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Using design to anticipate changes and minimise risks in business

A prime task for leading business schools is to prepare executives to meet tomorrow’s challenges in industries where stiff competition and fast-paced disruption are very much the norm.

That requires a specific focus on innovation and the development of a mindset which understands the essential value of new tech-based solutions and an inventive approach to management.

“We need to create globally minded, innovative thinkers,” says Professor Jeanne Liedtka, a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, who was in Hong Kong in June to meet alumni and canvass views on possible enhancements to the school’s MBA and executive education programmes. “Therefore, our emphasis is on preparing leaders who are not only experts in their own field, but who understand the all-round importance of ethics, strategy, innovation and technology in running any modern-day organisation.”

To this end, the teaching methodology is never to lecture. Instead, classroom sessions are centred on case studies and projects, allowing students to learn from each other, as well as from faculty members. This approach also helps build a sense of community and an esprit de corps among graduates that is not always found in other academic environments.

“Over a third of our students are from outside the United States, which is very important in our conversations,” Liedtka says. “I don’t think you can be global as a business school if you are sitting in a room with people who are all from the same country. So, diversity in the student body, and the ability to travel and experience other countries and cultures, are key aspects of being able to create global thinkers.”

For example, Liedtka teaches a week-long class in Barcelona, where a group of MBA students explore design through the city’s art and architecture and are immersed in the local culture. Others head to destinations like South Africa, India and Japan, with this emphasis on “going out” to see the world regarded as fundamental to the curriculum.

This addresses a specific challenge facing many course leaders.

“We have a lot of tools to give managers, mostly around testing ideas, but hardly any that help them come up with ideas and think more creatively,” says Liedtka who, though a strategist by training, started studying organic growth as a topic about 10 years ago.

She wanted to understand how both entrepreneurs and managers in established businesses thought and behaved; to see how their approach contributed to top-line revenue growth; and then to teach that to other executives to make them more effective.

“Some entrepreneurs intuitively and naturally behave in ways that allow them to see opportunities and grow their business,” Liedtka says. “But many people in organisations have been raised to follow the rules and not make mistakes. Because of that, they don’t have this intuitive ability and, as educators, our responsibility is to help them develop it.”

Those conclusions led to further research in the design field, where she saw companies had a set of tools to help managers think more creatively about their business, sometimes without even noticing.

What evolved was a way of teaching Darden students in various programmes to apply design thinking methodology in business organisations.

“We need tools to help us manage risk and uncertainty, as opposed to assuming the world is predictable and ordered and that we can control it,” Liedtka says. “These new tools coming out of design are really optimised for uncertainty. They teach us how to manage risk by figuring out how to test ideas in fast, cheap and efficient ways. Things are changing so fast, we can’t rely on data from the past to predict whether something will succeed in the future.”

Nowadays, she notes, innovation doesn’t just belong to R&D teams, tech experts or senior leaders. Instead, it belongs to everyone in an organisation, and design thinking provides the tools to teach and scale this capability.

“In addition, corporate culture always matters,” Liedtka says. “It can either make it easier or much harder to change a system or process. If you wait for your organisation’s culture to change, you can wait a long time. But design thinking gives each of us as individuals the power to act now, without specific permission, and not wait for the organisation to bless whatever we’re doing.”


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Best laid plans.