Design thinking — the skill every MBA student needs

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When BMW sells a car, it knows what customers want. But the company also steps back to understand why they want it. What does a car mean to someone? How does it fit his or her lifestyle? How will people feel about their cars in the future?

BMW wants to understand the emotions behind owning a car, and the process of buying it — how customers can find out what they need, without feeling “sold” to by staff.

They got here through design thinking — creative strategies used by designers that can be applied to finding solutions for other issues. It has been around for decades and has grown out of a creative approach originally used in industrial design. But it can be applied across so many types of businesses. It lends itself to identifying and solving ambiguous, complex human problems.

Design thinking starts with real empathy — putting yourself in your customers’ shoes to understand problems and uncover new and unexpected solutions. Companies might think they know what their clients want, but often they do not — because they have used old fashioned, rigid methods of market research to find out. These are no longer applicable in today’s environment.

Traditional business processes do not typically foster empathetic engagement with customers. Design thinking has nothing to do with data-driven analyses, efficiencies and cost cutting, and it is not relevant for anything without a human angle.

I will bet most business people do not have a clue what real empathy is, but business students cannot afford not to learn it.

Think about the experience of joining a bank. Companies such as Deutsche Bank are in the process of using design thinking to innovate. They “force” employees to act as customers and use the same services and products as if they were clients.

PepsiCo’s chief executive, Indra Nooyi, has embarked upon a transformation of the company using design thinking. She says rather than thinking as a chief executive, she puts herself in the shoes of a consumer — a mother buying groceries for the family — and she encourages all employees to do the same.

This human-centred approach highlights problems you may not have known existed, and then uses them as stepping stones to innovation. If you want to be inspired, you must get away from processes and assumptions that do not give you original insights, or you will be ill informed.

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Rather than sending out hundreds of surveys with questions relying on your own knowledge and examples of the past, you need to look instead at the present and future.

This is an important mindset to teach MBA students and Imperial College Business School includes design thinking as a core component of the course. Empathy is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and so it is critical for leadership skills.

But not all students are on board, and anecdotally women seem to understand differences between empathy and sympathy better than their male counterparts. When I asked a class what empathy meant, a male student answered “being weak”. Fortunately most do not think that way and the sceptics in my classes are coming around. It is a mindset that can be taught — only sociopaths and psychopaths cannot learn to be empathetic.

Teaching design thinking is really about learning by doing. I explain the main tools and methods involved. I will ask students to conduct some design research; they will make mistakes but they will learn. Once you have identified your audience, or groups of people affected by certain problems — it might be students or museum visitors for instance — you can identify a small sample for qualitative research.

Then you spend time with them, asking about their experiences, listening, rather than conducting a survey. Once you have an idea of potential solutions, then you use market research techniques to validate an idea or “prototype” — this is the stage at which to ask for feedback. Designers have worked this way for a long time.

It is a sure sign that this is important if management consultancies are beginning to open design thinking departments and buy up niche consultancies — EY bought Seren, a London-based service design firm, two years ago, for example. Empathy is one of the most underestimated leadership skills in today’s business environment, but it is powerful.

Dr Ileana Stigliani is assistant professor of design and innovation at Imperial College Business School

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