Three Days of Design, Community, and Collaboration
April 25, 2016 |
We bring together the best of both worlds in the learning design for our Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy. In addition to taking online courses on social impact, students attend a three-day convening at the University of Pennsylvania to meet one another in-person.
In designing the gathering, our team focused on three learning outcomes:
(1) Teach students a method to generate new ideas for old problems
(2) Solidify a community of changemakers
(3) Identify concrete steps to advance the students’ social impact work at home
Here’s what we learned and what surprised us.
Discovering New Methods for Innovation
Many organizations and changemakers focus on their vision for scale. This makes sense, as they observe big problems in the world, which require big solutions. Our challenge as leaders of social initiatives is more difficult than merely scaling a business or scaling our reach to the furthest corners of the earth: our challenge is to scale our social impact.
We partnered with Em Havens from IDEO U, to lead the group in a crash course in Design Thinking (a method for developing new ideas that help address entrenched, complex problems) and to bring together a unique training experience for our students to learn new methods to develop innovative solutions.
Through a series of hands-on experiences, Em showed the students that Design Thinking may look messy and nonlinear, but is focused on deeply understanding the needs, beliefs, and values of those whom we design for and with. The goal is to generate new ideas that intersect with human desirability (addresses a human need), viability (includes a sustainable business model), and feasibility (is technically possible).
Obsession With Scale
Design Thinking teaches us that in order to scale our impact, we need to first demonstrate that our intervention improves the life of at least one person. Before we scale, we must focus on understanding and benefiting a small group. Using the How Might We framework from IDEO for building understanding, we challenged our students to think critically about their own work and how their ideas, products, or services improve the experience of even just one person. Only from that understanding can we truly scale.
Yet, improving a life is not an easy task. As recently as the day before our convening, The New York Times published an op-ed about how challenging it is for motivated laypeople to have a meaningful impact. Respected organizations also consistently fail, as illustrated by the Red Cross’s post-earthquake disaster relief effort to build shelters in Haiti and the challenges of the One Laptop per Child program to empower children to learn without teachers.
The good news is that coming up with innovative ideas is a learned skill that can be developed through a method – one that commits to understanding the problem from diverse perspectives, empathizing deeply with those who face it, and collaboratively brainstorming and iteratively testing lots and lots of ideas with those communities. While there are many approaches to developing new ideas, they all share these common principles: empathy, diversity, participation, and iteration.
In training our students in the design thinking process, we hope that the work they do back home is transformational, collaborative, contextual, and sustainable. We find that in-person practice in Design Thinking catalyzes participants to get engaged, re-engaged, and re-energized for collaborating directly with the people they work for.
If you’re interested in reading more about Design Thinking, check out Tim Brown’s Change by Design, the IDEO Design Kit, A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink, and an article from Harvard Business Review about the art of How Might We.
Building Communities Through Stories
Each one of the 68 participants in the 2016 Executive Program is working to improve their communities. Building communities is an imperative process for anyone looking to make a social impact. This belief drives why we train our students with different methodologies for learning from one another and making new connections.
In order to learn new ways to get to know our communities back home and make a sustainable impact – whether it be an advisory board, a group of beneficiaries, or a set of funders – we practiced by learning about each other and establishing our own community.
In an exercise framed around “The Story of You,” students were prompted to tell stories of what drives what they do and how they arrived at this event. While listening to one another, participants observed and identified overlapping themes in each of their stories. They described obligations to family, to their mission, and to give back in gratitude for their own privileges and opportunities. Most interestingly, many students described their internal struggles, moments of personal grief or failure, professional frustrations, and questions about purpose and how best to turn empathy into meaningful action. At the end of the experience, we generated a collective list of values forming a larger narrative, the “Story of Us” as a community of individuals working together to make an impact in our local contexts.
Lessons from Social Entrepreneurs & Intrapreneurs
Our program brings together a diverse group of individuals working to make social impact in different ways. Some students are launching and running a social enterprise. Others are working in a for-profit or nonprofit organization and looking to innovate change within their company. Others are interested in learning more about the social innovation field.
We invited three guest speakers to share their unique perspective with this audience of students. Chris Waters, Executive Program alumnus, described his progress and challenges offering banking services to unbanked people in Newark, Delaware. Megan Rosenbach, Executive Program alumna, described how the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, where she is Education Director, absorbed Cadence Youth Cycling. These engaging talks ended with a keynote by a Philadelphia-based social entrepreneur, Morgan Berman. She shared her lessons founding MilkCrate, an environmentally-responsible, hyper-local consumer business locater.
Morgan taught us:
(1) Everything you need is all around you.
(2) Brag. Getting good buzz can make all the difference.
(3) Find your angels.
(4) Fail each day and be obsessed with figuring out why.
(5) Never shy away from shameless self-promotion. When someone hands you a megaphone, use it.
(6) Be coachable. That means being humble and willing to learn.
(7) Let go. Even if it’s your baby, it’s your team’s baby too. Let them control the thing you built together.
(8) Visualize the goal.
You can read the full text of her excellent talk here.
Learning from Failure
Recognizing the general optimism and positivity of the group and the motivation to rise above challenges, Cosmo Fujiyama (CSIS Director of Programs) encouraged the group to keep at heart their points of pain, not as reminders of failure but as drivers to learn how to move forward. During a session on acknowledging, learning from, and moving on from failure, Cosmo referenced Amy Edmondson’s Harvard Business Review article on failure and NPR interview with Adam Grant about his latest book Originals. She challenged participants to recognize that failure is a necessary part of experimentation, to embrace the messenger of failure, and to learn quickly, so we can do better next time. We don’t use the term, “trial and error,” because this implies that there’s a right and wrong answer. Instead, we encourage the right kind of experimentation, whereby we learn quickly and try again, next time, to do it better.
One student Melissa Levy noted how important it is to be transparent about failures. She said “it does us all a disservice to hide our failures” especially in the context of social impact organizations that depend on funds including grants, low-interests loans, or impact investing because it distorts the realism of funders’ and ventures’ expectations of what has been achieved and what can be achieved with a certain level of funding.
Taking it Home
Students spent the day on Saturday getting to know each other better to both solidify their community of social impact learners and change makers, and also to seek feedback on their work at home. Before we all went home from a long day, Executive Student Arturo Fuentes excitedly said, “I got two ideas at dinner, from people outside my field, that I’m going to implement in my work next week.” Executive Student Wayne Meng noted, “I feel an extraordinary level of comfort speaking with people that I only just met for the first time.”
We’ll continue to learn together through August, when we hope to see many of our students return to Penn’s campus for graduation and an alumni summit. In the words of BT Irwin, Executive Education alumnus, “Onward and upward!”
Written by Ariel Schwartz; Edited by Cosmo Fujiyama & Ashton Yount; Photography by Eva Cruz & Emmanuel Afolabi