Why Design Must Be Taught to Future Managers

Posted October 19, 2015 by Fred Collopy, Youngjin Yoo

Coauthored by Fred Collopy, vice dean of Weatherhead School of Management, and Youngjin Yoo, director of the Center for Design+Innovation at Temple University. Collopy and Yoo co-facilitate AACSB's Teaching Design for Creativity and Innovation seminar in the Curriculum Develop Series.

Everything about a business, and every human enterprise for that matter, is designed. In addition to the products and services provided by the organization, the hiring and employment policies, the information it provides to investors and the public, its facilities, supply chain, customer relationship practices, even its vision and strategies; all of these have been designed. The most common approach to the design of most of these has been to copy them from others. (Engaging in a systematic appraisal of whom to copy often leads to dignifying the copy as a “best practice.”)

Such copying has its place, but there are limits to its applicability. First, identifying sources that match your organization’s circumstances and needs is increasingly difficult. Beyond that, there are important issues and problems that no one else is addressing or at least addressing very well. And finally, if you are simply copying them, you can’t do better than your competitors.

Most organizations, however, are designed to perform, not to create. The organizing logic to create something novel is fundamentally different from that of producing something that already exists on a large or more profitable scale—no matter how large the scale. Creativity, innovation, disruption, or whatever you want to call it, are often seen as reserved for special teams and special times. The rest of us are simply supposed to execute a best practice. But the challenges that we face today—poverty, global health, peace and justice, the environment, sustainability—demand the creative capacity of not just a few special parts, but of the whole; not sporadic, but continuous.

So perhaps it is this need that explains the clarion call among CEOs and other leaders for more creativity and innovation in their organizations. But innovation and creative solutions are outcomes. And telling people that we want more creative X’s, whatever X is, is no more helpful than telling them we want more profit. Leading is about providing help with the “how.”

"Design cannot be the preserve of a privileged few, but must become part of the experience of everyone in an organization."

To answer the “how” question, we and our colleagues have looked to professionals and organizations that must deliver creative solutions in order to be successful—architects, choreographers, musicians, graphic artists, computer programmers, industrial designers, comedians, and others who engage consciously in practices aimed at enhancing the likelihood of finding fresh and often better solutions to long-standing issues. Taken together the attitudes, frameworks, and practices that such people employ can be referred to as designing.

We have found that design is an indispensable complement to analysis and decision-making for leading in such creative endeavors. Why should it not be so when leading in other enterprises that face new situations that require creative and innovative solutions? Design theorist and historian Ralph Caplan puts it this way: “Design is not everything, but it somehow gets into most everything.”

We have concluded that design cannot be the preserve of a privileged few, but must become part of the experience of everyone in an organization. Design is not just a tool to put a pretty skin on a product; it is a way of finding paths that have not yet been taken. When we design, we set aside the default solutions. Instead, we imagine fresh ways of moving forward. When we design, we don’t just think; we go into the world—to see, hear, build, learn, and act on it. And when we design, we not only change the world for the better; it changes us. From executives of large corporations, to struggling entrepreneurs, to at-risk teenagers in inner-city public schools, we have witnessed how design transforms us by recalibrating what we are capable of achieving.

In this complex, changing world, managers must be designers. Just as organizations can no longer treat design as a nicety, management education cannot consider it a trick or a gambit to gain a temporary competitive edge. Rather, design must become one of the principle values and skill sets that we teach to all of our future managers.

Fred CollopyFred Collopy is the vice dean and a professor of design and innovation at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He received his PhD from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has published over 50 articles, reviews, and notes on forecasting, technology, strategy, and the application of design ideas to management. He co-edited the book Managing as Designing (Stanford University Press, 2004). Additional information is available at http://collopy.case.edu.

Youngjin YooYoungjin Yoo is the director of the Center for Design+Innovation at Temple University, where he is Harry A. Cochran Professor of Management Information Systems and and Professor of Strategy at the Fox School of Business and Management. He is a WBS Distinguished Research Environment Professor Warwick Business School. He also was a visiting professor at Viktoria Institute in Sweden, Hitotsubashi University in Japan, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Hong Kong City University, and Tokyo University of Science, Japan.