Quantitative Comparison of High- and Low-Performing Teams in a Design Task Subject to Drastic Changes

McComb, C. , Cagan, J. , and Kotovsky, K.

2014, ASME IDETC - Design Theory and Methodology Conference

Many design tasks are subject to changes in goals or constraints. For instance, a client might modify specifications after design has commenced, or a competitor may introduce a new technology or feature. A design team often cannot anticipate such changes, yet they pose a considerable challenge. This paper presents a study where engineering teams sought to solve a design task that was subject to two large, unexpected changes in problem formulation that occurred during problem solving. Continuous design data was collected to observe how the designers responded to the changes. We show that high- and low-performing teams demonstrated very different approaches to solving the problem and overcoming the changes. In particular, high-performing teams achieved simple designs and extensively explored small portions of the design space; low-performing teams explored complex designs with little exploration around a target area of the design space. These strategic differences are interpreted with respect to cognitive load theory and goal theory. The results raise questions as to the relationship between characteristics of design problems and solution strategies. In addition, an attempt at increasing the teams’ resilience in the face of unexpected changes is introduced by encouraging early divergent search.