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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

Our youngest students will graduate from college in the year 2030. The careers they'll aspire to and the challenges they'll face may not exist yet.

How does a two-centuries-old school remain true to its time-tested philosophy while also creating a culture of innovation, one that will prepare students for the changing world of the future?

Design thinking and design management was used to frame an effective growth strategy for a 230-year-old K-12 day school in the Quaker tradition.

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For the Honor of Truth: Moses Brown School

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CLEARLY, THE METHODS OF DESIGN and design thinking are proliferating across multiple sectors, accelerating creativity and bringing innovative goods and services to market. But what if your brand is 230 years old? Can design energize new thinking while preserving historic values?

This was the challenge we faced three years ago at Moses Brown, a Quaker day school for 775 students from nursery school to twelfth grade in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1784. As the headmaster, I framed the problem this way:

Our youngest students will graduate from college in the year 2030. The careers they'll aspire to and the challenges they'll face may not exist yet. How does a two-centuries-old school remain true to its time-tested philosophy while also creating a culture of innovation, one that will prepare students for the changing world of the future?

Now well into a cultural and capital campaign that is transforming the school, design and design management have been critical to our ability to frame an effective growth strategy. We are honoring our past while embracing the future.

Design as a method of strategic planning

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

While there are probably as many methods of academic strategic planning as there are schools, the most common approach is episodic (once every five years), siloed (organized around different areas such as curriculum, enrollment, and finances), and top-down (driven primarily by the board and administration).

Unfortunately, using the usual methods typically gets you the usual results. The goals they tend to focus on are so numerous and broad as to amount to little more than common sense. Despite a massive investment of time and energy, most academic strategic plans suffer from lack of community awareness and buy-in, and from too little thinking about the financial resources needed to make the plan a reality.

Beginning with traditional diagnostic tools, we introduced a series of experimental forums, carefully building cadence and momentum that culminated in more than 40 public visioning sessions that we called discernment dialogues.

Design—because it is intentional in crafting a desired outcome—has helped Moses Brown address these pitfalls and, in the process, become a more creative organization. We've generated a plan for growth over the next five years, and more important, a culture adapted for growth and innovation over the long term. In other words, design has helped transform strategic planning from a discrete process of programmatic enrichment into a vehicle for cultural acceleration.

Riding the Madonna curve

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

Awareness of the principal stages of design allowed us to curate the strategic planning process as a three-year sequence of research, reflection, and experimentation. Merging Quaker terminology with the design concepts of leading firms such as IDEO, we branded our phases as:

  • A Year of Visioning: Finding inspiration through community storytelling, building empathy, and discovering areas for growth. Key vehicles included a parent satisfaction survey and research teams focused on teaching excellence and global education.
  • A Year of Threshing: Interpreting data, defining insights, ideation. Key vehicles included an accreditation self-study, a campus master plan, and a task force on long-term financial sustainability.
  • A Year of Clearness: Defining priorities, turning insights into actions, identifying necessary resources. Key vehicles included an education think tank, a TEDx conference, and a series of public visioning sessions.

Beginning with traditional diagnostic tools (for example, parent surveys, reaccreditation study, and campus master plan), we introduced a series of experimental forums (for example, the TEDx conference and the think tank), carefully building cadence and momentum that culminated in more than 40 public visioning sessions that we called discernment dialogues.

Drawing from the field of design management, we curated this lengthy process along a so-called Madonna Curve (Figure 1, page 34), named in honor of the pop diva and her uncanny ability to re-invent herself whenever her stardom started to decline. Alone, each step in our process likely would have generated little momentum; but sequenced carefully and punctuated with periods of synthesis and communication, public engagement escalated dramatically.

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Figure 1. We curated our strategic planning process as a three-year sequence of research, reflection, and experimentation. It was a lengthy process, but we sequenced it carefully and punctuated it with periods of synthesis and communication. In honor of the pop diva and her ability to reinvent herself, we described the process as running along a Madonna Curve.

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This reflexive and formative process, typical of innovation, resulted in high-quality and creative thinking, generated broad community awareness, and helped us break through the noise barrier that stymies most academic strategic plans.

The MB 2030 forum

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer describes how most of the challenges posed on InnoCentive (the online forum for crowd-sourcing solutions to thorny problems) are solved by people outside or on the margins of a given field. The best design teams, it seems, are cross-disciplinary and include novices who can bring fresh perspectives or outside thinking to a problem. Knowing that, we intentionally expanded our future thinking outside the walls of MB—indeed, outside the field of education.

We created an education summit called The MB 2030 Forum (Figure 2, page 35)—a think tank of 30 people (representing business, technology, art, design, healthcare, leadership development, and so on)—charged with helping us explore what the world is going to be like in the year 2030 and how elementary and secondary education will need to evolve in order to prepare students for that world. We've met for four weekend summits to date. At the first, a keynote address by Charlie Cannon—a RISD professor featured in Ken Bain's award-winning book What the Best College Teachers Do—explored classroom environments that promote twenty-first-century leadership skills. And a full day of innovation workshops was facilitated by Seth Goldenberg, formerly vice president of Bruce Mau Design, director/curator of Dialogue City at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and founder and current CEO of the design innovation agency IP.21 Studio.

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Figure 2. The MB 2030 Forum is a think tank of 30 people (representing business, technology, art, design, healthcare, leadership development, and so on)—charged with helping us explore what the world is going to be like in the year 2030 and how elementary and secondary education will need to evolve in order to prepare students for that world.

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For me, two key insights emerged from our first summit:

  • The value of traditional education is being questioned. Mastery of concrete knowledge, while important, must make way for an emphasis on “softer” skills such as creativity, teamwork, and communication.
  • We can accelerate these skills in students through pedagogies such as project-based learning, design thinking, travel and immersion experiences, and internships.

Planning by design

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

In my experience, attending strategic planning meetings is usually about as much fun as watching paint dry. Well, there's a design challenge: How can we transform meetings, applying what we know about the creative process to ensure that people will enjoy participating and that MB will accomplish its goal of readying itself for the future?

Our answer was to use experience design to choreograph meetings, paying particular attention to the feelings of the participants by creating something we called a discernment dialogue (Figure 3, page 36).

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Figure 3. A discernment dialogue is a forum for sharing—for telling personal stories about past and current experiences at the school, and for testing ideas for MB's future. We hosted more than 40 of these and spent about 3,000 minutes in conversation with more than 1,000 people.

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A discernment dialogue (DD) is a forum for sharing—for telling personal stories about past and current experiences at the school, and for testing ideas for MB's future. All told, we hosted more than 40 discernment dialogues, spending about 3,000 minutes in conversation with more than 1,000 people.

Our approach drew heavily on the process, tools, and artifacts of design thinking. For example, wanting participants to be engaged actively and playfully, we put people together in small, diverse teams and gave them the tools and the permission to experiment: sharing perspectives, brainstorming ideas, and prototyping possible solutions.

We all know that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and we found that displaying and defending ideas in a public setting led to some very creative thinking.

We also adapted one of the staples of design school, the crit—the idea of improving solutions by exposing them to critique through performance or exhibition. We all know that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and we found that displaying and defending ideas in a public setting led to some very creative thinking (Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Design thinking generates a lot of ideas, and the artifacts created by this process are unlike anything you'd see in traditional strategic planning.

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One challenge for novices like us is that design thinking generates a lot of ideas, and the artifacts created by this process are unlike anything you'd see in traditional strategic planning: notebooks, color-coded cards, sticky notes, posters, photos of dry erase boards—literally, writing on the back of a napkin. Analyzing this kind of material is challenging. It doesn't yield the sort of quantifiable results afforded by a traditional constituent survey, and it requires an interpretive approach that is more intuitive than analytical. But that's precisely why the process is valuable—it's more reflective of complex and creative thought.

What is a strategic plan?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

At the abstract or philosophical level, a strategic plan is a blueprint for future action, but in terms of simple physicality, a strategic plan is most often a pamphlet or booklet. Authored jointly by the head of school and the chair of the planning committee, academic plans are typically announced with much fanfare—prior to assuming their place on the proverbial shelf, where they disappear from public awareness and gather dust.

To combat this trend, we published our plan, called MB Believes: A vision for learning, people, and place (www.mosesbrown.org/mbvision), in a variety of ways designed to build momentum and enthusiasm. Yes, there is a print version, but it's more a story and manifesto than it is a laundry list of goals. It's also a website, an e-book for iPads, and a PDF file loaded onto USB drives in the form of “slap” bracelets that we distribute at admissions events. (Who doesn't love swag?)

For the more cerebral, we also created a full-scale gallery exhibit of MB Believes (Figure 5), allowing viewers literally to immerse themselves in our vision. I never imagined becoming a gallery designer within the context of being a headmaster, but it turned out to be one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks in recent memory.

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Figure 5. MB Believes exists as a print version, but it's also a website, an e-book for iPads, and a PDF file loaded onto USB drives in the form of “slap” bracelets that we distribute at admissions events. And for the more cerebral—or more visual— we also created a full-scale gallery exhibit.

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Words and images can take you only so far, however. Good design works by creating meaningful, valuable, and memorable user experiences. Since the process of strategic planning that led to MB Believes was itself innovative and a bit playful, we wanted to unveil and demonstrate our plans in a similarly engaging, highly experiential fashion. Hence, the MB Expo.

Expo was a three-day cultural and educational festival designed as a forum for both unveiling and experiencing our vision for the future. A TEDx conference, themed “Expeditions” and attended by 1,400 people, highlighted our belief in the value of travel and learning through discovery. And in a live beta-testing of a program we call the Expert Thinking Model, all the students participated in one of 65 design challenges—for example, how to develop new outdoor play spaces, improve traffic flow on campus, or create the perfect backpack. (Even the youngest participated. The three-year-olds in our nursery read the book Ten on Top, and then worked on this challenge: How can we stack 10 apples on top of each other? Our first-graders were featured on local TV and in the newspaper for designing and building a meditation labyrinth.)

Present for the events, and featured as one of our TEDx speakers, was Trung Le, principal designer at The Third Teacher + (the educational consultancy of Cannon Design in Chicago) and MB's architectural partner for three new facilities projects. We were also pleased to host Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft from Stanford's d.school—authors of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration—who helped us brainstorm programs and designs for a new innovation lab. The lab will be a workshop for collaborative, project-based experimentation for all disciplines in all grade levels—a space in which group problem-solving is supported and enhanced by the process of design thinking and by the tools for artistic creativity, engineering, prototyping, model-building, and construction.

DESIGN AS FINANCIAL PLANNING

Here's a rhetorical question: Which should come first, the decision to have a capital campaign or the process of strategic planning that identifies needs that can only be met by means of a campaign? As counter-intuitive as it may sound, our answer was the former.

We assumed from the beginning that our carefully designed planning would result in some transformative ideas, and that we would therefore need to undertake a campaign. Knowing this allowed us to integrate financial planning into our design process from the start. Key actions across the three-year timeframe included rebranding the annual fund, creating a planned giving program, and intensifying engagement with key donor prospects.

That last piece is critical. How do you know if your key donors will be enthusiastic about your vision if they haven't been involved in creating it? At every step in our process we made intentional decisions about engaging lead prospects in our planning—for example, by attending the 2030 Forum, speaking at TEDx, participating in a discernment dialogue or coming to the Expo. Carefully designing the experience of our donors has led to very positive results in the early stages of our campaign.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Design as a method of strategic planning
  4. Riding the Madonna curve
  5. The MB 2030 forum
  6. Planning by design
  7. What is a strategic plan?
  8. Conclusion

Although Moses Brown is a college preparatory school and not a design school, we are fortunate to be located in a creative hub such as Providence, with access to innovative people and organizations. Observing the design process at work at local enterprises such as AS220, IP. 21, and the Business Innovation Factory, and visiting nearby facilities such as RISD, MIT's Media Lab, and Harvard's iLab, has opened our eyes to ways design can catalyze creative thinking in a prep school setting.

I'm proud of the MB community for embracing the elements of design we've introduced these past several years. In the process, we've empowered a lot of people to be leaders in designing the future of education and establishing innovation and creativity as norms at our school.

My only regret is that it's taken me so long to discover the power of design as a management tool. Looking back on my formal training in education leadership, I think it's a shame that absolutely no attention was paid to how to create a compelling vision or how to motivate and energize people around real and lasting change. I have the design world to thank for that knowledge.