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July 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 7

This Year, Lead Like a Designer

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Whether this will be your tenth time kicking off the school year as a leader or your first time, a new school year represents a fresh beginning and an opportunity to approach your work differently. What if you intentionally choose to practice the habits and mindsets of designers as you lead your school?

Leadership
It might look something like the work of Norma Jeanne Ready at Campbell Union School District in Campbell, California. Ready is learning to lead like a designer. As the principal of Campbell's new School of Innovation, opening in the fall, she is swimming in ambiguity and "what if" possibilities. As she builds her team, she asks questions and works to empathize with all future stakeholders. Ready carefully crafts each staff or community meeting to reflect the new school's core beliefs and vision for learning. Rather than create schedules and present a packaged program, she facilitates and guides discussions on student needs. Ready intentionally creates space for her team to design school culture and learning experiences. Although she is surrounded by many who want quick solutions and immediate answers, she takes the time to ask thoughtful questions as she embraces a design-inspired approach to leadership.

Design-inspired vs. Traditional Leadership

In recent years, interest in design thinking has grown among educators because it naturally complements inquiry, project-based learning, collaboration, and problem solving. Increasingly, teachers are training to use design thinking to promote student creativity and problem solving. In fact, you can join a community of teachers having conversations about design thinking in the classroom by using #dtk12chat on Twitter every Wednesday night. While the awareness of design thinking is growing among teachers, less attention has been paid to how leading like a designer can influence both the rate and the types of changes in schools.
There are many versions of the design thinking process. Two of the most common come from the Stanford d.School and IDEO. In their book Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change (2014), Ertel and Solomon note that all processes share the same foundational components of design:
  • Developing a deep understanding of and empathy for users and their needs.
  • Cycling through periods of divergent thinking to explore diverse sources of inspiration.
  • Learning through quick cycles of prototyping, gathering feedback, and making the necessary adaptations.
  • Testing solutions with a small group and only scaling up after they have proved effective in meeting the identified needs.
These foundational components of design run contrary to many established school leadership practices (see Figure 1). Essentially, design-inspired leadership moves the leadership role dramatically away from leader as manager toward leader as designer. Because designers take a user-centered, holistic approach to projects, learning to lead like a designer can bring new perspective to your work—one that's desperately needed in schools embracing the challenges of modern education, such as shifts in demographics, learning environments, and curriculum.

Figure 1. Traditional vs. Design-Inspired Leadership

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The good news is that design-inspired leaders are made, not born, and you can shift your approach by practicing the habits and mindsets outlined under "Design-inspired Leadership" in Figure 1. Which column inspires you more? Which type of leader would you want to work for? More importantly, which type of leader do you want to be?
Although the outcomes of design-inspired leadership can be dramatic, the steps to becoming a design-minded leader don't need to be. While researching the qualities of design-inspired leaders, we identified five roles and mindsets that we think every school leader can easily embrace to positively affect change.

Five New Roles for Leaders

Following is a brief description of each of the five roles and mindsets, along with ideas from the field to start your journey as a design-inspired leader.
Opportunity Seekers • Shift from problem solving to problem finding.
Resist immediate solutions; ask more questions. When a leader faces a problem, we expect them to offer a solution immediately with few questions. For most of the day, our brain processes quickly, guided by past knowledge and experiences. These well-worn neurological patterns help us survive, but these efficient processes can also be roadblocks to change. Think about your "welcome back" staff meeting at the beginning of the school year. Instead of walking in with a complete plan and list of sign-up sheets, make space to discover needs (a.k.a. "need-finding") with your staff. What are they excited about as they start the school year? What priorities do they identify for the year? How do they see the upcoming work aligning with the school's vision? Listen before you offer any solutions to make sure you're solving the right problem.
Experience Architects • Design and curate learning experiences, based on need, that stretch the status quo.
Create an experience that matters. For example, what if we reimagined back-to-school night for parents? Most of these events follow a very familiar format: Welcome back, here are the rules and procedures, take a look at the curriculum. Ho, hum. School principals and teachers have started rethinking the back-to-school night experience. Some teachers offer parents learning activities where parents must collaborate, ask each other questions, and share information about their child as they work to connect with each other and create a learning community. Some principals speak to the parent population—not about rules and procedures, but about what learning looks like and means on their school campus. Back-to-school night can include students by asking them to think about what they'll be learning that year and what goals they'd like to set. A design-inspired approach to back-to-school events changes the traditional, top-down dialogue that can alienate family engagement and agency. Information about rules and procedures can go home in newsletters, so that the face-to-face time becomes more personal and focused on the needs of students.
Rule Breakers • Thoughtfully challenge the way we always do things.
Break a rule! For most of us, the rituals and routines of schools are well-established habits. We don't question them or expect school to be any different than it is—especially when we are talking about changing a system that has produced so many of us. But what if many of these rituals, routines, and rules are actually getting in the way of learning for students? What if they prevent teachers from innovating? We don't encourage rule breaking lightly, but you can look at the obstacles in your way and challenge them using a simple, three-step process:
  1. Identify one simple rule or practice that interferes with learning.
  2. Ask why the rule or practice exists.
  3. Modify the rule or practice to improve learning for students (even if it inconveniences the adults in your building).
For example, at Design 39 School in San Diego, California, bells never disrupt learning. Even body breaks (formerly known as recess) are taken when it makes sense for that group of students. This type of schedule requires much more collaboration among the adults at the school; however, it results in a much better day-to-day learning experience for students.
Producers • Hustle, get things done, create rapid learning cycles for their teams, and take responsibility for shipping a "final" product.
Don't wait. Sometimes we have a great idea over the summer months that we would really like to implement. Perhaps it's a new process for grouping students across grade levels for more personalized learning opportunities that will require some creative scheduling. Often, these ideas never see daylight out of fear that we can't possibly ask our colleagues to consider one more thing at the busy beginning of a school year. What if you created a short cycle of implementation for something new? Establish the need for your idea, and then break it down into small chunks. What is a simple starting point that your school could implement rapidly? What feedback procedures can help you quickly assess if each implementation step succeeds? Breaking down a big idea and then gathering feedback during implementation allows your team to feel part of the design process. They become invested in improving and moving the idea forward. It also shows that you don't have all the answers and are open to their expertise and guidance as they express their needs and share their experiences.
Storytellers • Capture the hearts and minds of a community to amplify the good and create authentic connections.
Sharpen your narrative. What story are you telling? The start of each year is like opening a new book on what learning will look like in your school. The first day of school is the first page of the first chapter. If you focus on schedules, rules, and routines, then your students will discover that compliance is the overarching theme of their learning story for the year. How might you change the narrative on day one, so students leave excited to turn the page? How will you help students define learning so that at the end of the year, their book is not about homework, assignments, test scores, and checking items off a list, but about rich and authentic learning experiences?
One school we worked with reimagined their entire first week of school, focusing on teambuilding and creating a learning culture that gave all students a solid foundation in collaboration and communication skills, so they were ready for the deeper learning experiences ahead. You control your narrative, and you only get one first day of school.

#DT4EduLeaders

As the road to innovation unfolds before you, these five roles can orient your leadership in what is largely uncharted territory. Preparing to launch her first school year at Campbell, Norma Jeanne Ready faces numerous unknowns. But, she reflects, she's learning to embrace this healthy tension and is finding comfort in the strength of her team.
We are at the forefront of the design + education movement. How might you reimagine the beginning of your school year? What experience might you design, what rule might you question, what new opportunity might you discover? Use these five roles to tap into your true potential as a leader, and the true potential of your school to evolve in positive, human-centered ways. We invite you to share your story through Twitter using #DT4EduLeaders.

Alyssa Gallagher co-leads BTS Spark in North America, helping school leaders across the United States and Canada access leadership coaching and professional development. Alyssa combines experience of school leadership and school district administration with expertise in leadership development. She spent 20 years in the U.S. public education K–12 sector, filling many roles, including teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. Under Alyssa’s guidance, Los Altos School District (California) became a nationally recognized leader in educational innovation, and her work was featured on CNN and by Forbes, Wired, The Economist, and 60 Minutes. Alyssa has coauthored two ASCD books: Design Thinking for School Leaders (2018) and Design Thinking in Play (2020).

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