pm@olin: Business & Design (Class 2)

This week was special for me! I had the chance to bring my parents to class to watch me teach. Thanks to my students for allowing that to happen :)


1. Understand the difference between a project and a business.
2. Give students business frameworks to understand the business aspects of their idea, the factors influencing adoption, and the factor’s influencing an industry.
3. Explain the PM’s role in the business process, and figuring out “what” to make.
4. Demonstrate the differences between the PM and Design responsibilities by playing both roles.
5. Discuss different design tools and when they are appropriate.

Optional Readings:

The Lean Startup (Eric Ries)
Crossing the Chasm (Geoffrey Moore)
Porter’s Five Forces (Wikipedia)
How to Work with Designers and How to Work with PMs (Julie Zhou)
PM-Designer Tension (Ellen Chisa)


1. Business Model Canvas Printouts (one per student)
2. Whiteboard & Markers (set up board before class)
3. Blank paper and pens for sketching
4. Hat full of business ideas


As I’ve mentioned before, my students are familiar with basic Engineering/Design concepts. One of the things I didn’t realize early in my career was the importance of all of the aspects of a business. I gravitated more towards neat projects and less towards businesses.

Business Model Canvas (group) — 20 min

The Business Model Canvas is a tool from the book “Business Model Generation.” I haven’t written the book, but have been exposed to the Canvas in a few different contexts. I thought it was a lightweight way to get going.

The model covers a few key areas. It starts in the beginning with “Value Proposition” — or what I think of as being closest to Product. It expands out to cover partners, activities, resources, customer relationships, channels, and segments. The bottom if for cost structure and revenue.

I drew the Canvas on the board before class and we went through it together. I let the students pick the company we discussed, and they chose Airbnb. We filled it in for some of the challenges we brainstormed.


(Disclaimer: I’ve never worked at airbnb, so this isn’t necessarily correct. It was our best attempt at working through the tool so they could get experience).

Porter’s Five Forces and Roger’s Five Factors — 15 min

Next, I gave the students two of the classic business frameworks to consider. I wanted them to think about what would help their Product be adopted, and what other industry challenges they should consider. I’m not going to recap these here because there’s lots of good documentation on them if you aren’t already familiar.


Business Model Canvas (solo) — 35 min

After covering the three business frameworks, students spent time figuring out a business model canvas for their idea. If students did not come prepared with an idea, I had them pull one out of a hat.

They were technically working alone (i.e. not a group project), but the students sat at tables together and were free to discuss and ask each other for input. Some tables chose to do both ideas together.

After, we talked about some of the ideas and what they found useful/surprising as they thought through them from a business angle.

PM/ Designer Division Exercise — 1+ hour (rotate halfway)

The highlight of the class, in my mind, was the Design / PM Exercise.

The students broke into pairs. One student was the “PM” and responsible for communicating what they wanted to build based off their idea and their business model canvas. One student was the designer and responsible for creating wireframes based on the idea.

The intent was to give the students practice with specifying “what” instead of specifying how — and to help teach them how to convey ideas clearly while speaking. The PM wasn’t allowed to specify “I want these views” — instead, they just communicated what they wanted the user to be able to do overall. They also weren’t allowed to give real time feedback — instead the designer worked, and then explained their concept. Finally, the PM was allowed to practice giving feedback and revising the concepts.

After about half an hour most teams had managed to create some wireframes. There was definitely frustration during the process, which was the goal. In most roles, there isn’t such a strict division. I wanted the students to see what a strict division would be.

After half an hour, we discussed how it went, and then students flipped and tried the opposite role for about half an hour. I think it was a bit easier for the second set.


Design Tools — 20 min

We concluded by briefly covering a bunch of tools designers might use, and what’s good at what point in time. I wanted to give students an idea of the breadth of what’s available rather than just teaching them one tool in depth.

Again, I’m not going to list all the tools available here.

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Suggested Notes/Changes:

1. I introduced the Five Forces first and Five Factors second. I’d flip it around — start with adoption and then talk about industry context. I also didn’t introduce the “chasm” concept because I thought they’d know it already. They didn’t, so I should have included that in my original lesson plan — I already added it above.
2. Students didn’t have as much experience as I was hoping in terms of being able to act as designers and PMs. If I did it again, I’d take one group in the hallway and give some specific instructions to create more conflict (i.e. tell the designers to try to make a business call/pricing decision).
3. The idea hat didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. Students weren’t always entirely clear on some of the concepts.
4. It would have been nice to have more time to discuss the design tools, but we ran out of time.
5. This class covered A LOT of content. The students kept pace well, but it’s something to keep in mind.