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B-schools use design to crack the creativity crisis

A painter's palette. PhotoDisc.


Data. Analysis. Risk-averse culture. Some think this is what is miring businesses in gridlock in a rapidly moving world.

And some business schools have a plan to crack the creativity conundrum.

Both the Rotman School of Management and the Sauder School of Business, for instance, hope to produce the next generation of innovators by teaching students elements of design thinking – a creative, person-focused process of finding innovative solutions.

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"The future is about businesses transforming their business models to meet new challenges – students will need different thinking processes to do that," said Moura Quayle, a professor at the Sauder School of Business who pioneered its year-old design thinking initiative, the

Sauder and Rotman, along with a growing number of business schools around the world, have shaken up the traditional, analytical curriculum by incorporating design thinking into their teaching plans.

Design thinking is more than just the next buzzword, Prof. Quayle said. The concept involves a collaborative process where a group of people observe behaviours, draw insights from them, think up ideas, and test them out – similar to how an architect might make many iterations of a drawing, tweaking the sketch until it comes into its best form.

"We need to make sure we're churning out problem solvers who really do understand both critical and creative thinking," Prof. Quayle said. "The productivity of Canada is going to depend on us being innovative."

Stanford University pioneered the design thinking environment at its d school, a studio created as part of its engineering program. It is an "innovation think tank" that accepts 350 students a year, many of whom have gone on to Facebook, P&G and Google. Sauder and Rotman have created similar environments to teach both undergraduate and MBA students.

"There's been some gridlock in business," said Heather Fraser, the director of Rotman's Designworks, a program that has been in place for six years with Roger Martin at the helm. Companies are stuck in rigid, analytical, risk adverse cultures and questioning how to grow in the future, she said.

"People feel like the data makes it safe, but this has narrowed the thinking, and narrowed the ability to create new value," she added.

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But design thinking is not without controversy. Bruce Nussbaum, contributing editor to BusinessWeek who specializes in writing about innovation and design, was one of the concept's biggest champions. He recently called it a "failed experiment."

"Companies absorbed the process of design thinking all too well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation," Mr. Nussbaum wrote.

"Everybody got excited about this concept of design thinking – they were biting off little pieces, but they weren't finishing the process," Prof. Fraser said. "You really need to commit to it."

"The problem with 'design' is when you say the word people think it's a thing, it's a logo, it's an interior design," she added. "But design is really the intention to make things better – an intentional action to progress."

Prof. Quayle and Daniel Muzyka, the dean at Sauder, share Prof. Fraser's commitment to elements of design thinking. Sauder built a studio space, ready for fall, 2011, that is dedicated to teaching these concepts in a visual, interactive way.

Both programs have not only partnered with schools around the world to advance design thinking in business education curriculums, but they have also paired up with local businesses and organizations to use design thinking to solve complex problems.

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Rotman students helped redesign the chemotherapy experience at Princess Margaret Hospital. They listened to the users of the system to determine what problems really needed to be solved.

"We'd ask people to tell us about living with and managing cancer," Prof. Fraser said. "Often they can't articulate what they need but their stories reveal the needs they have that are unmet."

Sauder's students paired up with Vancouver organizations such as Concert Properties to work on "real world" problems.

Chris Stone, former interaction designer at Pulse Energy, a company that designs software to track energy use, helped Sauder students with a project about energy consumption in the university's student union building. For Mr. Stone, design thinking is a part of daily life.

"A lot of people do it already, but now there's a term to identify it," he said. "When you look at a new opportunity, it helps you actually think all the way through from what you create to the end user of the service."

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