Ileana Stigliani on design thinking

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Imperial College Business School’s Associate Professor of Design and Innovation talks creativity, empathy and design thinking

On a shelf in her office, Dr Ileana Stigliani has a box of Lego bricks. Beside it sits an award – a recognition of her innovative teaching of business students. More than simply asking them to play with building blocks, she sends her MBA class out into the real world to teach them about the importance of empathy.

"If I had a magic wand, I would introduce more empathy into the business world," she says. In one session, students imagine themselves blind or with a disability. They then begin to navigate South Kensington's museums in a bid to find ways to improve visitors' experience. From their research, they can prototype potential solutions using Lego.

This is design thinking – a driving passion of Ileana's work. This means putting yourself in your customer’s shoes to gain a deep understanding of what they need or want. It draws on a creative approach traditionally used in industrial design and lends itself to solving complex human problems. It requires deep seated empathy and it can throw up unexpected solutions. "It's not a clean, linear process," she says. "It means being messy and experimental."

And it’s something she believes business students can’t ignore. "What can we learn from the creative process? What can we distil from it and apply to solve business problems? How can we learn to become more innovative?"

Touchy feely

Traditional businesses don’t typically foster empathetic engagement with customers.

"Big organisations are run on the lines of efficiency, predictability and stability. This is at odds with what being creative means." In her classes Ileana will point to the likes of Procter & Gamble and BMW as companies that have embraced design thinking to come up with novel approaches, services and products.

Design thinking has nothing to do with data driven analyses, efficiencies and cost cutting, and it’s not relevant for anything without a human angle, she says. One of her business students once told her empathy meant weakness, but most of them are eager to learn the subtleties of this "touchy feely" field. "We've gone a long way since then. But this is still something that many students find tough to grasp. I tell them we’re giving them a competitive advantage over students from other business schools."

If I had a magic wand, I would introduce more empathy into the business world.

Delving deeper into examining the creative process, her research has led her to study the emergence of service design. This spells opportunity for savvy business graduates as management consultancies scramble to acquire or build service design departments internally, run like startups. It’s a burgeoning sector and it largely began in the UK.

But what is it precisely? "Service design didn’t exist until around 2000. It’s the application of design thinking to develop new services or experiences." Good examples might include how health support services are developed to cut through the clutter to concentrate on what users need. Because the industry is so new, it lends itself to academic study. "Particularly how it’s been communicated and legitimised by pioneering players of this century."

A design for life

Design has intrigued and attracted Ileana since she was a young girl. Her mother had a great eye for good design and Ileana grew up dreaming of a career possibly in interior design, inspired by the elegant greats of Italian furniture. But in a family of accountants, she was won over by pragmatism and went on to take a business degree, which she followed up with a doctorate in management at Bocconi University in Milan.

Her research led her to a transformative year in Boston, where she shadowed an influential service and product design firm, Continuum.

She cites the agency’s founder and compatriot Gianfranco Zaccai as one of her greatest role models and mentors. "He gave me access to what became for me a career defining experience. He was aware of the potential that design could have within business."

Meditating is very important for innovation.

Sometimes her students are treated to talks from the pioneers and superstars of service design – the likes of Chris Downs who co-founded the UK’s first service design agency, Livework, in 2001. She was overjoyed earlier this year to welcome back two of her students who've co-founded a design thinking consultancy. While not every business graduate will enter the field, an awareness of its importance could give them a head start.

Just as Ileana embraced the international vibe of Boston, she relishes life in London. "Life here offers many opportunities, professionally and personally. You feel you're right in the middle of things." Brexit left her heartbroken. "I initially felt rejected by the country where I've lived – and paid taxes – for the last eight years. But things haven’t changed here at Imperial, it’s still business as usual."

Being mindful

Ileana has no shortage of future research projects in mind – she is currently studying how a big oil and gas company is using design thinking to become more innovative and investigating the role of business model experimentation in strategic decision making.

A few years ago, she found the solitary pressures of academic life to be so intense she felt obliged to counterbalance it with activities that allowed her mind to switch off and unwind. "Meditating is very important for innovation. It also keeps everything manageable. It doesn't necessarily mean sitting in a chair chanting – you can meditate whilst doing the dishes or walking in a park. It’s more about being mindful." And it might even find its way into a design thinking module for business students, she hints.

If there's anything she could urge her students to pay more attention to as they embark upon or graduate from a business degree, it's what impact they would like to have on the world. What qualities will they need beyond the doors of the Business School? "A curious, inquisitive and open mind. Being collaborative. Being able to balance empathy and intuition, but not forgetting analysis. Being open to framing failures as learning opportunities. Being comfortable with ambiguity. Not being afraid of taking risks and making mistakes." Qualities at the heart of every successful business creative. 

Written by Helena Pozniak 

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