Designing for Growth

15 June 2013

e+i June 2013

“Our MBA students have wonderful confidence in their abilities, but they get a bit nervous when you ask them to follow someone around a supermarket,” says Jeanne Liedtka, the United Technologies Corporation Professor of Business Administration at the Darden School. In her popular MBA course Corporate Innovation and Design Experience, students might follow people around a store, tag along as they perform chores, or do whatever it takes to gain deep insight into their needs and desires. Such customer ethnography is a central component of design thinking, the creative problem-solving methodology that Liedtka introduces in the course. If students are uncomfortable with it, she understands: “Almost nothing in my background prepares me to teach design thinking. It’s all pretty new to me.”

In a webinar last fall hosted by Darden’s Batten Institute, Liedtka described the challenges of teaching design thinking to both MBA and Executive Education students and the lessons she’s learned. The process Liedtka teaches, which starts with deep exploration of the customer experience and culminates in the testing of business concepts with users, is a radical departure from what most students have imbibed in their previous professional and educational experiences. It focuses on possibilities instead of constraints. And it emphasizes action rather than analysis, treating business ideas as hypotheses to be tested not with existing data but with information gathered in early, low-cost forays into the marketplace. “It’s helpful to students that design thinking is a codified process with a defined set of tools,” she says. “The clarity of the process and the simplicity of the tools make it less scary to behave in new ways.”

Why do MBAs need to become fluent in this new language? “Design helps them escape their old mind-sets,” Liedtka explains. “It prepares them to find opportunities in environments of uncertainty.” It is an essential competency for managers in tough environments, who must look deep within their companies for growth. In The Catalysts, coauthored with Robert Rosen and Robert Wiltbank (Crown Business, 2009), Liedtka describes their research into the behaviors, attitudes, and practices of managers who achieved organic growth in large organizations. These managers, they found, all behaved in a way that set off a virtuous cycle: They embraced uncertainty and new experiences, understood customers as real people rather than as data points, preferred action to analysis, learned through experimentation, and ultimately succeeded in new situations.

Traditional approaches to business and to business education, Liedtka notes, often trap people in an opposite, vicious cycle, in which they fear uncertainty, avoid new experiences, choose analysis instead of action, do not tolerate experimentation, and succeed less often in new situations. “Students often arrive at Darden already stuck in this cycle,” Liedtka says. Engaging the design process, she finds, compels them to break free.

Her class, Corporate Innovation and Design Experience, is action-based rather than case-based. “Until you actually go out and do design thinking, it doesn’t really register,” Liedtka explains. Students in the course work in teams to apply design thinking to projects for actual clients, many of whom are Darden alumni. The best projects for this class, Liedtka notes, are those that ask students to explore an area of opportunity rather than test a solution or determine the size of a market for a new offering. In other words, they are projects that lend themselves to creative rather than analytic solutions. During the 2012–13 academic year, for example, students helped General Mills explore opportunities to do something different with its space in the grocery store. They also worked with SAP, Anthropologie, a Darden alumnus’s start-up, and the Darden Career Development Center.

In addition to worrying about disappointing their clients, students often feel frustration and anxiety with this new process. The inherent inefficiency of design thinking can seem counterintuitive, Liedtka notes, especially to students who have not yet experienced the limitations of analytic approaches. It requires them to consider multiple options and prototype multiple concepts, even if they think they’ve already hit on the best one. It asks them to devote substantial time and effort at the front end and to spend lots of time interpreting various kinds of feedback—a difficult task if you’re anxious and uncomfortable.

Students also must break some of the habits they’ve developed from other classes. “The case method teaches decisiveness,” Liedtka explains, “but design thinking asks you to suspend judgment, to live in the question, to live with ambiguity.” In discussing a case, students draw on data that’s right in front of them. In the design process, they must go out and gather new data from potential customers.

“My own discomfort with the process is often really obvious,” says Liedtka, who has spent much of her career steeped in the language of business strategy and so calls on various designers for help in her teaching. But she sees qualities in this generation of students that will help them become literate in creative approaches. First, they are very comfortable with data presented visually, which is central to design. Second, they are used to some degree of experimentation from the world of video games. “This generation grew up playing on a Game Boy,” Liedtka notes, “where you’re generally playing until you die. It’s very different from sitting down with a game and following the rules on the inside of the box, which is what I grew up doing.”

The key to teaching design thinking, Liedtka has found, is to acknowledge and understand the students’ emotional journey, much as design teaches them to do with customers. Liedtka requires her MBA students to keep journals, which she reads to get glimpses into their reactions and struggles. She also does a lot of hand-holding. “Students learning to use these tools need more structure and support than case method teachers will be comfortable with,” she explains. “You must be sure not to push them over the edge with ambiguity. If you don’t acknowledge and respond to their discomfort, you won’t get to the breakthrough. You won’t help them see what design provides that analytics cannot.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Sophie Zunz
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Darden School of Business
University of Virginia