Design thinking, agile methodologies, & lean startups: A talk with Professor Manuel López Martín de Blas

In our second term at HST, the Master in Digital Marketing class had the opportunity to build a startup from scratch in a class called Be Agile and Deliver High-Impact Innovation. I confessed early on that terms like “design thinking,” “agile methodologies,” and “lean startup” felt a bit like business-world buzzwords. But eight weeks later, my mindset was changed.

Our professor had a unique teaching approach—phones and laptops were prohibited, and half of your final grade was based on your individual added-value participation in class. The other half came down to the quality of your team’s final pitch: a pitch for the startup we were meant to develop to completion in just eight weeks. 

We took a classmate’s problem, used design thinking to come up with potential solutions, agile methodologies to continually adapt, and lean startup principles to ensure we consistently had a Minimum Viable Product and a path to success and growth. 

A woman on my team felt anxious about the job search—prepared, academics-wise, but unsure of which companies she could see herself in at a personal level. This problem was the root of our startup idea, and we ultimately developed a company that aimed to close that uncertainty gap for the benefit of two parties: 1) the hiring manager, who wants to ensure that they hire a cultural fit, and 2) the job seeker, who is looking for a company that they’ll feel happy at, aside from the technical day-to-day.

I sat down with the professor of our course, Manuel López Martín de Blas, to get some insight into his teachings, and to better understand the approach. Check out some of his answers to my questions below.

Can you give us a bit of an overview of your course—what were your main goals for your students?

What I try to bring to the table is innovative ways of thinking. I try to take students out of their comfort zones using agile methodologies, using design thinking, using lean startup. The methodologies are very in-trend, so having these skills will help students. But they very well might change in the future, too, so the core of what I want is to bring you to a new level of how you approach problems, how you approach ideas, how you share ideas, and how you come up with solutions.

And in the end, it’s you. I share ideas, but the key component of my class is the students. You are the ones that make my class successful or not. 

Technology is at the forefront of every business conversation today, but you often said that succeeding in this environment still boils down to leadership, new ways of thinking, and simply, people. How come?

Based on my professional experience, what I have seen is that a company focusing on technology to make change is a company focusing on what’s easier. Technology is a binary—you use it or you don’t. And technology evolves. 

But what’s much more important is that people can evolve even faster to understand what’s needed. Tech is simply a way to achieve what companies and business models and new ways of working need. 

Companies looking at technology to change culture, to change how they are holistically, are companies that might not know how to change things. And this is one of the few negative aspects of technology. Technology is allowing us to do things like lay people off, but for me, it should rather enable companies to build completely new business models, and for that, people come first—new ways of thinking, new culture. And once you have that decided, once you start with people, you can then decide what technology is needed. 

Throughout the course you challenged our assumptions and questioned our definitions of words we use every day, like «team» and «innovation.» What makes a good team? And what really is innovation?

When people talk about teams, they’re talking about a group. But what makes a group of people have common goals? To want to achieve things together?

What makes mankind, mankind—the evolution—was being able to create societies based on collaboration.

It’s like innovation. When you ask people what innovation is, they usually define it using the same word. But I think that innovation is to do something that we’ve perhaps done as humans for the past 40,000 years—the question is simply how can we achieve a better state, either incrementally, or in a disruptive way?

On the business side, how can we come up with the new ideas to make your business model feasible? On the personal side, how can we create new mindsets that make us better people? On the societal side, how can we implement new ideas to make society better? For me, innovation is simply doing things in a better way. It’s not always new—what’s new is the pace at which we transform. You often get rewarded with money, or with reputation, but innovation is not new. 

50,000 years ago, we were living in caves. 10,000 years ago, in Europe at least, we were still living in caves. Now, we launch rockets to the moon. And this has been by bringing new ideas to our teams, to our societies, and at a faster pace. But progress has existed as long as humans have. 

I gave this quote in class by Marie Antoinette: “Nothing is new, only what we have forgotten.” We all think our generations are unique, and yes, they are, but we can’t forget that innovation has been here forever. Doing things better has existed forever.

The challenge is navigating this new wave of tech, these new business models, knowing everything about everybody in one second—how can we, as humans, adapt to that?

In your course, we built entire startups from the ground up based on some of our classmates’ everyday problems. What made you decide that this entrepreneurial approach was best in teaching us concepts like design thinking, lean principles, and agile methodologies?

Traditionally, there are two schools of thought: 1) the Socratic method, where I’m the professor, and as professor, I simply tell you what you need to learn, and 2) learning by doing.

The problem with number 1 is that people disengage. So I go with number 2, but I always try to adapt to the audience I have. When you do something, you learn how to do that thing, but when you read something, you’ll probably forget. That’s the reason I prefer to bring a practical approach to things that by definition are practical, that are problem-resolution, like creating a startup.

You told us that 3 out of 4 of your startup ideas failed—what was it that really clicked on the 4th project? What went wrong with the first 3?

I’ve thought about this myself a lot. And at the very beginning I blamed my ecosystem—wrong timing, wrong team, etc. But at the end, it was none of those things. It was that I always thought I was right, and I didn’t listen. 

If anyone ever told me that I didn’t have the right components, I listened to my inner voice instead. I was the one who was supposedly right. And this is what happens to about 70% of startups: failure.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re normally an individualist by nature, because it’s your idea. And because it’s your idea, you create barriers to enrich your idea and to push other ideas away, and when people provide criticism or give feedback, we think they’re attacking us.

So I didn’t listen. But on the 4th one—the only one that’s been successful so far—I listened. I listened a lot. This was my self-assessment. I said, Manuel, you failed because you didn’t listen, because you have a big ego. And when I finally listened to people who knew more than I did, as well as to people who knew less than I did, I was successful. For once in my life, it was about active listening.

Let’s say a new entry-level position just opened up at your company. What qualities are you most looking for in a candidate?

Let’s say I want an accountant. It should be a given that this person knows accounting—they aren’t here to learn the basics. They can do them already. But this is only about 30%.

The 70% is this: is this person able to collaborate with people? Are they able to listen? To understand and assess sophisticated situations? Are they able to show empathy for others? Can they lead by example? Can they be creative?

You could say an accountant and creativity is an oxymoron, but it’s not. Everyone has the capacity to be creative. You can be creative assembling furniture. These capabilities that all humans have, but that many are afraid to show, are what I’m looking for. I look more into soft skills than hard skills. The hard skills are a given. How will you prove that you’ll progress throughout your future?

Any final words of wisdom?

I share experiences, but the “words of wisdom” I can give will come from knowing that when pursuing a master’s degree at HST, you’re doing so to better your future. These are my three tips:

  1. Really think about what a better future looks like for you. People often say they’d love to work in strategy, for a big consultancy, for a top 5, etc. But think about if this future fits with who you are and what you want to be. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I think that with only one life to live, we have to be careful about the decisions we make, because once we make them, we can of course change course, but time has passed. And that’s not something you can recover.
  2. Failure doesn’t matter. Force yourself to fail—I said this in class as well, but I’ve probably failed about 50% of my personal and professional assignments. But I learned. So the next time I fail, it will be in something new, but not something I’ve already learned. There is always something new to learn. And sometimes failure is what it takes to learn.
  3. Don’t ever think you’re the smartest person in your class, in your company, etc. Be humble. Understand who you are, your weakness and your strengths, and become an informal leader in your company—somebody that people look towards, not somebody that people fear. 

At the end of the day, it’s about making the best decisions you can, and learning from your mistakes.


Manuel López Martín de Blas is a seasoned IT and digital leader who’s passionate about transformation and innovation. He has a Master in Economy and Business Administration from UAM University in Madrid as well as an Executive MBA from IE Business School, and his experience lies in various business sectors (high tech, retail, manufacturing, pharma, IT, etc.). Manuel has led transformation programs in global companies as well as mid-size enterprises, encompassing organizational and cultural change, processes design, and tech implementation. Manuel has extensive international experience in Europe, the US, Latin America, the Middle East, and China. Connect with him here.

eddie headshotThis interview was conducted and written by Eddie Carrillo, who is from San Diego, California. He got his bachelor’s degree in economics from UC San Diego and is now pursuing the Master in Digital Marketing at IE HST. He’s a marathon runner, a writer, and spends a lot of time listening to music. Connect with him on Instagram, LinkedIn, or via email.