My classmates and I largely come from structured backgrounds: consultants, investment bankers, marketers, engineers, the list goes on. We’re used to identifying and scoping problems and working with teams to create solutions. #oldhat. The beautiful thing about business school is that it gives you the opportunity to expand beyond the norm and explore new ways of tackling challenges.
I recently participated in the annual Kellogg Business Design Challenge (KBDC), which offered me the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and tear all of those familiar problem-solving steps to the ground. KBDC is an annual competition that leverages the principles of user-centric design to solve a real-life client issue. This year’s challenge was to help executives from Hyatt think about how hotel loyalty is changing in today’s economy, and how they can capitalize on emerging trends to create more genuine connections with their guests. In total over 100 Kellogg students formed ~25 teams to participate in the competition.
As part of the challenge we had access to leading design and innovation thinkers from firms such as Gravity Tank. They led us through a series of workshops that pushed us to think about the prompt in different ways. Starting with design and user research, we then learned about prototyping, how to synthesize our field research and finally how to craft a compelling story. Special attention to that last point: a compelling story is nothing like you’re used to if you come from a traditional business background. In my structured past as a consultant I felt comfortable presenting a logical deck that was supported by research, data and overly complex powerpoint slides. While some of these elements exist in a compelling pitch (research and data…leave the complex slides for the archive), in order to be effective you have to hit the audience on an emotive level. Truly inspired thinking has to pull the audience to innovations that they have never considered before, and that requires a different kind of story to take them there.
The contest culminated with 5 finalist teams presenting to executives from Hyatt and a high-energy crowd of Kellogg peers. While our team felt confident that we had developed interesting insights and a compelling re-thinking of the loyalty experience, we weren’t sure how well it would resonate with the Hyatt team. Design and innovation is inherently disconfirming; what makes sense to you at the start is not where you end up because the entire focus is on creating a breakthrough idea. While my team had undertaken that journey to understanding, we now had the tough task of getting others to buy-in.
When it was our turn to present I couldn’t help but reflect on how we had gotten there. Every slide or insight we talked through, while well-polished on the surface, was in my mind still standing on a billowing cloud of chalk dust from the frantic whiteboarding that we had wrestled with. As my teammates—Ann and Ariel—smoothly walked through their sections of the pitch, I was called back to the hours of back-and-forth debates, the mockups that were developed and then scraped, and the crushed coffee cups being tossed into the trash that had helped fuel our efforts.
In the end our team won the competition, which was an incredible validation of our hard work. Reflecting on the experience though, the greatest benefit of this challenge was getting to practice and become (somewhat) competent with these new ways of thinking. We all come to business school to learn how to become more effective business leaders, and challenges such as this one help put that learning into practice with new tools for tackling and solving problems. Also invaluable was the path that Ann, Ari and I had walked down together. I gained an incredible respect for what they were capable of, and battling through the process brought us closer. Friendships like these make challenges like KBDC something bigger, something memorable that we’ll hold on to long after the chalk dust has settled.
Ryan Shain (@RyanShain) is a first year student at Kellogg’s full-time MBA program. Prior to Kellogg he worked in strategy consulting. Ryan is also the co-founder of an eLearning business that has helped over 30,000 clients improve their food safety operations.