Use Design & Service Thinking to Make the Most of Your MBA Program

Posted Sep 19, 2013 by Guy Larkin

As I went through the MBA program at Hult International Business School, there were times when I would listen to my fellow students discussing our classes and think, “Did you expect to just show up, read a couple of books and get ‘MBA’ stamped in your passport to management? You have to actually DO something.” Occasionally, the person I was thinking about was myself.

My point here is that once you’ve plunked down a hefty sum for an education, it’s easy to take the attitude of a customer in a restaurant and think, “I placed my order. Please bring me my degree, now.” And I’m here to say that in this pressure cooker, one-year MBA program, you will get so much more out of your experience if you make the effort to avoid slipping into indifference.

Now, I have observed that educational institutions everywhere set up structures with the intention of effectively and efficiently delivering education—but this can backfire by breeding a passive attitude in some students. For example, if there’s no slack in a program’s schedule (understandably, a one-year program can’t really afford that), it can cause some students to be less proactive about owning their education. They might start to see limitations and constraints everywhere, even where there are none.

That’s why there’s a bit of dissonance here, not least because most people pursue their MBAs in order to advance their careers. And what employers absolutely want is managers who are go-getters, not sit-and-waiters. There’s a constant tension, which has existed for a long time, between how education generally is delivered and the results that are expected after that education.

How, then do you, specifically, make sure that you get the most out of your educational experience? Design it yourself. Yes, you read that correctly. Your school has designed your curriculum, but you don’t have to just sit (in a classroom) and have your education done to you. You actually do have a lot of say in how it goes.

If you were to apply some very basic principles of Design Thinking and Service Thinking to create intentionality around your business program, I assert that your experience and the results that you produce will be dramatically different.

Below is a simple graphical representation of the Design Thinking process:

The key here is the Empathize/Define step. Usually, this involves interviewing and observing users/stakeholders in the product or service that is being designed. In this case, that’s you (and maybe your family or significant other). You need to be honest with yourself about how you want your educational experience to be, and what results you want during the program, as well as afterwards.

So, ask yourself open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’), and answer honestly. What do you want out of your education? What results will that produce for you when the program is over? Why are you getting your master’s degree?

Then, you create a “problem statement”. This is essentially a question that will lead you to solutions to your “problem”. It should be broad enough to allow you to come up with at least 50 ideas. Admittedly, you walk a fine line with your problem statement because you want it to be broad, but not too broad. “How can I maximize the professional benefit of my MBA program while maintaining my health and sanity?” is a good problem statement. “How do I get a job in Investment Banking?” may be on your mind, but is not broad enough for a good problem statement.

Once you create your problem statement, you can start writing down ideas about how to fulfill that goal. Again, you should be able to come up with at least 50 ideas. Don’t neglect obvious ones. Write down everything. In the example above, you may focus on the part about “professional benefit,” and begin to break it down: “What does that look like? Is it simply an increased salary? More responsibility? A new function?”

When I first went through this, I sat at my desk for about an hour, sweating it out until I hit 50 ideas. It was worth it. I saw for the first time that I thought I already “knew” what it meant to be an MBA. From there, I was able to design a process of discovering what it is to be an MBA based on the goal (and subset of goals) I had set for myself.

The next step is prototyping, which is the easy part—start implementing your ideas. Test them out on people. Testing is where the surprise value is. If you’re talking about this with people, sharing what your objectives are and how you’re trying to accomplish them, you’re going to get feedback. People want to help, and it’s important to be open to the feedback you get (make sure you reciprocate by giving feedback when you’re asked for it). In doing so, you’re co-creating and co-evolving your design—two key components of Service Thinking.

Keep in mind that you’re not stuck with any of this. That’s the iteration part. The graphic above is a bit simplified: this is not a strictly linear process, and you can iterate at each and every step. For instance, if your prototype involves going to one networking event a week and you discover that isn’t fulfilling your needs, don’t throw out networking events. Maybe you just need to test a different type of event. That’s one of the beauties of graduate school—you have one year to conduct experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. You won’t have time like this when you’re out in the real world and in a real job.

Because here’s a reality check: it’s pretty likely that your goals and requirements will change as you go through your program. So don’t think of your design as fixed. Think of it as more of a tool to keep you focused on the ultimate goal.

Any graduate program is a challenge. An accelerated, one-year program is going to be even more so. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees when you have three exams and four major projects due in a six-day stretch. But keep your eyes on the prize.

It’s my wish that going through this exercise will give you the opportunity to take a step back, remind yourself of your big picture goals, and keep in mind how each and every action you take is related (or not) to that big picture. And along the way, maybe you, too, can discover what it means to be an MBA.

Guy Larkin is a recent MBA graduate of Hult International Business School looking for opportunities to apply design thinking and service thinking to business problems. He is also the father of two curious and ravenous children.

Picture courtesy of Joachim Schlosser.

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