Successful entrepreneurship in the 21st century isn’t about what you know — it’s about how you think.
One trait shared by today’s top companies is their ability to combine disparate disciplines in new, powerful ways. Steve Jobs, for example, said in 2011 that Apple’s understanding that “technology, married with liberal arts, married with the humanities” is what helped make the iPhone a hit. Likewise, there are many successful tech CEOs who have liberal arts degrees.
Being able to think across disciplines has never been more important, especially at a time when technology is central to everything we do. As the speed and complexity of business increases, companies need more people who can connect the dots between business units and draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources.
“Rarely in history has anything truly complex ever been solved by a single discipline,” argues Erica Muhl, dean of the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, which has put cross-disciplinary thinking at the core of its curriculum. “That’s especially true now.”
Named after the founders of Beats Electronics, the school was established to teach the skills necessary to thrive in a business world that’s increasingly collaborative, complex, and hybridized. Its Master of Science in Integrated Design, Business, and Technology degree, for example, helps students learn how to solve complex problems, adapt to uncertainty, and understand the key issues that sit at the intersection of engineering, business management, and the arts. It’s a departure from the “vertical” learning that’s dominated academia for decades and an embrace of the kind of cross-functional thinking that’s increasingly necessary to thrive in the modern economy.
“Students need to learn how to understand each situation, each problem from multiple perspectives, including multiple human perspectives,” Muhl said. “It’s a central component for succeeding in the 21st century business environment.”
Teamwork is another key pillar of the academy, which understands that there’s a real competitive advantage for students who are able to approach problems in tandem with others. Entrepreneurs who have a collaborative outlook on business “are capable of creating far more effective and innovative ideas, processes, systems, and products,” said Muhl. The school’s programs are designed to both break down the traditional barriers that have defined organizations and to encourage future entrepreneurs to build their businesses without arbitrary barriers between departments.
Just as major corporations are changing, so too are the skills needed for successful entrepreneurship. Muhl argued that today’s startup leaders must be “master dot-connectors” and be able to see the narratives behind their customers’ needs. This is the idea behind design thinking, an empathy-focused problem-solving methodology that puts the end user’s needs front and center. In a world dominated by highly personal technology, an empathy-focused approach to customer service and product design can mean the difference between someone loving your product and dismissing it.
Design thinking has been core to initiatives such as the school’s 2018 partnership with Adidas, in which students were embedded inside the company and asked to concept a new, community-focused marketing strategy for its Copa soccer cleat. It was a chance for them to “live” inside a brand for several weeks and to see how some of the world’s best creatives approach business problems. The program offers a variety of other similar opportunities to work inside large companies.
Transforming the conventional perspectives of both academics and business is at the heart of USC Iovine and Young Academy’s mission, and through embracing innovative, cross-silo approaches to business, the school is bringing a more relevant, more in-demand spirit into the classroom.
“Creating life-long learners is the best thing we can possibly do,” Muhl said. “We want to future-proof our students.”