“Which problem do you solve?”

This was the first question posed to the Cass MBA group on the Leading Digital Transformations elective as we began a week in San Francisco and Paolo Alto at the Stanford Design School. Problem-solving was a recurring theme as we met tech giants, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and Cass alumni from the San Francisco area. If you could find a need, and were passionate about finding a solution, the ‘design thinking’ approach taught at Stanford was a fantastic way of achieving your goal. For someone with a pure business background, the most counter-intuitive part of this approach was that even in Silicon Valley, you didn’t need to be a software engineer to succeed – design thinking is a state of mind.

This realisation of being able to make a difference no matter where you came from was greatly helped by the flow of this elective, which allowed us to get under the skin of what innovation in Silicon Valley and San Francisco is all about. My classmates and I attended a pre-travel class in London, Leading Digital Transformation which covered the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of digital transformations. This gave us the foundations for what we were to see in California, where the all important ‘how’ was revealed through company visits and panel discussions.

We were extremely privileged to get access to such prestigious companies and to people who are leading digital transformations from the top of their fields. The business environment in Palo Alto and San Francisco was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, with people being extremely open, honest and direct about their projects and experiences, which maximised the learning experience.

As the week progressed we met with exceptionally successful companies that are leading digital transformations both within themselves and for their clients. The problems they’re solving range from doing a single thing well – such as Intel with microprocessors – to developing a platform and ecosystem of partners to address a problem more holistically – like SAP and its connected car programme – and offering the entire end-to-end value chain both for internal business units and clients, such as at GE Digital. It’s clear this latest digital revolution isn’t about a single technology but an infinite combination of technologies, and is the reason why the business knowledge you gain from the Cass MBA programme allows you understand how these component parts can be combined to innovate.

Cloud computing, telecommunications and the Internet of Things are the core enabling technologies, and they’re being combined with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing and others to solve business problems. The ‘old’ way of doing things, by making something incrementally better, need not now apply as these technologies let business people rapidly experiment with new ways of improving products, processes and services by orders of magnitude.

We saw this in action with Autodesk’s design software and 3D printing and Quid’s neural network search engine – you no longer need a PhD or computer sciences degree to digitally create or run complex analytics, the technologies to innovate and experiment are available to all.

The Silicon Valley Way is About Much More Than Just Technology

Having personally chosen this elective to learn more about how digital technologies are changing the face of business transformation programmes, I feel that I got considerably more out of the experience than just learning about the latest technologies. Starting with the design thinking workshop at Stanford, it set the tone for the whole week. Having panel sessions with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs interspersed with the company visits also gave us the opportunity to really probe and better understand the stories behind the successes. The takeaway for me – and many of my peers – was that if you’re passionate about solving a problem, are willing to openly share your ideas, and be doggedly persistent in your pursuit of success, you will succeed. Which, as Founder and CEO of BootUP Ventures Mukul Agarwal very eloquently said, is a wonderful lesson for life, not just business.

There is no failure… unless you stop

Reflecting on our week in California, it was inspiring to see how people from many different backgrounds and walks of life are succeeding in this latest digital revolution, and that they all share one common trait: they never stopped. By using technology to address problems, quickly prototyping, testing, failing, learning and trying again, it personified the explorer ethos of the Cass MBA programme. When you have an end goal in sight, explore your ecosystem, recombine technologies and test a solution quickly. When you treat problems as learning experiences, you can never fail.