I started teaching design thinking on the MBA at IESE Business School in 2011. It was a great experience, but very different from teaching at engineering and design schools. The specialised structure and tradition of the MBA, especially where there is most pressure from the ranking system, doesn't lend itself easily to the messy, real-world challenges that design is so good at tackling.

This is my 3rd and final design-related post. After looking at design field research last week, and design thinking for personal development on 21st March, I finish with excerpts from an interview with Lucy Kimbell, a designer, researcher and educator I've long admired -- and a pioneer in MBA teaching, having started her design course at Said Business School, Oxford in 2005.

What Is Design? Can Anyone Be a Designer or Practice Design?

Different fields have their own views on design, such as the engineering school that has its own starting point for design often as a formal process, whereas communication design emphasises the visual and product design emphasizes the material. Yet most approaches to design have some common features that include focusing on generating new solutions or possibilities, and exploring future ideas by making them more tangible and available for consideration in the present.

Kimbell says that design, at its best, “brings things into view” and so can be potentially disruptive, both in the solutions it can offer as well as the differing mind-set required by those who practice it in an organization. The advantage and disadvantage of design, according to Kimbell, is that some designers push beyond existing boundaries, which is good from the point of view that anyone can tackle, and get involved in generating solutions to a problem, but that they may not always be qualified to assess the implications of a new idea. As the world has become more complex, with the necessity to link previously disparate capabilities to find new solutions, so design has offered the potential to promote a culture of enquiry and curiosity, which contrasts with the operational, routine base view of many managers.

Why Is Design Useful?

As well as the previously mentioned potential for tackling complex problems and engendering a change in the culture of a company, Kimbell says that design has specific advantages to offer in the early stages of a project where there may be a poor understanding of a solution, or where people have a tendency to jump to the solution. Although fields such as anthropology and sociology offer a more sophisticated means of understanding user segments (and the challenges they face), design practice offers a readily accessible means of achieving the same aim. Many design methods are reflected in contemporary practices such as lean start-up methodology, including agility, iteration, and experimentation. The basic idea is not owned by design – try something out before you do it at scale – but with prototyping designers make it possible for stakeholders to rapidly consider a proposal in particular the experiences of end users and those involved in delivering or co-producing a new solution or service.

How May Design Be Successfully Delivered in the MBA World?

Having taught several hundred MBA students since 2005, Kimbell has come to understand what is required for this to work. From a core group of 225 students, each year around 50 choose Kimbell’s elective, these days with a clear objective of learning about design thinking given the increased visibility of design-led companies and consultancies like IDEO, Apple, Frog, and AirB&B and in house teams in firms such as IBM and SAP. Rather than talking about design ‘thinking’, Kimbell focuses on practice and allows her students to do design, partnering with MA design students to follow the process of exploration, insight generation, and idea creation. She shows her students that ideas don’t simply exist in one’s head to be made tangible, but it is through the process of designing, sketching, prototyping, and role-playing that ideas emerge and develop. She finds it difficult to enable students to engage meaningfully with real stakeholders in the field within the 24-hour confines of the elective, but facilitates this through third-party research, user profiles and expert interviews.

Her students often either love or hate the class, but all encounter an experience they are unlikely to forget. Much depends on their cognitive style. Highly rational, ordered thinkers often encounter a deeply uncomfortable experience that they don’t enjoy, whereas more disordered, messy, explorative thinkers are more at ease with the ambiguity that characterizes the class. Kimbell says that the class offers them an opportunity to put into practice some of the techniques and knowledge gained in other parts of the MBA and “offers an encounter with making the world.” She believes that some of the barriers to participating and getting the most from the learning experience may even be traced back to primary education, which does not offer enough space for playing and creative thought and different national learning traditions.

Should We Rethink Design Thinking?

Although the great attention paid to design, and particularly design thinking, over the past few years has generated opportunities to apply design approaches to humanitarian, policy as well as organizational challenges,  it’s not as if design thinking is a clearly defined, replicable process that works for everything. IDEO has been highly skilled at articulating and packing the product of design thinking. The public version of design thinking was progressed in a different fashion by business authors such as Roger Martin,who emphasizes its abductive reasoning and a way of framing problems and asking “What if?.However, neither are closely linked to deep academic research, and for many in the “design as a science” community, none of the recent discussion on design thinking in mangement has not produced much that is new. Design, in some ways, has become reduced to being a simplified process or a toolkit, which misses the complexity and nuance of what designers know and do within what historian Guy Julier calls ‘the culture of design’. So Kimbell welcomes the visibility of Design Thinking as it has generated opportunities for designers and enabled more people to adopt and adapt the approach, but management academics have to date not connected much with academic design research and she feels it’s the combination of these two bodies of knowledge that will advance the field.

Having recently established a design-driven MBA at Central Saint Martins and helped to embed design thinking in policy for the UK Government Lucy is currently director of the Innovation Insights Hub at University of the Arts London.

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