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Human-Centered Design: Part 1

In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process.  My client and friend Dave Haney wrote an article just published in Inside Higher Ed. Here is a long excerpt that speaks to our work together and the first three of his six principles of result-based strategic design. 

Next Tuesday, I will post the other three principles defined in the article. Please email me if you want to see the full articles, including the introductory framing paragraphs and links included in text.


In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process

By David P. Haney

…“Human-centered design” is now used worldwide for designing everything from organizational pivots in corporations to microloan programs in developing countries, often through the influential work of IDEO, whose chairman Tim Brown wrote Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation over a decade ago. When I used this approach to strategic planning as a college president, I added to the mix a sharp focus on outcomes rather than activities, based on the work of Hal Williams, former CEO of the Rensselaerville Institute. I’ve been fortunate to work with him in higher education administration, and he has helped me see how, despite the recent emphasis on outcomes assessment, higher ed is still burdened with a focus on activities that should be changed to a focus on results.

For example, why do we count student community service hours when we could be documenting the results of students’ community service work? Why do syllabi still list activities to be undertaken instead of results for student to achieve? Why do we have meeting agendas that list the topics to be covered instead of the outcomes we want to see? Why do job descriptions list expected activities (slavishly described as “duties”) instead of what employees should be expected to accomplish? (In fact, if working remotely, where activities are relatively invisible to colleagues, continues in popularity, outcomes may provide the best and perhaps only way to measure employee performance.)

The combination of human-centered design and Hal Williams’s outcomes focus produces what I call “results-based strategic design.” Here are six of the basic principles of this approach and how they can apply to higher education. Much of this involves asking questions that are different from the ones asked in a traditional strategic planning process.

No. 1: Recognize that planners plan and designers solve problems. Instead of asking, “Where do we want to be in five years,” it’s better to ask, “What problems do we need to solve?” That helps shift the focus from what we by definition can’t know (the future) to what we can do(solve problems and produce results).

For two reasons, it’s not always easy to identify the problems. First, we often jump to potential solutions before defining the key issue. For example, “Our enrollment is too low” does not state a problem. Increasing enrollment is a solution to different potential problems, such as unused capacity or most commonly an operational deficit. Increasing enrollment may be a solution to a deficit, but it may also drive up the discount rate and create additional expenses, so it may not be the appropriate solution, or it may need to be considered in concert with other solutions. As long ago as 2015, some colleges decided to address financial problems by shrinking rather than “chasing volume.”

Second, we worry too much about what designers call “gravity problems”: issues that are not really problems because, like gravity, they are going to be there no matter what. For example, current demographic trends that reduce applicant pools are not problems but rather inevitable facts. A low yield — too few accepted students who enroll — can be fixed, and the pool can be increased by looking in new places. (For example, people that would benefit from what you offer but don’t know it yet.) But the demographics are facts to be dealt with, not problems to be solved. Balance is key: some leaders resort to firefighting mode and jump to solutions too quickly, while others demand to understand all the variables before acting, and their response is too slow.

The difference between a designer and an engineer is that an engineer has a problem with a single solution: you need to get people across a river, so you build a bridge. Designers solve “wicked” problems: multiple and sometimes ill-defined problems that have multiple solutions. Higher ed is clearly rife with wicked problems. The problem-solving mentality can filter through the entire process. For example, instead of a strategic planning committee focusing on curriculum, create a design team to identify specific problems in the curriculum and create solutions.

No. 2: Use constraints to encourage creativity. Designers have learned that truly innovative and useful results come not from “blue sky thinking” but from working within a particular set of constraints. A smartphone can only be so big and cost so much, or it won’t sell. The familiar and new constraints in higher ed — changing demographics, increased competition, public skepticism and now the disruption of an as-yet unknown number of semesters by COVID-19 and the resulting human and economic consequences — need to be seen not as obstacles to planning but as catalysts for creativity and innovation. The three general constraints on new initiatives that design thinking identifies, and that can spur creativity, are: 1) viability (can it be sustained long-term?), 2) feasibility (do we have the capacity, tools and know-how to do it?) and 3) desirability (does it fit our mission and can we embrace it as an institution?).

For example, an enrollment-related result for one tuition-driven small college in the Northeast, with that region’s declining college-age population, was to attract, retain and serve students who didn’t know they would benefit from attending college in general or this institution in particular. This is potentially viable because it recognizes the decline in population while building on the fact that more students in that smaller pool need what this institution has to offer. It is feasible because there are many ways for an experienced admissions staff to reach to new areas and kinds of schools. (For example, this college started working with technical high schools and inner-city college-readiness programs.) And it is desirable because it will increase revenue as the institution continues to do what it does best — as opposed to simply lowering standards, trying to increase geographic reach or pursuing other enrollment-enhancing techniques. Keeping these constraints in mind also makes it much easier to link strategic design to resource allocation, since both viability and feasibility depend on resources.

No. 3: Determine constituents’ needs, which may not be what they say they need. This is what is called the empathy stage in design thinking, in which you observe people’s behavior in order to find the best solutions. It’s not enough to ask them what they need; as Henry Ford probably did not say, but is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they needed, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” When your students complain that they face a byzantine bureaucracy, follow some of them around as they leap through the registrar’s and the financial aid offices’ hoops. Then simulate potential solutions. Or if your value proposition is not getting out through admissions and marketing, observe students’ and potential students’ responses to current and potential new messages.

I once embedded myself with a summer leadership camp for entering students and discovered that many of the reasons for their choice to attend our institution had nothing to do with what we said in our expensive marketing materials. This is not treating students as customers within a corporate model but simply respecting them as users of the services we offer. (An entire subdiscipline called user experience or UX has occasionally been recommended for higher ed planning.) Especially now that our students are changing from a traditional 18- to 22-year-old cohort to a constituency of all ages with varying and complex life situations — and will be emerging from the trauma of the pandemic with a host of new and different concerns and needs — we should carefully observe the quality of their experience. We all pay lip service to the needs of the students we serve, but strategic plans still tend to focus on the self-preservation and growth of our institutions.

David P. Haney is the former president of Centenary University. He and Jeremy Houska, director of educational effectiveness at the University of La Verne, will present on results-based strategic design at the SCUP 2020 Virtual Annual Conference, sponsored by the Society for College and University Planning. For more resources on results-based strategic design, see davidphaney.com.


Come back on Tuesday for the other three points Dave makes and how I use them with many organizations.

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Leading By Example

Suzanne McLeod was Superintendent of Union-Endicott Central Schools in New York State. She participates in a program of School Turnaround called Get to Great. A key to this approach which helps good schools get great results is a set of prototype projects. While others may study and plan (ready…aim…aim some more…aim some more) Suzanne fired and then aimed—and in a way that prompted over 15 students who would have not passed courses this year to do so. This is actually enough to move a needle in the population of those most at risk for drop out. I urge you to read the short case on “No Tiger Left Behind” below. This is a surprisingly low-tech approach that shows how that the human touch can make all the difference when concentrated on a specific group of kids at high risk. This project took half an hour of time per week of the superintendent’s time—less than the time spent watching just half of a sporting event or concert. And the difference for achievement in the school was profound.


A write up by Hal Williams, Outcome Guide

This is the prototype project of Suzanne McLeod, Superintendent of Union-Endicott Central Schools. Like everyone in Get to Great Sue did not lead change by edict or exhortation. She led by example.

The Target

A goal of this district is to drop the dropout rate—dramatically. And no group drops out at a faster rate than those students who are returning from involuntary absence. These are youth who had major discipline and behavior issues resulting in a Superintendent’s Hearing. At this district as well as others, the eventual dropout rate of students in this category is very high—often well above 90%.

Sue asked what first predicted that the re-introduced students would not make it. The answer was course failures, so she set as her target that all of the 20 students in this category would pass all courses in the 2010-11school year. No Tiger would be left behind.

The Data

Sue first needed the list of students in the district who had been sent out involuntarily and a way to update it for students who left the district upon reentering. In “Get to Great” any target goes from percents to numbers….and from numbers to names. She then concluded that she needed this data to be able to help students pass all their courses:

–continuing information on their levels of achievement, including grades. She could not wait for quarterly assessments.

–insights from teachers, who can often see early signs (e.g., disengagement) long before tests are reviewed.

–attendance and any disciplinary, medical or other challenges appropriately noted.

–attitude and motivation to pass courses of these students, which she wanted to see and hear directly from them.

Lacking that elusive and comprehensive “data base” Sue simply moved forward with all she needed to track progress of these 20 students: a binder. All of the above data went in it continually and it became the source of needed information in portable, sharable, flexible form.

The Action

Sue began with the assumption that while classroom teachers could pay attention to these high-risk students that they could not reasonably shift limited time from other students to provide the help they would need. At least for the prototype period, her conclusion was that the intervention would be a new one and would be a new approach, a new program, a new policy. The intervention would be her.

As she met with the students it was clear that they had multiple challenges, beginning with attitude, skills and knowledge shortfalls, and, often, a lack of parental engagement. Her view was that she needed a way to help these students begin to achieve in real time, not after a remedial period which would further weaken morale and any sense of possibilities. She literally did “whatever it takes”, providing enough strength and force to the relationship as was needed. She saw kids in the hall, after and before school, and at all times by email or phone. She learned to be sensitive to keeping a low profile as far as other students’ view of these relationships were concerned. She also developed close collaborations with other administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers who often intervened before Sue had to!

Sue notes that she is well aware that her position as superintendent made it difficult for anyone to say no to her. That she simply puts in the plus column. If she has that power, she should use it for student achievement, not for showing up at school events.

In a few cases, this was resisted, but in a positive way. “What do I have to do so that you don’t keep bugging me?” Sue told them and found this a perfectly acceptable motivation to pass courses!

Three students (two 9th graders and an 11th grader) spoke with me to give their insight. All said that Sue’s direct connection to them during the year made a clear difference on their passing classes. The common threads;

–They really took notice because this was the leader—who, as one student put it, “has so many other things to be doing beyond talking to me.” Two said it would not have made such an impression if it was a teacher or someone else in the building.

–They were surprised at the first visit (which began with a call to go to the principal’s office where Sue spoke with them). They found this memorable in part because it was scary. “What did I do wrong?” This quickly turned to other emotions (which I sense they could not readily characterize) when they saw that her only point was to help them pass all their courses.

–Beyond the specifics of questions she asked was the theme that Sue cared a lot about them. She knew their grades and their status on “stuff” due for classes before speaking with them. While only 3-4 times per year (that they remember) the visits were clearly enough to maintain the sense that she was watching them.

–They told none or very few of their friends about the superintendent’s interest in them but did not seem to find the interactions embarrassing in any way. They understood and agreed with the purpose.

–All three believe they will pass their courses this year and that they would clearly not have done so without Sue’s involvement with them.

Two of the students are concerned that if they do not continue to get some kind of watching next year that they might relapse into problems. This raises a good question from the prototyping: how much intensity and duration of such an intervention is needed to insure that a positive change is sustained? As principal Steven DiStefano puts it, these kids are just over the divide where they tottered between academic success and failure. It is of great importance to keep them there.

The Results

Sue now projects that at least 90% of her students will pass all their courses and notes that data from previous years suggests that no more than 10% would have done so. With 20 students that’s a “save” of 16 students. Given that course failures are the leading predictor of drop out, it is reasonable to see this as at least 14 dropouts prevented. The cost of just one drop out is over $1 million of earning by the person and an even higher sum in added social service and health costs.

Sue, like many prototypers, finds examples more compelling than statistics. Here are a few of the students whose progress overwhelmed her:

  • One young man – a 7th grader – is not only passing all of his classes, but recently brought his father to a Research Symposium sponsored by our select High School Science Research program, where our top science students work with university research professors and compete in competitions such as the Intel Prize. This young man’s goal: to participate in this program in high school.
  • One young woman, who has returned after two long-term out of district suspensions, is now passing all of her classes and now aspires to become a physician. Sue and her team believe this is a realistic and achievable goal for her.
  • Three other students, all passing their courses, set their own prototype goals for 4th quarter as having a 90% average or better.

Gains are always relative to costs. In this case, Sue projects that this project took an average of 30 minutes a week of her time. Counting start up, call it 3 hours per month average. That is no more time than that spent attending one sports event or community meeting per month. Sue is clear which is more helpful in increased academic achievement.

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Attributes and Achievement

I keep seeing writings that speak to the power of attributes in forecasting achievement in most jobs.  The latest was sent by a colleague at the Humana Foundation who had read a piece by Jeff Nally, head of the Nally Group, which focused on learnings from Dr. Paul Brown, a professor at the Monarch Business School in Switzerland.   He summarizes Dr. Brown: “We’re hiring for the wrong things when we focus primarily on knowledge, skills, and experience. We are really hiring energy, not individuals. We are hiring the unique ways a person uses information, energy, and relationships to achieve outcomes.”

Over and over I see the value and primacy of energy and other attributes over education and experience as a predictor of high achievement.   Another example is a re-read of GRIT by Angela Duckworth. The many studies she cites show the relationship between GRIT scores and achievement in colleges and many other places. It’s $9.88 on Amazon and is a great investment in a very readable book. Which is more important to you in sizing up a person: their Master’s Degree or their grit. This book will help you answer that!

Image result for book reading grit
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The Achievement Lock of Education

Marissa Dobbert is a middle school math teacher at a charter middle school in Sarasota, Florida.  She was selected as the 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year in Sarasota County, Florida.  I used her as an example of tracking milestones in a January workshop for nonprofits in Manatee County.

I read about Marissa in an article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune and called her.  Being in the Results First business, I began by asking her how her students achieved academically compared with other students.  In Sarasota County, 55% of students in the lowest 25% performing group made gains on the Florida State Assessment (SFA) in the last reported year.  In comparison, 67% of her students made progress.  

Marissa reflects the characteristics of sparkplug leaders to a T.  First, she is drawn to challenges. She taught advanced courses and could not wait to get back to working with struggling students. Second, she is highly energetic, noting that she stands on chair and moves quickly—bouncing around the classroom to create and sustain attention “like a crazy person.”  Third, she is very focused on achievement and has two highly specific steps she considers essential to achieving them

First, Marissa focuses on creating a connection.  Her sense is that calming fears of students who have never succeeded at math and creating a connection between her and the student is an essential starting point.  In my parlance, engagement is her first milestone. She is clear that no amount of teaching will make much difference until she can see and hear some level of connection between her and each student.

Second, Marissa forgoes dutifully teaching the full-to-the brim math curriculum.  While she is held to the same standards of academic achievement on the Florida State Assessments (FSA) she teaches at a charter school that gives her some flexibility in approach. She uses that to concentrate on what she sees as the most important skills. Her assumption is that knowing all math content is less helpful than knowing the small number of essential tools that let students handle problems in most, if not all, content levels.

Marissa also uses problems to which the kids can relate.  Rather than a text book question, she translates textbook questions to the kinds of situations she and her students face. This gives not just context but motivation. 

There you have it. The procedural lock in social and educational programs is to get through all prescribed content. The achievement lock is to change the process and hold results as the constant.