Northwestern MSLOC Students Help Motorola Find Solutions

Northwestern MSLOC Students Help Motorola Find Solutions

Hilary DarraghWhen Motorola Solutions, Inc. wanted to reinvent how it trained leaders, the company turned to students in Northwestern University’s Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program for a fresh perspective.

The graduate students spent 10 weeks interviewing more than 30 managers across the company, brainstorming dozens of ideas and testing solutions. Ultimately, the students offered Motorola Solutions Inc. two feasible, easy-to implement strategies.

“We were wowed by their final playbooks,” said Mary Jo Dirkes, a member of Motorola’s Talent Development team.

Each semester, the MSLOC program partners with a company like Motorola Solutions Inc. as part of its “Discovering and Designing Innovation” course, which uses a design-thinking approach to help a sponsoring organization solve a challenging problem.

Students receive a full-fledged experience applying classroom concepts in the real world. The company benefits from the students’ innovative and practical ideas, which are often adopted.

Seven MSLOC students worked on the Motorola Solutions project: Masha Alexander, Hillary Darragh, Jenna Brubaker, Divya Mallangi, Jin Kwan Noh, Michael Schiro and Grace Zeigler.

“Motorola treated us like consultants bringing valuable insights to the table,” said Darragh, a full-time student who is transitioning from non-profit work into human capital and change management consulting. “They really took our ideas seriously. Their willingness to interact and engage was phenomenal and really made the experience.”

The course, taught by MSLOC faculty members Jeff Merrell and Ryan Smerek, uses design thinking, a problem-solving process that’s often used to generate effective and creative solutions.

The students initially collect data through interviews and research. Then they brainstorm and present a wide-array of solutions to the client. Based on the client’s feedback on these proposed solutions, students create a playbook as a final product.

“It can mean pursuing and testing a bunch of ideas when only a few will stick, but it’s less risky and far more effective than producing a full-blown launch that ends up failing,” according to Jenna Brubaker, who worked on the project.

Armed with their main findings -- the need to help managers connect and build their networks and to leverage feedback – the students developed and proposed two robust solutions.

The first included developing a ‘new manager’ learning community to support those transitioning to a leadership role, giving them access to tools and resources.

They also recommended a simple assessment tool based on Motorola’s internal framework for leadership skills to capture feedback.

For Darragh, the design thinking approach has “revolutionized” the way she looks at problems and approaches work in general.

“It’s fascinating to combine organizational change with design thinking,” she said. “Design thinking includes the user in your thought process. It’s very human-centered, and it’s about empathy and understanding the user and experience first.” 

The coursework emphasizes spending the time to collect data and background information to understand the context as richly as possible, Smerek said. “While it might seem inefficient, ultimately the solutions are grounded in what the client wants and needs,” said Smerek, assistant professor of learning and organizational change. “We are working with them along the way, rather than handing over a final deliverable that may be off the mark.”

Brubaker said she loved the real-world aspect of the class. “It’s one thing to learn how design thinking works and can be of value, but it’s another to actually go through the process and come up with some cool ideas that will get tested and used in an organization,” she said.

She also appreciated the team dynamics, collaboration, and the variety of ideas that emerged from the two different groups of students.

“We learned a lot about how to create psychological safety and resolve conflict by talking about issues openly and honestly,” Brubaker said. “It was also great to see how two different teams going through the same process and same discussions with the client could produce different ideas, all of which were appealing in their own right.”

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