Things Are Getting Complex, Use Design Thinking to Simplify

As a teacher, you have 150 students co-constructing work product using 280 devices on 5 networks in a variety of applications…and you are asked to make judgements about the quality of their contribution and guard their privacy.  

As a nonprofit leader, you have 50,000 registered users and a dozen channel partners leveraging your open content…and funders that want a plan for sustainability.

As a superintendent, you have 400 teachers using 2000 different apps and 200 content sites …and your board is still adopting social studies textbooks.

The work has never been so complex. The opportunities are great–but so are the challenges.

Complexity. Emergence is a process where larger patterns emerge through the interaction of smaller entities that by themselves don’t exhibit such properties. Civil War era philosopher G. H. Lewes called emergence “a cooperation of things of unlike kinds.”

This cooperation of simple things creates new connections among, between and within the individual parts–and that’s complexity. And there’s a lot more complexity than there was 150 years ago when Lewes wrote about it. In fact, there’s a lot more complexity than there was 15 months ago (pre-Fergeson, Ukraine, ISIS).  

The digital revolution, argues Canadian mathematician Kristin Garn, makes emergence and complex systems relevant to educational leadership because technology innovates much faster than our formal educational system.

Things are getting more complex. If you think you’re in control, you’re not–at least not the way you used to be.

Education is becoming more emergent:

George KembelDesign thinking. George Kembel thinks the leadership response to emergence is design thinking. In launching Stanford’s Institute of Design, the, he combined creative, analytic and interdisciplinary approaches drawing on engineering and design, arts, social sciences, and business. Design innovation, the goal of programs, is sought at the intersection of exponential technology, human-centered values, and scalable engine. From a napkin sketch to global design leader, the is a leader in the design thinking movement.

dschool focus


Check out useful design thinking facilitation tools on interviewing for empathy, brainstormingprototyping, and storytelling.
school of fishMore than specific innovations, George wants to scale innovative people. He looks to birds, bees, ants, and fish for cues on how individual behaviors shape group action. He explains that rather than having a CEO-fish, two simple rules govern schools: swim close to your neighbor and if you see something scary, swim away.  That is how you scale culture. It comes down to the individual behaviors whether it’s a startup team of four or a multinational with 100,000 employees, it’s all about the individual. (Watch George’s TEDxTalk.)

Community agreements. If design thinking is the response to emergence, what does this mean for stewards of public systems? We’ve learned three important lessons:

  1. Design as learning: planning, design, and development are rooted in adult learning. Keys include:
    • Safe places. Learning starts with trust and respect.
    • Different paths. Each journey is unique.
    • Blended learning. Face-to-face plus just-in-time.
  1. Process as advocacy: simple, transparent, inclusive. How we do anything matters. Keys include:
    • Embrace paradox. Preserve ambiguity. Build both/and solutions.
    • Bring data. Intuition and initiative informed by data.
    • Diverge to converge. Ideate, funnel, test, go.
  1. Innovation as value creation: improvement is incremental; innovation is harder but it delights users and creates value. Keys include:
    • Shared vision: Use pictures and stories to make ideas tangible.
    • Just enough. Learn just enough to try, measure, iterate.
    • Scale culture. Share an innovation mindset, encourage experimentation.

GS design thinking

The goal of a planning and design process is a unique path to value creation. A necessary byproduct is team learning and metacognition. A thoughtful design process uncovers individual and team biases, builds mental models and change theories–the team gains appreciation for systems work and how impact might be produced and scaled. A healthy design process examines and reshapes community agreements.

Given the opportunity of personalized learning, school districts around the country are making the shift from command and control structures and regimes of managed instruction. The complex systems transformation requires an innovation mindset and a process of design thinking.

In Santa Ana, Rick Miller and David Haglund are empowering and equipping schools to make the shift. Back to school meetings in August looked more like a professional conference than scripted PD. Haglund is promoting field trips to promote adult learning and exposure to next-gen models.  

Our list of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting includes more examples of design thinking in action.

The work grows in complexity but there’s never been a better time to dramatically improve learning. The response to complexity is community learning (getting smart fast) through a process that signals shared values (how matters) and is focused on value creation.

For more on design thinking, check out:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Tim Hilborn

Thanks for the reminder! Filtering through the pile and reassembling the important pieces that solve our identified problems and having the persistence and grit to iterate is a valuable cycle!


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Tim. Iterating does take insight + persistence.

James Stanfield

Great blog - learning at the edge of chaos etc etc. I wonder, is there a point at which design begins to restrict emergent behaviour?


Tom Vander Ark

Best comment of the year. This may be the new leadership paradox: adequate incentive/room to innovate & adequate guidance/support to encourage emergence (i.e. virtuous cycle of collective impact)

Dee Lanier

This is so good! Unfortunately the links for facilitation tools are broken.


Catherine Wedgwood

Thanks so much for letting us know! These have been fixed.

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