Design Thinking and the Management Implications

The design process with its elements of open idea generation, multidisciplinary collaboration, prototyping, execution and constant refinement is a comprehensive approach to solving business problems. But the majority of businesses do not utilize it and even worse, the majority of business schools do not teach it.

Design thinking is essentially a user centric approach, project based workflow, inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning combined with group collaboration. Instead of focusing solely on analytics and rigorous quantitative analysis the goal of the design process is to generate ideas keeping the customer in mind. It involves an almost anthropological insight into how the user will perceive, interact and use the product or service and how best to optimize these action and reactions.

As more and more businesses such as Proctor and Gamble, General Electric, Philips Electronics, Apple, Nike and Levi Strauss become more focused on their leaders adapting a design approach to problem solving business schools will be entrusted to develop a curriculum that incorporates design.

Numerous forward thinking business schools are embracing this shift in thinking and developing curriculum, hybrid models and strategic partnerships with design schools. The Rotman School of Management, Stanford University, McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and INSEAD in Paris are sterling examples of schools leading the way. Business schools currently teach a narrow form of collaboration. It involves finding someone who shares the same approach and views as you and working with them. The design approach is to collaborate with individuals whose way of thinking could not be more different than your own in order to foster new approaches and unique insights.

Business schools do not teach the understanding of users, visualizing something that does not now exist, prototyping and continual improvement. Unfortunately, obstacles to design thinking in business schools are prevalent. Semantic gaps, improper understanding of the brainstorming process, conceptual blocks and social barriers exist in abundance in many post secondary institutions. Educators also need to adopt a more interactive approach, instead of the “I am right, listen to me” mentality, they need to act more as a mediator between student led groups, offering expert advice and teaching the main deliverables.

The onus is not only on business schools to adopt design thinking but also businesses themselves, from small enterprises to huge multi-nationals. Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business says, “We are on the cusp of a design revolution in business and as a result, todayʼs business people donʼt need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.” Firm-specific executive education programs can teach problem driven design thinking, ad-hoc approaches and leveraging in-house design talent.

General Electric Healthcare sends its top managers to the Crotonville Learning Center in Ossining, N.Y. for the Technical Development Course. Managers are put outside their comfort zones and focus on creativity, imagination and problem-solving tools. The training program coupled with the appointment of designers to the executive level have increased the bottom line and instilled a culture that keeps the company at the edge of innovation.

The success of design thinking is evident in numerous large companies. Arguably, the company who has seen the most success from a foundation built on design and design thinking is Apple Inc.. Apple has continually trumped analyst forecasts and churned out profit quarter after quarter despite a weakened economy and the existence of numerous cheaper substitutes. Jonathan Ives, VP of Product Design at Apple claims that the focus on design is a motivation to make a product that is simple, intuitive and fulfills a function for the customer. Ives has the ear of Appleʼs enigmatic CEO Steve Jobs and since the duo hooked up in 1997 they have created products that have revolutionized both the personal computing and music industries.

Design thinking can be utilized in companies big and small. The goal is to step outside an established way of thinking and approach a problem or a project with a designerʼs mentality. As business schools and individual firms start to recruit, train, hire and rely on designers and design thinking the customer will see the direct benefit with better-designed products and services.

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