Ileana Stigliani

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As I sit in the lecture theatre my eyes flick from the foam core boards to the piles of post-it notes and markers stacked at the front of the room. It seems that today’s class will involve a brainstorm, but I soon learn that this won’t be just any kind of brainstorm. The room is soon to become a hub for Design Synthesis – one of the critical steps for Design Thinking.

I am in Dr Ileana Stigliani’s Full-Time MBA (FTMBA) class. Ileana is an Assistant Professor of Design and Innovation, whose research focuses on how material artefacts and practices influence cognitive processes. In plain English; her research focuses on understanding innovation processes and how people collaborate and interact in groups when they develop new products and services.

Amongst a number of courses, Ileana teaches a core unit on Design Thinking for the Full-Time MBA and the MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management. In this particular lecture Ileana has invited Jenny Winfield, Design Lead at IDEO, to help the class with the Design Synthesis level of their Design Thinking unit.

At this point you may be thinking: what is Design Thinking?

Ileana explains Design Thinking as a “human-centred process that helps solve complex and ambiguous problems (the so-called “wicked problems”), and identifies opportunities for innovation. It can be used both for developing new business ideas and for unlocking hidden value in existing products, services and technologies, and it can reap benefits like significant economic value creation for stakeholders, meaningful differentiation of products and services, and improved customer experiences.”

Ileana also outlines that Design Thinking not only represents a powerful way to unleash the creative potential of managers and leaders in organizations, but is also rapidly becoming a new management paradigm for value creation.

Back in the classroom, Jenny from IDEO presents a number of examples where she and her team have applied Design Synthesis to projects. She also talks about the practical side of the process and provides helpful advice on keeping colleagues and peers motivated through, what will be, very in depth. It is this advice that Ileana believes is the value add for students.

“The guest speakers I invite into lectures use Design Thinking day in day out to solve the problems of big and small organizations in the private and public sectors” explains Ileana. “They have extensive experience in the field. During lessons they can support me in coaching students about how to solve their specific innovation challenges by transferring those ‘tricks of the trade’ that are often tacit and difficult to codify and teach in a traditional way.”

The core modules of programmes are designed to build on existing knowledge and also serve to inspire and reposition student thinking. It is this undercurrent of innovation that Ileana aims to address in her lectures: “We all know that innovation has become increasingly important because of the rapid evolution in products, services, technologies and business models. But to be able to truly innovate, companies have to learn how to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. Therefore, their ability to innovate rests upon the exploration of complex problems whose solutions cannot be found in past experience and proven by data. In this respect Design Thinking can help massively to identify the root causes of business problems (i.e. customer dissatisfaction), to recognize unmet and latent needs and to envisage differentiated solutions that address these needs in a meaningful way.”

After a summary from Jenny and the opportunity for questions, the class prepare to synthesise. Splitting into groups the FTMBA students collect foam core boards, post-it notes, markers and settle in groups scattered across the lecture theatre. It is in this group that the students will start to analyse the data they have collected in the past week as part one of this module.

Ileana circulates through the room and is available to help brainstorm with students. “Sometimes students, when at a crossroads in their projects, want me to tell them exactly what to do, but that’s not my role” she says. “Using Design Thinking requires the exploration of different directions and experimenting with different ideas, making mistakes and learning from them.”

The theatre is now buzzing with conversation, and I can also hear the rustle of one important ingredient for synthesis: sweets. A very important part of the process, as outlined by Jen part of her lecture, is for  teams to remain motivated and energised during the design synthesis process. Luckily in addition to her research Ileana has had experience in the field and has come to the session with a hearty supply of chocolates.

“In some cases, students have to go through different iterations before they find a direction that is worth pursuing. This can create lots of frustration, and hence a drop in motivation. Therefore, constantly coaching them and carefully managing their expectations at each step is crucial. I sometimes tell them that if they feel like things are going well from the very beginning of the project, chances are that they are not applying Design Thinking properly.”

The groups seem neither too happy nor too aggravated; simply thoughtful. I chose this as my moment to depart and left the meaning making, direction finding and path setting to the experts in training.

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