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Imperial College Business School has partnered with the prestigious IDEO design company to create the IDEO Award for Full-Time MBA students, recently announcing the inaugural winners of the £200 prize.

Full-Time MBA students take part in the competition as part of their core module, Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving, led by Dr Ileana Stigliani. Design Thinking is a new discipline based on a human-centric process of solving complex problems. Ileana explained the process:

In traditional problem solving you identify a problem and then jump to solutions. Design Thinking challenges that attitude and says we have a problem but we don’t know if it’s a real problem or just a symptom of something which is more deeply rooted in the situation. Design Thinking is about exploring the problem area.

In the module, students were split into teams and had to brainstorm a problem they wanted to solve using Design Thinking as a methodology. They were required to work in their team to develop a problem, conduct face-to-face interviews to explore the problem area and present their findings and a solution on the last day of class. Students also submit a Process Project Journal (PPJ) which is a more extensive explanation of how they went from identification of the problem to the final solution.

The competition was judged by Ileana and Jessie Cutts, Communications Designer at IDEO. Ileana and Jessie judged the competition based on the presentations and analysis of the PPJ.

The winning team were the Red Hot Problem Solvers, made up of Patrick de Barr, Michael Healy, James Hindle, Arina Norkina, Catharine Pelican and Nicole Suen. We speak to James and Nicole about how they came up with their problem/solution and their engagement with Design Thinking.

Articulating the problem

Team Red Hot Problem Solvers focused on senior citizens’ engagement with the Internet as their problem. They observed the need for online engagement is increasing in everyday life and felt these skills are taken for granted by those who have come of age around technology. James said:

We came up with this idea by talking about the problems all of our collective parents and grandparents have with technology and how they find it frustrating and feel left behind. We then thought it would be something we could explore further and see if other people had similar issues.

Students at What the Tech?

To explore this, the team engaged with the organisation What the Tech?, an Imperial College Business School student initiative that teaches digital literacy to elderly people. The team interviewed senior citizens involved in this programme to find out how technology is affecting their lives.

From these face-to-face interviews, the team identified a growing skills gap between generations which could lead to senior citizens feeling isolated, marginalised and neglected. Nicole said:

From hearing about their issues with technology we created a bond with them, which is a big element of how we felt really connected to the problem.

Through their connection to the problem, the team demonstrated empathy, which is one of the fundamentals of Design Thinking.

The winning combination

Team Red Hot Problem Solvers won because of their outstanding presentation, identification of a pertinent problem, that they created a good solution and documented the process well. Most importantly, the winning team incorporated empathy in their problem, which is a cornerstone of Design Thinking. Jessie Cutts from IDEO commented on the winning team:

The team really embraced the design thinking methodology by really getting under the skin of their user, and seemed to gain true empathy with the problems people are facing. I was impressed to see that the team used the stories of the people they met as both inspiration and a way to check their prototype ideas and the nuance in the personas really helped to bring the users to life for the reader. I was pleased to see that the team went back to their users to gain further understanding of what works and didn’t. The report covered all aspects of their process and I particularly enjoyed reading the personal learnings from each team member, and how their perception had changed over the course of the project.

While the team demonstrated a complex understanding of Design Thinking, grasping these concepts was not easy in the beginning. For James, he was sceptical about the thinking process at the beginning of the course. He said:

When Ileana began going through what Design Thinking was, I was quite sceptical because it’s not structured in the way I’ve been taught to think about other things in my work/academic life. But after the course, I now see the value of asking questions without any preconceptions and giving the interviewee the ability to guide the conversation because the response from that is extremely valuable.

Nicole had a similar experience to James and will utilise what she has learnt in Design Thinking in her future career. She said:

Traditionally, when you’re in a company you just design a product and push it into the market, hoping that people will think it’s a great product. From now on I will think about actually understanding the problem and use interviews to make sure the problem actually exists before creating a solution.

Ileana Stigliani Office

The importance of Design Thinking

The skills taught in the Design Thinking module are important for MBA candidates to learn because the methodology is very important to today’s global climate. Ileana says that empathy, in particular, is very important in understanding problems. She said:

Empathy is definitely one of the main cornerstones of emotional intelligence and we need more and more people in businesses who score very high in emotional intelligence. Empathy is a skill that, regardless of whether they want to work in innovation, design or finance, it’s something that they need to be able to develop and master.

Moreover, in the era of advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, being able to score high in empathy is going to be a competitive advantage that humans have over machines.

In terms of the future of Design Thinking, Ileana believes it will develop for social innovation, impact, digital transformation and in unlocking the power of data. She said we will begin to see its application more and more at the systemic and strategic level.

Five-year partnership with the prestigious IDEO Award

IDEO has sponsored this award for five years. We are extremely proud of this collaboration because IDEO is a highly prestigious design consulting firm and the first to raise awareness about Design Thinking as a methodology. Ileana said:

Having our name associated with IDEO in the Design Thinking space is quite a high achievement for the Business School. I am very, very proud of this achievement.

On IDEO’s collaboration with Imperial College Business School, Jessie said:

We are collaborating with Imperial College on the Design Thinking course as it’s exciting to see that this way of working is being taught in a more traditional setting such as business. Highlighting how important creative thinking and understanding your customer is in business can’t be underestimated. This collaboration is important as it allows us to build links with the Business School as well as an opportunity to share our knowledge and way of working with students.

Students can continue to develop the skills learnt in Design Thinking & Innovation in one of the final project options, the Entrepreneurial Journey. Students can refine their business solution from the Design Thinking for Innovation module and turn it into a business case. They also have the option of taking an elective taught by Ileana called the Management of Design.

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