With design thinking, a marketing professor encourages students to try, try some more and remember to work together.
More from Summer 2018
More in Campus News: Alma Matters
Topics: Faculty Q&A, Neeley School of Business
The professor of professional practice in marketing and Neeley School of Business’ 2017-2018 Alumni Professor of the Year is turning heads with her latest project: teaching design thinking, a framework for developing business ideas in a creative, user-focused process.
You are the campus guru when it comes to design thinking, but what exactly is that?
Professor Stacy Landreth Grau said she often revises her courses. Photo by Glen E. Ellman
It’s a framework to solve problems and a framework for creativity. But it’s also a mindset, a design mindset. It includes a tendency toward action, understanding that you’re never going to get something perfect, but just trying something, even if it’s not the best, perfect thing. It’s about embracing experimentation, embracing failure, being OK with failing — which is a huge thing, and a lot of people get really scared about that. But if you can fail, that’s how you learn. If you think about anything that’s been developed, it’s all about, “I may have tried 147 things before I got to the 148th, which works.” Those 147 are not failures. They’re just steps to get you where you are.
And it’s about radical collaboration, or the idea of bringing lots of different people from lots of different areas and all working together. That’s a lot harder than it sounds because you’re having to break silos. So if you’re in business, the engineers and the marketers and the software designers and the scientists all have to work together, and that’s hard because we don’t have a common language. So with design thinking as a common framework, we have a common language
In addition to teaching, you’re working with several companies to redesign their marketing strategies on digital platforms and reformulate their brands for the internet. How is the digital realm shaping the marketing industry?
It’s making everything different, faster, better. If you look at the money shift, it’s been more towards digital and away from traditional advertising. Television is still a big player, but digital is now getting bigger budgets. The rapid pace of technology has been crazy, and things that we were able to do [in marketing] even two years ago are completely different now.
I think you’re going to see more and more money going into digital. You look at magazines, for example. We still have magazines, and they’re still great and people still buy them, but you also see more and more publications going online. I think as digital disrupts their business model, you’re going to see less advertising in the physical aspect.
You had a successful career in marketing before you became a professor. Why the change?
To be able to work with students and make an impact is the biggest thing for me. I’m still in contact with a ton of students. I’ve been here since 2006, and I still have friendships and connections with students. Sometimes it’s just to say hello. Sometimes we connect in business.
When I worked with the Neeley Fellows, we would bring students to New York. We would get to see some of our alumni standing up there in their big businesses. They’re doing these presentations, and I would just be teary because they were so smart and articulate and I loved it. It was really cool.
You received Neeley’s Teaching Innovation award in 2010. Are you continuing to try new things in the classroom?
I’m a tinkerer. I’m not really good with economies of scale when it comes to teaching. Maybe it’s because I get bored, but I’m always revising courses. I’ll see something new or want to try something. Many, many times I have completely torn up a class.
Professor Stacy Landreth Grau teaches the importance of radical collaboration. Photo by Glen E. Ellman
Digital and Social Media Marketing is a great example. I’ve been teaching it since Fall 2010. I created it because back then, students were Facebook-stalking their friends, but that was kind of it. So I went to the department chair and said, “We’ve got this situation. Maybe we should teach them how to use it?” I had no idea what I was doing. I taught myself. In eight years, I’ve torn the class up and started from scratch at least five times. Design thinking was completely created from scratch. I will tear it up this summer and do some different things for fall.
Do you feel like you have to adapt your classroom to a changing business world?
Depending on what the course is, you want to make sure you’re staying up to date with what’s happening. For example, I teach Marketing Communication, which is kind of advertising-esque. One of the things that we talk about is that for a very long time, ad agencies were kind of able to call the shots from a creative perspective. They might have a little competition from consulting companies, but it was more for the technical, back-end stuff. Over the last two years or so, these big consulting companies are bringing it. They are now taking more and more creative work from agencies. As a student you need to understand that.
Do you think students graduating from Neeley have an advantage over graduates from other business schools?
One of the things that’s great about our business school is that a lot of the faculty do try and stay on top of things. I try my hardest to ensure that whatever is being covered is cutting-edge. For example, design thinking: Not a lot of schools have classes like that. Some of my students were interviewing with IBM. They had a conversation about design thinking, and interviewers told them, ‘Wow, I didn’t even realize you guys had that class. That’s really awesome.’ One girl who told me this ended up getting an offer and took it.
Neeley is a great school. We have great career services. You’ll get a job, but my job is to ensure that you keep the job, that you are doing great things with your organization, that you are adding value to the organization from the get-go, that you can speak and write and communicate well, that you know how to work in that environment and then, hopefully, move forward. My job is to make you professional.
— Zach Martino
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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