In the late 1990s, the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, commissioned architect Frank Gehry to design a five-storey building to be the focal point of the school’s campus. Late in the design process, the size of the floor plan needed to be reduced.

A Weatherhead faculty member flew to Mr Gehry’s studio in Santa Monica, California, to work out how best to trim the space with the team of architects. By the end of the third day, the plans were finished. But, as the meeting was about to adjourn, the project architect gathered the heavily marked plans and tore them into pieces. “We know we can do it,” he said. “Tomorrow, we can work on how we want to do it.”

The Weatherhead professor was initially dumbfounded but the experience sparked an idea. “We learnt that designers dealing with messy problems across all kinds of domains have developed attitudes, ideas and techniques that are well suited to conditions that often face managers and organisation leaders today,” says Fred Collopy, professor of information systems at the school.

In 2002, when the building opened, the school launched an initiative – “Manage by Designing” – that interlaces the disciplines of design throughout the curriculum and requires all students to take a year-long course in the subject. Today, Weatherhead is one of many business schools in the US and Europe trying to foster more creative thinking in MBA students by embracing some of the design industry’s teaching and working practices.

The extent to which schools have integrated design thinking into their programmes varies. A handful of schools, such as Weatherhead and Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, have integrated the disciplines of design seamlessly into their curriculums, while others, such as Insead and Esade, have formed partnerships with art schools to create study exchange programmes and inter­disciplinary research opportunities. Others, such as Stanford, have taken a different tack. In 2005, the school established the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which brings together about 350 students to work on innovative projects in the areas of law, business, education, medicine and engineering.

No matter what the approach, the schools have a similar ambition: to encourage students to embrace inter-disciplinary teamwork, to hone their abductive reasoning skills and give them an appreciation for creative problem-solving and the role empathy plays in business.

“There is something we [designers] contribute: a high tolerance for uncertainty, ways to grapple with visual representations and understanding problem-solving as an open-ended, playful process,” says Lucy Kimbell, a fellow in design leadership at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

The increased emphasis on innovation comes as companies are starting to view design as a strategic business issue. More Fortune 500 companies are raising the prominence of their internal product development teams as well as outsourcing some of their design needs to other companies. Organisations are also turning to designers to improve their services, operations and supply chains.

At a time when opportunities in banking and finance have dried up, jobs in design and development are increasingly seen as a viable career path for newly minted MBAs.

Design is no longer considered the “softer side of business”, says Pete Maulik, chief operating officer at Fahrenheit 212, a design company based in New York that has seen an 80 per cent rise in the number of MBA applicants from 2006. “It’s fundamental and drives top-line growth.”

Insead has had a partnership with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, since 2005. The collaboration involves an exchange of 10 students from the Art Center for the spring term of Insead’s MBA programme. Students take a course working in interdisciplinary teams to solve design-oriented problems.

The goal, says Manuel Sosa, professor of technology and operations management, is to give students a taste of the tension that exists between a company’s management and creative department. Prof Sosa aims to give his MBA students an awareness of the value that designers contribute to an organisation.

“Design is not just about making things look pretty,” he says. “It’s getting customers what they need.”

Cultivating students’ abductive reasoning skills – which often involve creative leaps of imagination and visualisation – is another design discipline that business schools are beginning to embrace. Most schools view it as a complement to the traditional business curriculums, which put a premium on analytic and quantitative techniques, says Roger Martin, the dean of Rotman. “We want our students to use observation and intuition to imagine what could be, not just analyse things that are,” he says.

Encouraging students to reframe questions and be more creative in their approach to problem-solving is another key attribute of the design process that schools are emulating. Often this involves using multiple models, says Prof Collopy.

“The standard way we teach managers is to play their cards close to their chest until they really understand something. But industrial designers use multiple models to try ideas out rapidly and cheaply; they use many more back-of-the-envelope sketches and they fool around with numbers a lot more.”

Some business schools are also striving to cultivate an empathetic view of the world among their students and equip these future managers with tools to better relate to their customers.

“Designers have a deep understanding of the customer,” says Prof Martin. “Their goal is to delight the customer by giving them something they didn’t even know they wanted.”

Prof Collopy adds: “Designers have empathy because they’re thinking about what will ultimately move their client. But managers often don’t have that. They think: ‘I don’t take a phenomenon seriously until it becomes statistically significant’.

“By complementing the analytic with these generative skills, we bring the whole human being to the problems we face,” he says.

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