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Carroll Connection

“Stagecraft”—the Cutting Edge of Innovation

Dean Andy Boynton

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It. More and more, I am struck by how much that insight applies to management and higher education. Whether we’re launching a new product or rolling out a new academic program, we need to start testing, piloting, and rehearsing as early as possible in the development process. In other words, we’d all do well to learn a little stagecraft, as I describe in a newly published piece for Harvard Business Review.

I don’t think it would be overstating the matter to say that stagecraft is at the vanguard of innovation. The idea behind this approach is to stage the entire customer experience by creating a super-realistic version of a complex product or service before finalizing the design. It’s always an experiment. The purpose is to get real-life reactions from users far sooner than in the conventional product development process. You’re looking for critical insights into the innovation without pouring too many resources into the idea.

My interest in this topic stems in part from my research focusing on human-centered design. I’ve been fortunate to work directly with people at Continuum Innovation, located in Boston’s innovation district in the Seaport. The design firm practices what it calls “deep learning”—observing consumers in action to identify unmet customer needs. Continuum famously used the concept to learn things about floor care that led to the Swiffer mop for Procter & Gamble. Fun fact: in recent years Continuum also played an important role in revitalizing Boston College’s undergraduate core curriculum. The consultants helped our core renewal team use design principles such as empathetic listening, attention to narrative, and prototyping.

I call it “stagecraft” because of my exposure to some other Continuum projects. One example I discuss in the HBR piece is a project for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. The designers used stagecraft to gather very early learning about the future of emergency response management, and in particular how responders will be able to use new technologies such as self-driving ambulances. The deep learning included riding around with Boston area EMTs and staging emergencies in a large project room at Continuum.

At the Carroll School, we draw on elements of stagecraft all the time. It’s different with us because when we pilot a class or program, for example, we’re not just staging an innovation. We’re serving real students. But we carry out the experiment in a way that provides both a valuable academic experience for the students and crucial insights for further development of the innovation.

In this fashion, we’ve developed all of our grad-school innovations in recent years. These include, among others, the Business Analytics concentration in the MBA program (see the profile of Sam Ransbotham in this issue of the Carroll Connection’s grad edition; Scott McDermott’s DNA of Business class, which simulates the competition of six fictional companies over an imaginary eight years; and a brand-new initiative also reported in the current issue—the rolling out of eight online courses this coming fall.

The point is that we don’t adopt ideas just because we like the sound of them. We experiment with them and try to learn key lessons from the experimentation. Our plan always changes and develops along the way, which only confirms that the testing is essential. And yes, failure has to be an option. It’s not much of an experiment if you can’t fail. I think of Jeff Bezos’s comment that Amazon is “the best place in the world to fail,” which I wrote about a year ago. In that spirit, I like to think of the Carroll School as a great place to fail early so as to succeed sooner through experimentation.

Do we stage a few online classes (including two core courses) without any real assurance of how the approach would work for us? You bet. The testing over the past two semesters paved the way for a full slate of online classes that we now know will offer an academic experience as compelling as what our M.B.A. students are used to getting on campus. So Shakespeare was right. All the world, including our little corner of it on the Heights, is indeed a stage.

Andy Boynton ’78, P’13
John and Linda Powers Family Dean
Carroll School of Management