When MBA Meets Designer

I took Manuel Sosa's class at INSEAD in the spring of 2005. It was called Strategy for Product and Service Development. An interesting aspect was bringing in design students from the Art Center in Pasadena -- it was a new experiment. I was interested in finding out about team dynamics when you put a creative person in the midst of things.

My perception about designers was, "Here's my product, make it look sexy. Put in the round holes and the right colors and make it look like an iPod (APPL)." To me, designers came a bit later in the product development cycle.

At the start of the class we had to decide what to work on. Each of us had a minute to pitch an idea to develop. You could see the difference. MBA pitches dwelt on the market: how big it was, how little it had been served. Most designers said: "Here is how I use the product today. Here is why it sucks and how it can be better. Here's how I want to do it."

Now I'm part of the Experienced Commercial Leadership Program, a two-year program of six-month assignments. I'm on my third assignment. Has the course helped me? Definitely, from a group dynamics perspective. It helped me also with the "whole product concept." There is the product you are contractually obligated to deliver, but there are also the elements that go beyond the product to help the customer. What you do with the product is as important as what it does. To me, that was the upshot of the experience. You can apply it anywhere.

At GE (GE), I've seen that what the user does with your product is as important as, if not more important than, what the product does itself. Aviation sells different products for an airplane. One thing we sell is an engine. There's a multibillion-dollar business for private jets. [As part of my second six-month stint,] we were designing the service option of an engine. We said, how do people use this product? One thing became clear: The person receiving the plane as a gift [for personal use] is out there having fun with it, and he doesn't care as long as it meets FAA regulations and it's available when he wants it. The guy who is using it for revenue-generating options, say, an air taxi, will have much different needs, like making sure costs are under control. We can design new services, like the managing of airline logs, vs. doing just the traditional services of managing the engine for the managing-the-engine guy. If we didn't understand those different needs, we'd be leaving money on the table. I see design as a philosophy that people learn in order to understand how products are used...all those aspects of the customer experience.

By Sameer Agrawal, as told to Jessi Hempel

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