Strategic Design MBA Program Uses Design Thinking to Foster Innovation

The landscape of the business world has changed. Companies now require a new framework to approach innovative solutions.

It’s a reality that Philadelphia University is addressing with its Strategic Design MBA, a unique graduate program that prepares students for enhanced professional success by fusing analytical business intelligence with the creative problem-solving skills gained from design thinking.

Two cohorts have now graduated from the program, the first in December 2014 and the second in June 2015. These first ambassadors of the Strategic Design MBA have incorporated knowledge gained in class into real-life scenarios, using their new skills to advance their careers.

“The program and my new skills have allowed me to initiate change within my organization, giving me more of a leadership role and making me more efficient at my work,” said Brady Halligan, a graduate of the program’s second class and director of strategic partnerships and enrollment at The GREEN Program.

Halligan and his business partners started The GREEN Program, an entrepreneurial venture offering short-term educational immersion programs focused on innovative sustainability initiatives, in 2010. Three years later, he enrolled in the Strategic Design MBA program to gain more business acumen. “I needed something unique, not the traditional MBA, something that could help take my business to the next level,” he said.

SDMBA graduate Brady Halligan in class with Program Director Natalie Nixon.

SDMBA graduate Brady Halligan in class with Program Director Natalie Nixon.

Halligan used his capstone project to design a networking event to connect students with emerging local sustainability leaders, which he incorporated into his work at The GREEN Program. “I was able to take what I was learning through the courses and apply it to my work, and I immediately saw results,” he said. “The program has positively impacted my growth as a professional and as a leader.”

PhilaU’s Strategic Design MBA program is filled with hybrid thinkers in fields such as business, finance, design, product development, fashion design and social work who want to enhance their skills to seek opportunities with major corporations, nonprofits or entrepreneurial ventures.

It is an approach that recently was lauded by the influential Harvard Business Review, which in September devoted a cover story on the importance of design thinking as a necessary and valuable skill set for business practice.

“We are at the intersection of creativity and strategy, connecting the best of business school to the best of design school,” said program director Natalie Nixon, who holds a Ph.D. in design management and is a self-described hybrid thinker who synthesizes creative and analytical thoughts processes to arrive at innovative opportunities.

Design thinking is a major tenet of PhilaU’s undergraduate and graduate curricula, as is incorporating real-world problem-solving through intensive industry collaborations. This fall, for example, Strategic Design MBA students worked with IBM on internal branding of their employee philanthropy division, and last spring students partnered with Verizon Communications to design wearable technology devices.

Kristen Dalton, who graduated in June, said the specialized MBA program has “led to new roles and opportunities” at her employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. After completing the program, Dalton was offered a promotion to the position of innovation strategist, which advanced her to a top leadership role. Previously, she served in a communications role for the international management consulting firm.

SDMBA graduate Terri Burch works out a problem on the white board.

SDMBA graduate Terri Burch works out a problem on the white board.

Each new class of approximately 20 students begins in August and completes the program in just under two years, graduating in June. Classes take place Fridays and Saturdays on alternating weekends to accommodate the needs of working professionals.

Terri Burch relocated from Detroit to Philadelphia to join the first cohort of Strategic Design MBA students. Burch said she knew she needed to go back to school to get to the next level in her profession, but she didn’t find a program that excited her until she read about the Strategic Design MBA in The Wall Street Journal.

“I knew I had finally found my graduate program,” Burch said. “I grabbed a conference room to call the admissions director right away to schedule a visit.”

Burch entered the program as a senior analyst at Ally Financial Inc. Since graduating, she works independently as a business design strategist. “Obtaining my SDMBA has allowed me to transition my traditional business career into a more design-driven career in business design and innovation strategy,” she said. “I am now equipped with a set of new and useful design tools, distinguishing my MBA from the rest.”

Natalie Nixon offers 7 rules for improvising at work in a popular TedX talk.

Program director Nixon said the Strategic Design MBA familiarizes students with the ambiguity and complexity of the modern business world by shifting their focus from quantitative metrics to more qualitative research. Students learn to dissect problems, embrace them and work with a diverse group of people to generate solutions through the framework of the design thinking process using the following steps: empathize; define; ideate; prototype; and test.

“Students tell me this program is changing their lives,” Nixon said. “To see a relatively quick confirmation of how this program is affecting their professional and personal growth is really rewarding for me.”

The Strategic Design MBA program has received much acclaim in the business education community, and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, DesignIntelligence, Inside Higher Ed, Philly, and the Philadelphia Business Journal.

For more information on how the Strategic Design MBA can help high-potential professionals be well-positioned for opportunities in corporate, nonprofit and entrepreneurial organizations, click here.

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