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Use Design Thinking to Develop Better Leaders

Improving leadership skills could depend on the same thing that drives business success in today’s economy — innovation.

Design thinking, a user-centric method to identify and solve problems, isn’t a widely used approach to learning programs, but if the professors at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business have their way, it will soon become the norm.

At its core, design thinking is “essentially a movement that happened when (design firm) Ideo hired a social psychologist who had an anthropology background,” said Ross associate professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks. “It’s more than a buzzword. Design thinking is really grounded in well-established practices and research.”

Instead of looking at what assets a company has to create a product, leaders who use design thinking first ask what their clients require and then identify how the organization can fulfill those needs. Research, interviews and first-person observation identify problems that need solving, which in turn inform the products and services a company develops using creative thinking and diverse perspectives.

For learning, design thinking applies to how programs are developed and delivered. At Ross, executive education programs not only teach design thinking, but they also use it to create their programs.

The approach helps leaders by removing the taboo of creativity, Sanchez-Burks said. It “shrinks innovation to something that doesn’t require a massive strategic change in an organization, but can be applied every day; from how might we better communicate within a team to how might we increase our ability to identify new market potentials and trends.”

That’s a major advantage in a market that thrives on new and reinvented products and services. Organizations that innovate have an edge on competitors both at home and internationally, and design thinking only adds to that competitive advantage, Sanchez-Burks said.

One way design thinking improves innovation is by encouraging leaders to tap their own experiences. For example, a female engineer working for a company that wants to create phones attractive to women would be valuable because she understands the target audience and is an engineer. Often, Sanchez-Burks said personal experiences are put aside at work, which could make it hard for the female engineer to bring valuable knowledge to the brainstorming table. With a design thinking approach, however, leaders unlock resources by encouraging employees to bridge the personal and the professional.

It also gets leaders to see problems through others’ eyes via research and observation. At Ross, that’s exactly what happened when it created a new portfolio of executive education programs.

“We had a program in place, and it was doing well, but we weren’t sure it was the best we could offer,” said Scott DeRue, Ross’ associate dean of executive education. “We went out and immersed ourselves to understand the needs of high potentials in today’s world.”

They found a need for more connection between what was taught and what participants were experiencing at their companies. Design thinking led to more simulations, action-based projects, teamwork and follow-up programs, all of which help the learning process during and after the program ends. Today, participants have an opportunity to create their own business solutions, which they can take back to work with them, as well as an action plan to reconnect with classmates to help reinforce what’s been learned.

“People in our programs have expectations coming into it,” Sanchez-Burks said. “We’re finding a greater alignment in what we’re delivering and their expectations in large part because we’ve done due-diligence to understand their perspectives.”