Design thinking can be applied to bring large-scale changes in society: Srikant Datar

Dr Srikant Datar, Professor of Business Administration. Senior Associate Dean, Harvard Business School expounds on the concept in an interview with Prerna Lamba of BW Education.


Design Thinking is a systematic process of thinking which empowers people to develop a new innovative solution-based approach to solve problems. Dr Srikant Datar, Professor of Business Administration. Senior Associate Dean, Harvard Business School expounds on the concept in an interview with Prerna Lamba of BW Education. Excerpts:

Design thinking is a technique for unlocking innovation, Which are the business areas that it can be suitably applied?

Design Thinking has been applied and can be applied to many different areas. Typically it has been applied in product design and service design, processes, and business models. Now it is being applied to broader areas like strategy and leadership.  

How can DT be used to solve larger problems like that of the society or environment?

In my speech at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), SBAC 2019 Conclave with the theme -Design Thinking, I suggested that Gandhiji’s salt march was a brilliant example of design thinking applied to strategy and leadership.  Most freedom movements and revolutions are violent. Gandhiji’s innovation was to lead the Indian independence struggle on the principles of non-violence.  His approach covered the arc of design thinking from deep understanding and empathy for the people he was leading to developing the idea of Satyagraha.  He ran several experiments (what we now call prototyping) to test those ideas first in South Africa and then in India. The salt march represented the implementation of his innovation. If you actually go through the steps of design thinking and go through what Gandhiji’s did, there is almost a complete parallel of how design thinking can be applied to bring about large-scale changes in society. The basic principles are the same. You have to deeply understand the people you are trying to influence, you develop new ideas, you test those ideas, and then you implement them.

Can this process be used by the government to solve problems? How can they go ahead with it?

Design thinking can be used by governments to solve problems, such as delivering better health care or education. The steps are exactly the same: deeply understand the problem, come up with new ideas using tools like brainstorming or systematic inventive thinking, prototype the ideas, and finally implement them. 

The field in which you are trying to apply design thinking does not matter. This kind of thinking can be applied in many domains. And as I said, the people who really understand how to innovate have done it over many years, in different areas.

DT is an exploratory process and leads to frequent prototyping. It is iterative and creates multiple possibilities but it must also be time-consuming. Doesn’t that become a hindrance if time is the essence?

The thing about design thinking is that it can be a very fast process. In our class, we give people some of the tools of design thinking and then we give them a simple product, such as a baby bottle. We ask them, “Can you make this bottle into a smart connected product?” We only allow students about 35 to 40 minutes to come up with ideas. In most cases, they come up with ideas that some company has actually implemented. So once you are familiar with the process, you can actually implement it very quickly. This kind of thinking helps you to get to innovations very fast. So it doesn’t take a lot of time. It is a process but it is a fast process. In fact what we like to say is that whenever you are applying this kind of thinking, the more you can iterate the better it is. Design thinking will help you quickly get a team on the same page and move quickly through the various steps. So it is not very time-consuming.

How are business schools incorporating Design Thinking as part of the curriculum? How does India fare particularly?

Over a period of time, we have done many seminars where we have brought together people from different universities and business schools to share with them what we have learnt about design thinking. SPJIMR hosted one of those seminars in India to which they invited many faculty colleagues from other schools including the IIMs and IITs. So I think many people are now familiar with design thinking and have implemented it in the curriculum in different forms. In some cases, schools expose students to design thinking for a few sessions during a course.  Some schools are offering design thinking courses as either module in an executive education programme or as elective courses. Still, other schools have design thinking as a required course and then have all the students do projects to experience the process in a deeper way. 

As you said you are affiliated with SPJIMR in Mumbai in developing and supporting the DT course. So what was the response and uptake for the same?

At SPJIMR, students are introduced to design thinking as part of their required curriculum. The students then have the opportunity to practice design thinking throughout the programme. This is very helpful because design thinking is a skill that improves with practice. The more you practice the better you get. The feedback from students is very positive.  The faculty have enjoyed teaching it and they continue to develop the course every time they teach it. 

Do you plan on associating with more universities to promote DT in India?

Whenever there is an opportunity to do a workshop of the type that SPJIMR had initiated, I am always very happy and willing to participate in it. Fortunately, faculty at most schools have a very good understanding of design thinking concepts, its value, and how it can be taught. What is also very interesting is that companies in India, such as Procter & Gamble, have successfully applied design thinking to develop new products and processes. Equally encouraging, more and more applications are showing up in the government and social sector.

How is Harvard Business School using DT to teach innovation, strategy and leadership?

In the first year of the MBA, students do an immersive field experience where they get exposed to design thinking and innovation. This course focuses on identifying and solving real-world problems and challenges so students develop skills in innovation, strategy, and leadership. They learn to observe deeply, come up with ideas, prototype quickly and implement. Design thinking and innovation is taught in many of our executive education.  For students who wish to deepen their understanding of design thinking, I offer an elective course to students from the business school as well as other schools in the university.

Where do you think India is leading and lagging behind in the education sector? What sort of support/amends do we need from the government to overcome these?

There is considerable evidence that education is the key to addressing many social problems. India lags behind developed countries in primary and secondary education. Without this foundation, Indian youth cannot benefit from university education. The government needs to play a bigger role to ensure quality education at the school level so students in schools are learning well. 

When it comes to higher education, India will need to think about online, digital and distance education. We are experimenting with these approaches at Harvard. Some question whether the quality of online education is as good as face-to-face interactions. My experience is that well-thought-out online programs provide a very good learning environment for students. As the technology and bandwidth improve, the ability for faculty to interact with students also improves. 

India has done a good job of adapting knowledge developed in the west to the Indian context. I also value the emphasis that many Indian schools place on social issues.

What will you advice young students and professionals as a success mantra?

In my convocation speech at IIM Calcutta last year, I offered four pieces of advice to graduating students. First, build organisations with purpose and meaning. Second, be open-minded and always willing to learn. Surround yourselves with people who may not always agree with you, and genuinely appreciate debates, multiple perspectives, and different viewpoints. Third, find the ability to cope with failure because failure is the companion of any truly worthwhile and successful journey. Fourth, always remember the role, responsibilities, and purpose of business so as to keep in balance the twin goals of economic growth and social justice.

This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BW Education Issue Mar-Apr 2019'

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