A s some folks might know, my school has begun an experiment this year that centers around getting diverse groups of people around the same table and taking a good hard look at how we do what we do, all in the hopes of finding cracks (thank you, Mary) where our experience of “school” can be improved. The crack-finding and problem solving tool we’re employing is none other than design thinking – and man, is it tough. Fun and exciting and awesome, yes… and brutal sometimes. In a good way, of course.
Working with Grant Lichtman (and he with Bo Adams), we’ve developed the idea of “Window Teams” (WTs) – populated with faculty, students, administration, parents, and board members – each focused on a certain aspect of the school. (i.e. curriculum, assessment, communication, etc.) Our seven inaugural WTs have been working throughout the school year through the modes of design thinking (mainly Mount Vernon‘s DEEPdt flavor) and I, as the person on staff with the most DTtraining/experience/interest and the one with “innovation” in my job title (Dir of Tech & Innovation), have been guiding the WTs in their explorations.
Recently I was invited to work with the WT that’s focused on leadership. I was excited to see this team’s progress as they had recently kinda started their process over (totally fair game – design thinking is not linear) to focus on improving the experience of leadership for folks participating in WTs – super-meta, right? A total baller move and I was super interested in learning what they discovered.
Team members present that day were our Head of School, Director of Admissions, chair of the Science department, two high school teachers, and a member of our Board of Trustees – lots of leadership represented from different layers of the school. We all entered the meeting happy and excited to move from empathy gathering to some brainstorming and prototyping, getting our hands dirty in the design process – I with my box of Post-Its and Sharpies and they with their oodles of data from user interviews and surveys. Before long, though, the mood had definitely shifted.
The first order of business was to help make the user info visible to all by transposing it from whatever form the team members had been recording it on to Post-Its slapped on a wall up in front of the group. (Though a wall full of Post-Its is a common, perhaps even stereotypical image in design thinking, making thinking visible is an extremely important part of the process.) As the cheerful WT members dove into their data, the picture it was painting wasn’t pretty: while there was much appreciation of the silo-busting WT membership and the idea of working toward creative improvement of the school, people were frustrated with much of the process. Hardly any aspect of the experiment escaped criticism. Of course, as WT members themselves, the members of the leadership WT had also felt these frustrations and as they read out their users’ thoughts and feelings, their mirror neurons were firing on all cylinders. The positive energy they’d started the meeting with was gone 20 minutes in.
The 1.5 hour meeting stretched into 3 hours. It was emotionally painful, with all of us drowning in the complexity of the problem and ready to throw in the towel at several points. They pushed on, though, to their credit, and ended on a hopeful note, though right then I wouldn’t have called it a positive experience. I, too, felt the frustration, the discomfort, and left feeling not-quite victorious.
Driving home, my brain wouldn’t let go of trying to figure out what happened and how I, as the WT’s design thinking guide, could have helped them keep it positive. Then it hit me: though the meeting was tense at times and uncomfortable at best, IT WAS ALSO COMPLETELY NECESSARY. Upon reflection, I realized that the team needed to go there because THAT’S EXACTLY WHERE THEIR USERS WERE. Designers need true empathy in order to really understand the human experience of their users and that’s exactly what happened in that meeting. As uncomfortable as it was, it was just about perfect for design and helped them come to the best HMW (“How might we…” – the generally expected framing for a challenge to move design thinkers from observation to action) for their users’ needs.
And that’s the real power of design thinking, I think: its EMPATHY, its ability to bring people together – not just at the brain but at the heart. IT. MAKES. IT. REAL. For me, the design thinking mindset strips away the obstacles to connection and gets real people working with real effort on real improvements for the real experiences of others.
As we approach the end of the first cycle of our Window Team experiment, there’s a lot of thinking and talking about what the next iteration will look like. Nothing has been decided yet, but as long as we stick with design thinking, I’m confident that the real work will continue. If anyone’s interested, here are the slides from when I shared our WT idea and progress at EduCon this past January.