Design thinking mindset: scale development and validation

Published in Studies in Higher Education

Nowadays, Higher Education institutions are expected to educate professionals able to face complex societal issues. In this context, traditional thinking is replaced by promoting a design thinking (DT) mindset to address wicked problems.

Design Thinking (DT) is used in diverse fields such as social sciences, engineering, computer science, business, management, and medicine. Universities around the world have incorporated DT into various courses. DT consists of three distinct areas: tools, actions, and mindset.

Mindset refers to the habitual mental outlook that guides an individual's beliefs, desires, and actions in design activity. Scholars emphasize the importance of the DT mindset in successfully implementing DT projects and driving innovation. However, there is a need for a quantitative measure of DT mindset to understand its relationship with innovative skills and attitudes.

This research aimed to develop and validate a scale to assess DT mindset at the individual level. Theoretical frameworks and literature analysis identified critical dimensions of the DT mindset, including uncertainty and risk, empathy, holistic thinking, collaboration and diversity, learning orientation, experimentation, critical questioning, abduction, creative confidence, and impact.

Uncertainty and Risk are two necessary conditions for innovation. An innovator treats uncertainty as a contextual element: information may be missing or incomplete, and the solution is imprecise. Uncertainty is associated with risk, as the innovator must also consider solutions that might fail.

Empathy is the ability to empathise with another person. For a design thinker, empathy is essential to understand the user, to explore the expressed and unexpressed needs of someone who is impacted by an issue, and to understand how their life could be improved with a potential solution.

Holistic thinking is the attitude of maintaining a certain distance from a specific situation to have an overview of the process. Design thinkers must be able to broaden and unravel the initial problem meaningfully and holistically and adapt the process accordingly.

Collaboration and Diversity are based on the ability to recognise the value of different points of view, experiences, and competencies. Innovation is possible through interaction with other people and by integrating knowledge from different disciplines and structures (groups, departments, units, and organisations)

Learning orientation. Innovation is based on learning. One learns through action and reflection on experience, synthesis, and analysis. Innovators hunger for knowledge, e.g., a better understanding of others, questioning existing paradigms, and seeking new situations to learn something new.

Experimentation indicates a propensity for practical testing. Innovators develop the ability to transform the concepts and hypotheses generated into feasible and testable models and also produce prototypes to promote discussion within the team that can be tested with users.

Critical Thinking is the attitude of maintaining a virgin, unbiased mind driven to get to the source of the problem. Design thinkers develop the ability to ask the right questions and have the tendency to question everything.

Abduction is the pattern of reasoning that expresses the logic of what could be. Innovators develop conclusions from incomplete information, making small leaps toward a future that is only partly known.

Creative confidence refers to the confidence the designer has in his or her own problem-solving abilities. Creativity can be trained by putting it into practice, and it is not an innate talent.

Optimism to create value, or 'urgent optimism,' has to do with the will to improve the starting situation and expresses the designer's determination to create value and make a difference by assessing possibilities and generating meaningful insights.       

The results of this research contribute to the understanding and measurement of DT mindset. The developed scale consists of 31 items across ten dimensions and can be used to assess the development of the DT mindset in educational studies and practice.

It provides insights into mindset development in students and professionals and facilitates the measurement of mindset development in groups and organizations.

The study highlights the importance of distinguishing between DT mindset, tools, and actions and addresses concerns from previous empirical studies.

The findings have practical implications for educators and managers, and the scale can be used to assess mindset development and evolution. The scale is implemented in an online tool.

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Authors at the Department of Management

Matteo Vignoli – Associate Professor

Academic disciplines: Management Engineering

Teaching areas: Business Process Design, Project Design and Management

Research fields:  Open Innovation, Design Thinking, Food Innovation

Matteo received his Ph.D. from the University of Padua and was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University (USA) and Ryerson University (Canada). He teaches Management Engineering and is a member of the Design Thinking ME310/SUGAR network and of the CBI initiative @CERN. Delegate for the University of Bologna Open Innovation Initiatives @Almacube, Academic Director of various BBS Open Programs, Founder and Trustee of the Future Food Institute. Matteo’s focus is “building the future” with Design Thinking Innovation. His work appeared in Research Policy, Creativity Innovation Management, Computers and Operations Research, Production Planning and Control, and International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management.

Clio Dosi – Assistant Professor

Academic disciplines: Management Engineering

Teaching areas: Organization science, Innovation.

Research fields:  Open Innovation, Design Thinking, Research centers, Healthcare Innovation.

Management engineer with PhD in General Management (2014). Her research is about the organizational dynamics that enable innovation, and she is passionate about understanding how organizations manage and design innovation. Visiting scholar at Esade Business School (2022), HPI Hasso Plattner Institute (2020), and Cass Business School (2014). She is a CERN Ideasquare fellow. She supports the Design factory of the University of Bologna, where she coordinates Oper.lab observatory of open innovation of the Department of Management.