A conversation with Erik Skogsberg, Sarah Gretter, and Jeff Grabill; Authors of Design for Change in Higher Education
“I don’t know whether teacher change issues are any more difficult than others. It’s just where I have experience. I think any time you’re working on… I mean, you know this. People sort of like the idea of change. They just don’t want to. And anytime you’re working with really talented experts, human beings accustomed to tremendous autonomy, that’s a really difficult room. And so the challenge for… In the educational technology version of me, the challenge was people realized that to use this technology well, they had to teach differently. And that forces all sorts of questions, not about practice necessarily, but about identity. I was like, oh, wait a minute. I thought I was pretty good at what I did. And now, maybe I’m entertaining the possibility that I could be better. And working through those identity issues, I think are really difficult.” –Jeff Grabill
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Erik Skogsberg, Sarah Gretter, and Jeff Grabill about their experience helping Higher Education organizations with design more impactful learning experiences. They share a handful of the unique challenges of designing change in Higher Education as well as similarities with other change initiatives. Later, they share how to create the conditions for sustainable longterm change within organizations. We then discuss the importance of having a shared vocabulary to help all the stakeholders communicate during change initiatives.
[2:00] How The Team Came Together To Write Their Book.
[11:05] Unique Challenges Of Designing Change In Education.
[26:04] The Benefits Of Design As A Mental Model In Change.
[30:02] Designing Temporary Worlds Where People Can Never Be The Same.
[37:55] The Three Elements Of Sustained Change.
Links | Resources
Erik on Linkedin
Sarah on Linkedin
Jeff on Linkedin
About the Guest
Erik Skogsberg: Erik believes that a deep empathy and caring, rooted in human-centered design, systems thinking, and futures thinking best supports partners in finding their solutions. Erik is passionate about supporting clients imagining innovative approaches to complex organizational challenges.
Trained as an educator, designer, researcher, and change agent, he brings significant teaching, design, mentoring, professional learning and development, organizational change, and research experiences from across secondary, higher education, non-profit, and industry contexts. Whether working with individuals, teams, or organizations, he helps people design lasting growth and innovation. Prior to working with Voltage Control, he co-founded Michigan State University’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, an internal design consultancy focused on learning experience design, innovation, and organizational transformation.
He earned his B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University, M.A.T. in Secondary English Education from Brown University, and Ph.D. from Michigan State University in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education.
Sarah Gretter: Dr. Sarah Gretter is the Director of the Apple Developer Academy with Michigan State University in Detroit. She holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University and a PhD in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. Prior to this role, Sarah was the Associate Director at the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology at Michigan State University. Her work integrates design thinking with entrepreneurship in higher education in order to create learning experiences that prepare learners for 21st century realities.
Jeff Grabill: I am the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Student Education at the University of Leeds, where I lead the University’s overall education strategy. I’m responsible for promoting teaching excellence and innovation, establishing Leeds as an international leader in the pedagogy and scholarship of research- led education and research-based learning, and as a centre for the development and dissemination of exciting and innovative teaching practice. Prior to Leeds, I was a faculty member and the Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Michigan State University. I am also a co-founder of Drawbridge, an educational technology company.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes, while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com.
Today, I’m with Eric Skogsberg, Sarah Gretter, and Jeff Grabill, the authors of Design for Change and Higher Education, a playbook that grounds theory in practice that is aimed at faculty, staff, and students engaged in the important work of imagining new forms of education. Welcome to the show, y’all.
Jeff: Oh, thank you.
Sarah: Thank you.
Douglas: Wow. It’s such a pleasure for me to have three brilliant people. Usually, I only have one person, and not all of them are as up to the standards of academia, so really excited to have a lively bunch here.
Jeff: Well, probably they’re not as good looking as we are either.
Douglas: Well, no one can tell, so-
Sarah: That will remain a secret.
Jeff: That’s right. That’s why I said it
Douglas: So good. Yes. The mystery has been set here. So I want to get started hearing a little bit about how you all got started in this work of change in higher ed.
Jeff: Sarah, you want to go first?
Sarah: Of course, Jeff. So I met Eric in grad school at Michigan State University, and him and I were already working around higher education spaces and trying to shake things up already back in grad school. I met Jeff as a potential employer actually, after my PhD through Eric. And Jeff, at the time, was directing the hub for innovation and learning and technology at Michigan State University that Eric had also joined. And so I joined the team few years in, and we realized that it was time to bring our minds together to document all the work that we had been doing at the hub in those past years.
Eric: Thinking back, some of the conversations that led to all this collaboration began pretty early on, Jeff, as I was going through my program, and just kind of talking about different things that were working, were not working in the experience and sort of the larger work of doing higher education. And so a lot of those conversations began even before the hub. And then when there was this opportunity to create this space, we reconnected and started getting those pieces launched, as Sarah and I were talking too, at about the same time. It was kind of this convergence of… At each point, we’d had multiple conversations about wanting to make some shifts to redesign what could be, and we were in all interested at the right time, I guess.
Jeff: Yeah, I think that I got lucky. I’m the old man. I got lucky that I met two smarter younger people at the right time. And in some respects, I’ve been working on educational change initiatives at smaller scales, almost my entire academic career. And I think the pivot moment for me with regard to scale was, my research group invented an educational technology by mistake, and we spun it out into an educational technology company. And the point of that was, we found ourselves in the teacher change business at scale. I’d done teacher professional development work, in terms of pedagogical innovation and transformation throughout my career, but all of a sudden, we were working with hundreds of teachers and tens of thousands of students and understanding that being in the educational technology business meant that we are in the teacher change business, which is a miserable business.
It’s really difficult work and has to be done thoughtfully and carefully. And then that became… Part of that was the reason why the provost asked me to take on an explicit innovation portfolio at Michigan state. And the hub was an answer to a question, which was, what sort of capacity do we think we need to build to support colleagues, students, and faculty alike, imagining a different kind of university at scale? And so the hub was not… It was not a creature of a strategic plan or some sort of waterfall. It was an emergent iterative design that benefited tremendously from having people like Eric and Sarah in leadership positions.
Douglas: It’s really fascinating, this idea of being in the work of teacher change. And you talked about that being really difficult. And I find that all change is fairly difficult, especially if you are really embracing the emergent phenomenon and trying to find the true path. So I’m curious if you found that teacher changed to be especially hard, and why that stands out relative to other change efforts.
Jeff: That’s an interesting question. I’ll go first. I don’t know whether teacher change issues are any more difficult than others. It’s just where I have experience. I think any time you’re working on… I mean, you know this. People sort of like the idea of change. They just don’t want to. And anytime you’re working with really talented experts, human beings accustomed to tremendous autonomy, that’s a really difficult room. And so the challenge for… In the educational technology version of me, the challenge was people realized that to use this technology well, they had to teach differently. And that forces all sorts of questions, not about practice necessarily, but about identity. I was like, oh, wait a minute. I thought I was pretty good at what I did. And now, maybe I’m entertaining the possibility that I could be better. And working through those identity issues, I think are really difficult. And I think we found that to be true at Michigan State at scale, and it’s certainly true here at Leeds where we’re doing educational transformation at even bigger scale than what we tried at Michigan State.
Sarah: I’d say the difficulty is part of entering a very complex human centered ecosystem in education, right? It involves not only just the learners, but the teachers, the parents, the families, and then adding to that rigid systems and structures that have been in place for decades, if not centuries, that doesn’t necessarily align with the need of those human beings or the changes that those human beings need to make in order to adapt to their current realities.
Eric: And people come in. There’s so much that folks want from education, from an education, all those constituencies and stakeholders of which the teacher and the student. That’s one part of the relationship, but society wants things from an education, businesses want things from an education. So you’re working with all these multiple constituencies that are either present or in the background, but influential. And those really do have an influence on that identity piece and what people believe they need to do or should be doing in that space.
Sarah: Especially because it’s not a neutral playground at all, right? It’s not a system or a space that you design at your will. There are political challenges, there are societal challenges, like you said, Eric, economic challenges that all influence what education or teaching and learning look like in the very time and space that you’re working and changing it.
Douglas: The identity piece comes up a ton in change efforts at large, regardless of industry, place, regardless of the desired change. And, Jeff, you mentioned this idea of them thinking they need to be better. And I’ve often seen even just struggling with their identity changing in some way, because they’ve spent years and years identifying as A, and now after this change, they might have to be a B, or whatever. There’s some transition they’re going to have to go through. And that can be scary, especially if they don’t understand what that means, or if it even means that there’s a place for them there in the future.
Jeff: No, I think that’s exactly right. Scary is the right word, because… So to focus on where we are at the University of Leeds, every single program of study, everybody responsible for every single program of study has been invited to think about what the future version of that program of study might be. And the first reaction, which we experience at Michigan State in various ways is, well, what’s wrong with what we’re doing? What problem do we need to fix as distinct from what opportunity might we try to realize? And there’s all sorts of identity issues in the problem stance. I mean, we had a spectacular failure at Michigan State trying to work with a department to do a course transformation where they were clearly disadvantaging certain populations of students. And instead of entertaining the conversation, because it put them… Identity wise, they had to consider the fact that they were doing harm in a domain where they thought that they were doing good in the world.
Instead of en en engaging the conversation in particular way, they spent a year proving us wrong by running all sorts of different data and analytics to show that, in fact, that was just a normal distribution of outcomes in that particular learning experience. So there’s fear and threats all around the kind of design work and change work that we’ve been involved in, including, surprisingly to me, but I should get over my surprise, the possibilities of a really remarkably imaginative future that they can own, because it’s an unknown, right? And so the thing that I know is always a little bit safer than the thing that I can’t predict.
Eric: Well, also interesting there, I think it came up at multiple points for us, was how uncomfortable faculty, teachers, educators were in engaging in a learning experience themselves, right? This identity shift or getting an institution of higher ed to think of itself as a learning institution and that that’s just a key part of the process, but to see folks be that uncomfortable at points with… It’s okay for students maybe to be going through this learning process, but to take that up as educators, right? Which is so key in that relationship there, and in any sort of change, which… Yeah.
Sarah: I think when your identity, though, has been rewarded in certain ways, by a system that incentivizes you to produce publications or teach in a certain way, and your tenure promotion reappointment is based on that identity, fitting that mold, asking them to embrace that messy and non-linear process is extremely difficult and asks for so much vulnerability that, in return, is not necessarily rewarded. So I think we see, and we’ve seen in the past, faculty, or even whole departments that we’re ready to embrace that, and others that were refraining from it entirely. I’ve had faculty members say, “I will not participate in this project because this will go against what I am trying to achieve with my tenure process. Therefore, I refuse to be part of this.” So there’s been a mix of different approaches to that, but I think the second you touch on somebody’s identity within that system and how it’s been rewarded or will be rewarded, it becomes extremely difficult for us to help them accomplish that change or guide them towards that change.
Douglas: Sarah, how have you found incentives to play a role in the work that you’re doing? You talk about the incentives being a problem. Have you used them as a tool to think about incentivizing the behaviors you do want, or even just being… maybe pointing out light onto how the incentives aren’t serving us?
Sarah: We did in some cases, and Jeff has worked, at the leadership level, to change some of those systems in some ways. At the smaller scale, if you will, for specific projects, we did manage to have specific faculty get a letter of recommendation from our unit to include in their review packets, for instance. It wasn’t always necessarily enough to help change that perception overall, but I think in some cases, it did. There are other projects that we led at the hub, for instance, like rethinking the evaluation process that all teaching faculty have to go through as part of that tenure review promotion and reappointment that, for instance, hadn’t been changed in 16 years, in terms of the technology that we used to administer teaching course evaluations, but also the policy itself on campus had not been changed since 1979. And so we used that as an incentive to participate in a larger scale project of change for the campus in its entirety. And that was an incentive enough for some faculty and groups on campus to help with that change.
Douglas: So, Eric, I want to bring it back to the point you made around learners and shifting that mindset that we’re not only talking about these undergrad or graduate students that are the learners, but if faculty, if professors can be learners as well. And that mindset shift can be powerful. It also struck me that, wow, if that percolates down to the actual students. That could have a very impactful outcome for them, just this awareness that, “Oh, even in my professional life, I can continue doing this. It is not a matter of getting to this end goal, and I’m there and I’m done.”
Eric: Mm-hmm. Yeah, no, I mean, it models what should be this ongoing process of becoming, and normalizes change, right? Because at its core, designing learning is designing change, right? And if we’re able to model that across a student’s experience, across a faculty member’s experience, across a staff member’s experience that then says that it’s okay to engage in this ongoing growth process, which is good inside and outside of formal educational spaces. I mean, that’s an exciting way to… Or for me, a much more exciting way to approach how we live, and to engage in that ongoing growth process.
Douglas: So speaking of growth, I’m curious how often it came up in your lab and your center, how many different lenses we might have towards growth, because I imagine students come in, they want to learn things that, there’s information that needs to be inserted into brains, but there’s also lots of other kinds of growth that’s happening throughout those years as humans and learning how to become adults in some ways, right? And I’m just curious how much that showed up in your exploration of the change and how to be there for students in those times.
Jeff: Well, one of the principles that we… One of the arguments we make in the book is that universities are designed experiences. And one of the reasons we went to the experience as the focus of our design work was that it was maximally inclusive of the co and extracurricular experiences that students have at university. I mean, one of our catch phrases was students spend 14% of their time in the classroom and the rest of their time at university, and those experiences are as formative and fundamental to their learning as any. And what they’re doing in those experiences and how they’re learning are not exclusively or primarily cognitive. And so you’re absolutely right.
Jeff: In the work that we did in that, particularly in one of the projects that Sarah led to try to wrap our heads around what the transitions in the first year of a student are at that university, we really had to move beyond a more cognitive and more formal education notion of learning and into different ways to understand change and experience, and how experience drives change and the affective, and all of the components of what it means to be a human being. I don’t know if you want to pick that up, Sarah, but it really did stretch faculty, in particular, to think a little bit differently about where change happens in a university experience.
Sarah: Yeah. So it’s about stretching the conception we have of universities, or learning in general, as purely academic and measured by grades, versus considering the social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of what it means to be in school or in an educational experience. It’s a little bit of a top to bottom and bottom up kind of process, to get universities to understand what students need, and for students to enter this university that has specific strategic plans and objectives and its own set of budgetary, political, and systemic issues to work with. So that point of contact is really where the experience, for the students, lives that the university gets to create and the learners get to experience. And there are moments where we realize that the university is thinking of learning and those experiences in certain ways, and students are saying, “Well, I don’t care. I just don’t have AC in my dorm, and that is my main priority right now.”
And so understanding where those things align, or don’t align in a lot of cases, is where most of the design work that we’ve conducted could really happen and really entertain positive conversations amongst all of the partners that were involved in a project.
Eric: And what’s ultimately at stake there is the extent to which we’re actually able to prepare students for life outside of the university space. When there was such a narrow focus on just the academics or just the graded side of things, that’s not serving creating thoughtful, impactful, insightful human beings outside of the university. Seeing the full picture, and helping people see the full picture, does, or certainly leans better in that direction.
Douglas: So we’ve been using the word design a lot, and it shows up in the title of the book. And this is something that we chatted about in the pre-show chat, around why design. And before y’all jump into explaining that, I also want to just encourage you to maybe give the listener a little bit of a lens in what’s the difference between the color of the sofa or how we lay out a brochure, type of, what I call little D design versus big D design. So maybe, why design, when we’re thinking about this change? And what is this bigger concept of design, versus just what color should this thing be?
Jeff: Yeah. I really want to hear Eric and Sarah take this one up, because I think we’re going to have sort of different takes on this.
Sarah: A little different.
Sarah: Well, I think for the title of the book, we really played with the word design as both a noun and a verb, which gives it kind of an encompassing look at how, I think, all three of us see that, right? So there’s design in the sense of the plan, what you see in front of you, and that’s the design of an experience or a learning experience in this particular context, and there’s design as a verb that really holds that accountability and the intentionality behind that plan. And I think that is really central to all of the work that we’ve done together at the hub and in our current positions, to bring design together in a way to both intentionally create something new or recreate something that needed changed, but also lay out that plan in front of stakeholders in order to get that buy-in and participate in that change.
Eric: Yeah. I mean, Sarah, when you say create there, I just think how much, for me, design is about imagining a different way forward or a better way to go about things, and then enacting and creating the conditions through which we get there, right? Whether that’s a learning experience or experiences in industry spaces, it’s all about kind of creating more optimal futures, right? And in this case, we were focusing in on putting the right conditions together for creating a much better learning and growth experience for students, both inside and outside of classroom spaces. So there’s a lot of, I don’t know, imagining and creating the future, when it comes down to it. And for all of us, we come from… It’s interesting, we share some disciplinary lineages here that at their core, whether it’s rhetoric or ed psych or teacher education. So much of that, at its core, is about imagining and designing something different or better.
Jeff: I’m not so sure about the ed psych stuff. I mean [inaudible 00:23:02].
Sarah: [inaudible 00:23:02]
Eric: I’ll let Sarah-
Sarah: Jeffrey. Okay, let’s hear it from you, Jeffrey.
Jeff: No, it’s… When she’s calling me Jeffrey, I’m in trouble, so [inaudible 00:23:12].
Sarah: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes.
Jeff: It’s interesting. I mean, when we started to imagine this thing that became the hub, it didn’t start with, “Oh, we need to build a design team.” It started with the recognition of something that I think is true in higher education, and likely true in every organization. And that is, when you put the same people in the same rooms using the same processes, you get the same outcomes. And so we needed to change, ideally, all three of those variables. And the way we thought we needed to do it, after a lot of conversation, was to find ways that are more inclusive and participatory, and to work in different ways. And so we settled on design practices, and then sort of fiddled our way through that, because we wanted to create opportunities to, for people to think differently, to arrive at different outcomes. So that opening bit was really sort of terribly important, in a way which is participatory and inclusive.
And it’s the participatory and inclusive part which I think is fundamentally why we move towards design and why design is what we think of as the most optimal way to facilitate change in higher education. These are cultures and institutions that are wildly disaggregated, distributed, populated by people who think they’re free agents. And so getting that kind of a community to get together, and to produce something productive and different, requires an emphasis on new processes that are participatory and inclusive, and also a commitment to making things. So I think we came to that later, and it’s probably the hardest part. The inquiry and the opening up and the imaginative part of our design work was relatively easy. Educators are good at that. It’s the analytical making and iterating part which took a lot of courage, particularly to do it at pace, to do it quickly and not slowly.
So I think the work we did at Michigan State, I think that that’s fundamentally the answer to why design. It’s a complicated place, but there’s enough disciplinary expertise in every higher education institution to do it. I mean, one of the interesting things about higher education is, all of the things we need to do design work in those institutions already lives there. What’s necessary is some imagination, some leadership to pull that capacity together in a new way.
Sarah: I think the design aspect of how we chose to approach the work, like you said, Jeff, brings together what universities are really good at, research, documentation, and really a deep understanding of a topic or a context. But design brings in that sense of urgency that I was talking to Eric about earlier, and brings in a language that facilitates that messiness and that non-linearity that academics are used to at pace. And that’s really key, right? I always joke that university years are like dog years. You have to multiply by seven for any conversation to actually happen at pace. And then to link that change or that conversation to a rigid system that takes a long time to accomplish or execute things, is really where design helped push, sometimes just baby steps, in the right direction, but helped push some of that system altogether.
Jeff: I want to pick up something really quickly that was in your question about why design, and it’s what we design. So we don’t design brochure layouts. One, I think the most important chapter in the book is the chapter on conversations. So we think that what we designed at the hub, and what my team here at the University of Leeds is learning how to design is a conversation. And so patterns for how colleagues and students talk with each other. And so there’s all sorts of issues of language, there’s issues of rhythm, there’s issues of what are the boundaries of the conversation. What are the facilitation techniques that are required to open that conversation and then bring it to certain kinds of closes? So we designed conversations. What our colleagues designed were things like syllabi and modules and curricula and programs. And so our job was to design the conversation that was sufficient to get them where they needed to be to make the things that they needed to make as outcomes of that design work.
Douglas: Yeah. It strikes me too, is the maturity of the program, as well as the people that are in the program, how far along have they come with will dictate at what point in the conversation you’re in, because you mentioned this commitment to making things. And so if they’re struggling with that, you have to design a conversation that makes them more comfortable with that.
Sarah: Yes. And that goes back to that idea of identity and change, right?
Jeff: Yeah. To give you a good example of that, the best work… I’m going to say the best work that Sarah did, but it’s probably not the best work that Sarah did. But some really interesting work that Sarah did was… And it’s in the book. It’s one of my favorite examples, is the work that she did with our French department that was stuck. They were just stuck. And Sarah put together, without speaking French, which she of course can do.
Jeff: I had to do that. You know I had to do that.
Sarah: Of course.
Jeff: She designed a simple little elegant conversation for them that got them unstuck. And once they were unstuck, they ran with it. They didn’t need Sarah anymore. They liked having her around because she’s fun to be around, but they didn’t really need her anymore. And so it was a really elegant bit of conversation design, and I thought it was really remarkable for its simplicity.
Sarah: Designing conversations takes into account power and authority, who is “at the table” to make those decisions. And that’s definitely a lot of the work. Eric and I would spend hours at the hub designing facilitations or sessions or conversations where we would look at every single outcome, we would look at the arc of that conversation, where we wanted to end that meeting or that facilitation, and really using, I think in both our cases, Eric, our teacher mindset to really guide the conversation, let it flow, but at the same time, keep track of the outcome in mind. And I think we learned a lot from those facilitations and how to design those conversations with co participatory or participatory processes in mind at the same time.
Eric: Which hopefully at their best, then people were never the same because of it. We talked in the hub quite a bit about this. Douglas, we talk a lot in our work about this, that so much of what we do is designing a temporary world or a temporary organization for folks that, because of what they experience there, they can never be the same, because they’ve been able to glimpse something different, whether it’s the French faculty and of our other projects there that they’ve been able to see that they’re capable of a different way of working together. And because of that, they want more, right? And hopefully, that continues to [inaudible 00:30:45].
Jeff: Or they get terrified by this temporary world that allows them to imagine-
Jeff: … being different.
Eric: That’s right.
Sarah: That too.
Sarah: That too. We’ve had those too. And I think that it goes back to that idea of, the conversation itself is only one piece of the puzzle, right? And within that system of change, without either Jeff’s support as a leader at the university or their own unit’s leadership to incentivize or support the change, those conversations would just end in the space that we would have them and not continue. So really, the conversations were just enablers of that change. Even though there were key pivotal point of them, there were just still one small piece of the puzzle.
Douglas: Yeah. One critical piece that people miss is sustaining change. You talk about these temporary worlds. And so they have this moment, they have this conversation, but then they go back to working on the paper and getting. “I got to get public…” fixated on the things they’re already doing. And what is this repeated process they can go through to make sure they’re coming back to those thoughts, to those epiphanies they were having, and so it gets totally integrated?
Eric: So much-
Eric: … attention has to be paid to those thresholds, right? And we saw a lot of dissonance, obviously, both within these conversations, and as people went back into their departments and came back, as I said, weren’t lined up and more and more work being done on our end, in terms of orchestrating those thresholds better, which is key in a lot of change efforts.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, Douglas, you, yourself, talk about it in your book, Beyond the Prototype, that magical energy that happens around those conversations. But then when you get back to the office the next Monday, that [inaudible 00:32:40] that energy is completely down, and we go back to the day to day business. And so sustaining that energy and that vision for that future, while still executing on it, I think has been one of the hardest part that… The hub, especially being an internal group to campus, it is been one of the hardest parts for us to navigate. I think we talked a lot about handholding, right? But there’s this need for those groups who want really badly to change or want to ex execute on change to do that on their own once they leave our facilitation or our designed conversations around that change.
Eric: It’s about setting them up as designers themselves, right? And I think that’s a key embedded meta part of the process there, where have to recede into the background and set individuals up, faculty, student, staff, to then continue designing after they leave that focal experience, which is really difficult work.
Douglas: That segues into something I was really curious to hear about from Jeff around… Because sustaining and scaling are kind of cousins, if you will, right? Because if you’ve got a really large organization, you can’t really sustain it if you don’t scale it, and then you can’t scale it, if you don’t sustain it. So they kind of work very well together. And you mentioned just having a really large org that you’re working with, and it’s disaggregated, and there’s free agents. And so I’m just kind of curious, given some of those challenges, what have you found to be good techniques to scale and grow?
Jeff: Hopefully somebody who listens to this gives us the answer to that question. So I mean, Sarah and Eric will appreciate the terrifying scale of the work at Leeds. I mean, we struggled to resource a project portfolio at Michigan State, which is a 10th of the coming project portfolio at the University of Leeds. And so one of the really interesting problems that we’re going to have to solve is that braiding together of sustainability and scale. In other words, we can’t facilitate with the depth at scale at Leeds. We can’t do it. And so we’re going to have to try to, we are trying to develop sort of lighter touches and more architecture to distribute the agency for the design work more broadly, which means that we’re including more people, so people with dean roles and sort of school level or department level education roles to be some of the sort of facilitators or keepers of the rhythm that needs to happen.
And the design expertise here is low. I mean, we have an excellent school of design, one of the best in the world, but the learning design expertise, there’s relatively little of that. And so we’re trying to do something at scale with less expertise than we need and fewer people than we need. The irony of that is we might just figure out sustainability. We struggled with it at Michigan State. We did it at Michigan State, and we did have some sustainable interventions, that we’re quite proud of, our colleagues for executing, but the sustainability here will have to come from a different way of working. And my hope… We have to get beyond hope, but my hope right now is, because a broader group of faculty are interested in and will have to carry the work, they’ll own it in a way that sometimes departments at Michigan State didn’t own the work that we did.
Jeff: So I guess where I’m rambling in my answer is towards the kind of double edged sword that’s emerging here at Leeds around scale and sustainability, that we have some structural problems that will make it more difficult for us to scale the work, but where we’re successful, I think it might be more sustainable.
Sarah: And I think those are elements that we touched on when we were all together, writing the book and working at the hub, but there’s other elements to design that are as central to the process that we don’t don’t necessarily talk about, but I think we were starting to really understand. And it’s a combination of building trust, right? Trust is essential to any change work, and in design, in particular, especially in institutions that have been hurt in the past, or where leadership has not necessarily put their faculty or staff at the forefront of those changes. It’s also a combination of storytelling with that, right? Jeff and I talk about that quite a bit, especially in the work he does at Leeds. The story that you tell around the change needs to happen proactively, not retroactively, after the change has occurred, so that you build that trust around how people see themselves as part of that story, right?
So that we’re building together, the earlier you bring in the storytelling aspect into the mix, the more you build trust and the more you build relationships around a common goal, and then finally that will speak to any academic assessment, right? Then you need to add some measure of that change that helps people and those agents that are part of conducting and executing the change to “prove.” You can never prove, but you can show that there are markers of success that we are hitting along the way. And I think it’s a combination of those elements, along with the design process altogether, that really helps individual faculty, but also larger groups and institutions to sustain that change in a way that really is participatory, but also able to manage long term, other impact or changes. We’re not immune to another pandemic or anything else that will hit us along the way. So those are really core elements to any functions of change in an institution.
Douglas: So I wanted to, in our closer here, shift gears a little bit and kind of maybe go up a few levels and talk about why this is important to organizations. Why is this so imperative? And the thing that came to mind for me was jobs to be done. And often with the jobs to be done framework, you can find or analyze that there’s competitors that might not seem like competitors. A naive analysis might say that, “Oh, someone’s thinking about going to MSU, then maybe Stanford is a competitor, right? But when we get into the world of change, and the world of how everything’s rapidly evolving, and we really take a look at like… What are the students really trying to accomplish through either this cognitive learning or these lived experiences? What are the alternatives? What are those competitors? And so anyway, that’s a long lead up to, why is this important? And where might students go elsewhere? What are the things that universities need to be thinking about as far as what’s the real competition, and how do we design for this change?
Jeff: That’s a great question.
Sarah: It’s one of Jeff’s favorite questions.
Jeff: It’s one of my favorite questions. Sarah, Eric, you’ll love this. I was in a meeting with a school department here at Leeds, just prior to this, and one of the questions that they’re asking themselves as part of their design work is, why Leeds? Which was the question that I tried to get Michigan State to take seriously as a legitimate question. I think there’s a few things. And US higher education, large chunks of the country, in the United States, face some demographic challenges. So we have a university system that’s bigger than our student population, particularly if we think about them in sort of traditional aged learners of 18 to 24. If we start thinking about lifelong learning, then that gets more interesting, but most universities are not architected or designed for lifelong learning. They’re designed for faculty to do research, and they’re designed to address the learning needs of students at a particular point in their lives.
And so demography is a real challenge that universities will have to take seriously with regard to their ability to compete. I’m more comfortable that universities can compete with some of the other adjacent or possible competitors, like Google and other kinds of technology providers. They’ll provide learning in that lifelong, and do provide learning opportunities, in that lifelong span, but universities are special institutions. There’s a reason why they’ve been around for a really long time. They do change. It’s not that they don’t change. They do adapt, and have been pretty agile if your time scale is long with regard to adaptations. But the biggest challenge, and universities in the UK, Canada, Australia, US all have a version of this in common, and that is, particularly for research universities, the economic model is not sustainable.
I think the big challenge that every university has, that’s easy for leadership at universities to kick to the next president or the next provost or the next vice chancellor, is to figure out what a sustainable university looks like that can balance the educational mission and the research mission for research institutions in particular, because the math doesn’t work. And everybody knows that the math doesn’t work. And it has societal implications in terms of the student loan debts that have been passed on to, not every generation of students, but just the most recent generation of students. So I think there’s some really hard problems in the fundamental business model, and in the systems, that are really out of university’s control to control, but will place a premium on responsiveness to them.
Eric: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to think of that why question, why any institution, why a higher education, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see. The institutions that are going to remain in competitive, I think will be responsive to this question to this ability to create that next group of change leaders [inaudible 00:43:11]. I just keep thinking about how so much of what we do, or should be doing, is really making it, designing conditions through which students are able to resiliently go through change and growth, and then take that out into the work that they, that they do themselves, and that we’re supporting them in living fulfilling impactful lives, right?
And so I think it’s the institutions that are able to do that. Institutions, businesses, organizations are able to create that. I mean, so much has been going over the last couple of years where folks inside and outside of education and industry spaces are taking stock of what’s going to be most meaningful to them, right? Because so many things have been called into question over the last few years. And so I think the institutions are going to be able to guide, to support students, faculty, staff, in what it means to do that that will remain competitive.
Sarah: We also live in an experience economy, right? So people, whether they’re students or anyone, is expecting experiences, right? You want to walk into a university like you do at Disneyland or at Ikea, and just be there and be guided through the process and enjoy yourself along the way. I think there’s an urgency around that, in the sense that not everything needs to be an experience, but in the sense that most people are looking for that experience, and that forces universities or higher ed institutions to rethink what their value proposition is. The same way Jeff always asks, right? Why would I pay a lot of money to spend four years maybe in the Midwest or somewhere that I don’t necessarily want to be? And for universities to be able to justify the cost, the length of time and all of the other accommodations that involves, that means that they need to play in that same economy and really ramp up the value of that proposition altogether.
Eric: And by doing that, I mean, there’s a lot of fun that we can have in engaging in those ways, and some really powerful answers in through and on the other side of approaching education through that lens.
Douglas: So as we near our end here, I want to make sure to leave y’all with an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought. So maybe we’ll just go around and hear some final thoughts from each of you. Just, what would you like them to keep in mind as they go about their days?
Sarah: We’ve learned a lot along the way. I would encourage anyone to have those conversations with us. We are happy to share any of our processes, thoughts, playbook that come along with the book itself, and really excited and thrilled to engage in those conversations with the listeners. So, reach out to us.
Jeff: Yeah. I’ll build on that. So we wrote a book, but we don’t think we have very many answers. And so we wrote the book as an invitation. It’s an explicit invitation, and I think we try to say that explicitly in the book. We’re trying to open up a conversation, ironically, about learning design, and about design in higher education. And so we think we’re right, we think we’re onto something, but we don’t think we got it right. And so there is a genuine invitation for people. We hope people engage with the book. We hope people engage with the ideas. We hope they disagree. We hope they revise. We hope they adapt. We hope that they add to it, because we think this is an important conversation, and we feel as if we’ve just started it.
Eric: Yeah. I’ll echo there and extend a bit. I think I’m interested to see what uptake and engagement in that conversation looks like inside and outside of higher ed, because I think there are some interesting implications here for how any organization thinks about change, because it has continued to sort of be born out in the ongoing work that we are doing. So much of designing change is designing learning, and vice versa. So I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff we can learn from each other as we’re helping organizations navigate this space, whether it be inside an educational organization or in an industry space. So, looking forward to seeing what that ongoing conversation looks like.
Jeff: That’s a really interesting point, Eric. I mean, I think one of our curiosities, particularly working where you work right now, is whether anybody outside of education will find the ideas and our approach worthwhile, or whether they look at it and say, “Well, no, that’s ridiculous. You got it all wrong.”
Eric: Well, I think, as we’ve talked back and forth before, I think while there are certainly idiosyncrasies to education and educational spaces, we’re not terminally unique. And at the end of the day, we’re helping human beings navigate change, and there’s a lot of similarities shared across organizations. So I think there’s a lot that we can learn from each other there, and that ultimately, that’s going to get us to the best ends.
Douglas: Well, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you all. I’m sure we could go on for hours and hours, and we have to come to an end. So I want to just say, thanks so much, Sarah, Eric, and Jeff for joining me today. And it was lovely hearing from all of you. And excited to have the book come out, and wishing you the best as you sell the book and have more conversations about it.
Sarah: Thank you for having us.
Jeff: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better, voltagecontrol.com.