Day 1 #wolweek reflections: Idea selection in a project-based innovation course

My goal for this year’s International Working-Out-Loud week is to make some headway on MSLOC 430, the course I will be co-teaching in January. Today’s workday ended up being dedicated elsewhere. But it ended on an interesting note.

We are a little more than 2 weeks away from the end of our academic quarter and closing in on the finish of a project-based course we teach at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University. In this course we take 10 working weeks to use a design process to address some challenge faced by an organization. This quarter we collaborated with the YMCA, whose national headquarters are based nearby in Chicago.

Eleven graduate students were divided into three teams. They were briefed on the challenge by Kathy Kuras, Sr. Director of Organizational Change Management at Y USA, along with other Y leaders representing the national organization and several local Y branches. Essentially the challenge was to look at new opportunities to build off of an existing Y strength – its commitment to connecting with and having an impact on the communities it serves. Might there be new ways that the Y can foster community engagement among staff and members? I am oversimplifying the challenge a bit, but the essence is intact. The focus is community engagement and the scope includes both staff and members.

What I thought worth sharing here is what we’ve learned about the design process in a context such as this.

The teams spent about 5 weeks of class time doing discovery research to understand the environment at the local Y branches and different perspectives about “community” held by staff and members. At the end of the research phase, each team shared observations with our Y project-team collaborators to assess potential insights. All three teams shared the research base and the assessment of potential insights.

We then went into generating ideas. Separately – each team generated 10 possible “framed opportunities” that might turn into ideas worth piloting. In reality – most teams brainstormed many, many more ideas and then used various rubrics to narrow down their brainstormed list to 10 ideas. Most of the rubrics were variations of voting techniques – i.e., each team member had 50 votes to cast across up to 10 ideas, and could allocate votes more heavily to ideas for which they felt were particularly innovative or addressed an aspect of the challenge most effectively.

Three teams, 30 ideas. We presented them all to a panel of Y project collaborators, who rated each of the ideas on desirability and feasibility (feasibility to pilot at a local branch). The Y collaborators also identified at least one idea per team as that team’s “most innovative idea.”

That’s where we were last Wednesday.

From that day until today, the Y project team continued to assess the ideas and came back today with recommendations on which ideas they would like to see further developed in the last two weeks of the quarter. We went from 30 ideas to 8.

That’s the process. Let me share some insights related to the results.

First, we have a few advantages:

  • Our graduate students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, resulting in us having a fairly diverse set of thinkers in each class and on each team.
  • As a general case, our graduate students have a knack for empathy. They are pretty good at putting themselves into the mindset of others in some organizational context (in this case, Y staff and members).
  • We are working with collaborators – the Y – who truly trust the design process and value experimentation.

But still – the results today follow the pattern with other projects:

  • Every one of the 30 ideas paved new ground. This is absolutely a testament (in my view) of the value of diverse minds, who share a common (professional) language, taking on a shared challenge. Diversity of the background of members of our student teams is vital – but so is a common appreciation and language for the subtleties of organizational and individual change (which is what we study).
  • 80% or more of the ideas where characterized as “things we could implement today.” Those 20% that were not were intended to be stretch ideas. What we continually find interesting about this result (which is typical of our projects) is that we do pretty rapid research. We don’t live with the targets of our change. We observe, interview, listen. I don’t know yet how best to parse this out – but this is definitely some combination of process and having people who are skilled at “organizational empathy.”