Innovation is a key driver of growth in the 21st century economy. And organizations of all kinds are increasingly relying on innovators to create and deliver innovation in a constantly changing, globally competitive environment. We need to understand innovation—what it is, how to harness it, and why it is important. As educators, this should be an important outcome of our work.

But here is the challenge: many people don’t think they are creative. In fact, research shows that after about fourth grade, most people don’t have many opportunities to “be creative.” At the same time, many of the country’s problems—and indeed the world’s problems—need innovative solutions. And while business schools have typically focused on analytics, there is also a need for other tools in the problem solving toolkit. Research shows that innovation skills can be taught by focusing on creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. In simple terms, innovation skills cover three basic areas: Thinking (user-focused thinking and problem solving), Telling (convincing others and storytelling), and Doing (learning through experimentation).

As such, the idea of design thinking is a key framework for teaching students how to become more innovative. Educators can also use design thinking for everything from learning space design to curriculum and lesson design. Design thinking was made popular by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner School of Design, known as the D-School, and later through articles in many publications including the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. At TCU in the Neeley School of Business, we teach students and executives in formal design thinking courses, and we use it as a framework at the Idea Factory. So what is design thinking exactly?

The key foundation is the idea of human-centered design. This sounds simple, but, if we think about it, many systems, products, services, curriculum, lessons, and the like are not designed with the user in mind at all. Design thinking frameworks focus on research to truly understand the user’s needs from an empathetic point of view. Observation and interviews are keenly important, and while there is a place for more quantitative research, the idea is to actually spend time with users and have a conversation to understand their problems. Next, design thinking takes the most  important aspects learned from that research to define a point of view. There are several tools that can be used here—from empathy maps to journey maps to personal development—to help craft the major insights from the research. Ideation is team brainstorming with an emphasis on being open and collaborative and building upon the ideas of others (e.g. “yes and …”). Once there are a few key ideas, prototype design helps ideas to come to life so that users can give formative feedback. The iterative process incorporates user feedback into the prototype to make it better and better.

This process sounds pretty simple, but it really relies on several design thinking mindsets including: show, don’t tell; focus on human values; embrace experimentation; bias toward action; craft clarity; be mindful of process; radical collaboration; and—most importantly—fail early to succeed sooner. Yes, you must allow yourself to embrace failure. This is hard for students and faculty. One of the most important concepts is radical collaboration—the best ideas are the results of many different voices, ideas, and perspectives. This is a lesson that is particularly useful at a university.

Many companies from Apple to Google to McKinsey Consulting to GE all use design thinking to create their products and services. Schools at the K-12 level have started to incorporate design thinking in everything from curriculum design to lesson design. As such, there are four key areas where design thinking can be useful. First, since design thinking is particularly useful when dealing with larger systems, it is useful for designing curricula. In the Neeley School of Business, we used aspects of design thinking to begin working on a new undergraduate core curriculum. Additionally, it is useful to reimagine co-curricular activities to augment curricula issues. Second, design thinking is useful to create new spaces for learning. Open and collaborative spaces (like Rees-Jones Hall) help facilitate a spirit of innovation. Indeed, the space at Stanford’s D-School is wide open with only a few offices; this allows people from all majors to meet and create. Third, design thinking can be used to reimagine entire processes. Indeed, as long as there are humans involved, it can be a useful framework. This can include advising, housing, etc. Last, design thinking can be used for smaller things—like assignments and lessons that allow students to practice one or more piece of the framework.

In my course, Innovation and Design Thinking, students are asked to truly embrace failure first and understand that it can be quite useful for true innovation. Students are taught the process while doing their first design challenge, which is based around finding a problem to solve. Since my class is a marketing course, the problem can be in the form of a product or service. Students also tackle reimagining services that are particularly problematic. The final challenge is based on a client challenge. This semester they are working with Fidelity Investments. The idea is that with each challenge, students gain a deeper understanding of design thinking processes and tools. So far, the results have been positive. Students are learning how to bring these skills into workplaces, like Seattle- based Microsoft, while also learning how to think critically and become more comfortable with tough problem solving.

Stacy Landreth Grau

This article was written by Stacy Landreth Grau, Neeley School of Business for the Spring 2017 Issue of Insights.