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After 40 years of rapid change, China has reached a pivotal point in its growth trajectory. Across the globe, traditional drivers of economic growth have slowed down, leaving space for innovation and exciting new approaches to define the new economy.

The Chinese government has laid out a wide range of ambitious policy plans to ensure that China successfully manages this transition, and that the country continues to grow and lead. At the core of this will be a new generation of business leaders equipped with the collaborative, creative mindset needed to spearhead path-breaking change.

Tsinghua University, one of China’s top higher education institutions, has always prioritized the cultivation of innovative Chinese talent. In looking to support a new generation of creative leadership, Tsinghua approached IDEO as a partner that understood how to use the principles of design and creativity to tackle some of the world’s most complex challenges. Tsinghua and IDEO jointly created the Lead a Creative China program in January 2018—a year-long creative leadership course aimed at nurturing Chinese C-level executives in the fresh approaches needed to visualize solutions for systemic change in China.

Team members of IDEO and Tsinghua University at the signing ceremony.

The program’s first cohort included over 30 entrepreneurs from 20 different industries. 73 Chinese and foreign experts participated in the teaching of the modules, including former Forbidden City Palace Museum director Shan Jixiang, the father of Japanese industrial design Masayuki Kurokawa, and author of the book "Sprint,” Jake Knapp. As China’s first innovative leadership course with design thinking at its core, the program consisted of six modules: Rediscover Design, Build Design as a Core Competency, Creating the Conditions for Creativity, The Financial Levers for Innovation, Designing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Leading for Tomorrow.

Clockwise, from top left: Founder of IDEO David Kelley sharing his perspectives in how design and creativity can transform organizations and society at d.School in Stanford University; IDEO designer facilitating a workshop on the relationship between design thinking and creative leadership; former Director of Forbidden City Palace Museum Shan Jixiang sharing on innovating a 93-year-old institution; participants visiting one student company's experience store in Shenzhen.

Participants completed the courses throughout the year across nine cities, taking full advantage of holistic, interactive teaching and the opportunity to share their own practical experiences. Their feedback consistently demonstrated how the course had given them fresh approaches to problems their companies faced, whether improving internal communication or viewing the clients they serve from a new perspective.

Liu Feng, the founder of a fast growing tourism development company, gave the example of the six pillars of corporate transformation that are taught in the Creating the Conditions for Creativity module. Using these pillars, he not only refined the mission and value of the company, but also launched a series of measures to improve all aspects of the company’s operations, from customer service to annual company gatherings. With an empowered team, he significantly increased the agility of the organization.

Ting Zhihong, the chairwoman of China’s leading company in logistics technology, managed to double the profit of her company during the course. She said the biggest change that the course gave her was a realization of how important it is to empower the team. Her company has now set up several platforms that give employees more room to experiment, create, and take part in frontline decision making, bringing them closer to the company’s management.

Hu Chao, founder and CEO of China’s largest e-commerce platform for childcare goods, stated that while other executive courses simply teach knowledge, Lead a Creative China taught him the importance of placing people at the center of what your company is doing.

The first cohort of the program graduated in December 2018. Speaking about the one-year journey, Jingwei Wang, former Assistant Dean of the PBC School of Finance, said, “Through our cooperation with IDEO, we not only witnessed the true value that design can bring to business, but also experienced the profound difference of an executive education that is based on the human-centered approach. The participating executives were able to quickly immerse themselves in the course, and many were able to quickly turn concepts into practical measures for their own companies.”

Charles Hayes, Partner at IDEO and one of the principal instigators of this programme presenting the Fast Company Award to partners at Tsinghua University.

On April 8th, 2019, the Lead a Creative China program received an Honorable Mention in the education category as part of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards, becoming the only award-winning Chinese project in the category.

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