Management Meets Design

By embracing design themselves, management schools can teach students to think more deeply, creatively, and strategically about business.
Management Meets Design

Ten years ago, my colleague Dick Boland and I visited Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We observed its students working to redesign complex systems, such as the U.S. Postal Service’s methods of handling packages and the Australian tax system’s compliance procedures. When I described these projects to colleagues, some responded, “Those sound like business school projects.”

Indeed, designers and design schools alike are taking a keen interest in areas once considered of interest only to executives, management scholars, and management schools. No longer perceived as a nicety used to “pretty up” products, design is now being applied to business interactions, strategies, and processes. And with a growing chorus of voices arguing that management education needs to change, design provides a perspective that can make substantial change happen.

Design thinking has been a key part of the programs at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, since architect Frank Gehry engaged our faculty in designing a new building for the school. In 2002, the year the Peter B. Lewis Building was completed, we hosted a workshop on design thinking. Four years later, we decided to distinguish our program and graduates by refocusing our curriculum on two central and interconnected themes: “managing through design” and “creating sustainable value.”

We believe that integrating design and design thinking into the MBA program can produce graduates who bring their whole selves to managing. In addition to mastering analytical skills, these design-minded graduates understand the value of engaging physically with their markets to experience what is actually going on there. They know how to rapidly sketch ideas, explore and share alternative courses of action, and trust their instincts.

These skills will be crucial in global markets where so many variables play into a company’s strategy. By integrating design into the MBA experience, we invite students to think more deeply about the products and services of an organization—what they are, who will use them, and what purposes they will serve.

Finding Design Opportunities

Within our MBA program, we spend the first semester of a yearlong, field-based course helping students learn to identify design opportunities. Teams of three students each work with an organization. They first develop an understanding of the organization’s vision; then, they identify a problem that warrants design attention. At the end of the semester, each team writes a brief for the company that presents the problem as a design opportunity.

We ask students to seek opportunities in what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber refer to as “wicked problems.” In their 1973 Policy Sciences paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Rittel and Webber outline the features that wicked problems have in common. They aren’t definitive—they don’t have what decision theorists call “a stopping rule,” which makes it clear when to stop refining the solution. They are messy, persistent, and complex, and they are always symptoms of other problems. While possible solutions to wicked problems can have good or bad outcomes, no solution is clearly right or wrong, and different views of these problems can lead to very different solutions. Finally, the actions taken to address such problems will have an immense impact on everyone involved.

Design-minded graduates know how to rapidly sketch ideas, explore and share alternate courses of action, and trust their instincts.

We also ask students and organizations to avoid fixating on a single problem prematurely. Rather, we encourage them first to identify paradoxes or points of tension within the company’s operations that might be productively explored. For example, one student team worked with a manufacturing firm that wanted to improve its customers’ experience; by looking more deeply, the students directed the firm to a larger, but related opportunity—to create systems that better allowed innovations to move from one division to others.

Another student team worked with a retailer that wanted to improve the sales experience in its stores. Using design, students saw instead an opportunity for the store to position itself as a social hub, where target customers could connect to others like themselves. Yet another team helped a services firm identify a conflict between how the firm viewed itself and how others viewed it, a discrepancy that could restrict its attempts to expand.

Some critics might argue—with good reason, in some cases—that managers don’t have the luxury of picking their problems, but must solve the ones put before them. But there are also times that demand that managers reshape the problems they face, so they can create better solutions that play to their companies’ strengths. Business schools have become good at addressing straightforward problems. We could use more practice, however, in reframing the truly wicked ones and solving them in more innovative ways.

Learning to ‘Reframe’

The experience of one of our recent graduates illustrates what happens when design thinking is missing from the problem-solving equation. During a meeting at his new company, he listened as his new associates presented several ideas they had prepared for their client, a retailer. Our graduate asked a simple question: “Has anyone visited the client’s store?” No one had. He was the only one among them who knew that spending time in the store would be valuable. As he suspected, a field trip to the retailer helped the team present a considerably better idea to the client.

Too often, traditionally educated managers take a highly conceptual view of a situation, and they accept their first perception of a problem as the appropriate one. Based on that single perception, they decide on possible solutions and rush to choose the best among them.

Designers, however, follow the respected tradition of “questioning the brief”—a method that encourages them to dig deeper and question their assumptions. It suggests that there are almost always alternatives that have not made it to the table, ideas that have yet to be conceived, and explorations that could yield different perspectives. In this way, designers “reframe” problems to find creative and often unexpected solutions that others might overlook.

One of my favorite illustrations of reframing is that of shipping entrepreneur Malcom McLean and his development of container shipping in the 1950s. At the time, most people were trying to improve shipping by reducing the time it took to move cargo across the ocean. McLean, however, recast the problem, focusing instead on reducing the time it took to move cargo on and off ships. His innovations eventually reduced cargo’s total time in transit by weeks, rather than hours or days. His changes impacted the unit costs of labor and led to new industry practices handling freight across multiple modes of transit.

Reframing can be useful in tackling almost any business problem. In addition, the technique can be used to tackle problems faced by the business school itself.

Seeing New Solutions

We recently employed reframing to address a problem at the Weatherhead School, which is located near dozens of major arts and educational institutions. We wondered how this district might change if we could rethink the boundaries that currently separate these organizations.

For two days last September, we brought leaders of these institutions together to explore the possibilities. We began by dividing participants into groups and assigning each group an institution and a “persona” to consider. For instance, one group was asked to think about how the Cleveland Museum of Art might be experienced by “Helen,” a seven-year-old girl. Helen, we told this group, regularly visits the museum with her family and arrives carrying her notebook and a matching pen.

The group imagined that when Helen jumped up on a bench in the art museum lobby to get a better view, security staff would tell her, “No pens in the museum!” After putting her pen away, she would join a teacher and other children in a classroom, where the teacher would tell them they were about to see a painting of floating lilies. The teacher might mention that it was painted by Monet, though later Helen probably wouldn’t remember the artist’s name. The teacher would then take the kids to a gallery, where they would share a magical moment as the doors opened to reveal the painting.

In their next session, members of the group considered how practices at the museum could be modified to enhance Helen’s experience. They imagined tools that would leave Helen free to draw, while still protecting museum artifacts. They imagined ways the museum could extend her experience of Monet’s painting out into the spaces that surrounded the museum to make her experience more memorable. And they imagined how our seven-year-old’s height might be transformed from a detriment into an asset that enriched her experience of the massive spaces.

Suggestions included hanging artworks at Helen’s height in some of the galleries and providing ways for her to find other girls her age who also liked Monet’s water lilies. Through these connections, she might discover additional works she’d like. A shared media space might let Helen and her new friends touch and alter Monet’s work or create a new one inspired by it.

In these sessions, participants realized that they could use the expertise of one organization to address the needs of another. The experience also showed them that they were missing opportunities for improvement if they viewed themselves as separate and self-contained entities. By acting together, they could create better solutions to the problems they faced than they could by acting alone.

Business school faculty will have to see themselves as more than custodians or even generators of knowledge. They will have to see themselves as designers of better knowledge delivery systems.

Applying the Principles

As design historian Ralph Caplan put it, “Design is not everything, but it somehow gets into most everything.” And, when we think about it, everything about a business is designed. Yet, we too often overlook opportunities to confront and benefit from the design of our organizations. We often take the constraints we face as given and fixed.

Again, we can see this phenomenon in business schools themselves. Most faculty members assume that they cannot effect change in their programs quickly, because they think these kinds of changes take a long time. Ironically, this assumption is taken as a given, even in business schools where lectures about the importance of “time to market” are common.

At Weatherhead, we spent more than two years revising our MBA program, under the assumption that such a process was supposed to take that long. But when we turned our attention to our Executive MBA, we realized that we could not afford so long a lead time. Last year, we engaged a design firm to help us plan our approach and set ourselves a three-month deadline—which we met. We will be delivering the new program in the fall.

The result is not perfect, but I prefer working with what we have today over waiting two years for something only slightly more refined. We will learn and adjust as we go, but in two years we almost certainly will be in a better position than we would have been had we followed conventional wisdom.

Embracing Ambiguity

“Design must not be understood as an activity reserved to artists,” the great designer and artist Karl Gerstner asserted. “It is the privilege of all people everywhere.” I would add that, where business is concerned, design thinking isn’t just a privilege. It’s the responsibility of those who lead our institutions of commerce, welfare, government—and, yes, education.

Had the leaders on Wall Street been trained in design thinking, for example, they might have taken steps that could have lessened or even prevented the economic turmoil of the last two years. Instead, the economic crises that resulted from their decisions have left many people wondering if management educators are up to the task of producing graduates with foresight, who can think more holistically, empathically, creatively, and intuitively.

We will not resolve those concerns by making only simple adjustments to the same traditional approaches. One way or another, we must create curricula that engage the whole person in the tasks of management and that produce graduates who see the opportunities in the problems they face. And that means that business school faculty will have to see themselves as more than custodians or even generators of knowledge. They will have to see themselves as designers of better knowledge delivery systems.

Management is all about dealing with the ambiguous, complex, uncertain, and irregular. After all, the straightforward, simple, certain, and regular can be delegated to automated systems or lower-level staff. Many of the problems facing today’s managers are not amenable to simple strategies or pat solutions. If our graduates are to have what it takes to solve these problems successfully, it is our responsibility to equip them with a full arsenal of tools—including the ability to think like designers.

Fred Collopy is professor and department chair of information systems at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.