Instructions vs. Explorations

What business can learn from design* is a hot topic (ex: Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. BW Review here). Problems are becoming more “wicked” and organizations increasingly tie their success to their ability innovate – not just to incrementally improve what exists but to offer a new sense of what can be. And so, it makes sense to unleash the power of design to create and communicate opportunities for new products, services, and organizations.

Perhaps the reason there is more talking than doing when it comes to business learning from design is that this is easier said than done.  Often, the more traditional, analytical mindset of business and the exploratory approach of design are hard to mix, perhaps because the thought processes are so different – and this seems to start early on in business education. From the teaching I’ve done in a design-infused BBA program and the anecdotes of many of my colleagues, finding a way to blend analysis and synthesis is the premier challenge of the program, especially as students move fluidly between courses at either end of the spectrum from one hour to the next.

In my experience, this has come down to a tension between two very different approaches to solving problems: either you presuppose that there is a “right” answer and a prescribed path to it,  or you accept that you solve the problem by simply starting on it, uncertain if you are on the right path,  and then stepping back to evaluate and change course as you go.  In the former, students look for instructions to follow. In the latter, they look for opportunities to explore and some parameters/structure to guide the exploration.

If there is a tangible challenge that students can relate to, the expectation is set that there is no right answer (e.g.:  no example to follow precisely), and the process is set up to include feedback and iterations, these two approaches can co-exist, and the results can be terrific. For example, here is student video done in a few weeks for a new service design in health care – in this case, proposing an a la carte payment system particularly attractive to younger, healthy customers (authors: Julia Bohan, Miri Meischberger, Min Seon Park).  There’s a lot more to do in this area, and in some sense, this tension between instructions and explorations is a productive one.

* – I am defining design broadly here as a way thinking in which defining and solving a problem are one and the same, guided by an intention.  One way of thinking about the mindset this entails is that it enables you to start something you don’t know how to finish.