The Art of Mastering Innovation and Design-Thinking

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In a traditional lecture hall in MIT’s Stata Center, over 30 students from around the world dug through a plastic tote bin in an attempt to find the perfect pipe cleaners and construction paper. At first glance, this sounded like a strange way to teach product design, but there was a method to this activity.

As part of the MIT Professional Education Short Programs course, Mastering Innovation & Design-Thinking, participants partnered with one another to design each other’s ideal shopping experience. Through lightning rounds of interviewing one another about shopping for something important (such as a car or major technology purchase), participants identified each other’s shopping motivations and ideal outcomes.

What came from this fast-paced, hands-on exercise was a room filled with stores made out of cardboard, taped-together chronological flowcharts of a hypothetical purchasing process, and pipe cleaner VR glasses.

There was, of course, a reason for all of this. Blade Kotelly, senior lecturer at the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program and instructor for the course, believes that the art of design-thinking should emphasize starting with an analog prototype, even if it’s just using pencil and paper (or, in this case, pipe cleaners and paper), to allow flexibility when working with people for the initial prototyping.

The dynamic structure of the course effectively balanced traditional lectures with quick group discussions, brainstorming ideas with a partner, and hands-on design using drawings, chalkboards, and other physical items. While many participants worked in digital fields, Kotelly brought the class back to the basics by encouraging traditional prototyping methods, promoting the idea of quick turnarounds, flexibility, and listening to their partner’s needs and ideas in real-time.

Course participants were incredibly diverse, representing government, consulting firms, emerging companies, disrupting firms, pharmaceuticals, and more, and hailing from all over the U.S., Mexico, Peru, China, and beyond. “What I thought was truly remarkable were the people in attendance,” said Nicole Castillo, business analyst & IT product owner at Realogy in Highland Park, NJ. “While we were each there for various reasons, you could tell that everyone was open and willing to share their own experiences. I think the instructor was masterful in pulling those experiences out of us.”

A common theme for those in attendance was to be innovative and disrupt. “‘Innovate or die’ in this market isn’t just a catchy phrase. Every day, Latin America becomes more and more competitive. We have an obligation to evolve twice as fast as the rest of the world,” said Ricardo Arbocco, CIO at America Movil Peru SAC in Lima, Peru. “This course is designed to help us think differently, to be more critical of the issues we have at hand, and to discriminate what’s important and to focus on it, all so we can move faster in this dynamic environment.”