New Innovation Design Course


Examining how design thinking can be used to accelerate the development of innovation for business clients, Darden’s new Corporate Innovation and Design Experience class, led by Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka, was offered for the first time last spring. Sponsored by the Batten Institute, the course was co-developed with Professors Robert Landel, Raul Chao, and Sean Carr, Batten’s director of corporate innovation programs.

Liedtka says the course gives students the opportunity to learn and apply a set of techniques around design thinking. The techniques being taught – like ethnography - are offered as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, more traditional business approaches.

“The school’s intent is to equip students to take a deep dive into customer-driven innovation approaches, focusing on what is often called the “fuzzy front end” of innovation,” Liedtka says. “The goal is to understand a small number of individual customers’ needs and wants, rather than produce the kind of statistically significant samples and surveys that are appropriate later in the innovation process.”

In today’s uncertain world with its emphasis on innovation, the right brain thinking approach of designers is an important complement to the analytical approaches that we teach so well at Darden already, Liedtka asserts. “In business, more often than not, we value stability and control above all else – and design our organizations to produce it. Ambiguity and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable; but it’s the status quo that makes designers uncomfortable. So we’ve got a lot to learn from them about navigating an unpredictable world,” she argues.” “Business thinking is predicated on assumptions of rationality and objectivity. Its decision driver is cold, clean, economic logic. Design thinking instead assumes human experience, forever messy, as its decision driver and sees true objectivity as an illusion. Decisions in this world are seen as driven by emotion more than logic; desire as a more powerful motivator than reason.”

And it is those differences that Liedtka’s new course attempts to synthesize for students.

The first seven weeks of the course were classroom-based, with the students studying such topics as user-driven design, customer experience mapping, visualization and idea generation techniques. The final seven weeks were devoted to hands-on corporate projects, with each team applying the course concepts and tools to innovation opportunities in their client’s organization. The corporate clients with whom the students collaborated were Xerox, Marriott, Medtronic, Walmart, Wrigley and Whirlpool.

The innovation process model for the course followed these four stages: exploration, pattern-finding, concept development, and prototyping.

Exploration immerses students in a chosen business, identifying the ‘fixable’ problems of customers and value chain partners. The end product is a summary of their insights and learning, often in the form of photographs, experience maps, summaries from customer interviews, but not a set of solutions. That comes later.

Pattern-finding is all about synthesis. Students are asked to look at their compiled information and ask, “So what.” By synthesizing the disparate insights about customers, capabilities, and partners, they lay the groundwork for generating potentially attractive new business opportunities. The end product of the pattern-finding stage should be to capture emergent patterns, and, if possible, visualize frameworks to help cluster significant themes and lessons.

Concept development involves invention, with students identifying a desired customer experience or outcome and shaping that concept into a business model. The essential output of the concept development stage is to identify what the proposed value proposition is, and answer the questions of who is the target, how do you execute, and why do you expect the new business model to be profitable?

Finally, the prototyping stage transforms the concepts generated in concept development into feasible, testable models. This stage creates a visualized model or set of stories, usually including illustrated user scenarios, and making the business case. The focus is on capturing details of how the model will work, and how customers will experience it.

Liedtka emphasizes that the new course is aimed at giving students an appreciation for the power of design thinking. “We’re not turning students into designers in a single course, but rather helping them to understand the mindset and skill sets around design and applying those to business.”

If you are interested in learning more about the new Innovation Design Course listen to a recent Darden BusinessCast with Professor Jeanne Liedtka.

Founded in 1955, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business improves society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs.

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