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

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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