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Executive Education

Design Thinking and Creativity for Business

Making a case for creativity: How it catalyses innovation and creates change

Manuel Sosa, Professor of Technology and Operations Management

Programme Director of Design Thinking and Creativity for Business

Any change in an organisation requires a catalyst, and Design Thinking and Creativity for Business gives them the skills they need to drive that change effectively. We prepare them to become innovation catalysts and agents of change.

Back in 2010, IBM surveyed over 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from over 60 countries and 33 industries. The skill they felt was most needed to navigate the complexities of the future? Creativity. 

Fast forward more than a decade, and with the rapid pace of digital change and the growing pressures of climate change, creativity is arguably becoming more important than ever. But how exactly does creativity affect businesses? And what happens if you're not a 'creative thinker'? We speak to Manuel Sosa, Programme Director of INSEAD’s Design Thinking and Creativity for Business programme, to find out.


How would you define creativity and why is it increasingly important for businesses now to be creative?

Creativity is the ability to create novel and useful “things”. And we refer to creative thinking as the set of skills that every creative problem solver should master. They are based on the principles of design thinking, creativity management, and agile development. A key principle from design thinking is the notion of developing empathy for the end user and understanding what is important to those you are innovating for. 

Creativity is important because as the world becomes more complex and uncertain, we need to be able to formulate new opportunities, new business models and new ways to disrupt or defend from disruption. We need to have the courage to evolve and keep up with the pace of change.

Take the issue of sustainability, for example. This is the biggest problem facing all industries. How are we going to solve it if we do not innovate? If people cannot think differently or if we don’t empower them to explore new possibilities? It’s impossible. Another trigger to innovate is digitalisation. We need to rethink our purposes, processes and resources in order to use digitalisation to create value — and that requires innovation.


Innovation is not a new concept. What added value do creativity and a design thinking approach offer?

Innovation has traditionally been associated with the development of new products, new technologies and recently, new services. The emphasis has been on the innovation process — there is a process for understanding customer needs, a process for integrating ideas and making sure they work. And that has led to faster computers, better cars, longer battery life and so on. There is a well-established process that typically falls under the domain of an engineer.

The biggest contribution that design thinking has made is to democratise many of these traditional principles and make them more 'human' centered. We spend more time understanding people’s needs and the desired outcome, rather than imposing a solution that only incrementally improves the existing situation.

In this way, innovation can not only create new products and services, but also solve problems. It is also no longer limited to the domain of engineering. In that sense, anyone can become a creative problem solver.


When you say anyone can become a creative problem solver, does that mean that creativity can be taught?

Absolutely. There are many things that are predictable in creativity, and if they are predictable, they are manageable. Take creativity blockers, for example. We have learnt that people who say “I’m not very creative”, are typically referring to having difficulty in thinking differently, breaking patterns or changing the status quo. Since we know what obstacles they have, we can devise strategies to overcome them.


Elaborating on that, how does INSEAD’s Design Thinking and Creativity for Business teach creativity?

We’ve been running a partnership with the ArtCenter College of Design in California since 2004. Through our collaboration with the professors there, we’ve uncovered how they teach creativity to designers and have adapted these strategies to teach creativity to almost anyone.

One of the main pillars of Design Thinking and Creativity for Business is to teach participants how to gain user-centred insights to formulate the right innovation opportunity. A second pillar is creative ideation, where we dive deep into understanding creativity, creativity blockers and strategies to overcome these blocks to develop new ideas.

Finally, we focus on agility in testing ideas and for this we build upon principles of agile development. Because while it’s important to uncover the right problems and generate lots of ideas, it’s equally important to have a structured way to experiment and determine which ideas are not just novel but also useful, feasible and viable.

In addition to explaining the methods, we also talk about the importance of developing a user-centred, creative and agile mindset, and place significant emphasis on skills development, so that participants can navigate the innovation process with confidence.


Could you share how the programme places emphasis on skills development?

The participants take part in an Action Learning Project (ALP), which enables them to apply the key insights they have gained during the programme to their own project. They are also assigned a coach to guide them through the process.

Most of these coaches are graduates of the ArtCenter College of Design and have completed my in-person programme at INSEAD. So they are experienced in integrating design and business skills and have deep expertise applying design thinking principles, creativity principles and agile development principles to their work. This is something that I think makes Design Thinking and Creativity for Business very unique. In fact, I don’t know of any other programme that offers this.


Drawing back to what you’ve mentioned about customer centricity and innovation — would this mean that Design Thinking and Creativity for Business is only relevant to specific sectors and roles? 

No. There are indeed certain sectors, such as oil and gas, where the customer is further down the value chain. But to say that you don’t need creativity and design thinking would be a misconception, because even if you are a B2B company, you still have a client that has an end user. You need to understand not only the needs of your client, but also the needs of their customers to really add value.

And even if people in companies don’t need to create new things, they need to execute existing processes. For them, innovation might mean looking for a better way to restructure the process. This still involves understanding who the process serves, finding out if there is a better way to do it, and knowing how to test the feasibility of the new method.

In sum, any change in an organisation requires a catalyst, and Design Thinking and Creativity for Business gives them the skills they need to drive that change effectively. We prepare them to become innovation catalysts and agents of change.