Breaking the Mold: An Educational Perspective on Diffusion of Innovation/Brown’s Change by Design (Design Thinking)

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By Greg Rivers

One of the most important aspects of any organization is a culture where employees are not only free to experiment, but are expected to do so. Indeed, from a design thinking perspective, any challenge is a chance to experiment. To get to that place, organization members must be provided with the time, space and budget to experiment, with the understanding that experiments often fail, or at least make mistakes. Rivers’ chapter discusses the principles behind the design thinking approach to support change. The chapter ends with an insightful reflection on how organizations, including schools, could incorporate some of these principles. “Opening up our minds to innovative ideas of what ‘school’ means can finally take education out of the 20th century and place it in the 21st.”

Design Thinking[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

“How many times do you get a blinding insight out of your own head? You get to blinding insight when you listen to somebody and take that little snippet of logic or data or whatever, merge it with something that is in your head and – whammo – out comes a new interesting thought” - Roger Martin (from Dunne & Martin, 2006).

In a nutshell, this is what “design thinking – approaching management problems as designer approach design problems” (Dunne & Martin, 2006) can do for an organization: encourage collaborative thinking to solve what are sometimes called “’wicked problems’ – problems with no definitive formulation or solution, whose definition is open to multiple interpretations” (Martin, 2005a).

Tim Brown’s Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation brings this process to life and provides a framework for its use.

Principles[edit | edit source]

Freedom to Experiment[edit | edit source]

One of the most important aspects of any organization is a culture where employees are not only free to experiment, but are expected to do so. Indeed, from a design thinking perspective, any challenge is “an opportunity for invention that includes questioning of basic assumptions” (Dunne & Martin, 2006). In other words, a chance to experiment. To get to that place, organization members must be provided with the time, space and budget to experiment, with the understanding that experiments often fail, or at least make mistakes.

Brown lists six rules that govern experimentation in organizations:

  1. The best ideas come from organizations where everyone is free to experiment.
  2. Those most exposed to changes going on outside the organization are best placed and motivated to experiment.
  3. Ideas should not be favored based on who creates them (more on this below).
  4. Ideas that create a buzz should be favored (more on this below).
  5. Senior leadership should “tend, prune and harvest” ideas.
  6. A purpose that provides a sense of direction for the organization should be clearly communicated.

One suggestion for encouraging experimentation is setting aside time for it in the work day. Some organizations encourage employees to spend 20% of their time trying new things – experimenting with the way they do their jobs, essentially. Another way to encouraging experimentation is to create playful areas, where traditional work trappings and functions are banished, the better to be truly innovative. Of course, both of these ideas require an investment from the organization – both the time and the space being used take money, either directly or indirectly – and not all organizations are willing to make that investment.

Brainstorming[edit | edit source]

One cardinal rule for brainstorming is that there is no such thing as a bad idea during this phase. Brainstorming is not a time for judging the merits or demerits of ideas; rather, it is the time for getting as many ideas out as possible. However, Brown makes it clear that simply giving a group of people an issue or challenge and telling them to brainstorm possible solutions is unproductive. Instead, basic rules and processes for brainstorming should be made clear, because brainstorming is, like any design innovation, the result of a thought process (Breen, 2004).

For one thing, though judging ideas in this phase is frowned upon, building on another person’s idea – which some may consider judgmental, because it implies the original idea was not good enough – should be encouraged. In fact, this building is what separates brainstorming in a group from simply spit-balling ideas as an individual. One member of the brainstorming group often finds that another member’s idea sparks something new. This new vision (Idea 2.0) may be more completely thought-out, more appropriate or may better anticipate problems than Idea 1.0 did. Interestingly, it is possible females are better at this than males are. Brown cites an experience he had with boys and girls, where both genders were asked to come up with ideas for a new toy. The girls came up with more ideas, and were more likely to listen to, and build on, the ideas of their fellow team members. The boys came up with fewer ideas, and rarely built on one another’s ideas.

Equality of Ideas[edit | edit source]

Ideas should be treated equally, irrespective of who came up with them. A line worker may come up with an idea just as good as – or better than – an idea from a CEO. However, the only way for that idea to be fully appreciated is if it is treated with the same respect as the CEO’s. One concern this may lead to is how to reward such ideas. A CEO, after all, is paid to lead an organization, and part of this leadership is expected to be coming up with new ideas that will improve the organization in some way. How should the line worker who comes up with the valuable idea be rewarded?

Another concern is how to insure that this equality is practiced. In the example above, how can an organization possibly make sure the idea of the line worker is treated equally to that of a CEO? The CEO is usually given the benefit of the doubt, even if that benefit is unintentional. In other words, many people may be subconsciously biased to think well of anything a CEO suggests, while at the same time be subconsciously biased to be skeptical of anything a line worker might suggest. This makes it important to create a culture within the organization where every person’s contributions are considered equally important, regardless of title.

The "Buzzier" the Better[edit | edit source]

Although all ideas should be treated with equality based on who comes up with them, the ideas themselves are not equal. Ideas that get natural buzz should be favored in almost all situations. Especially if the buzz is organic, it demonstrates an idea that has created excitement within an organization. Not all buzz is organic, however. Sometimes the buzz comes from the top of an organization (and is thus a forced buzz, so to speak) and does not reflect any genuine enthusiasm. When such forced buzz is present, potential users of the innovation being buzzed about may rebel against it, making it difficult to get buy-in from the entire organization (Martin, 2005b). This “forced buzz” does not have to come from the top of an organization, either. The person who came up with the idea is likely to be invested in it, and may try to create buzz through his/her own acquaintances within and outside the company. For instance, if John comes up with a new idea, he may push a friend in research and development inside the company to talk it up (regardless of the friend’s honest feelings) and/or push a friend who works in the media to do so.

As an example of forced buzz vs. genuine buzz, consider two movies from the 1990s: Cutthroat Island and The Blair Witch Project. Cutthroat Island had an A-list director (Renny Harlin), an A-list lead (Geena Davis, fresh from A League of Their Own), a huge budget ($115 million in 1995 dollars), and a studio behind it that had produced (or co-produced) the Rambo movies, Total Recall and Terminator 2, each a huge hit. The studios created immense buzz (mostly through ads), but the buzz generated no enthusiasm among moviegoers, and it lost almost $100 million. The enthusiasm was mostly false, and most people never bought into it.

On the other hand, The Blair Witch Project had unknown makers, stars and writers, cost less than $35,000 to make and did not have a major studio behind it. However, thanks to showings at film festivals and a huge word-of-mouth campaign, it brought in more than $250 million worldwide. In this case, the buzz was genuine, came from the ground-up instead of from the top-down, and the enthusiasm it generated was reflected in its success.

Limited Top-down Leadership[edit | edit source]

There is certainly a place for top-down leadership in organizations. Sometimes, the sheer number of ideas that may come from a brainstorming session may seem intimidating, and upper-level leadership can combine, shape, or even reject some of the ideas so that a more manageable number remains. In addition, there may be restrictions to possible changes that top leadership is in the best position to be aware of. In that situation, some guidance helps potential change agents avoid wasting their own time.

In order to get really creative, innovative ideas, however, the amount of top-down leadership should be limited and focused. A leader who micromanages employees creates an atmosphere that discourages experimentation and innovation. Employees fear reprisals if something fails, and stick to the tried-and-true (which may or may not work well). If, instead, employers stress the macro, employees are more likely to try new and innovative things with the knowledge that occasional failure is accepted and even encouraged.

The Future[edit | edit source]

Redefine Leaders and Employees[edit | edit source]

In the future, organizations should rethink the definitions and roles of “leaders” and “employees." Too often, leaders are determined simply by title, instead of by action or capability. The problem with this is that, in general, people can recognize a true leader and someone who has simply been given a position of leadership.

Increasingly, organizations are recognizing that a leader in one area may not be a good leader in another area. An employee may be recognized as a leader when it comes to technology, for example. Others may seek him/her out with questions or advice in this area. When it comes to sales, on the other hand, that same person may be the one in need of answers. And in some areas, an organization may not need a “leader” at all. For that reason, organizations should avoid this sort of title as much as possible. In most cases, leadership emerges organically, as it is needed. If it is not needed, naming a leader for the sake of having one may end up being counter-productive. If a leader is named and is incapable of acting as one, actual harm may be done to both morale and productivity.

Create (It's Revolutionary)[edit | edit source]

According to IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez and Ryan Jacoby, projects can manage, adapt, extend or create. All are necessary to an organization; all have a time and place. Projects that manage, which tend to involve existing offering and existing users, are incremental and the majority of what innovations actually occur in organizations. Projects that adapt or extend allow the organization to stretch its base, either by adding new users (extending) or by adding new offerings (adapting). Brown cites the Toyota Prius as an example of evolutionary design – a new product that adapted to the desire of the public for more fuel-efficient autos. Prior to the Prius, it often seemed like every third auto on the road was some version of a mini-van or SUV. Now, many of those are considered relics of the 1990s and $1.49 per gallon gasoline.

The most difficult projects are those that create. These are considered revolutionary, because both the offerings and the users are new. Because there is neither a built-in group of users nor a familiar (or at least familiarly similar) offering, these projects are also the riskiest projects for any organization. At the same time, they offer a high possible reward, if the project is successful, such as Apple’s iPod. In the same way that organizations of today need to be open to brainstorming and experimenting, organizations in the future need to be open to the idea of creating something revolutionary. Even if not every attempt succeeds, those that do can bring large, tangible benefits to any organization, be it a business, a school or a political party.

Products Equal Service[edit | edit source]

Although the line between products and services has always been a bit fuzzy – a product is often some sort of service, at least in part – in the future, that line may be obliterated altogether. With this in mind, it seems odd that organizations that are primarily service providers have been so slow to make changes. Organizations that produce products – cell phone companies, for instance – have recognized how important the service component is to their users, and have innovated accordingly. Cell phones are a product, but the makers of them think seriously about how these products are also a service, and constantly work to innovate in a way that improves the product/service experience for their users.

On the other hand, schools – which primarily provide a service – have changed very little. Thirty years ago, schools served their users in pretty much the same way they do now. In the future, it will benefit organizations to think of products and services as the same thing. Education is a service, but it is likewise a product, and one that needs to be improved as time passes, instead of treated as a constant that cannot be improved through innovative thinking.

Blending Big and Small[edit | edit source]

Making small, incremental changes is important, in both a person’s private and work lives. These changes are easier to make than big ones, and are easier to accept and are often more likely to diffuse, either to others in a person’s social circle or to a workplace. In private life, a person may buy reusable grocery bags or begin carpooling to work, two changes that are easily done, have tangible benefits (in the case of carpooling – less money spent on gasoline) or intangible ones (reusable bags make a small dent in the amount of oil being consumed – oil being a large part of plastic), and may be diffused in the traditional, word-of-mouth way. One small change that diffused quickly was self-adhesive postage stamps, which were both more convenient than stamps that had to be licked, and an idea “customers could comprehend because they had already encountered the light adhesives used in Post-it Notes and peel-away labels” (Leonard & Rayport, 1997).

Bigger changes are also important, however, both in a person’s private and work lives. These are the changes that might change the world, or at least change a significant part of it. Design thinking can facilitate these ideas because designers tend to “think about the system as a whole and thereby envisage the consequences of their actions” (Dunne & Martin, 2006).

Design Change in Education[edit | edit source]

Education is one area crying out for experimentation and brainstorming, for new ideas that generate buzz and excitement among educators and learners, for emergent, non-traditional leadership, for revolutionary change that realizes that the service of education and the product (knowledge) being provided are one and the same, for changes both big and small. It is unfortunate, then, that all of these areas of need are being addressed – if they are addressed at all – by the old model of change: a slow, ponderous model that operates from the top-down and does not take the wants and needs of its users into account nearly often enough.

Consider what education would look like if, instead of using the current factory model as a base, a team of designers were given the constraints (common core standards, for example, might be one) and told to create, out of whole cloth, the best educational system possible. What ideas would their brainstorming produce?

The New School: One Vision[edit | edit source]

If we tried to re-make the educational system using revolutionary change, students might find a place that is more responsive to his/her individual needs. For truly revolutionary change, the current educational system probably needs to be blown up and begun again from scratch. What might a revolutionary new school look like?

It will have a small dormitory for students who live in poverty or in an abusive situation. Having no worries about a student’s physical well-being will allow that student to focus more on learning.

Once they make it to class, students are placed in classes that are best matched up with their skill levels, not their ages. Because people learn different things at different rates – some people may struggle with (and be placed with generally younger students in) math, but quickly pick up concepts in English, for example – such a placement would better meet their intellectual needs, as opposed to arbitrary placements, such as, “Well, Jennifer is eight years old, so she should be in third grade.”

Because placement is based on abilities, traditional grade levels do not exist. First grade, second grade, etc. are replaced with standards that students must meet to demonstrate proficiency in various subject areas. In that same vein, traditional letter grades will not exist at this school. What, after all, does a B really tell you? Does it mean a student is proficient in all standards in the class they got that grade in? Does it mean they have really mastered some standards, but not demonstrated even proficiency in others? Instead, “grades” will be in the form of specific reports about individual standards. This description will give students, parents and teachers more information about what the student is best at and what he or she still needs help with.

Walls between content areas will be reduced or eliminated, as team teaching across curricular areas becomes the expectation. Such teaching will make learning more relevant to students, and will better enable them to connect their learning to the world outside school.

Instead of being in school for nine months (with 180 total days in classes), with three months off, students will go to school year-round, with 10-week quarters separated by three-week intersessions. Those intersessions may be used as vacations (for both students and teachers), for remediation (for students who need a bit more work to reach proficiency) or enrichment (for students who are proficient but wish to move ahead). This schedule would also help get rid of summer loss, which any teacher can tell you results in six-to-eight weeks of re-teaching at the beginning of each year.

Teachers will have built-in, protected collaboration time that can be used in professional learning communities to plan, make common formative and summative assessments, and to keep up on the latest professional research.

New teachers will receive an extra planning period to help ease them into their career and reduce the burnout many new teachers experience. In addition, new teachers will get the most rewarding teaching load, instead of giving them the classes no one wants, with the highest-risk, highest-need students.

Finally, at this school, principals will be instructional leaders exclusively. In most schools, principals spend a majority of their time on management issues, with little time left for acting as instructional leaders. This school will have a full-time school administration manager (SAM) to take care of site management issues, freeing the principal to spend the majority of his/her time acting as an instructional leader.

Some of these ideas are already being used in some schools, but overall, the educational system today’s students experience is mostly the same as the one their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. Opening up our minds to innovative ideas of what “school” means can finally take education out of the 20th century and place it in the 21st.

References[edit | edit source]

Breen, B. (2004). Masters of design. Fast Company. Retrieved from

Dunne, D. & Martin, R. (2006) Design thinking and how it will change management education: An interview and discussion. Academy of Management, 5 (4), 512 – 523.

Khadaroo, S.T. (2010, September 1). School teachers in charge? Why some schools are forgoing principals. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

Leonard, D. & Rayport, J.F. (1997). Spark innovation through empathic design. Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec., 102 – 113.

Martin, R. (2005a, August 1). Embedding design into business. Business Week, 4 – 7.

Martin, R. (2005b, August 29). Why decisions need design. Business Week. Retrieved from