SMITHFIELD, RI – What happens when smart and curious people from different organizations, disciplines, and generations team up and take a risk to do something that's never been done before? Great ideas, partnerships, and innovative solutions that create value and opportunities for everyone involved.
In spring 2016, Bryant University faculty teamed up with Fidelity Investments to tackle a business challenge – how to encourage young investors to save for retirement. While that goal seems far away for many, for Fidelity, having millennials understand the importance of saving early on is a key building block of retirement preparedness. And as a company rooted in innovation, Fidelity wanted to take a fresh look at the problem.
A Problem and Solution Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries
The initial plan was to assign the challenge to a business or finance class. But, as the two groups began collaborating, it became clear that there were also complex psychological attitudes and behaviors around money and investing to consider. Since the problem crossed business and academic disciplines, the solution would have to cross those boundaries as well.
That's when Mike Roberto, D.B.A, Trustee Professor of Management and Allison Butler, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Applied Psychology teamed up to design a new interdisciplinary course that would tackle the challenge on multiple fronts— Psychology/Management (PSY/MAN) 440: The Design Thinking Process. The innovative course, launched in fall 2016, integrated strategic management principles, high-level behavioral science concepts, and design thinking methods.
"Framed by the three phases of the design thinking process: inspiration, ideation, and implementation, the course introduced psychological concepts and principles at each phase that illustrated why design thinking and breakthrough innovation is so challenging for the human mind," said Professor Butler.
"This course is a great illustration of Bryant's approach to innovation—adapting and anticipating the future to prepare students for success," said Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley. "The AIC, the IDEA program, and new approaches to teaching and learning like PSY/MAN 440 are all part of a larger institutional initiative to reimagine higher education through design thinking and innovation."
Applying Design Thinking Principles
The timing was perfect. The new course coincided with the opening of the new Academic Innovation Center (AIC), a space designed to facilitate innovative teaching and learning. The students were ready; as freshmen, the group of 30 upperclassmen had built a strong design thinking foundation through the Bryant IDEA (Innovation Design Experience for All), a three-day design thinking boot camp. And, after five years leading the Bryant IDEA program, the faculty were well prepared to guide the students through a rigorous and productive design thinking process to achieve the business goal.
"Designing the course was a design thinking process in itself," said Professor Roberto. "It was an exciting new journey of teaching and learning where, together with the students and our colleagues at Fidelity, we were co-creators of an innovative process, and it was incredibly successful."
Jane Souza, Senior Vice President of Digital Strategies at Fidelity and her team not only made a financial investment as sponsor of the project, but they were also involved in the course every step of the way. They attended class sessions every week to provide feedback to the students and help guide the process.
"This project exceeded our expectations," said Souza. "While the project and results are confidential, we're not able to reveal the details of the winning ideas, but we can tell you that the six teams delivered creative, thought-provoking proposals, which we are actively exploring."
"It was inspiring that Fidelity took our ideas seriously," said Nina Luiggi '18 of Nottingham, UK, an Applied Psychology major with minors in Management and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. "That gave us the motivation to succeed. We didn’t want to let them down."
Simplifying Complex Ideas
Because the challenge was focused on young investors who are digital natives, some expected to see a technology-based solution, perhaps an app or computer game-based solution. However, through the design thinking process, the students were able to suspend preconceived ideas, isolate the problem, and identify simple but effective solutions that could be applied on many different platforms depending on user need and preference.
"Design thinking is hard for the brain," said Butler. "The steps of design thinking seem simple and straightforward, but if you are not aware of cognitive biases, you will likely miss the opportunity to experience a true creative breakthrough. Our brains are wired to operate as efficiently as possible, which is ideal for making our way through daily life, but an impediment to innovation. We taught our students strategies for combatting cognitive biases so they were successful design thinkers who could generate wild ideas, experiment with them, and be truly creative."
"If you are fixated on one idea, your mind is not going to allow new ideas to flow," said Jaclyn Kline '17 of Orange, CT, who double majored in Marketing and Applied Analytics with a minor in Psychology. "With the constructive criticism from the professors and Fidelity executives, we were able to clear our heads and look at our concept from multiple perspectives and come up with the winning idea."
Not Knowing the "Right" Answer Can Lead to a Better Answer
"The biggest challenge with teaching design thinking is getting the students comfortable with not knowing the answer, and that they will likely fail before they succeed,” said Roberto. “With traditional education, there is a ‘right’ answer, and students are trying to ‘get it.’” The design thinking process trains students to discover an answer that didn’t exist before, and that’s innovation.”
“Professor Roberto always says 'one must fail often to succeed sooner,' and throughout this course I gained a new appreciation for that concept," said Gabrielle Rinaldi '17 of Watertown, CT, an Accounting major with a double minor in Communication and Management. "The IDEA program and this course taught me to be open minded, a team player, and not to get frustrated when an idea doesn't work out."
Innovation Risk and Reward
True innovation involves strategic risk taking, and everyone involved in this project was willing to commit to the process without knowing the outcome. The risk paid off. Bryant students gained invaluable real-world experience in innovative product development, and Fidelity gained high-value, creative, and viable ideas worthy of further research and exploration.
Building on the success of this project, the course will be offered again next spring, applying the design thinking method to a new corporate challenge.