Good evening, I hope this finds you well. Only a few days left in this school year, so congratulations on making it through the most challenging school year ever! Now you know you can do ANYTHING!

I wrote in the last Coaching Letter about some of the work I’ve been doing to prepare for the Acceleration NIC that launches in a couple of weeks. This CL is also about that work, although it is also a stand-alone piece, and actually more closely related to Coaching Letter #102 from about 18 months ago. The topic is design thinking. We (the team working on planning the kick-off of the NIC on June 21) have been drawing heavily on design thinking, so I’ve been going through a lot of resources, some of which I haven’t looked at for a while, so that’s what I’m sharing here.

Design thinking is best described as a technology—a set of tools used to accomplish a particular goal. But it also a practice, in the same way that teaching and coaching are practices. And it is also a mindset, or a stance, which turns out to be a large part of its power and a major part of why it works—as Henry Ford said, whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right. The goal is to produce a better outcome for the user as a result of having followed the process.

Design thinking has many variations; this one is typical, and includes these phases:

  1. Empathy, which is different from sympathy. It’s asking you to set aside your own assumptions and mental models about how the world works and what people need, and instead to walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak. It is related to ethnography. In some of the examples I’ve read about, the designer has gone to extraordinary lengths to understand the problem from the user’s point of view – living homeless for a period of weeks, using splints and weights to change the body to be more like an elderly person. My husband used to teach an urban design course which involved students’ having to navigate their way to key buildings on campus in a wheelchair, and to report what they experienced.
  2. Defining the problem. What this looks like can vary a lot. The basic idea is that you spend time going through the data you have collected and generate a statement that sums up the problem. And generally, the problem should be framed not as a goal (“100% of buildings on campus must be wheelchair-accessible”) or as a solution in disguise (the problem is that most students who use wheelchairs don’t own power-assisted wheelchairs), but as a human problem (the problem is that students who use wheelchairs find the experience of moving around campus taxing, time-consuming, and frustrating). Because it is possible to reach the goal and not solve the problem.
  3. Ideation. Generating options is harder than it sounds. When I’m coaching, I will frequently say, “well, you could always do nothing,” as a way to get the ball rolling. Everyone has heard of brainstorming, but even that is not straightforward; I recommend this article if you don’t already know what I mean. And there are other methods: see this list (Worst Possible Idea is one of my favorites: you could flatten all the buildings, you could turn all the steps into elevators, you could make all the wheelchairs nuclear-powered, you could get rid of all the pedestrians).The trick, again, is not to move to a solution too quickly. The goal is to generate the greatest number of options, not to settle for one that will work.
  4. Prototyping. From among the many options, you chose one to try. If you were building a physical product, the prototype would be a real thing. In the realm of social processes, we talk of pilots. Prototyping represents an investment in a particular option, so even though you hear stories of Edison building 10,000 lightbulbs before one worked, it can be difficult to let go of the concept that the prototype represents.
  5. Implementation. Even though you are implementing, you are not done. You are simply back at the beginning.

Design thinking embraces several Big Ideas—tenets, or principles. Here are a few:

  1. Centering the user experience—AKA human-centered. If you want to spend a fun few minutes, you can search for #ux on Twitter—lots of stories of good and bad user experience. This is what the Empathy phase is designed to get at—what problems the user faces that the design process might solve, or how the user experience might be improved by the application of design principles. I can give lots of examples of this, although I’m sorry I can’t always tell you where I learned them. For example, one of the things that makes hospital stays miserable is being woken up in the middle of the night to be given medication; solving that problem makes the patient’s life better, and also improves patient outcomes, and therefore also saves money. Learning to Improve includes the story of design thinking being applied to mops, leading to the invention of the Swiffer. The most recent Marshall Memo has a summary of a chapter from a book called What If I’m Wrong?, which is ostensibly about correcting WYSIWTI (a kind of cognitive bias that I have written about under the guise of how important it is for leaders to seek out feedback) but provides some really useful examples of how to collect data about user experience, including focus groups, audits and surveys done in creative and fun ways.
  2. Embracing wicked problems. Somewhere along the line, design thinking became more than a process for creating a better mop; it became a process for engaging social problems as well. Latterly, it has also become a frame for self-help, which is really what David Kelley’s book Designing Your Life is. Human problems are prone to be wicked problems. A wicked problem is resistant to solution because it is hard to define, intertwined with other problems (is homelessness a result of poverty, mental illness, maladaptive behavior, capitalism, failure of social safety nets, addiction, or something else entirely?), difficult to measure, emergent, adaptive, and there are no known complete solutions. Indeed, a good solution to a wicked problem may not actually solve it, only mitigate it.
  3. Avoiding solutionitis. This is a term from Learning to Improve, indicating becoming overly invested in one potential solution. It’s a problem because it constricts thinking, relies on already existing mental models, and fails to take into account the perceptions and needs of others especially, but not exclusively, others. It’s a close cousin of “the way you see the problem is the problem”, which I wrote about here and here.
  4. Separating out divergent from convergent thinking. Opening up the problem space, or generating options, involves divergent thinking. You are seeking to be expansive, creative, and oriented towards what is possible rather than what is practical. Remember that creativity is not the same as being artistic—creativity is about changing the parameters, “thinking outside the box”, and challenging assumptions. It is a skill, not a talent.
  5. Learning from failure. OK, that’s a Coaching Letter all by itself—in fact, learning from failure, and its close cousin, psychological safety, have appeared in many CLs.
  6. Trusting the process.

The d.School website is delightful (watch how it responds to your cursor!) but a bit infuriating – which is ironic given what they preach about the user experience. But it does have useful stuff, such as a template for designing meetings (which maps to the way we plan meetings at the Center) plus an accompanying guide. You can also take the’s introductory course on design.

My favorite website for information and resources regarding design thinking is the Austin Center for Design. They make available a whole toolbox of tools via a set of Worksheets and a well-curated set of PowerPoints. In addition, the founder of the AC4D, Jon Kolko, has written several books on design, including Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love, and Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, which you can download or buy in hard copy.

You can download from the IDEO website The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (or you can buy the hard copy).

Not all books about design thinking have “Design Thinking” in the title, or use that terminology, or even have design thinking as their explicit conceptual framework, but are about design thinking nevertheless. They include some of my favorite resources, such as Appreciative Inquiry (which is a very heavy book but the approach is summarized here), Developmental Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton (every project should have a developmental evaluator—they bring a perspective and a skillset that is incredibly valuable), and The World Café, by Juanita Brown.

I had a moment of insight last Friday during another planning session regarding how closely design thinking maps onto coaching—or at least, our version of coaching. For example:

  • Coaching emphasizes not the user experience, but the equivalent, which is the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of the other people implicated in the issue at hand. We use the construct of the ladder of inference to encourage clients to not make assumptions about the thoughts, ideas, behaviors, motivations and assumptions of other people, and we are always asking, “how do you know?”, “how might you find out?”, “what else could be going on?”
  • This same set of questions gets at defining the problem because coaching doesn’t assume that the problem is clear-cut or even easily knowable. We are always asking questions like: “how do you know that’s the issue?”, because we know that humans tend to think of problems as solutions in disguise (“the problem is that we don’t have enough counselors” is not actually the problem; it’s a solution in disguise)
  • Coaching is very much goal oriented, but does not go quickly to solutions. Instead, we ask lots of questions about options. We call this “opening up the problem space.” And the major question is: “What else?” The goal is to get as many options on the table as possible, and to not dismiss any of them too quickly.
  • Coaching is also very future-oriented and optimistic: What do you hope is going to happen? What would success look like? What is the future you intend to create?

Yet another arrow in my quiver of arguments as to why everyone should have coaching training: it will make you a better designer! And it will help you help others design a strategy for improvement.

One of the gifts of writing this Coaching Letter is that I go a couple of steps beyond where I might otherwise stop in order to feel like I have shared with you the most useful things, but also entertaining and interesting things. And frequently that means I go to the TED website, because I can hear Michael in my ear, and sometimes that’s a dud but sometimes it turns up a real gem. This time, I went to TED and typed in “design thinking” and, unsurprisingly, came up with a list of 473 talks. But I noticed that a couple of them were by David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, and one of them is indeed a real gem: How to Build Your Creative Confidence. He doesn’t really talk about design, but he does talk about Albert Bandura (my favorite psychologist), his cancer diagnosis, and his quest to help everyone think of themselves as creative. It’s worth watching.

And in the end, for the purposes of the Acceleration NIC, we are drawn to the work of Jeanne Liedtka who, in the words of her website: “explores how design thinking can be used to enrich our ability to create inclusive strategic conversations about organizational futures.” What could be better? The design process described in her book, Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers, is based on four questions:

  • What is? Exploring the current reality
  • What if? Envisioning alternative futures
  • What wows? Deciding what stands out and what to let go
  • What works? Realizing the design

I have big hopes for the Acceleration NIC, but also for the potential of design thinking to continue to shape the work that districts do to improve outcomes for students—for example, I’d love to apply this process to changing the way students are graded. I’ll keep you posted. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter

Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge

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