Even Fred Astaire would have agreed as much as anyone, that the weekend spent in Half Moon Bay for this past week's 2013 Big Ideas Festival was nothing short of spectacular. Just around 150 educators, business owners, teachers, designers, and even architects came together at the opulent Ritz Carleton Half Moon Bay to apply many of the principles of design thinking to problems in education.
Over the course of three days, and in between lightning talks from inspiring speakers, we broke into various small groups - or Action Collabs - where we began the experience of using a design thinking approach crafted by ISKME, the festival organizer. The Action Collab approach weaves together many of the fundamental tenets of design thinking with some of the core attributes of improvisation. As we worked to explore problems and issues in a particular facet of education, no idea was "wrong," too "out there," or even too "big." In fact, we were encouraged to think big and share whatever thoughts we possibly can to inspire imagination, empathy, and hopefully new and innovative outcomes.
To say that in the three days we made any great strides in solving the myriad problems facing educators or have any better plans to tackle the disparities in education would be mostly wishful thinking. While there were some brilliant ideas and prototypes for programs, products, and activities that could certainly be applied to a variety of problems, I gathered that the entire point of the Big Ideas Festival is to encourage a change in perspective on behalf of those in positions to make change and inspire a radical shift in how we go about working with others to address challenges. Too often, it seems, we find ourselves in situations where we're asked to create some sort of a solution - to solve a problem for someone or on behalf of some initiative. Most times, we do some basic research, brainstorm some possible solutions, conduct an assessment of the resources we have to generate a viable outcome, and we get right down to business creating the solution. How often, however, do these solutions actually work? How frequently do we find ourselves and our organizations back at the drawing board just months later coming up with yet another fix?
Big Ideas Festival and the Action Collab approach taught me that the method we use to design and fashion and implement solutions is why many of our "solutions" - despite our best intentions - tend to fail. It's not that we are not smart people or that the ideas we have are not brilliant; but that we tend to go about designing and crafting solutions without a solid framework for truly capturing meaningful user insights and provoking out-of-the-box thinking. Until we adopt a human-centered design approach that looks closely at the needs and the actual problems real people face - and get to know the people the solution affects - we'll always be designing based on assumptions and ideals. What is more, until we learn how to collaborate with others on our teams to create cohesive channels of idea sharing and positive reinforcement, we may close ourselves off to amazing possibilities. Until we learn to design, build, and test (and then design again, and build again, and test again), we may, in growing attached to a particular concept, prevent ourselves from actually truly innovating and refining. It's little lessons like these that stick with me and make me realize that if we want to have sustainable plan we need a more careful and considerate approach to designing it.
Design thinking is certainly a hot topic in a variety of professional fields. While companies like Ideo and frog design have developed and honed the process for decades (in the process creating some of the most widely recognized and used products and consumer experiences on earth) the approach is only slowly making its way into the education space. The big question for those of us who work in education: Can design thinking be applied in our contexts? Is the current system that educators, teachers, policymakers, and other tied into the education space work in simply too bureaucratic, too big, too rigid to change and adopt this approach? Or is there a way to help these organizations become more nimble and apply some of the basic principles that have worked to create such lasting impact in our consumer space? What needs to change for it to work? I just keep coming back to the wisdom of Karl Weick and say to myself that it's best to remember that big gains may best happen via small wins.
As the memory of the festival slowly fades and the tasks and responsibilities of work and life come back into focus, I am sure a lot of us are asking that very question: how do I bring this back to where I work and how I live? How do I help inspire others in the way that I have been? How might we change our organizations and efforts in them to be more effective and sustainable? It's tempting to simply say, "see you next year." However, it's clear that there is no better time than now to get going on gathering ideas, imagining possibilities, making models, and thinking through a plan to either teach our teams about what we might do different or to simply get our feet wet and try it on some of the smallest of tasks and challenges we face in our daily work.