VSAers Teach Leadership Through Design Thinking at NYU

This Fall, several VSAers, including Strategy Practice Lead Eric Martinez and Design Practice Lead Claudine Litman, are co-instructing the Cohort Leadership Program (CLP) at NYU’s Stern School of Business (ranked #5 nationally). In this required course for all freshmen at Stern, CLP teaches business leadership through the lens of design-thinking.

Today, more and more companies are embracing design-thinking, and many business schools recognize the need to prepare their students for this environment. NYU’s course equips students with the necessary skills to lead in today’s workforce by emphasizing design as a method for solving the toughest business problems.

The semester-long course is divided into two phases: (1) Design Thinking and (2) Career Exploration. VSA co-led the first phase during which students are taught to make observations about a challenge, form insights, craft creative catalysts, and explore and prototype solutions.

The course takes a 21st-century approach to the Socratic method, teaching students to ask provocative questions to stimulate novel solutions. Specifically, the course posits the challenge: How might we help college students make more conscious food choices?

To begin the design-thinking process, each student was tasked with conducting field research and interviewing five people about their food experiences. Their observations were divided into three parts:

1. Sustainability: The businesses, practices and processes that preceded their interviewees’ food decisions.

2. Nutrition: The motives and behaviors that led interviewees to make specific nutrition choices.

3. Food Waste: The environmental, economic and social impact of the packaging and food waste produced by their interviewees’ meals.

In classes led by VSA guest-teachers, students shared their field observations and were taught, through a series of facilitated exercises similar to those we use with our clients, to turn them into insights. The VSA teachers then taught students how to turn their insights into creative catalysts, or, provocative questions designed to inspire creative solutions. The students will use these catalysts as the basis for brainstorming. The course will conclude with students prototyping and pitching their ideas to a panel of judges.

Asked why he redesigned CLP with a focus on design thinking, NYU Stern Assistant Dean of Students Ashish Bhatia said, “Increasingly, business students will have to define and create their own roles in this dynamic age. And that requires a combination of analytical and creative thinking that is at the heart of a design-thinking approach.” When asked what he hoped the Stern class of 2020 would get out of CLP, Eric Martinez, VSA’s Strategy Practice lead said, “I hope the course helps them to become empathetic, innovative thinkers who recognize that design-thinking can make a massive impact on the world.”

For more than 30 years, VSA has actively advocated for design as a leadership competency in business. “Our most successful clients know how to ask provocative questions about what their companies stand for and where they could go in the future,” said Martinez. “Increasingly, they see design as the best means to answering those questions.”

Arming students with design-driven leadership skills will better equip them to enter the countless global companies that are adopting design-oriented cultures. As traditional business norms continue to be challenged, design is becoming an increasingly essential tool for the next generation of leaders.