Facilitating and accelerating transformative design journeys in complex organisations, a design thinking based approach

What might an organisation as complex, diverse and decentred as a university do to facilitate and accelerate the process through which its members develop/find, learn about, consider, adopt and adapt design innovations? That’s a question I have been addressing at Warwick – an especially complex environment, in which there are agencies like mine (Academic Technology) who are responsible for improving practice, but at the same time we have very limited powers to direct behaviour. Design agency is highly devolved. Design capabilities are week and disorganised. We are only now beginning to exploit the power of platforms, collaboration and co-production. Staff-student partnerships are especially important in ensuring that new practice fits (with everyone’s needs, interests, styles and capabilities), sticks, spreads and grows.

I am currently helping to set up a large scale initiative aiming to establish staff-student design innovation projects, using participatory design thinking approaches (this is part of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy). The approach is based upon this simplified model – transformative design journeys. We are starting from a point at which many people are habitually carrying through practices (like the conventional lecture) upon which they have not creatively-critically reflected. They are often aware of innovations, and might even be positive towards them, without being able to articulate the details of the innovation or its value. On the one hand we want to help people to go beyond their basic awareness and broadly positive attitude to specific innovations. We want to help them to build “sufficient understanding”, understanding the four key design dimensions (fit, stick, spread and grow) in their own terms, so that they can make informed decisions. But we also need to prompt and facilitate more/better creative-critical reflection on existing practices – while making connections to ensure that the openness to new ideas that follows may lead into the learning process that leads through building sufficient understanding to adoption/adaptation.

And most importantly, we don’t want people to be going through these difficult design-innovation processes alone. We want the loop to become self-sustaining and we want it to revolve around and feed the development of a set of well integrated platforms (digital and physical). Ultimately we want this to help us to achieve our vision of the university as an enabling shared platform, with strong and overlapping communities of practice with shared purpose.

Each transformative design journey may be plotted on this flow chart, with people joining at multiple locations. I use this diagram to help people to reflect upon their own design-innovation activity and to plan their engagements more effectively. As design innovations embed, and individuals are drawn by experience to aspects of the platform, we hope that they will play key roles in the community that supports and develops it. The box on the right represents this platform/community dimension, and the key roles that people can play.

Also notice that four key roles are deployed across the flow. These are the four essential roles for facilitating people through the process: informed advocate (someone who can help you really understand the nature and value of a design innovation), technical facilitator (who can help you experience the innovation, adopt and adapt), creative-critical friend (helps you to reflect), design participant (helps us to design practices and the platform).

In the context of our staff-student partnership work, I have seen how students can play all of these roles to great effect. And furthermore, I have followed graduates as they take their experiences in the four roles and build successful post-university careers.

Here is the flow chart, followed by four definitions and descriptions of the key roles (I used these in design thinking workshops).


informed advocatetechnology facilitator

creative critical friend

design participant

Strategy question…

1. Try to connect to, use and enhance personal digital capabilities
2. or create self-contained designed experience for which additional digital skills are not needed?

Informed advocates dialogue cards

All kinds of people can play the role of informed advocate (for technologies and for other new practices). But what exactly do they do to help others understand, select, adopt and adapt new practices? Flip through these dialogue cards (made with h5p) to find out.

30 aspects of learning and teaching that can be enhanced with technology

In preparation for some design thinking workshops, I have compiled a list of good reasons that people give for changing practice (often through the application of technology). My aim is to illustrate the breadth of the tweaks that we can make. There are of course many more possibilities than are listed here.

  1. Enhance student engagement – physical, emotional, cognitive.
  2. Enhance teacher engagement – physical, emotional, cognitive.
  3. Reduce resource consumption – time, money, materials.
  4. Widen participation in higher education or a specific discipline.
  5. Widen/enrich opportunities (including global connections).
  6. Improve feedback and dialogue on design/delivery with students and others.
  7. Enable real-world impact for student work – academia, business, social, political etc.
  8. Develop transferable and enduring student capabilities.
  9. Ensure students understand the value of their learning.
  10. Explain ideas effectively.
  11. Improve feedback to and dialogue with students.
  12. Assessment that is accurate, relevant, meaningful, appropriate, timely – constructively aligned.
  13. Smooth operation: reduce/eliminate errors, misunderstandings, contentions, inconsistencies.
  14. Speed up and make clearer orientation (where am I in time, space, process etc.).
  15. Improve facilities for students’ independent study.
  16. Improve student and staff welfare – physical, emotional.
  17. Find out what really works and why in teaching and learning – research.
  18. Share knowledge and good practice.
  19. Challenge, disrupt, critique, surpass habits and assumptions.
  20. Create and sustain a community of practice.
  21. Accurately understand my students (capabilities and needs).
  22. Help students to accurately understand themselves.
  23. Allow students to experience otherwise inaccessible experiences.
  24. Facilitate students to make quality objects.
  25. Facilitate students to take managed risks.
  26. Record and track incidents and tasks together.
  27. Ensure fairness and equal opportunities
  28. Identify priorities for action together.
  29. Plan a series of actions together.
  30. Monitor and adjust a plan together.


Student Champions framework published by HEA

The HEA have just published the report that I wrote last year.

Student Champions: a competency framework, process model and developmental approach for engaging students in the enhancement of learning, teaching and the student experience in higher education

This report is based on a collaboration between the Academic Technology Team, LDC, Classics and Life Sciences. It is intended for use by everyone involved in enhancing learning, teaching and the student experience (LTSE) in HE.

The framework describes how students can and do perform essential roles within the enhancement of LTSE – as part of special projects (such as those now funded by WIHEA) and through everyday practice.

A set of intermeshing competencies are described for 9 essential roles:​

  1. informed advocate;
  2. technical facilitator (spaces, learning designs, technologies etc.);
  3. social facilitator;
  4. admin process facilitator;
  5. project facilitator;
  6. creative-critical friend;
  7. researcher;
  8. horizon watcher and visionary;
  9. design participant.

The framework demonstrates how all of these competencies are essential for a continual enhancement process, so as to ensure that innovations fit with the needs and ambitions of their users, stick for a reasonable length of time, spread to more people and more contexts, and enable continual growth in our capability for further improvements.

The student champion approach (as implemented as Digichamps by WIHEA) encourages staff and students to form teams and work together to develop and apply this full range of competencies.


Problems with the idea of “early adopters”

Some thoughts on the idea of “early adopter” and the negative effects it can have on projects. The term originated with the “diffusionist” perspective in technology and innovation studies (Everett Rogers). There is a diagram at the bottom of this page which characterises this. You will recognise the terms instantly, even if you haven’t read Rogers. They have, along with the model, become default assumptions. My argument is that they might have applied in the 1950s, but the world has changed since then and become far more pluralistic and inventive. Unfortunately using these concepts today can have negative consequences for innovation projects, organisations and people.

My advice is to cultivate wider collaborations with a more representative range of people, through a participatory design thinking approach. Don’t get blinded by early success! Design for adaptability and to foster unexpected applications.

Early adopter bias

Early adopters are often self-identified as such, and furthermore their identities are constituted upon their ability to find newness (and news), which means they are more easily engaged with by innovation projects. Even when we are aware of the limitations inherent in working with them, their readiness to engage can unconsciously skew our actions and perceptions. It can make a small but significant difference to the direction of a project.


By definition (in the work of Everett Rogers) the concept of early adopter implies an inevitability to the spread of the innovation to the early and late majority, and the existence of laggards (who can just be ignored as they are always a nuisance). This can encourage a project team to be too relaxed about the real hard work of getting the design right for the majority, or at least a big enough market.


The original Rogers model (based on agriculture research) assumed that innovation works in a world in which everyone is already following approximately the same practices and striving for the same ends. Innovations are seen as incremental improvements, based on research and advances in technology. Our experience with tech innovation in recent years has been quite different. Technology (and practices in Platform Capitalism) are encouraging radical diversity in practice and aims. The outcomes of innovation projects are increasingly unpredictable, hence the focus upon developing platforms that enable many creative responses by many people and at the same time allow investment to recoup cost and generate value sustainably over longer periods of time.

Cultural centricity

Design an innovation is seen to belong in the studio and the lab. It is associated with the industrial-scientific complex and its twin the disruptive inventor – located somewhere in silicon valley, and populated by young, white, male, europeans. See Lucy Suchman’s article “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design”.

Overview of diffusionist perspective

Overview of diffusionist perspective

The Extended Classroom at Warwick – one year on

The Extended Classroom is our way of making sense of technology enhanced learning for everyone in the campus-centric environment of Warwick University. The guiding principles are that TEL aims to sustain and amplify good teaching and learning practice, using technologies appropriately, with sustainable, scalable, supportable and enduring impact. I started work on this initiative in January 2015. We launched with a fortnight of events in March. And since then we have distributed over 800 sets of the 8 initial Extended Classroom technology cards – describing 7 core tools in plain English terms that get across the basics and the value they can add.

The approach is now well embedded. We are working with other parts of the University, especially the Learning and Development Centre, to take it further – now with the addition of “recipe for success” cards and online information. The recipes specify all the ingredients and the processes necessary to adopt a new technique (e.g. flipped classroom) using the tools. This is all being put together using a course/hub hybrid model in Moodle.

I’ve just created this video giving an updated overview of the initiative (best viewed full screen):