Strategic Plan Update: Creating the Future of St. Margaret’s Through Design Thinking

In a first major step to implement the strategic plan, Assistant Head of School for Strategic Initiatives Ryan Dahlem unveiled a fresh approach for the school to embark on this crucial work. “St. Margaret’s faculty and staff will engage in the human-centered, design thinking process to conceptualize the programmatic tactics that will achieve the goals of the plan,” said Mr. Dahlem. “Our approach will focus on deepening our empathy for students and clarifying our understanding of their needs. We will then ideate solutions and prototype them with students to produce creative, and possibly unexpected new programmatic directions,” said Mr. Dahlem.

Design thinking is an innovation methodology created by Stanford University’s Design Institute (the d.school) that draws inspiration from the fields of engineering, design and social science as well as insights from the business world to tackle complex problems. The approach has led to countless creative innovations at places like IDEO where business leaders passionately explore and define the needs and challenges of their end user with few constraints. Design thinking is often associated with technology and product design fields yet it has been successfully applied by creative teams in any arena where innovation is a critical goal.

“This is a perfect approach for implementing our unique, aspirational strategic plan that the Board of Trustees presented earlier this calendar year and entrusted the tactical development to the faculty and staff. This work also aligns with Mr. Moseley’s school-wide goal of fostering a culture of innovation that he announced at the All School Opening Ceremony. It is a bold plan, and we want to continue to approach this work with an eye toward innovation,” said Mr. Dahlem.

To kick off the process, all faculty and staff engaged in a high-energy, hands-on professional development daylong workshop dedicated to learning the design thinking process at the start of the school year.

The workshop was facilitated by a team of innovators from Lime Design, a Bay Area firm with deep experience and understanding of design thinking and a creative approach to teaching the process to others. Dr. Maureen Carroll, Lime Design founder and lecturer at Stanford’s d.school and the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, led the session, and has also partnered with industry leaders, including Microsoft, Adobe, Yahoo and Southwest Airlines.

In the workshop, St. Margaret’s faculty and staff were divided into small innovation teams that engaged in a needs-based design challenge following the steps of the design thinking process: 1) establishing empathy and understanding the end user through ethnographic interviewing, 2) identifying and defining a need or problem, 3) ‘ideating,’ working together to generate possible solutions, 4) prototyping viable ideas, and 5) reviewing and testing those ideas with the end user.

“One of the main themes of the design thinking process of particular interest to me in our work at St. Margaret’s is to ‘fall in love with the end user,’ which of course is our students. The design thinking process is a powerful tool in the hands of our exceptional faculty and staff,” Mr. Dahlem added. “They will be leveraging their professional expertise, as well as their care and love for students, to affect creative change in our program as we realize the vision set forth by the Board.”

The workshop provided an experiential opportunity for faculty and staff to immerse themselves in the design thinking methodology. Participants were engaged and energized, setting the stage for the next step of strategic plan implementation. In September, faculty and staff will gather in self-selected Strategic Plan goal teams to plan their empathy gathering phase through ethnographic interviews and student shadow days.

During the October professional development in-service day, teams will advance the process by crafting needs statements, ideating action steps and creating prototypes to test with students. “The design process is ongoing and will involve continual iteration as new programs and initiatives are tested and refined,” explained Mr. Dahlem.

“This will allow us to move the school forward in compelling ways because, from the beginning, we’ve intentionally placed the needs of the student at the center of the innovation process.”

In January, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School presented the 2016 Strategic Plan -- an aspirational, forward-thinking plan that focuses on the school’s mission and core values and entrusts the expertise of the faculty and staff to create and implement action steps to meet the overall goals.
 
 
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An independent preschool through grade 12 college-preparatory day school in Orange County, California