Leading With Design Thinking

I spent a great deal of time at the end of Term 2 focusing my thoughts on how Design Thinking applies to educational leadership. This is something that we have been doing at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, but a couple of presentations I did in Term 2 meant that I had to clarify my thoughts about what it really meant to lead with Design Thinking.

For me, part of why I find Design Thinking an effective approach to school leadership is captured in this quote:

Design Thinking is a Human-centred process (or mindset) for dealing with open, complex problems. Now, to me, ‘open, complex problems’ sums up education in a nutshell. And the focus on empathy that a Design Thinking approach brings is ideal for focusing on the right question – the cause of issues arising rather than the symptoms.

There are 2 different ways to bring a Design Thinking approach to educational leadership (as there is to applying Design Thinking to any issue). Through a set Design Thinking process or by applying a Design Thinking Mindset. For most people, they are going to need to follow a process to truly understand what it is about.

A quick search online will find many different versions of this Design Thinking process: including IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators, NoTosh, DEEPdt, The dSchool… At their heart, all of these processes cover these main steps:

  • Immersion/Exploration/Discovery
  • Synthesis including a focus on Empathy
  • Ideation – Divergent & Convergent
  • Prototyping for feedback and refinements
  • Sharing/Implementing

Whilst founding Hobsonville Point Secondary School, Di Cavallo led our Specialised Learning Team through these processes as we developed our timetable and learning module structures (see this old post for more detail on this). At the Emerging Leaders Summits recently, I ran a workshop where I led participants through a DT process redesigning staff meetings. This is the type of thing you could use sparingly for a set purpose or (in my opinion, more effectively) as a school wide approach to problem finding and solving.

For incredible help in implementing a school wide approach at your school, you should check out Ewan McIntosh’s book “How to come up with great ideas and actually make them happen.” Reading this book led our Principal Maurie Abraham to redesign strategic planning from 5 year static goals to goals based upon the enabling constraint of How Might We questions. Read more about that on his blog post here.

Once you are comfortable with the Design Thinking process you can start applying a Design Thinking Mindset. The dSchool at Stanford University sees the Design Thinking mindset as comprising these 6 elements:

From my perspective, these elements all overlap in some manner but the 3 most important for leadership are Human-Centred, Radical Collaboration and Culture of Prototyping.

Human Centred is the key to leading with Design Thinking. Actively seeking empathy with those involved in any situation in the school. The obvious situation with this is looking at student experiences and gathering student voice – for example our HPSS Student Council has created a student leadership group on learning that will liaise with staff on designing learning. But there are many others to empathise with in schools as well: teaching staff, non-teaching staff, parents, local community, sports coaches… Some methods that I have found useful personally and seen put to use by others are Empathy Maps and Learning Walks. Staff and students at HPSS are well used to our Principal Maurie walking through the school just observing what is going on and how everyone is feeling.

Radical Collaboration is possibly an uncomfortable change in some schools. The idea of breaking down the siloes can be quite scary for some but I tell you it has been incredibly liberating for us at HPSS. We still have learning area leaders but they are more about quality assurance whilst learning design is run by those with a cross-curricular mindset. We work in cross-curricular offices and ideas created by learning design or advisory teams are often tested for feedback on staff outside of those teams. Co-teaching has been a real eye-opener and quickly become a strength of our school.

A Culture of Prototyping in a school will ensure that Bias Towards Action and Show Don’t Tell are operating as well. Probably better known in leadership as iterative practices, a culture of prototyping means that you test your ideas, gain some feedback then put them into action. This means that you accept the idea may not be perfect yet. You can then learn by doing, gather more feedback and improve the idea/structure. Many of our structures have undergone multiple iterations at HPSS. For example, next term is our 6th term with students and will be the 4th iteration of our timetable.

My understanding of leading with Design Thinking is in iteration itself. My understanding has deepened this year but I expect that pales in comparison to how I will understand it in another year’s time. My leadership has been heavily influenced by the many people mentioned above, especially by our Senior Leadership Team at HPSS: Maurie, Di, Claire and Lea. I have also been incredibly inspired by the schools I have seen working with Grant Lichtman in the States, the  work of Bo Adams and co at Mount Vernon in Atlanta and the work of Cheryl Doig in Christchurch, New Zealand.

My suggestion:



3 thoughts on “Leading With Design Thinking

  1. Pingback: Design Thinking - pnicollantipas | Pearltrees

  2. Pingback: Design Thinking - pnicollantipas | Pearltrees

  3. Pingback: How can I use Design Thinking? – e-Odyssey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s