Using Design Thinking to Inform Strategic Planning

What one public school district learned from 2,535 sticky notes, over 300 participants, days of observation & 60+ interviews.

What would happen if educational leaders started thinking like designers?  This is the question we investigate in our work and in our recent book, “Design Thinking for School Leaders.” Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users, creating new solutions for the future and taking action to implement those solutions.  Design thinking is a mindset that can transform the way you approach your work as a leader and have a positive impact on an entire organization. Here is the story of how we embraced design thinking at the district level when I was working as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction for the Los Altos School District. We decided to dig deeper and closely examine the state of teaching and learning in the district – through the eyes of our users. And so we set out to understand and observe.

As a public k-8 school district we had many different users: students, teachers, parents and community. During this need finding phase, we wanted to make sure we were simultaneously gathering broad data as well as doing a deeper dive with our users and created structures to enable both.  We created opportunities for all parents, teachers, administrators and students to have a voice in the process. We also created a small design team to conduct deeper ethnographic research in our district. Every aspect of this process was geared to help us better identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

Need Finding with a Design Team

We formed a five-person team to take a design-driven approach to understanding the needs of the district.  In keeping with a “design thinking” mindset, the team’s work focused on identifying unmet human needs, which when addressed, would drive instructional improvement as a district.

With that in mind, the team set out with a beginner’s mindset to observe, question and most importantly listen.  After several days in the field and interviews with students, teacher and parents the design team uncovered two unmet human needs.  Both of these needs statements focus on meeting teacher needs as a means to improve student learning. As a district, we recognize how valuable our teachers are and also know that if we want to impact the experience of 4,500 students it begins with our teachers.

Experiential Need:  Teachers need to observe other teachers…

  • In order to make theoretical practices more concrete
  • To expand their senses of what is possible
  • Because seeing students respond positively builds confidence to implement new pedagogies

Relational Need:  Teachers need to connect with colleagues…

  • Because teaching is inherently isolating
  • In order to build a network that provides timely support
  • Because thinking things through with colleagues generates professional confidence

Need Finding: Broad Gathering of Input

For the broad gathering of input, we held eleven input gathering sessions with over three hundred participants.  We used the following prompts to generate both conversation and ideas.

  • Why does learning need to be revolutionized for all students?
  • What excites you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What scares you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What changes do you think need to be made to revolutionize learning for all students?
  • What are your learning hopes for your students?
  • What if schools were places where students could….
    Then we would need teachers who…

Then we would need parents who…

Then we would need leaders who…

  • An LASD graduate will be able to….

Every single response to these prompts was collected and is represented in the data visualizations.  What was interesting to note is the similarities in responses from parents, teachers and administrators.  Essentially, we all want very similar things for our students and our children. All of the data visualizations can be viewed here, but the one that excited us the most is embedded below. The image is word clouds representing all responses, but the size of the phrase/word indicates the frequency of this response.

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Portrait of an LASD Graduate

Developing the portrait of an LASD Graduate was a great first step, that allowed us to have deeper conversations. How do we develop this student?  What are we currently doing that contributes to this? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to do differently to achieve this for students?

Now What? Ideation & Prototype

We have now completed the need finding phase of this process, although I am not sure this will ever truly end.  The experience has changed how our team approaches problems, often reframing them or trying to more clearly understand them from the students’ point of view.  

What we have learned about our own organization during this process was powerful.  While this process took much longer than a more traditional strategic planning process, the investment of time yielded more exciting opportunities for students.  What would you learn about your organization if you challenged yourself to think like a designer?