Five tips for using design thinking to transform your academic practice

Jenny Moffett explains how embracing design thinking may offer ways to combat academic perfectionism and develop vital skills for navigating uncertain paths

Jenny Moffett's avatar
RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences
8 Feb 2022
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Design thinking can be used in universities and by academics to help bring about new approaches to working in teams

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Design thinking, with its apparently “mind-blowing” and “revolutionary” properties, comes with an aura of hyperbole. And despite increasing application in higher education in recent years, the jury is still out: is design thinking a genuinely transformative process or just another education fad?

Design thinking is a set of processes, practices and attitudes that encourage teams to “think like designers”. In real terms, this describes a structured process that guides teams to work collaboratively on a problem or challenge, resulting in a high degree of creativity and – ultimately – practical solutions. Although the concept has been around for 20 to 30 years, it has more recently permeated a wide range of settings, including universities.

Last summer, working with a team of medical students, designers and researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, we set out on our own design thinking journey. The end goal was to create a digital, educational “escape room” that would help medical students manage uncertainty.

 

Like many others, our team followed the design thinking process developed at Stanford d.school:

  1. Empathise: understand the experiences of relevant individuals affected by the challenge
  2. Define: develop the challenge or problem faced by users
  3. Ideate: generate ideas through divergent thinking strategies
  4. Prototype: create early and multiple models of what might work
  5. Test: test and get feedback on prototypes
     

We also embraced the idea of design thinking as a mindset. By engaging with design thinking we accepted that we would meet a certain amount of discomfort, because taking new, untrodden routes often involves experiences of failure and error.

As the months went by, I watched – with some surprise – as a game emerged from little more than a computer screen and our collective imagination. What surprised me even more, though, was the impact the process had on my ways of “thinking” and “doing”.

I saw that design thinking had fundamentally changed my practice as an academic, allowing greater comfort with ambiguity and imperfection, especially in sharing ideas with colleagues. This new domain felt like a stark contrast to “regular” academia. In teaching, there is an unspoken expectation that we should be knowledgeable and confident, able to “conquer” uncertainty. In research, we are valued for meticulous, precise approaches. While such skills and attributes are important, there are times when we need to take a different route. Creativity and invention require a very different skill set; one that can be guided by design thinking. In testing this out, here are five things I have learned:

Tip 1: When it comes to creativity, team culture is everything 

The creative process is a team sport and the right culture – one where team members feel safe to voice opinions, plus give and receive feedback – is a pre-requisite. The most creative, efficient teams are those that experience a team climate of psychological safety. When working on ideas with your team, take time to put people at ease, make the experience warm and inclusive from the beginning, make sure everyone feels heard.

Tip 2: When seeking fresh ideas, pay attention to the process 

Have you ever had an idea shot down with a “that would never work” comment? Although seemingly trivial, such remarks can reduce an individual’s likelihood to share ideas. Design thinking helps avoid this by separating idea generation from idea screening. Team members are first encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible (“divergent thinking”) before critiquing these and narrowing them down (“convergent thinking”). When seeking ideas, break down the process into two stages and clearly outline each to the team.

Tip 3: Good ideas can be encouraged but not forced 

While design thinking provides a structure and setting for discussing ideas, the best ones may not emerge on the spot. Creativity often happens when you least expect it. It’s common to have “aha” moments when you are driving, exercising or even taking a shower. When you are struggling to solve a problem, step away from the desk and do something different. Build reflective, individual time into the process for the rest of the team.

Tip 4: Try out ideas, early and frequently 

Rapid prototyping – trying out small and unfinished versions of an idea – is a key feature of design thinking. It allows us to get early information about what works in practice. It also encourages the team to hold ideas lightly and not get over-attached. In academia we often feel a pressure to “polish” work – reports, papers, lesson plans etc – before sharing with others. However, when the right team climate is in place, it’s much more efficient to share rough drafts before investing time on, potentially, the wrong path.

Tip 5: Failure is difficult, but it gets better with practice 

While we’ve all heard the inspirational messages around failure (“FAIL is just the First Attempt In Learning!”), it can still feel unpleasant. Design thinking asks us to release unfinished, imperfect models for inspection and, by its very nature, invites us to risk exposing our inadequacies. This gets easier in time and with practice. Experiment with asking for early feedback on your work or ideas from an individual you trust, notice your reactions and look for the nuggets of gold in their advice.

It’s true there are times when design thinking isn’t the most appropriate choice. Working at a medical and health sciences university, I know that performing surgery and prescribing medication demands precision. But this is only part of the story. The culture of academia can predispose us to aim for perfection when what would better serve us are skills to manage incertitude and messiness. Whether working on a gnarly challenge with the team or equipping our students to face the demands of a changing workplace, design thinking represents a promising approach for academics.

Jenny Moffett is an educationalist at the Health Professions’ Education Centre, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dublin.

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