Design-Thinking In Business – Interview with Etienne Mostert

With the release of the 2016 Design In Tech Report, U.S. business schools revealed a major influence from design and creative thinking. After listening to a ventured podcast, we were inspired to find out more about this landscape from a local context. We interviewed Etienne Mostert business development manager at UCT Graduate School of Business about his thoughts on design thinking in business.


Give us some background into where your career started, and what inspired you to do your MBA.

My career started working for a branding and design agency. But that wasn’t the original plan, I actually studied industrial design and I think that’s where my passion for design thinking came about and understanding what tools designers use and how that can be translated into business so I started in a brand and design agency working on strategy and account management. I think what I found is I was strong on the conceptual skills and on the creative side of things but I really wanted to bolster my business skills and that is mostly the reason for doing an MBA. After the MBA I realized there was a lot more to it it’s not just about business and not just about the hard skills and it’s actually more of social science and it really worked well with my way of thinking.

Does being in the business world still challenge you in that creative thinking space?

Ja, it does. I mean creative thinking is really misunderstood. I think people think if you splash some colourful elements around the office or try something totally different that’s creative thinking. But actually, humans are built for creative thinking. They face challenges and they have to innovate. Once you stop innovating you stop surviving.

How much of an influence do you think design thinking had on this path?

It’s more the thinking behind design thinking. In essence, it’s taking a challenge and learning your way through it and kind of test and feeling your way through a process that really moves you one step forward in the right direction. I think that that has really been a philosophy in my life and translates into how I want to work. With design thinking in my career, it’s definitely been a constant theme and something that I’ve consciously sorted out. The way it’s worked out it’s actually serendipitous, people who I met, that come across my path maybe ten years ago are actually once again in my life and it’s really down to design thinking and I think it’s something that brought us together and I think it’s the desire to see that style of thinking and that style of working in action.

So working at UCT, have you seen creative problem-solving influence students’ approach to business methods?

In general, there’s been quite a big shift away from seeing business problems as something linear. The sense that I get is that learning to be a manager is more about managing complexity. And when you manage complexity you have to be adaptive, you have to be resilient, you have to be creative and innovative around that. So I think people are realizing very quickly that there are other elements to business than just pure analytical numbers. Numbers are really important and it’s really about working creativity and the analytical side together. But obviously when you want to do something new or you want to compete in a different way creative thinking and innovation is really important.

This culture seems to be influencing business not just from a student perspective but the industry as a whole, Why do you think companies have started recognizing this as a necessary part of their practices?

I think that old-style strategy thinking has been proven that doesn’t work properly. You can’t set your path and just stay fixed on it and the world around you changes and you’re not adapting, that’s what I think businesses are getting into. I think also understanding that the business environment offers a great learning opportunity you can’t separate how humans learn. You can’t say now I’m learning now I’m not when you work and learn together that’s really where you elevate the whole dynamic of your company. I think that’s a whole big part of what’s happening.

There’s been a shift, especially amongst global tech companies from revenue-focused goals to more consumer-centred goals, do you think we’ll ever see the adoption of this model on a more diverse scale and not just by those labelled ‘tech or innovation companies’?

That’s interesting. I think so because I mean the world is automating at a rapid pace, we’re not going backwards. Any job that can be replaced by a computer eventually will be. So I think a big part of innovation and a consumer focus is actually creating meaning for what through what you do in your company and what you do for consumers. Once you’re able to create that meaning and that purposeful connection, that’s really when you start succeeding as a company. I think that’s a good focus, companies are a social invention, they wouldn’t exist otherwise so it’s very much what the consumer wants and what society’s telling you and that is constantly changing. I mean there are certain apps out there, certain products out there that I could never have imagined would have been successful. When I saw, for example, Snapchat, I still don’t really understand that. To me, it makes no sense but obviously, it makes sense to other people out there.

What do you think that thing is that will change that? Obviously, companies need to make money, what will change their mind to serving their customers first?

Ja, I think it’s when their competition starts eating them up and they’re too unable to adapt. It will happen eventually there are very few businesses although there are out there that are extremely stable that is very protected by regulation or their particular business model. But I think that technology is infiltrating so much of our lives that it’s going to happen. There’s a lot of disruption taking place, so eventually, their industry will be impacted and they’ll have to adapt or hopefully they’ll lead the change.

Thanks for your time and insight.

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