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Why Design Thinking is the Thing in Business Schools
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Tim Dodd |

“Start off with a deep empathy for something. You start off with a deep empathy for an end user and you try to solve their problem. Once you go from there you can begin to ideate a solution. And there’s lots of rapid prototyping and testing. So rather than coming up with a product idea and launching one big thing, it’s about testing – it’s very iterative.”

That’s Anna Kirkpatrick, a just-minted MBA graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney, telling me about her experience with design thinking – an approach to creating and building new business ventures, which is the hottest thing in business schools around the world.

“Deep empathy”, “ideate a solution”, “rapid prototyping”: are these the words that will revolutionise entrepreneurship? You may doubt it, but stay with me.

Thirty-five years ago, David Kelley started a company in California with a philosophy of bringing the human factor into its work by designing for peoples’ behaviour. One of his first clients was Steve Jobs – a clear example of a design thinker – and among the many things Kelley’s company did for Apple was design its first mouse.

IDEO has since become famous for its philosophy of understanding human needs and finding out quickly, even recklessly, what works and what doesn’t. It‘s not only about designing physical things; it’s an approach Kelley applies to human interaction and the mysterious process of brainstorming and creating new products and new businesses.

How does IDEO describe what it does? It says it goes deeper than a purely rational approach. “It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols,” says its website. “Nobody wants to run an organisation on feeling, intuition and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way.”

In 2005 Kelley, by now famous in his field, suggested Stanford University establish an institute to promote design thinking. Hasso Plattner, co-founder of German software company SAP, put up $US35 million to pay for it. Its proper name is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design but it’s universally known as the doesn’t offer degrees because Jobs talked Kelley out of it. “I don’t want somebody with one of your flaky degrees,” Kelley says Jobs told him.

But the didn’t need to offer a qualification. At the height of Apple worship and Steve Jobs mania, the captured the Silicon Valley zeitgeist. Students sat around trestle tables, lounged on couches, drew on walls and followed the steps of design thinking: inspiration, ideation, implementation. It looks “like a preschool playroom for grown-ups”, said the Wall Street Journal.

People flocked to it, far more than the could accommodate. Harvard, in the stuffy north-east, saw itself being left behind and launched the i-lab (the i stands for innovation). The university knew the i-lab was a hit when one of its famous dropouts, Mark Zuckerberg, dropped in and said he felt as if he was in California. “After a nearby student tweeted his remark, waves of undergrads started flocking to the i-lab,” wrote journalist Alexandra Wolfe.

The success inspired others. Kelley had set up a in Potsdam, Germany, as part of his deal with Plattner. Finland started Aalto University Design Factory; Canada had DesignWorks at the the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; and UTS in Sydney developed u.lab, where MBA graduate Anna Kirkpatrick took a deep dive into design thinking.

But what is it? In old-style business thinking there’s “one right answer and leaders get promoted because they get to that one right answer faster than anyone else”, says Sam Bucolo, professor of design and innovation at UTS. Design thinking is different.

“This is where you try to build up your hypothesis as you move along as a designer would. They say, here’s your set of challenges and you’re going to explore multiple concepts in parallel.”

A key point is that it is not about designing products and services. “It’s just a way of thinking,” Bucolo says. “You constantly question and challenge yourself, even to the extent of asking if the problem is still the right one, or whether it is something else.”

Steve Jobs demonstrated his skills as a design thinker, says Bucolo, but not because he was a smart designer. He focused on the user experience; his execution was detailed and he searched for solutions in places no one had been before.

Bucolo is part of the drive towards design thinking at UTS, which began three years ago when a Stanford faculty member who had helped set up the visited the business school. It led to an invitation to UTS Business School dean Roy Green to send some young lecturers to visit the Stanford centre. Jochen Schweitzer was one of the group that went and he then taught for six months at the Potsdam

For Schweitzer, design thinking was a solution to a nagging issue. When he started teaching at UTS in 2007 he was in the design faculty teaching business skills to design students. He realised their way of thinking had a lot to offer business students. “At that time it was really difficult to get business students, design students and engineering students into one classroom,” he says.

When he returned from Potsdam he was a prime mover in setting up u.lab, first housed in a disused warehouse near UTS. Soon 100, 200 or 300 people were turning up for programs and other events. They came from different backgrounds, different disciplines and from many different parts of Sydney, says Kirkpatrick.

“That’s one of the things which makes it so rich,” she says. “You’re just going to be exposed to all the different people and that challenges you in your way of thinking, and you begin to think a bit more broadly.”

Baptiste Bachellerie and Hasan Syed, also business postgrads when they became regulars at u.lab, were challenged and broadened by it. “In the business school we tend to think in a certain way and in the architectural school we think in a certain way and in design school in a different way. It was breaking the silos,” says Bachellerie.

“You’d find most of us on level six with the architecture students. As business students we’d come for inspiration,” says Syed.

u.lab did not offer for-credit courses, but students earned credit from participation in u.lab programs if they were doing a postgraduate subject called Entrepreneurship Lab. The programs included GroundBreaker, a series of innovation workshops, and Bike Tank, which used design thinking to tackle a city’s transport problems.

Students set up their own entrepreneurial projects. Bachellerie set up a tourism venture, South of the Border, which offers tourists the chance to see Sydney like a local and have experiences most visitors don’t get.

How did design thinking help him? “I learnt a lot about empathy and to get inside all the partners, all the stakeholders, in a business,” he says. As a result, he tries to create value for both tourists and the communities they visit.

For UTS the u.lab has been an experiment in design thinking, an application of the approach of rapid prototyping. The university is still to find it a permanent home on its central Sydney campus, which is in the middle of a $1 billion makeover. But it is trying to go one better and spread the design thinking ethos through every faculty. It offers a bachelor of creative intelligence and innovation which can be done as part of a double degree.

Green says the primacy of design thinking and creative intelligence at UTS will be the differentiator between it and other Australian universities. “We can do something other business schools and universities can’t, which is a multi-disciplinary approach to entrepreneurship and business creation,” he says.

Green says they have followed the design thinking advice of founder Kelley: “Don’t get ready, get started.” But UTS will need to keep moving to stay ahead. The University of NSW is creating its version of Stanford’s, a bold direction for the university, which is strong in the linear disciplines of ­engineering and technology and is led by its famously linear thinking vice-chancellor, the former McKinsey chief and Fairfax chief executive Fred Hilmer.

The Crouch Innovation Centre (it’s been bankrolled for an undisclosed amount by Sydney businessman Michael Crouch) will be a glass-walled thinking and doing space that will take up most of the ground floor of the new materials science building, due to open next year in a highly-trafficked area of the campus. UNSW’s Australian School of Business dean Geoffrey Garrett says one indicator of its success “might be how many fingerprints are on the windows from people standing and staring in”.

Inside will be living exhibits of Australian and global innovations. There will be work areas; 3D printers for students with an engineering bent to prototype gadgetry and places to swap ideas. ­Students from different faculties will gather into multi-disciplinary projects.

Garrett won’t be there to see it through because he leaves soon to become dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. But he envisages a series of rolling programs in the centre, such as a university-wide innovation competition in which small teams pitch against each other for a major prize.

“You expect, given UNSW’s strengths, there to be a lot of stuff in [science, technology, engineering and maths] disciplines. At the same time, and this is what you see from Stanford and Harvard, you want to include things like social innovation in the mix as well,” he says.

But does design thinking get results: the big results which send investors wild?

Yes, Jobs was spectacularly successful. But was he a true design thinker? He thought outside the box, acted rapidly and implemented his projects with full-on intensity. But collaboration and empathy, both precepts of design thinking, weren’t his strong points.

Before you think too hard about this question, note this. Akshay Kothari, a mechanical engineering postgrad, went to the Stanford and his project was to rethink how people ate ramen noodles, according to The New York Times. His group came up with the idea of a fat straw.

He learnt a way of thinking in that assignment that led to something else. He enrolled in a class called Launchpad, in which students pledge to bring a new product or service to the market in 10 weeks.

He and his partner Ankit Gupta hit the Palo Alto coffee shops to test the zeitgeist. They found that people hated having to sift the constant flow of news and information they received from many sources. Five weeks later they launched an app called Pulse, which allowed people to customise their news feeds.

This was just before the 2010 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Kothari and Gupta couldn’t get in to see Jobs’s keynote speech. So they were watching it outside when Jobs praised the Pulse app as “wonderful”. Last year LinkedIn bought their company for $US90 million.


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