Field Course: 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 other than HBS and University holidays


The capacity to innovate has become a critical skill for the 21st century business person and entrepreneur operating in an ever more complicated and fast changing world. Design thinking and innovative problem solving use deep customer understanding, problem framing, a range of ideation techniques, iterative prototyping, and critique to generate and develop implementable concepts that meet user needs. Recent research has revealed systematic techniques to break fixed ways of thinking and facilitate innovative thinking. This course teaches techniques to help students develop a capacity for innovative problem solving and design thinking through repeated practice.

This course will be offered at the i-lab in Fall 2017 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. Students can pursue a final project in lieu of a final exam.

In past years, some students, who have developed a concept during the course continued that work as an Independent Project (IP) in the Spring Term.

Introductory Session
The first session of the course is on Thursday, August 31 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.

Innovative Problem Solving and Design Thinking

Just what are innovative problem solving techniques? The approach is human-centered, focusing intensely on users, their needs, and their motivations. Through close observation of people in their environments, researchers can gain deep understanding of users’ motivations and needs to produce solutions that address those needs directly. The surprising insight from recent research is that there is a body of knowledge and systematic techniques that individuals can use to think creatively. The course focuses on helping students learn and practice these techniques.

Innovative problem solving and design thinking is most commonly associated with product design, but it can as aptly be applied to processes, business models, management, and strategy. The user-centric orientation of the approach can complement the analytical and written communication skills that are generally far more developed in students of business, medicine, government, education etc.

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.

Module 1: An Introduction to the Innovation Process
This module defines creativity and its role in innovation and provides an overview of the innovation process. It provides a foundation and structure 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 a human-centered innovation process. 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 using tools like webbing, abstract ladders, and strategy frameworks. Informed by insights developed during efforts toward Deep Customer Understanding, problem frames open up new paths for thinking, help to redefine problems, and indicate 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. It covers the tools of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) such as task unification, division, and attribute dependency, and inversion.  SIT is a rigorous approach to problem solving that evolved from the TRIZ engineering tradition. This module also explores other methods of structured ideation, such as Nominal Group Technique, Round Robin, and Creative Matrix, and Alternate Worlds.

Module 5: Concept Development
This module first focuses on the critical role that prototyping, experimenting, and iteration play in the development of ideas. Failed experiments can be a rich source of learning that often reveal new options and nearly always lead to a better final outcome. Methods of prototyping include wire-framing, body storming, think-aloud testing, and simulation. The module also explores a variety of other concept development tools, such as attribute-value mapping, design heuristics, concept poster, rose-thorn-bud, and critique.

Module 6: Implementation
Until an idea is implemented, it remains just that-"an idea. This module focuses on the challenges of implementing innovation such as relative advantage, trialability, complexity and compatibility. It then introduces tools and approaches of communication and behavior change, such as creating curiosity, developing options, and psychological comfort. Students learn to think 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?” The module explores teams, cultures and individual mindsets that are critical for successful innovation, using approaches such as the Elephant and Rider and Foursight models.

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

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