Design Sprints as a collaborative pedagogy for innovation, enterprise and sustainability

Dr Lucy Hatt (Senior Lecturer)

Newcastle University Business School

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do? 

This case study sets out how we are using the structured process of a Design Sprint over three days to respond to live client briefs on the Executive MBA to teach design thinking techniques, develop entrepreneurial thinking, and sustainable approaches that learners can reapply directly in real time in their own workplaces.

Who is involved? 

The joint Executive Degree Programme Directors, Dr Lucy Hatt and Dr Jenny Davidson, an external consultancy to facilitate the Design Sprints called Impactera, live clients and the EMBA learners.

Dr Lucy Hatt (left), and Dr Jenny Davidson

How did you do it? 

The Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) at Newcastle University Business School is designed for senior leaders who want to shape their organisation’s future and their careers. During the two-year, part-time, blended learning programme, learners explore and pioneer solutions to challenges in relation to themselves, their organisations and the wider society. Two modules use live client projects in Design Sprints where the learners in teams use the structured process of a Design Sprint over three days to respond to a brief using design thinking techniques.

The 20 credit modules Innovation and Enterprise and Sustainability using the Design Sprints are taken at the start of the second year. The Innovation and Enterprise module has been developed around seven threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003, 2005) in entrepreneurial thinking (Jarman & Hatt, 2021) drawing on an innovative methodology first set out by Dr Lucy Hatt in her doctoral thesis (Hatt, 2020). The Sustainability module guides the learners through an introduction to sustainability, key concepts, theories and frameworks and invites them to contextualise these in their own organisation and individual practice.

The sixteen learners in this cohort are Senior Leaders with at least five years’ experience of managing at a strategic level. Nine are Senior Leader, or Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprentices. Most are regionally based with a wide diversity of employers ranging from large multinational corporations to small businesses, in the public sector and the third sector, as well as some learners who founded their own ventures.

We invited external Design Sprint facilitators to tender for this work and selected Impactera from a competitive field. We invested considerable time with them in advance of the sessions to ensure they were aligned with the values of the programme and its pedagogy. The Design Sprints run in the 1st semester of the second year of the programme since the programme began in 2020. Log-books documenting the process and outcome of the Design Sprints are developed at the end of the session and used to promote the opportunity to prospective live clients and as a student recruitment resource.

Why did you do it? 

Design thinking has become popular in higher education due to its multidisciplinary relevance (Beligatamulla, Rieger, Franz, & Strickfaden, 2019) and in 2020 Newcastle University Business School launched a redesigned Executive MBA integrating this approach in two of its seven modules. The multifaceted goals and outcomes associated with design thinking are a key factor in its attractiveness. Benefits found resulting from these modules echo those in the literature such as tacit experiences, increased empathy, reduced cognitive bias, playful learning, flow, collaboration, productive failure, surprising solutions and creative confidence (Panke, 2019).

Does it work? 

As part of the development of the modules, the phases of the design sprint were mapped on to threshold concepts in entrepreneurial thinking (Jarman & Hatt, 2021), demonstrating how a Design Sprint can be used to develop entrepreneurial thinking in learners, by explicitly offering learning opportunities for all the threshold concepts in entrepreneurial thinking. The Design Sprint format is a particularly exciting opportunity to integrate entrepreneurial thinking into any discipline, with a clear process and well- established instructional techniques offering additional value to learners. For the Sustainability module the Design Sprint provided a format through which learners could navigate the complexities and messiness of material sustainability issues and begin to develop solutions in a given context.

The benefits of the Design Sprint approach to educators has been highlighted before but here we are using them in a new context with post-experience learners and offering a theoretical underpinning to explain their impact, enabling wider and more diverse forms of application.

A flow diagram showing the six stages of the Design Sprint Process: Emphasise, Design, Ideate, Prototype, Test and Reflect.

The Design Sprint Process

As well as educating in innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, the essence of design thinking as experienced by learners in a Design Sprint is to put them into contexts that make them think and work like designers, and thereby also to foster civic literacy, empathy, cultural awareness and risk taking (Sharples et al., 2016). “It is this capacity of design thinking to complement existing pedagogies and provide inspiration for change and innovation” (Melles, Anderson, Barrett, & Thompson-Whiteside, 2015, p. 192) that we feel it of particular interest. Our learner assignments evidence the development of their entrepreneurial thinking and how significant value has been created in their organisations as a result.

Client testimonials have been very positive:

“We were in a state of flux at the time of the Design Sprint and were reviewing our marketing message. The EMBA students quickly grasped the complexity of the operating context and used their own professional experience as well as newly acquired design thinking approaches to diagnose the crux of the issue and to make a number of recommendations which we took on board. In line with the learners’ recommendations, we reviewed our marketing communications, refocusing our messaging and setting out a clearer value proposition for our target markets. This has resulted in increased website traffic and traction in existing markets as well as interest from new customers and access to new markets. The Design Sprint was hugely valuable and I would recommend participation to any organisation seeking a fresh external, perspective.”

“Working with the EMBA group was a stimulating, thought provoking and engaging experience. It was fantastic for us to be able to hear the perspectives of professionals from a range of backgrounds, who provided us with supportive challenge and genuinely inventive thinking throughout. On a personal and organisational level, the process and outcome were thought provoking and have given us new avenues of enquiry to pursue. We have already put one recommendation into practice, and have begun the work of redesigning our website to be more accessible and to tell a clearer story about who we are, and what we do.”

Student Voice 

Feedback from an EMBA learner:

“I approached the design sprint element of the module with much trepidation. In my pre-reading, I saw this as a process to use for “products” not broader corporate issues. Our project was on marketing messaging so was Interested in how the design sprint process was going to work. The lecturer and facilitator helped the team navigate through the design sprint and I was surprised by how well the process could be used not just for product development but other broader corporate issues such as the challenge we were set. We interfaced with the Client team remotely who were at their operating site overseas, using emails and then a couple of video calls. With our final presentation to the CEO and his leadership team, again via video call, we were pleased to find several of our suggestions were subsequently being implemented.”

Graduate Framework

The project develops the following attributes:

  • Socially responsible
  • Future focused
  • Resilient
  • Critical thinkers
  • Creative, innovative and enterprising
  • Digitally capable
  • Curious
  • Collaborative
  • Engaged

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *