University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

The McMillon Studio is Advancing Product Management Knowledge

McMillon students
March 11, 2022  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insight articles on product management. To learn more about what product management is (and what it’s not), read Part 1 in the series. Part 2 covers the qualifications and path to a career in product management.

The McMillon Innovation Studio at the University of Arkansas challenges students to look for the needs in the marketplace and create solutions that address those needs. So, it only makes sense that the studio itself should do the same thing and evolve to meet the demands of the innovators it serves.

The latest innovation by the studio, led by director Justin Urso, is to help students take the next logical step after developing a viable product. That step involves taking products to market, which provides some much-needed experience for students who are interested in the high-demand field of product management.

The McMillon Studio has become well-known for its cross-disciplinary design teams. Students from engineering, business, and other disciplines work together and with industry mentors for a semester to develop prototyped solutions to real-world problems using the human-centered design approach to innovation.

“Human-centered design is about understanding people and their needs,” Urso said. “You start with a problem and go through a customer discovery process, which is important because you understand what your users are looking for. This is the ‘empathy’ part of our process. You understand what people need. Then you go through an exercise of ideating a solution, prototyping it, and testing it. That whole flywheel goes several times to get you to the right result.”

The teams work on industry problems, challenges that can have a social impact, or entrepreneurial ideas, and then they present their results at the end of the semester during a demo day. More than 50 percent of the teams typically come up with commercially viable products, Urso said, so the studio saw that as the perfect opportunity to add product teams that can move those ideas forward.

Much of what these teams do mirrors product management in the corporate world.

“We’re teaching them about lean business modeling, agile methodology, product management, and go-to market strategy,” said Urso, who became the studio’s director in 2021. “I’m also bringing in two facilitators who are product managers, one from Walmart and the other from Drip in Minneapolis. We’re bringing in engineers and product managers and teaching students how to work together. They’re going to learn how to listen, communicate, problem solve, and work with engineers.”

The studio’s first product teams launched earlier this year and will also take part in the end-of-the-semester demonstration day, Urso said.

The next step, he said, is to establish product management internships for the students. The practical experience along with the business acumen learned from both the studio and from the classroom will give these students a leg up when it comes to landing the high-paying jobs in product management.

“What’s great about the studio is you have design teams, but they are run by a project leader,” Urso said. “It’s a paid position, and they are learning the skills to manage that team of usually five people. On that team there’s usually an engineer. So, they’re essentially doing the role of a product manager within the design team.

“If they show commercialization opportunity, they move into product teams. Then they are really managing that product. That moves them into that field. Then if we take that up one more time with an internship inside an organization, those students are getting the experience they need. They will have the skills coming straight out of the university.”

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Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.