A conversation with Julie Schell, Executive Director of Learning Design, Effectiveness and Innovation at UT Austin’s College of Fine Arts
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
“There’s an unprecedented demand for design thinking right now,” says Dr. Julie Schell. And during this exciting moment, Julie is at the center of one university’s quest to teach this powerful toolkit to the next generation of learners.
Julie is a faculty member at a fairly new school at the University of Texas Austin — the School of Design and Creative Technologies — where she is also the Executive Director for Learning Design, Effectiveness and Innovation. She oversees all extended and executive education offerings for the new school.
Julie is actively partnering with businesses, nonprofits, K-12, colleges, and universities to design new ways to answer this clamor for design thinking skills. In her first four months, she designed and delivered trainings and programs for several Fortune 500 companies and the Boys and Girls Club of the Austin Area that are transforming business and social change.
Julie’s resume is impressively long, but here are some of the highlights: she’s an academic researcher as well as a prominent learning experience designer who draws on over 20 years of experience in higher education. She has held positions at the nation’s top research universities, including Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard. In 2014, Teachers College at Columbia University identified her as an Early Riser in Higher Education for her original contributions to the field. Her scholarship focuses on incorporating the science of learning into the practice of learning experience design, and therefore teaching and pedagogy.
I recently interviewed Julie and I loved hearing her energetic and unique perspective, which bridges both higher education and corporate innovation.
A beginner’s mind
One memorable fact I learned about Julie upfront is that she loves power and Olympic weightlifting. Part of the reason she is drawn to this pastime is her job: “As an educator, it is crucial for me to remember what it feels like to learn something complex and, as a new learner, to not get it. Most of my students are brand new to design thinking or have minimal experience with it.”
She continued on how these two worlds intersect: “Doing technical lifts well requires a lot of knowledge and skill, not just strength. I am disappointed almost every single time I lift, but I always learn something. I need to remember what it is like to learn something that is new, elusive, and that takes extensive practice to master.”
“I always tell my students to pay very close attention to the moment when they want to give up because that is the moment when the most intense amount of learning is occurring.”
She brings this “beginner’s mindset” to her students. “I always tell my design thinking students to pay very close attention to the moment when they want to give up because that is the moment when the most intense amount of learning is occurring.”
“When I get frustrated when I miss a lift, I try to eat my own dog food. When I’m trying to lift something extremely heavy and my brain says ‘No, I just can’t.’ I ask myself, ‘What would you tell your students if they said that?’”
This is an intriguing notion to noodle on — how can we push and challenge ourselves outside of our work-life to enrich our work? How can our hobbies or passions bring new outlooks on what we do?
Outmoded educational models
As mentioned up front, Julie is part of a significant shift happening in higher education; universities are trying to catch up and teach the skills needed in our new world of startups, entrepreneurship, design, and innovation. In many ways, this shift is in its infancy — higher education is still fairly old-fashioned in its methodologies.
Julie explained: “There are some things that have changed a lot in higher education, but there are other things that have stayed relatively the same. I once heard this analogy: if a physician from the 1600s walked into a surgery right now and tried to use the tools, they would be disoriented. But, if a teacher walked into a classroom, on even our most innovative higher education campuses, they’d know exactly what to do. Our approaches to teaching are very similar to what they were 400 years ago.”
“Our approaches to teaching are very similar to what they were 400 years ago.”
Historically, lectures have been considered the most efficient way to educate masses of people: “It’s an archaic model that focuses on the transmission of information. That’s very transactional. Then, we’re going to send [students] out in the world and they’re going to have to think and they’re going have to figure out problems that they’ve never seen before. We’re not really setting them up to do that.”
In response, programs like Julie’s at UT’s School of Design and Creative Technologies are experimenting with more immersive approaches to teaching: “I’m enamored by how a colleague of mine at the School of Architecture, Professor Tamie Glass, is teaching a studio class that I think exemplifies the power of experiential learning. Her students are matched with an organization trying to solve a living, breathing design problem. I think that kind of model — where students experience what they will face when they go out into the world — is the future of higher education and we should be doing more of it. I am focused on bringing the rigor of the academic experience our undergraduates receive to our corporate learners as well.”
The demand for design thinking
Just as higher education is looking at how to answer the demand for design thinking, so are organizations of all types. Julie shared: “Design thinking is having its moment in history. If you look at Google trends, it’s been at its peak in terms of popularity. The people who want it are non-designers. They’re people who aren’t going to be educated in formal design classrooms. They’re people who are in businesses.”
The people seeking design thinking training are not what might be assumed: “They’re not designers per se. We’ve got all of these nonexperts who want to learn to impact the world, and design thinking can do that — when it’s learned and then applied effectively. [It’s] people who are in nonprofits who are trying to solve really wicked problems like police brutality or campus sexual assault. Or corporate leaders who want to innovate in new and exciting ways. And if they learn design thinking, learn it well, and they’re able to apply it, they will radically transform their organizations. They’ll outperform competitors and they’ll change people’s lives.”
“We’ve got all of these nonexperts who want to learn to impact the world, and design thinking can do that — when it’s learned and then applied effectively.”
Of course, there’s not enough time, space, or funding for all the people who want design thinking skills to enroll in the School of Design and Creative Technologies’ programs at UT. Julie talked about how people want these skills and: “They want it accelerated. They want to learn how to do design thinking really quickly. They want it in their homes, on their computers, self-paced, without human interaction.”
There is not only a supply and demand issue but a gap in how to get people the right training. Julie pointed to this difficulty because design thinking is so much about hands-on activities and collaboration: “To learn human-centered design you have to be with humans. You can’t be watching a video, right?”
Structure and support, not ideas
I also picked Julie’s brain on some of the downfalls she’s seen with organizations who are entering the innovation space: “One thing that really gets in my craw is when leaders think that innovation is just coming up with a good idea. Most leaders and managers are sophisticated enough to know that innovation is more than just a good idea. But in practice, it is pretty rare to see organizations that understand that innovation happens by design, not by an apple falling on someone’s head.”
“It is pretty rare to see organizations that understand that innovation happens by design, not by an apple falling on someone’s head.”
She identifies structure and support as key to innovation. “I’ve seen some organizations where leadership states that a core value proposition is innovation or that it’s a top strategic priority, but then provide zero infrastructure for innovation.”
“The human beings in these organizations whose jobs are to ‘innovate or die’ are put in impossible positions. You have talented people who are clamoring to change the world and have an impact, but all the leashes of the current business practice hold them back.”
Heros don’t work
Another issue that Julie sees is that companies don’t have the right incentive structures for supporting innovation. “The people who are responsible for innovation are measured by ROI and not by the number of things that they’ve tried. I think there should be a structure that rewards people for coming up with ideas, trying them, prototyping them, and being experimental.”
“That’s not how innovation works. A hero can’t fight the performance engine.”
Additionally, Julie believes that innovation can not be done alone or by one “superstar”: “I can’t stand when [organizations] pick a hero to come in. That’s the surefire way to know that an organization is not ready to innovate. That’s not how innovation works. A hero can’t fight the performance engine.”
Are you ready?
The need for cultural change is huge for companies who want to innovate: “Culturally, organizations don’t know how to collaborate. They don’t know how to get people to give feedback, or take feedback in a way that can be heard.”
Because of some of these cultural gaps, Julie has been thinking about the idea of ways to gauge “innovation readiness.” Can we assess if a company is ready to work in this new way?
“I think people need to assess their innovation readiness before they start doing an innovation project. We’re setting people up for failure because the organization doesn’t have the infrastructure to support innovation.” She shared some of the questions she would ask: “How good are your employees with dealing with ambiguity? How much are your employees teaching themselves? Are there hierarchies?”
Julie is changing the way students and organizations are working here in my hometown of Austin and it’s super exciting. As a parting gift, I’ll leave you with Julie’s short-and-sweet innovation ‘silver bullets’: “Empathy and project management.”
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.