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Posted 6.8.10

By Fred Collopy, PhD
Department Chair and Professor, Information Systems

Design has grown up over the last half century. Today, we view it less as a nicety that can be used to “pretty up” or refresh a product than as an integral part of products and processes. The fields of graphic and industrial design have been joined by the design of interactions and experiences. And most recently, designers have turned their attention to organizations, strategies, and society itself. In other words, designers are putting out feelers in areas that have long been of interest to executives and management scholars.

What is a “design” problem?
In 2000, my colleague Dick Boland, PhD, and I took a trip to visit Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. Their students were working on redesigning the U.S. Postal Service’s rules for handling packages and the Australian tax system’s compliance procedures. Back at Weatherhead, our colleagues remarked, “Those sound like business school projects.” So what is a “design” problem, then?

The word “design” covers too broad a range of activities to define easily. And it’s an unfamiliar term in a management context. Nevertheless, it is useful shorthand for focusing on things that are often overlooked in managing situations. To generalize, managers tackle the problem that is presented to them. They then rush to choose among a set of alternatives for solving it. Among designers, however, there is a respected tradition of “questioning the brief.” Design thinking imagines alternatives that have not yet made their way to the table, game-changing ideas still unformed, and fresh perspectives that could yield very different views of the problem. Reframing the problem is a design “trick” that, we are finding out, management students love to play with.

One of my favorite illustrations of reframing a problem comes from Malcom McLean’s work on container shipping. At a moment when most focused on the time it took to ship cargo across the ocean, McLean recast the problem by directing his attention to loading and unloading the boats. His innovations eventually reduced total transit time by not hours or days but weeks, impacted the unit cost of labor by orders of magnitude, and led to entirely new industry practices for consolidating and handling freight across multiple modes of transit.

Finding design opportunities
Management is all about dealing with the ambiguous, the complex, the uncertain, and the irregular. Predictable tasks are delegated to automated systems or lower-level functionaries, and the problems that find their way to managers are those without pat solution strategies. If our students are to address those, they must be trained in the full arsenal of their personal capabilities.

The great designer and artist Karl Gerstner, who founded the Swiss advertising firm GGK, asserted, “Design must not be understood as an activity reserved to artists. It is the privilege of all people everywhere.” Engaging in design, with its emphasis on making, unleashes faculties that conducting an analysis simply does not. Managers should learn and do both.

In our MBA program at Weatherhead, we spend the first semester of a year-long, field-based course helping students learn to identify design opportunities. Working in small teams, students move from understanding an organization’s vision and strategy to identifying issues that it faces. At the end of the semester, they write a brief describing a design opportunity at the organization—a problem that is messy, persistent, and complex enough that it warrants this kind of attention. In addition to design methods, the teams explore design techniques, including observation, concept mapping, reframing, scenario building, sketching, storyboarding, and critiquing, and they practice these in the real-life context of the design opportunity that they identify.

Often, such opportunities are what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber refer to as “wicked problems.” Each such problem, Rittel and Webber argue, is unique, and untested: every attempt to solve it is a one-off. A wicked problem has no definitive formulation—it may even be a symptom of another problem—and no “stopping rule” or natural end point. Solutions are neither right nor wrong, only better or worse, and different views favor different resolutions. Finally, the stakes are high: the outcome has a significant effect on those involved.

When an organization entrusts one of our teams with the resolution of one of these “wicked” situations, we work hard to keep both the host organization and the student team from fixing on “the problem” prematurely. Rather, we encourage them to identify interesting paradoxes or points of tension that might be productively explored, even if it seems counterintuitive to do so. In one case, this practice led our team—which had been focusing on customer experiences at a manufacturing firm’s company stores—to investigate how knowledge of innovations could better spread from one division to another.

It would be easy to counter that managers don’t usually have the luxury of picking their problems. Yet how often do we pause to think about shaping a situation so that the problems we face are ones that play to our strengths? Business schools have become good at solving obvious problems; we need practice on solving ambiguous ones.

As the well-known design historian Ralph Caplan put it, “Design is not everything, but it somehow gets into most everything.” Often, we pass by opportunities to confront problems because we take the constraints we face as given, fixed. What faculty member has not hesitated to put changes in motion because she assumed the process would take too long? After all, faculty processes always take a long time, don’t they? Ironically, we take this as a given, even in business schools where lectures about the importance of “time to market” are common.

The recent financial and economic crises have left many wondering if management educators are up to the task of producing more holistically-oriented managers. We will not resolve those concerns by making superficial adjustments to what we have been doing for so long. One way or another, we must engage the whole person in management. Design thinking, itself, tells me that design is not the only way. But it is one way. And that means that management faculty must come to see themselves as more than custodians, or even generators, of knowledge. They are, in fact, designers of knowledge delivery systems.

A recent issue of BusinessWeek highlighted the “World’s Best Design Schools” (about half of the thirty picks are MBA-granting programs). The Weatherhead School of Management was among them. Our exploration of design in management took a big leap when architect Frank Gehry engaged us in his process of planning our iconic new building, completed in 2002. The concept grew to become, in 2006, a theme as distinctive as our building in our programs. This in turn led us to recruit Richard Buchanan, PhD, one of the world’s leading design theorists and teachers to our faculty. Now design is becoming a competency that sets our graduates apart.

The experience of Tejas Maniar, a recent alumnus, illustrates how design skills can help to distinguish a graduate. Tejas' new associates had prepared several ideas for their client, a retailer. Tejas inquired, “Has anyone visited the client’s store?” No one had. Spending time in the store, as our former student surmised, improved the team’s presentation.

From his experience with observing as a design technique, Tejas understood the important role it plays in understanding customers’ needs.

I learned that our alumnus’s associates were from some of the best-ranked MBA programs in the country. But it isn’t unusual for smart graduates of great programs to take a highly conceptual view of a situation, rather than one grounded in a company’s specifics. By integrating design into our MBA experience, we invite students to think harder about an organization—from the ground up, right to the sky.

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