Field Course: i-Lab Design Thinking & Innovative Problem Solving

Course Number 6348

Professor Srikant M. Datar
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
11 2.5-hour sessions
Course Meetings: Monday 3:30pm to 6:00pm


The capacity to innovate has become a critical skill for the 21st century business person and entrepreneur operating in ever more complicated and fast changing world. Design thinking is an approach to innovation that uses deep customer understanding, problem framing, a range of ideation techniques, iterative prototyping, and critique to generate and develop implementable concepts that meet user needs. This course takes the view that innovative problem solving and design thinking can be learned through repeated practice.

This course will be offered at the i-lab in Fall 2016 with weekly meetings. The learning in this course will occur through a mix of individual and group activities in class, as well as several homework assignments. There will be no required project. However, for those interested there is the option of working on a project in lieu of a final exam. You can pursue your own project idea or one we have sourced.

Students interested in developing a concept that emerges from the course at conclusion of the fall semester will be welcome to participate in a DTI i-lab IP in the Winter Term. During the winter we will run informal feedback sessions where students can present and critique each other’s ongoing work.

Who is eligible?

This course will be open to 60 students from across Harvard University and its graduate schools, as well as Tufts and MIT. Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors from the College are also welcome. The course will also accept a limited number of Advanced Leadership Institute Fellows.

How to enroll?
HBS Select this course as part of the regular lottery process.
Cross-Registrants & ALI Auditors:  Complete this survey. Email your C.V. to

Introductory Session

There first session of the course is on Thursday, September 1 from 4:15 to 5:15 at the i-lab (classroom 122). All other sessions will be on Mondays from 3:30 to 6:00.

Design Thinking

Just what is “design thinking”? The term emerged at Stanford in the 1980s, as a way to characterize the broad approach that those trained formally in design generally architecture, industrial design, and applied arts take toward problem solving. The approach is human-centered, focusing intensely on users, their needs, and their motivations. Through close observation of people in their environments (“Look”), direct engagement with them through interviews and shadowing (“Ask”), and even attempts to experience the world as they do (“Try”), researchers can gain deep understanding of users’ motivations and needs and, using this knowledge, produce solutions crafted to address those needs directly. Given its roots in the world of design, the approach also embraces visual thinking (including sketching, diagramming, and making) as legitimate and useful ways to develop understanding and communicate findings and ideas.

Design thinking is most commonly associated with product design, but it can as aptly be applied to solve problems in processes, business models, management, and strategy. While fewer students outside of schools of design may have spent much time developing these skills, basic facility and familiarity is certainly within reach for anyone. The user-centric orientation of the approach, as well as these “designer-ly” skills, should be regarded as just additional “ways of knowing/understanding,” which can complement the analytical and written communication skills that are generally far more developed in students of business, medicine, government, education etc.

Session Dates








Session 1

Human-Centered Design




Session 2

Design Research




Session 3

Problem Framing




Session 4

Ideation (IDEO)




Session 5

Ideation " SIT




Columbus Day " No Class





Session 6

Attribute Value Mapping




Recruiting Week " No Class





Session 7

Design for Implementation




Session 8

Concept Development




Session 9





Session 10





Session 11

Teams and Culture




Session 12

Managing Innovation


Please direct any questions to Caitlin Bowler (Research Associate) and Paige Burk (Faculty Assistant).
Caitlin Bowler:                             Paige Burk:

Course Content & Organization

Programmed course sessions will lead students through the major phases of the creative problem solving process, as supplemented by the mindset and research methods of design thinking. This curriculum has been developed in collaboration with top design firms, including Frog Design, IDEO, Continuum, LUMA Institute, and Systematic Inventive Thinking.
Module 1: An Introduction to the Innovation Process
This module defines creativity and its role in innovation, provide an overview of the innovation process, and discuss the individual affective characteristics that are critical for successful innovation. It provides a foundation for all the subsequent modules in the course.
Module 2: Human-Centered Design & Achieving Deep Customer Understanding
The ability to identify and understand what customers need and want in a product, service, or process based on observation, not data alone is at the core of design thinking. Students will learn to develop an actionable point of view that addresses questions such as: Who are the target users? What do they need? How do you know? Students will practice several techniques for achieving deep customer understanding, both in and outside of the classroom, and will then synthesize research findings in an effort to hone in on key insights.
Module 3: Identifying Opportunity Areas: Problem Framing & Definition
Framing a powerful cognitive mechanism that allows us all efficient functioning in everyday life is a significant barrier to innovation. In this module students learn to identify problem frames and, informed by insights developed during efforts toward Deep Customer Understanding, reshape problem frames to open up new paths for thinking, redefine problems, and identify areas of opportunity.
Module 4: Idea Generation
In this module the course explores various approaches to innovative thinking and techniques for idea generation from a range of sources. In addition to Nominal Group Technique, Round Robin, and Creative Matrix, it covers the Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) approach and its tools. (SIT is a rigorous approach to problem solving that evolved from the TRIZ engineering tradition.)
Module 5: Concept Development
This module focuses on the critical role that prototyping, experimenting, and iteration play in the development of ideas. From the designer's perspective, failure when designed to occur early and cheaply can be a rich source of learning that often reveals new options and nearly always leads to a better final outcome. A variety of tools are introduced in this module.
Module 6: Implementation
Until an idea is implemented, it remains just that an idea. This module focuses on tools and approaches for thinking creatively (and strategically) about implementing ideas and bringing innovative ideas to the marketplace.
Module 7: Managing Innovation
This module addresses the question: "What does it mean to manage innovation?”

Full link to the google doc survey: