Design thinking is a creative, human-centered process for solving problems, enhancing innovation and improving outcomes. NMU's campus-wide approach to design thinking is unique, according to the executive director of the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Garret Westlake and a colleague were on campus recently to lead an ExperienceChange certification workshop for nearly 50 campus leaders, along with a Design Thinking certification workshop for staff and resident advisors and a Design Thinking workshop for freshman and sophomore students. More than 170 students and staff attended one of the two workshops.
“We are a campus that is moving forward in a very significant way,” said Provost Kerri Schuiling. “We need to better understand how we do what we do, and how best to support our forward momentum. Garret said he knows of no other campus that has formally trained so many of its administrators, faculty and students in design thinking. These intensive workshops free individuals on campus to become ‘intellectual architects,' a term Michael Crow [of Arizona State University] uses. We are truly fostering creativity.”
The ExperienceChange workshop was a guided, computer-based simulation of an actual business planning major changes to show the implications of decision-making along the way on an organization's employees and outcomes.
Only one of eight teams successfully completed the simulation. Westlake said that proves implementation is challenging.
“We stress that transformation is about much more than coming up with ideas and quickly putting them into action,” said Westlake. “The time spent developing the ideas, gathering insights from others, and developing a strategy for implementation is just as important and requires a great deal of strategic thought. It's not about making decisions from the tower, but being open and responsive. Also being intentional and patient regarding how long it's going to take.
Westlake said individual units at other universities have used similar training to move forward, but he has not seen an entire institution adopt design thinking.
“It's empowering to think about multiple departments having a common language and skill set to work together through the process. The level of commitment and implementation on the student and faculty sides is impressive for a university this size and shows it is possible to achieve on this scale. That's novel.”
The lessons gleaned from the workshops will be applied by a work group NMU has established to develop an institute dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship, and transformational education on campus.
“We have many 'big' ideas coming from all across campus and yet we have no formal mechanism for vetting them,” Schuiling said. “Currently we have assessed them one at a time. We need a system with criteria. Which ones do we support and take a risk? Which ones need tweaking and come back? Which ones fit and are centric to the mission? The institute will help with this.
“It's envisioned as a brick and mortar facility with a director and staff, operating out of Academic Affairs, but not owned by any department. It may have faculty who have temporary appointments. It may ultimately offer programs but those will be collaborative, and interdisciplinary; involving curriculum delivered by faculty from different departments. It will also involve product development.”
This was Westlake's third visit to NMU. He and a colleague previously hosted workshops on how design thinking and entrepreneurship can help Northern overcome projected enrollment challenges. They also met with a number of academic departments seeking to transform programs. Westlake said he will return for the December NMU Board of Trustees meeting to offer perspective on Northern's year of engagement with innovation strategy.