By: David Coffey

Many colleges are opening centers for innovation or design thinking to nurture creative problem solvers across campus. These centers’ often-extracurricular programs can compete with students’ graded classwork—and with an education system that values rigor over flexibility and individual accountability over collaboration—making it challenging to engage busy students.

So when you find a tool that enables students to make an immediate impact, you take notice. This is the story of my experiences with such a tool, Innovators’ Compass.

The Design Thinking Academy (DTA, @GVSUDTA) at Grand Valley State University is one of these centers, founded by John Berry in 2017 with the mission “[t]o prepare students as innovative thinkers/problem solvers who contribute/lead to finding solutions to civic, social, and business challenges of the future.”

In 2018 I became director of the DTA, recruiting students to become DTA Fellows and preparing them in competencies associated with Design Thinking. This program includes attending workshops on topics like Improv and Collaboration, serving as table coaches at design sprints, and working on a team engaged in an extended campus challenge (e.g. helping Human Resources improve the way supervisors evaluate administrative staff, using the Stanford d.school design process).

2019 GVSU Design Thinking Academy Fellows

Soon after I began at the DTA, I heard Ela Ben-Ur (@ElaBenUr) on the Design Thinking 101 podcast discussing a tool she distilled over 20 years ago at MIT, IDEO, Olin College and with people worldwide seeking to make design thinking and other practices accessible for every person and moment: Innovators’ Compass (#innovatorscompass).

You can find out more about the Compass in this Getting Smart post, but it’s what you see shown below, frequently asking basic questions that move us forward. And, naming those powerful pieces of our world view so we readily expand, share, and use them—in conversation, or out on a piece of paper with a circle and four lines. Ela makes all-free resources, tips and the app available at innovatorscompass.org.

I reached out to Ela as a speaker for the University’s Design Thinking Speaker Series. She agreed to facilitate three different workshops around real-life challenges. She also encouraged me not to wait—to take the Compass for a spin. When she arrived, we were off and running.

We quickly came to appreciate how easy the Compass was for anyone to use. The DTA led a series of one-hour design thinking sessions for middle school students around the challenge, “How might we communicate our learning with the outside world?” The visual layout and simple questions of Innovators’ Compass enabled college students and professors to facilitate each table independently. In previous design challenges, I found participants confused about the process—requiring me to dictate how groups spent their time. I was hooked.

In January 2019, I invited DTA Fellows to co-create the semester schedule for the Academy. Each student created a personal Compass, like the one shown here. They reflected on their experiences with design thinking, identified what mattered to them, considered ideas for what to do next, and committed to an experiment to try during the semester. Whether their experiments were instant “wins” or took some revisiting, the Fellows described how empowering it felt to have a voice in our decisions.

The DTA mission is still to “prepare students as innovative thinkers/problem solvers,” but Innovators’ Compass has allowed student Fellows to empower others—students, staff, and faculty. We visit classes and show them how to use the Compass to plan a paper or a project. We use the Compass to help departments develop a vision for their future. We host pop-up sprints that utilize the compass to explore topics like “How might we foster creative, collaborative problem-solving at GVSU?” And we offer “The Designer Is In” opportunities where students, staff, and faculty who are stuck or lost in some problem can drop in and be coached through the Compass by one of the DTA Fellows.

In early 2020, the DTA led a half-day design thinking challenge for our new president. Over fifty students from across the university worked in teams, using the Compass to help consider what’s next for GVSU. After student participants shared their experiments at the meeting of our Board of Trustees, the president told the students, “You inspire us!”

Students, staff, and faculty involved in these events express ways they could use the Compass to navigate the inherent uncertainty of their life and work in academia. In particular, students express gratitude for having the opportunity to engage in a creative, collaborative problem-solving activity that allows them to plot their own path. In one students’ words, “Normally, in class, I’m told what to do. This was different. I wish there were more of these kinds of things at GVSU.”

That’s the power of Innovators’ Compass. In a few hours, participants have a powerful new way to visualize and share their thinking. A way that values their experience and ideas, and invites their action. The DTA is relatively new to this; we’ll see what impact events like the one hosted by our president have on GVSU as a whole. However, my main concern is that we are making a difference in the individuals—fostering creativity and giving them a tool to find their own way in the world.

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David Coffey is the Director at the Design Thinking Academy at Grand Valley State University.

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