Recently, I attended a Business Design workshop held at my b-school, Rotman School of Management. As a 1st year MBA student coming from a non-business background, I have long romanticized with business 101 subjects such as economics, finance, accounting, marketing and strategy. However, this was the first time I was introduced to design thinking concepts (I regret that I did not take this elective yet!). Thanks to our graceful workshop faculty, Jennifer He, former Rotman alum and now founder & Managing Partner of VOYO Business Design & Management, I liked the workshop so much that I decided to capture my learnings and also have some fun applying them. So in this post, you will discover some interesting takeaways on 1) The Design Thinking Imperative 2) Why design-think now? and 3) How I applied it to the “MBA Persona”
1. The Design Thinking Imperative
In essence, design thinking is a paradigm shift from the traditional analytical -driven thinking. Instead, it emphasizes a human-centered approach for creation of better products, services and processes¹. While most business decisions have historically hinged on the intersection of technical and economic feasibility, empathizing with the human need brings in a new dimension to problem solving and creating lingering “products as experiences” innovations. Through challenging assumptions, brainstorming collaboratively, conducting agile experimentation and undertaking immersive exercises, the design thinking process integrates desirability, viability and feasibility to uncover transformative solutions .
These solutions aren’t one-stop sensations but iterated continuously to produce life-touching solutions (quite literally!). Consider a case in point: When GE Healthcare found that many children cried while undergoing diagnostic imaging procedures in dark and dull rooms, they launched the “Adventure Series”, a redesign initiative informed from extensive user research, interviews and pilots. Pediatric patients could go on a “pirate adventure” within MRI machines which had black holes, pirate ships, sandcastles and the ocean. Naturally, Patient satisfaction scores soared to over 90% and quality of scans improved .
2. Why Design-Think Now?
In today’s dynamic business environment, organizations need to constantly engage their customers and employees to stay ahead of their competition. Analysis of the past can provide some proof of concept for moving forward, but ‘thinking out of the box’ is often key to continue innovating and create long-term value. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not dismissing rigorous analysis but the problems we face today are unlike and increasingly complex as compared to what we have faced the in last few decades. For e.g., tackling systematic sustainability challenges, employee engagement in the era of Great resignation, ensuring accessibility and digital equity for virtual classrooms and so on. Innovations in these areas undoubtedly require lower risks, costs of change, user and employee buy-in . This imperative paves way for a deeper and iterative human-centered approach . While data can provide insights into customer trends, immersing into the customer journey can fulfil understanding of changing needs and drivers. While flawless planning can make systems efficient, constant trial and error experiments can help firms implement change faster. While avoiding failure may seem like averting risks, failing fast and learning fast can brace firms to stay ahead of the curve . With increasingly complex value chains, adopting a balanced mental model of intuitive and analytical thinking can thus help tackle challenges in a “third-way”.
After all, the ask is as simple as shouldn’t solutions designed for humans be rightfully human-friendly ?
3. How to Design-think ft “My MBA-Persona”
Design thinking is biased towards action. It is about “Doing not talking”. I thought the best way to walk through this process was showcasing a real application. In fact, during the Business Design workshop, we were given a challenge of formulating the problem of increasing camaraderie in the Rotman Community, given that our 278 strong full time MBA cohort is divided into 4 sections, which can create silos. Although in its entirety, the process consists of a problem-finding and problem solving phase, we simulated the problem finding phase in small teams, defining our target persona and customer journey mapping and using derived insights to reframe the problem.
Walking away from the workshop, I realized that the process compelled me to really think about my life as a MBA student. It definitely included the aspect of empathy, but surprisingly, it was also about self-reflection. I realized that the question that kept me up at night was how could my MBA experience be improved. I decided to reformulate the new problem statement by recreating the MBA persona, and the associated MBA journey map in its entirety.
I first fleshed out my MBA persona, searching myself for who I am, my true qualities, goals, and what I find challenging:
My MBA Persona: created with Mural
Next, I mapped out the entire journey from pre-MBA to during MBA to post-MBA and did some digging and self-introspection on what thoughts I had during the 1st year and what I feel about the remaining part of the journey. (Of-course this is representative for the population only to some extent. In real customer journey mapping, several personas are mapped and common qualities are filtered out). To be honest, it was difficult to be empathetic with myself and involved some tough confessions to myself:
MBA Student Journey Map: Created with Mural
With the problem sketched out, I could reformulate the problem I started with-How could the MBA experience be improved? Using a framework inspired from Jennifer’s workshop, I came up with the following: Given that Pearl desires a life-changing MBA experience, her goal is to immerse in the ups-and-downs of the journey so that she can emerge as a better version of herself.
Well, during the actual business design workshop, both these exercises were done in teams of 4–5 and were more collaborative and constructive. I just thought that sketching this out as a individual would also help me in my own goal-setting and designing my life. But if I had to, I’d do it a million times over with my classmates with sticky-notes and idea face-offs.
See, that’s how the design thinking process is-addictive, fun and engaging. I am yet to explore the the solution space (I am reserving that for the elective this fall!). However, I know the roadmap would be to ideate, prototype, and test based on the opportunities I recognized in the problem formulation phase. As a next step, I would try to apply associated tools in my own experience-engage in experimentation and keep a fail-fast attitude so I ultimately achieve my goals as a MBA persona.
Until then, treat yourself to the deep immersive experience you have always yearned for, now that you know how to design-think!
Design Thinking — IDEO U
Esther Han (2022), 5 Examples of Design Thinking in Business | HBS Online
Jeanne Liedtka (2018), Why Design Thinking Works (hbr.org)
Jennifer He (2022), Business Design Workshop, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
About the Author:
Pearl Ray is a 1st year MBA student at Rotman School of Management. Before MBA, she worked in various functions such as operations, planning and strategy for India's largest oil and gas company. She has always been intrigued by creating better experiences for her clients and is passionate about sustainable development in business.