make it successful. Organizations continuously explore new ways and methods that can improve the team performance for a higher level of organizational outcomes. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to investigate novel approaches that significantly speed-up the team performance. Many methods are suitable for exploratory investigations such as interviewing, focus groups and brainstorming. Design Thinking has been recognized as one of the most effective means to discover deeper insights and empathy of users and context of use to develop a greater understanding [3]. Accordingly, design thinking led exploratory studies to benefit from the use of design thinking methodology to uncover a deeper contextual understanding of solution design.

Human-Centered Design (HCD) methodologies and principles underpin the necessary design practices to understand the needs of the end-user and to deliver user-focused design solutions [4]. One of the primary purposes of HCD is to gain a profound insight to develop proper understanding and needs of all users and the context. User-Centered Design (UCD) is an approach of Human-Centered Design [5]. Design Thinking (DT) is another approach of HCD that can be used to gain a real knowledge of all users and the context. From the perspectives of socio-technical aspects, a design team engaged in solution design can be considered as a Problem-Solving System. For the purpose of creating high-performing teams, we treat design teams as a Problem-Solving system. We have used design thinking as the primary HCD approach to gain a deeper knowledge of design teams and to improve the current situation to a desirable future state by designing with all users (team members).

The rest of the paper is organized as follows. Section 2 presents an overview of design thinking as a human-centered approach. Section 3 explains the research design of this investigation. Section 4 illustrates how the research was conducted. Section 5 describes the team ideation as a concept. Section 6 reports the results of the research study. Section 7 briefly discusses the usefulness of this study and concludes the paper.

2 Design Thinking as an HCD Approach

In recent years, ‘design thinking’ has gained a wider popularity in many disciplines as an approach to solving socially ambiguous design problems [6]. According to Dunne and Martin [7], design thinking is the way designers think and apply their mental processes to design objects, services or systems, as distinct from the end result of elegant and useful products. Design Thinking is an approach of Human-Centered Design.

According to Brown [8], design thinking is an approach of human-centered innovation that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. Brown’s definition of design thinking highlights three important points. First, design thinking is an approach of human-centered design. Second, design thinking is an approach to creating feasible design solutions that meet customer needs with added value. Third, design thinking is an approach to designing artifacts; hence design is an integral part of design thinking. Accordingly, the main idea behind design thinking is how designers progress the design process with a creative mind to discover new opportunities and to create design solutions.

The primary focus of design thinking is to gain a deeper understanding of the system under study. It uses an extended holistic view of the system under study and other associated interacting systems to capture relevant contextual information to identify system issues, constraints, system goals, and requirements. This emphasis is further elaborated in the design thinking capability framework [8] presented with five specific focus areas namely: 1. Empathy (view contexts holistically from multiple human perspectives), 2. Integrative thinking (see all of the aspects of a situation for creative solutions), 3. Optimism (optimize one potential solution over other alternatives), 4. Experimentalism (explore the situations in creative ways towards new directions), 5. Collaboration (collaborate with interdisciplinary actors for innovative solutions). There are many design thinking process models reported by many authors [7, 8, 9, 10, 11].

This research study was based on the iterative design thinking process model presented by Meinel and Leifer [11], which is shown in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Design thinking process model [10]

It consists of five main activities: 1. (re)Define the problem, 2. Need finding and Benchmarking, 3. Brainstorm, 4. Prototype, 5. Test. According to Meinel and Leifer [11], design thinking is a human-centric methodology that integrates expertise from different disciplines such as design, social sciences, engineering, and business for problem forming, solving and design. Importantly, it emphasizes an end-user focus with multidisciplinary collaboration and iterative improvement to produce innovative products, systems, and services.

3 Research Design

This section describes the research design used in this research study which comprised of two main qualitative steps namely, Creativity and Innovation. Figure 2 shows the research design to illustrate the relationship between the Team (problem-solving system) and the two qualitative steps (Creativity and Innovation) towards producing business artifacts.
Fig. 2.

Performance loop – relationship between ideas and innovation and output

Creativity is the ability to create new or useful ideas with business value that can be used to implement business artifacts such as products, systems, or services [12, 13]. The primary aim of the creativity is an idea generation process. Idea generation is also known as Ideation [14]. Innovation is the successful implementation of those creative ideas to realize business artifacts [15]. As shown in Fig. 2, the Team (problem-solving system) engages in Creativity and Innovation steps to produce novel ideas to generate business artifacts.

4 Research Process

There were four dynamic teams of total seven team members participated in this research study. Two business designers led a number of design thinking-oriented co-design sessions where all team members actively engaged in for both creativity and innovation steps (activities). For team members, at one instance, one team member can be active only in one team, and also, a team member can be active in many teams in different instances. The research process is governed by a conceptual system called Idea Hub which is central to Team, Creativity, and Innovation. The Idea Hub functionality was managed by business designers who led the design workshops. The primary aim of the idea hub functionality was to record and assess all ideas received from the Idea Generation and Collection functionality to determine the suitability of each idea for further development. Ideas are evaluated based on their business value, feasibility, desirability, and viability and the selected ideas that deemed promising enough for prototyping are then passed over for further development and redevelopment towards business solutions and artifacts. All activities between Team, Innovation, and Creativity are iterative. The schematic view of the research process is shown in Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Idea Hub– relationship between innovation and creativity

5 Team Ideation

A team in many ways is self-sustained, and team members provide many leads of information for idea generation sourced from their backgrounds, and personal and business experience. Team idea generation (team ideation) is a combination of consistent information flows from areas such as collaboration, production, team members, building, discovery, reflection. Figure 4 shows the Team Ideation Model.
Fig. 4.

Team Ideation model

With the strong emphasis on human-centered design and design thinking orientation, all members of the team participated in idea generation and collection process. All members of the team engaged in this process on a day-to-day basis. Team members come from different backgrounds and their engagement in each idea generation sessions helped to enhance the collaboration and to produce shared and agreed ideas that support creativity and innovation. The team idea generation was governed by an Ideation Governance Model that showcase how ideas are moved through and are prioritized for development or moved back for further redevelopment in collaboration with the team. The process view of the ideation governance model is shown in Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Process view of the ideation governance model

5.1 The Team Structure

The team structure uses a suite of techniques, tools, and an array of design activities based on a collaborative and co-design approach. The co-design approach was used to create an open and collective team with access to creativity and innovation; this process puts the most suitable team members together for the most appropriate task. The purpose of an open and collaborative team was to utilize design thinking to increase performance. The main functionalities of the Team were to generate ideas, explore ideas, develop ideas, implement ideas and evaluate ideas. The Design Solutions were created based on the evaluated ideas. The team structure model is shown in Fig. 6.
Fig. 6.

Team structure model

6 Experimental Study

This section presents the details of embedding design thinking into co-design as an approach to developing and implements strategies that satisfy a high-performing team structure. The aim of co-design activity is to generate collective creativity of designer and participants who are actively engaged in the design process where participant becomes a partner of the design [16]. The study aimed to create a high performing team structure that promotes creativity and innovation through the use of an ideas management system. This research study was conducted to assess if the application of design thinking can lead to developing highly functional teams that deliver effective team performance and outcomes.

Two business designers led design workshops to unpack the tasks and requirements for a suite of given business problems. The requirements then determined team structures, and the team of seven discussed and agreed on who was best suited to the task, taking into accountability, individual skills, current workloads and willingness to learn. During the workshop, team members engaged in design activities and offered a number of creative ideas based on the key topics outlined by the Business Designers. Some of the topics discussed were:
  • Business challenge

  • Current state

  • Desired state

  • How to go to the desired state and what need to be done

  • Achieving results

  • Team collaboration

  • Team environment

  • Team direction

  • Team responsibilities

  • Team goals

  • Individual skills and talents

  • Team commitments

  • Values and rewards

  • Continuous improvements

  • Skillful communication

  • Team consultation

  • Team spirit

  • Trust and respect

  • Innovation

  • Creativity

  • Co-design

Moreover, the design workshops uncovered other participant attributes such as group dynamics, behaviors, knowledge, experience, attitudes, likes, dislikes and how team members see themselves, the team and the enterprise. The workshops allowed team members to develop a shared knowledge of the context, efficient means for how they would work together, how to utilize the idea managements system and what design principles and methodologies they would adopt.

6.1 Design Thinking Teams

Design thinking teams are based on collaborative, and cross-functional principles that allow members with different experiences work to realize design benefits in their day to day job activities. The fundamental orientation of teams is strongly linked to design thinking principles, methods, techniques, and tools. Teamwork primarily involves design thinking-oriented tasks aimed at devising design solutions. Moreover, having an open and cross-functional team provides the opportunity to generate purposeful creative and innovative ideas towards effective design solutions. The Team Ideation, Hub, and Structure are collaboratively managed, developed and reviewed by the team, which is multidisciplinary with different skills sets.

For this study, four dynamic teams of total seven team members were set up as shown in Table 1. As its name suggests, a dynamic team is not static or permanent, and team structures can be short lived. Dynamic teams are set up and disband based on business needs of the enterprise. The team structures were such that one team member can take part in one-to-many teams in a given day. As shown in Table 1, seven team members are represented by alphabetic characters A to G. Team leads are a part of the seven-member team, and a team can be led by more than one team member.
Table 1.

Dynamic team structures

Team leads

Team members

Design thinking teams

A, B, C

D, E, F, G

Main team


E, F

Sub-team one


B, G

Sub-team two

A, B

C, D

Sub-team three

For example, the Main Team is led by three team leads A, B, and C and the team members of the team are D, E, F, and G. Similarly, the sub-team two is directed by a single team member F, and the team members are B and G.

Unnecessary redundancies in teams affect the performance [17]. This research study also paid attention to optimizing teams by removing duplications or unnecessary redundancies of resources in teams. One possible approach is to apply relational database normalization principles considering teams as relations, and team leads define rest of the team (team members are functionally dependent on team lead or leads). However, further discussion on team optimization using relational database normalization principles is out of scope for this paper due to space limitations.

6.2 Data Collection and Analysis

Upon the setting up, all team members worked with the new team structures for seven weeks. A questionnaire was administered to all seven team members to assess their new experience, perceptions on performance and outcomes in their new team structures followed by a focus group. The aim of the questionnaire was to uncover perceptions to support better delivering an open, enjoyable, and cross-functional team that helps improve output and collaboration. The questionnaire was a cut-down version of the team building questionnaire by Warrick [18], and it contained following questionnaire items with Likert-scales 1 to 7 (1 = very low and 7 = very high):
  • The team leader provides vision, direction, and inspiration

  • The team has a clear mission

  • The responsibilities of the team and each team member are clear

  • The team has clear goals

  • The potential of the team and each team member is fully utilized

  • The team is flexible and responds quickly to needed changes

  • The team leader encourages participation and involvement

  • All team members are committed team players

  • Team members feel free to be candid and communicate openly

  • Ideas are critiqued in a positive way by attacking problems and not people

  • Team members are valued and rewarded for their efforts

  • The time is taken periodically to evaluate and improve the team.

  • The team has a sense of vitality, enthusiasm, and team spirit

  • Team members work well together and support and encourage each other

  • An atmosphere of trust exists among the team members

  • The team has an environment that encourages innovative ideas and constant improvements

  • The team has an environment that is warm, friendly, and fun

  • The team fully utilizes the talents of each team member

  • The team is very successful at achieving the desired results

The focus group discussed similar topics in the questionnaire and aimed at capturing collective voice from the team more of the qualitative nature. The questionnaire data were analyzed to identify which Likert scale categories for which questionnaire items were preferred by the majority of team members. The captured focus group data were analyzed to determine recurring themes relevant to the new team structures. The details of data analysis and results are presented in Sect. 6.3.

6.3 The Results of Data Analysis

Table 2 illustrates the results of the questionnaire data analysis showing a total number of responses by team members for each questionnaire item. The quantitative data from Likert scales were analyzed by calculating a total number of responses received for each Likert score value for each questionnaire item. Seven point Likert scales were used, ranging from 1 = Very Low, 2 = Low, 3 = Somewhat Low (SWL), 4 = Average (AVE), 5 = Somewhat High (SWH), 6 = High, 7 = Very High.
Table 2.

Results of questionnaire data analysis

As shown in Table 2, there are four total of seven responses, and ten total of six responses for Very High Likert score and these have been highlighted by dark green and light green colors. Based on Likert scale ranges, a total of seven response and a total of six response are treated as very high and high respectively. Accordingly, a total of seven responses means all team members agree with the relevant questionnaire item for a very high score, and a total of six responses means six team members agree with the corresponding questionnaire item for a high score. These total scores altogether amount to 4 + 10 = 14 questionnaire items for which participants agree that they are very high or high-performance indicators.

Two business designers led the focus group workshop, and all team members attended it. Discussions were based indicators of high-performance and how to achieve best results in a team environment. Eleven themes were identified during the focus group workshop by team members namely: 1. Business change, 2. Requirements, 3. Vision and mission, 4. Direction, 5. Environment, 6. Support, 7. Encouragement, 8. Goals, 9. Consultation and collaboration, 10. Co-design, 11. Achieving results. The relationship between these themes was discussed and agreed by team members as shown in Fig. 7.
Fig. 7.

The agreed relationship between themes

Figure 7 is an indication of the team perceptions on themes and how they specifically should relate in order to achieve best results and deliver high-performance.

7 Conclusions

In this paper, we presented three ideation models: Idea Hub, Team Ideation Model, and Ideation Governance Model along with a design thinking-oriented co-design approach to design high-performing teams. These models and the embed co-design approach applied to create four dynamic teams in an enterprise. After seven weeks of working on new team structures, a questionnaire was administered to all team members to assess their new experience in the new team structures. The results of the subsequent data analysis indicate that team members positively expressed their opinions to suggest that they performed significantly better in the new team structures and achieved higher levels of team outcomes.

The main contribution of the paper comes from the design, implementation, and validation of three ideation models used in a design thinking led co-design space. We are confident that these models and the co-design approach can be applied in wider academic and industrial settings to derive effective human-centred design solutions.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Business Design, Crooked FoxCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.School of Information Systems and AccountingUniversity of CanberraCanberraAustralia

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