Design-thinking: this method involves generating several solutions and prototyping and testing them to find one that works © Alamy

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Almost one in five people waiting at the emergency department at Whiteriver Indian Hospital on Arizona’s Fort Apache Reservation left without being seen by medical staff, a rate 20 times the national average. The first instinct of Marliza Rivera, the hospital’s performance improvement officer, and her team was to seek a technological solution: an electronic check-in kiosk. But they found that patients — many of whom were visiting for non-urgent conditions — often did not have the IT skills to use it.

So they found a solution that suited patients better: having a nurse stationed at the ER door to direct them to the most relevant department. Pilot tests suggest the solution could cut the rate of patients leaving Whiteriver without being seen from almost 18 per cent to 1.25 per cent and save more than $6m a year.

Rivera and her colleagues used “design thinking”, a “human-centred” approach to problem solving that emphasises the customers’, or in this case patients’, unarticulated needs. Design-thinking methodology typically involves generating several solutions, prototyping them, testing them and repeating that process until a successful solution is found. It was developed as an academic subject at Stanford University.

Its successful use in organisations from Apple and GE to Nike and Samsung has encouraged business schools to add design-thinking methods to their executive MBAs and help students find innovative solutions in sectors from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to banking and insurance.

“Design thinking is entering business orthodoxy and becoming part of the toolbox of agile management,” says ESCP Europe professor René Mauer, who teaches the design-thinking elective to EMBA students at the school’s Berlin campus. One of his graduates, Mia Luostarinen, who is now a consultant in Helsinki with Reaktor, a design company, has used design thinking to overhaul the operational model of an insurer’s customer service team. “Before, I thought creativity was some special or magical talent granted at birth. Now I know anyone can be creative when applying the design-thinking method,” she says.

Ileana Stigliani, assistant professor of design and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London, goes so far as to say that business schools that do not teach design thinking are depriving executives of the tools to innovate. “It’s like sending an expedition to Mount Everest without the necessary training and equipment,” she says. “Business schools have placed great emphasis on developing analytical skills like forecasting, strategic planning and rational decision making — important skills when dealing with stability and predictability, but they don’t help when innovating and changing the rules of the games are needed.”

Nouman Ashraf, who teaches design thinking on Rotman School of Management’s global EMBA in Toronto, agrees. “Too many organisations espouse ideals about innovation, without much success in shifting their approach. Design thinking introduces a way of doing innovation day-to-day, not simply talking about it in abstraction.”

So what is the best way to teach and learn it? Through real cases or in real time, says Prof Sihem Jouini of the HEC Paris EMBA. “We teach it where participants can actually use the method in a specific situation, or through a simulation that condenses the main steps in a controlled environment,” she says.

This puts working students on EMBAs at an advantage, says Jeanne Liedtka of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, whose new book, Design Thinking for the Greater Good (Columbia University Press), tells 10 stories of design thinking in practice, including the case of Whiteriver Hospital. “EMBA students have real jobs and real problems that need to be solved. And they’re taught in intensive episodes, which is also useful — it gives students longer intervals in between classes to do research and reflect and iterate,” Prof Liedtka says.

Some faculty dismiss design thinking as simply the latest fad. Others worry that it is being taught as a packaged set of tools, rather than as a mindset. Roberto Verganti, professor of innovation at Politecnico di Milano, believes students should be learning not only to create more ideas, but also ideas that have meaning. “What matters, in a world overcrowded by ideas, is not to create one more, but to understand which direction is meaningful,” he argues. “There needs to be more focus on critical reflection, on embracing different perspectives.”

But most believe the basic design-thinking method is here to stay.

“Whether we call it design thinking in the future is unlikely, but the core elements, customer empathy, prototyping, failure tolerance, iteration, will become standard,” says Mikko Laukkanen, academic director for executive education at Aalto University in Finland.

For Prof Liedtka, there is a further reason to keep design thinking on the EMBA curriculum. “For many of us . . . it’s easy to slip into a feeling of powerlessness,” she says. “Design thinking shows that each of us can make a difference in the lives of those who surround us, even if we can’t control or change the big picture.”

‘It could shorten clinical trials’

Health benefit: Rana Lonnen believes that design thinking can improve drug development © Anne Morgenstern

Imperial EMBA graduate Rana Lonnen works in Basel for Novartis, the pharmaceutical company, identifying opportunities in therapeutic areas and digital health. A molecular biologist, she founded her own consulting company and has been developing a therapy for hospital patients suffering from pneumonia.

“At Imperial we did lots of simulations, which opened my eyes to the potential of design thinking. Pharma is usually driven by innovation. At times drugs are developed without understanding the [patient experience], spending a lot of money in developing solutions that are not needed.

“Development of a drug can take around 15 years. But by using the design-thinking process you could make clinical trials shorter by collecting more real-time data. The manufacturing process and design of packaging could be improved by better understanding of how drugs are being used. And costs could be reduced enabling the more expensive drugs to be made more available.”

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