Design Thinking for Higher Ed

You may be too tired these days to think about innovation or new ideas. You may be exhausted from the upheaval of life in the past three years. You may be overworked because your colleagues have taken flight in the Great Resignation. You may be tired from trying to find and recruit their replacements. You likely are giving energy to considering what you should keep of all the pivoting you have been doing; and you wonder what normal even looked or looks like today. We get it. Change is exhausting. Still we hope you are regaining the strength to use your creativity muscles again. With that hope in mind, it’s likely a good time to talk about how you can power up to see a bright future.

In the fall of 2021, I enrolled in Bay Path University’s Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Structure (HELOS) doctoral program. I figured that at age 68, I was finally ripe enough to dive into my lifelong goal of earning an Ed.D. or Ph.D. Though I’ve had occasions where I almost took the leap, life was interrupted with one thing or another and I put my goal off. At last, I am in the throes of deep study toward my degree. And I am loving it. For the record, I recommend the program. I wouldn’t say that every moment has been sensational, but certainly the vast majority of them are. The structure of the program—your classes and dissertation run in tandem so at the end of three years, you are done with everything—and the content are captivating. I wish I had tackled this 30 years ago, but I may be enjoying it more now as I have more time—and maturity—to relish the experience (voluminous reading and writing).

I’m in a course right now called Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovative Practice that is right up my alley. I’m learning a ton despite having practiced the course title for more than 40 years. This week we have been studying design thinking principles and its application to higher education. I have had opportunity to consider RHB’s practices in this arena in greater depth. We’ve considered ourselves design thinkers for many years. Though design thinking has its roots in the 50s and 60s ( Simon, 1969 ) and came to concept in the 70s, when IDEO brought design thinking forward in 1991 (the same year RHB was founded), the industry buzz naturally attracted our attention and we began to adopt the concepts and processes of design thinking as our path to problem-solving. 

Being the creative types we are, we fashioned our own version of design thinking strategy. At RHB we have developed our i-i-i-i (pronounced “ay-yi-yi-yi”!) process. We begin with solid data garnered from our Three Satellites research strategy (What is true about us? What do we say is true about us? What do others believe to be true about us?) The Input (our first “i”) of this data is presented and accessible to our entire team—consultants, writers, designers, developers and others who may be called upon to implement a solution. Our work to this point parallels the first step of design thinking: Empathy. Our first task is to understand our audience, to get inside their head and skin, to walk in their shoes, to feel their joy…and their pain. We have several ways to engage with our clients to accomplish empathy, one of our most “famous” is Circles of Influence. We are most fortunate to have an anthropologist, Dr. Aimee Hosemann, as our director of qualitative research. Aimee brings a natural empathy to interviews and investigations that our clients feel. She “gets” people and places with her skill. Yet all of us come to clients with that same intention of deeply understanding before we begin defining or solving problems. Empathy is the powerful first step of design thinking. Until you have it, you likely shouldn’t proceed.

We host an Ignition meeting, our second “i,” that allows everyone access to the qualitative and quantitative data we have gathered to clearly define the problem at hand (the second phase of design thinking). Having invested in the experience of our clients allows us to discover core problems, not just surface issues. Heiftetz et al. ( 2009 ) differentiates between technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges require no new learning and can be readily managed. Think of a scheduling problem for your team as an example. It’s a problem, perhaps, but nothing that a great project manager and some decent software can’t handle. An adaptive challenge on the other hand requires new learning and most often involves many stakeholders. Design thinking offers a problem-solving path for adaptive challenges and those are the types of assignments we take on with our clients. Our Ignition meeting serves as the spark to both precisely define the adaptive challenge and a free-thinking conversation about directions we might pursue to solve it. At this early ideation stage (the third phase of design thinking), all ideas are considered and little evaluation comes into play. We keep the wheels turning by using affirmative words like “yes” rather than “no” and “and” instead of “but.” This Ignition meeting is a type of creative briefing where we address the essential facts that will lead us to the right creative choices.

Why is it important to know the phases of design thinking? You can benefit from following these steps in solving problems on your campus. You and your team can use the principles to more fully understand your audiences, better identify and define your real problems, consider bigger and more effective solutions, and discover how your perceptions align with customer responses to your solutions. 

It’s fun to ideate and brainstorm (well, mostly it is; I’ve been in some truly dreadful brainstorming sessions). When there’s a problem ahead, you and members of your team likely light up at being able to exercise your creative muscles. But adaptive change is much more than an “idea party.” Disciplining yourself and your skills to develop empathy, to specify a real problem (not a superficial concern), to discern viable solutions and test them for effectiveness takes the investment of your will and your time. It’s an investment that will pay bigger dividends than you may have previously thought or experienced. 

RHB continues our i-i-i-i process by allowing for a period of Incubation following the Ignition meeting. Giving the creative team time to percolate on the ideas generated in the Ignition meeting promotes the critical thinking that allows the best ideas to rise to the top. This week I was reading Elaine Dundon’s The Seeds of Innovation ( 2002 ). She writes about the importance of calmness and a clear mind for innovative thinking, so we allow time for that as best we can based on the delivery schedule. Sometimes the Incubation period is a matter of hours; other times it can last a couple of weeks, depending on the scope of the assignment. Regardless, the result is always an Inspiration, the coherent solution that will be implemented. At the point we arrive at potential solutions, we prototype (design thinking phase four) and test (design thinking phase five). 

We encourage you to engage your team in design thinking processes. Here are a few resources for an introduction if you are unfamiliar with the idea and are a Harvard Business Review subscriber (and if you are not, you should be):

Fun fact: Before joining RHB full time in May 2022, Ken Anselment, our Vice President for Enrollment Management, taught the Designing Your Life course (based on the class and book by Stanford University professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans) at Lawrence University. You may wish to check out that book or better, a workshop with your team on your campus with Ken.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.