Dr. CJ Meadows, Director - i2e, The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center, SP Jain School of Global Management

Dr. CJ Meadows is a thought leader on tomorrow’s innovation. Coach, consultant, entrepreneur, eBusiness builder, educator, author, and speaker, she has led and advised companies and leaders across the globe. Awarded as one of the Top 10 Women in IT – Asia, she holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from Harvard Business School. She co-founded and currently leads i2e – The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at S P Jain School of Global Management, a Forbes Top-20 International Business School. It includes an Advanced-Technology Think Tank & Tinker Lab on the Future of Work (FoW) and Education (FoE) and builds on the work of an earlier innovation center co-founded by her. Her current research, coaching, and consulting focus on Leadership, Creativity, and Radical Innovation. She is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and has over 20 years of experience in Asia, Europe, and North America in all of the above roles and as an Accenture IT & business strategy consultant.


“They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets

Not only does higher education train businesspeople, but it’s also a business. We’ve traditionally conveyed knowledge (“talking”), and sometimes fostered skills (“walking”), but now more than ever, we need to reach the next level — practicing what we preach (“being”).

Just as our business learners need to put themselves into their customers’ shoes to develop products, services, and experiences people want, their educators need to do the same. One of the most effective tools out there is Design Thinking (DT) — using the skills and thinking styles of designers (e.g. industrial equipment design, architecture, etc.) outside the design fields.

Is it worth doing? Resoundingly, yes. Research shows that design-led companies outperform industry growth by as much as 2:1, provide nearly twice the shareholder returns of their peers, and financially outperform their competitors.

So, what are some key DT (design thinking) techniques an education leader or leadership team can use?

Key #1: Take Time to Define Your Challenge – You Won’t Get the Right Answer If You’re Asking the Wrong Question

IDEO worked with Innova to build a school system from the ground up. Existing schools were either high-achieving but too expensive for the average family or achieved poor results affordably.

By focusing the team on excellence AND affordability, their design process produced a system where students earn 3X the national average in math scores, 2X scores in communication, and it costs only USD 130 / month. It became the largest private network of schools in Peru, with nearly 20,000 students at 29 schools, 1,200 teachers, and high growth.

That’s the power of focusing on the key features people need — ALL of them — instead of trading them off.

Key #2: Start with Your Users’ Needs, Not Your Own Business (or a Shiny New Offering) – and Be There in Person, Watching and Listening

When a secondary-school principal decided to “shadow” a student to experience “A Day in the Life of” that learner, she was shocked. The diverse and packed line-up of classes, sleepy math class right after lunch, lighting, heat, noise, and lack of teacher interaction and time for questioning all had her reeling by the end of the day. She wondered how many of her students were able to stay in the system and perform.

She pulled together teams of students, teachers, administrators, and parents to collect problems and ideas, prioritize, and design for them, and insisted that all her staff experience a student day. They made both evolutionary and revolutionary changes and are still improving to this day, with a much happier and more productive cohort of students and staff.

When was the last time you went to your own school for a day?

Key #3: For Real Insight, Find the “Why”

Although it’s not an education example, one of my favourite DT examples is milkshakes. A fast-food chain wanted to compete better, so they hired an ethnographer to understand why people buy milkshakes. The ethnographer was astounded to see not only a sales spike after school but also at 7 am.

Why 7 am? People shared with him that they had a 1 or 1-1/2-hour commute to the office, so they wanted a breakfast that would be easy to consume while driving, keep their attention during the whole ride (so, keeping them awake and alert), and keep their tummies full until lunch. The afternoon rush was for kids after school and sports, with parents who wanted a quick treat so they could get back to the office.

Is this the same product? No, not really. One is an adult breakfast, the other a children’s treat. The morning shake should probably be made from coffee or fruit flavours (maybe with little bits of granola or dried fruit for continual interest), low-fat milk (or almond, soy, etc.), be thick, and have a thin straw (so it’ll last longer). The afternoon shake should be made from chocolate, high-fat milk, be thin/” watery”, and have a thick straw (so it’ll be quick).

This story came from Scott Anthony and Clay Christensen, who have written about disruption in education and the learners’ “Jobs to Be Done” (JTBD = “needs” in design-speak). Higher-education archetype customers they and I have written about include the TopSchool Aspirant, Dutiful Child, Corporate/Family/Other Escapee, Ambitious Climber, Self-Developer, Dropout, Disrupted Worker, Entrepreneur, Open-Innovation Company, CorporateSchool, and HR.

Who are your learners and what exactly do they want? Are you giving them what they want? Are you giving them anything they DON’T want (but still have to pay for)? Are you giving the same product to people with very different needs and expecting to magically succeed?

Key #4: Envision (and Frame) the Future and Don’t Worry About Practicality (Yet)

You’ll generally need to design for one need or for one archetype user (persona) at a time. Instead of starting with what you think is possible, let go and envision the future as it should be. You can scale it back later if needed, but technologies exist today that make most things possible.

Make a “journey map” of what they have to do along the way to fulfill their need (or get that “JTBD” done, as above). At each step of the way, what does that person do, think, say, and feel? If you don’t know, then you don’t know them well enough to design for them. What are the “pain points” to fix? Are there too many steps? Can you simplify from their point of view (not yours)?

Key #5: Brainstorm Big – It’s a Lot Easier to Make a Wild Idea Workable than a Mediocre Idea Great

When an architectural tournament was held, one of the judges found crumpled paper in the wastebasket. He asked why it had been thrown out. The other judges said it was very “far out” and they didn’t know if they could build it. He said it’s so amazing they must try! They did.

It was the Sydney Opera House.

Key #6: Co-Create! Share Your Sketches, Cardboard Models, Glue, and Tape Early and Often

Everyone hates to look stupid and show their unfinished junk — especially educators. But you need to prototype and experiment before risking a big launch. Do it early and often so you can “co-create” with your users. They’ll contribute ideas and desires they didn’t tell you earlier and that you’d never conceive on your own.

Your first prototype will NEVER be the best design. Be patient. Refine with users until it is — before you launch.

These keys are the design thinking process, and needs/JTBD are the basis of a stable and growing business. HOW you fulfill those needs will change with new ideas and new technologies, but human needs rarely change much.

So, take the approach. Start the process in your educational institution. Not only will you learn a skill by experience to share with your learners by experience, but they’ll learn from seeing your success, too.

In short, they’ll remember what you do — and what you are.

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