Leadership, School Community, Teaching, Well at Work

Human-Centred Leadership

A collaborative approach to improving user experiences and building leadership capacity

Imagine you have just moved into a new area, and on that first night in town, you and your wife and children are hungry for a meal. What better way to get acquainted with the new neighbourhood than to go out for a bite and a walk around? You pop open your laptop and search for restaurants in the vicinity, and find that there is only one within walking distance. You click on the link, and while the site isn’t particularly flashy or eye-catching, you notice is that there is a barbecue buffet special on Saturday! However, your perceptive 13-year-old daughter notices that the date for that special ended two years ago, and that the site hasn’t been updated. You decide to click on the “Menu” button to see some other choices, but the dreaded “404 – File Not Found” screen pops up. A bit puzzled, you decide to give the restaurant a call, but after several rings, an automated message asks you to enter the extension of the employee you would like to speak to, or to leave a message after the tone so someone can get right back to you about reservations. You hang up.

“I’m hungry!” groans your 11-year-old boy, and you make the executive decision to try the restaurant anyway. After a pleasant ten-minute walk, you arrive at an older building. There are a few weeds poking out of the sidewalk, and one of the letters on the sign has fallen off. You walk in, and a sign says “Please Wait To Be Seated,” but there is no one at the desk to greet you. After a minute or two, you peek around the corner and gently call “Hello?”– to which a voice responds, “I’ll be with you as quickly as I can.” A few moments later, a host comes around the corner and says, “Sorry, we are so short staffed. Do you have a reservation?” You inform the host that you tried to call, but there was no answer. The host says, “We ask that people leave a message so that we can put a reservation in, but I guess you didn’t do that.” He looks at a reservation book and shrugs. “We don’t have anything available for at least another hour.” You notice that there is a large set of tables that are empty, and ask if you could sit there – the family is starving! The host frowns and says, “Those people made a reservation, sorry. When you make a reservation, it’s a lot easier for us to get you in.” Frustrated and hungry, you head home so you can drive somewhere else to eat. “I don’t want to live here!” declares your daughter.

Now take this situation, and replace “local restaurant” with “local school.” Substitute the idea of your children being hungry with them being excited and nervous to start a new school year. Think about the angst involved in moving to a new area, and how you and your children would feel if you went to the website of your new neighbourhood school and the pages were out of date and filled with dead links. Or if, when you tried to call to get some information, you couldn’t get a person to help you on the other end. And then when you finally decided to just show up at the new school with your children to register because you couldn’t figure out a better way, you were made to feel that it was inconvenient for the staff for you to show up unannounced. All you wanted was to register your children!

How do you feel about your new school after such a poor initial experience?

In the business world, creating a rich and positive user experience (UX) for customers or clients is essential for a successful enterprise. Yet when it comes to considering the experiences that our students, parents, and even educators have in our schools each day, UX is often a distant afterthought. What makes this lack of attention to UX even more perplexing is the fact that we have virtually unlimited and direct access to input and feedback from our clients – they are in front of us in our classrooms, in the staff room, and in the parking lot of our schools! As a lead digital marketer of a large multi-national corporation said to me at a recent business conference, “I could only wish to have the access to our customers that schools have to theirs.”

With the hustle and bustle of the everyday lives of educators, solving problems as quickly as possible is often the order of the day. When an issue comes to us in our classrooms, schools, or districts, we want to ensure we handle it professionally and carefully, but also in a timely manner, because we know there will be another issue cropping up shortly. And by our very nature we are helpers; we want to give our learners and our school community the assistance they need when they come to us with a problem. Yet often, in the spirit of efficiency, we implement solutions without involving those who are having the problem: our students and parents, and even our teachers and principals (when we are in leadership positions). And while we might feel we are being more efficient, we can be missing out on a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with and empower the members of our school community.

Human-centred leadership

When it comes to different approaches to solving problems, I believe the field of education can learn a great deal from the design sector: leading design firms such as IDEO and the Stanford D-School use a human-centered approach to spark new and creative solutions. In IDEO’s Design Thinking method, they “consider every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users”1 and actively collaborate with those who use that particular product or service.

Since working cooperatively with our partners in education is so vital to our success, I believe adopting a collaborative, human-centered leadership style has enormous potential to help us ensure a more positive user experience for our partner groups and concurrently build their leadership capacity at every level. I believe this can be done by following a few steps:

1. Recruit a diverse, eclectic, problem-seeking team.

For the user experience you are considering in your classroom, faculty meeting, school or district, who are the people that you might assemble to ensure that you get a wide variety of ideas and perspectives? For example, if you are considering communication from your classroom, collaborating with students and parents is key: they can provide you with authentic, personal experiences that they have had inside and outside of the class. Effective communication is important to any workplace, and parents may be able to bring new and fresh ideas from other sectors that are applicable to the school setting.

2. Start with questions that promote divergent thinking.

When approaching issues in our schools, we frequently begin by asking questions that can narrow our focus, such as “How can we make better parent-teacher conferences?” By beginning with a vision of something that we have previously done, we can inadvertently limit conversation and constrain ourselves to making minor “tweaks” to existing processes or structures. When we have a think tank of people with different experiences and skill sets, it is important to ask questions that elicit different reactions and spark new ideas: the last thing we want to do is limit the creative capacity of the group! A question that promotes divergent thinking such as, “What is the experience that we want our parents to have when they are learning about their student’s progress?” starts a different conversation, and encourages the team to think about the end user before the end product. It is vital at this stage to be an active listener and encourage each of our partners to speak – they are the true leaders in this process because they are the experts on describing their personal experiences.

By having our partners work with us in diverse “think tank” style groups, we develop their capacity as leaders in the design, feedback and iterative process.

3. Co-create your MVP (minimally-viable product).

A common approach to teaching and learning can be “know then do”: we often feel like we must preload learners with a requisite set of skills before they can be released to try them out in a more hands-on environment. However, in doing this, we are attempting to anticipate each of the skills that a learner may need to solve a particular problem. An alternative approach is to “do then know.” If we co-create prototypes with our diverse group as early as possible in the design process and observe our end users trying these “minimally viable products,” we can better understand the strengths and flaws of our models. As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, said, “If you want to improve a piece of software all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace, and then you can fix that.”2 With our parent conference example, if the group chose to try a model using fifteen-minute, student-led conferences featuring a presentation of learning, we would want to test this concept with a small number of students doing presentations to a few adults before we adopted the model. By co-creating and testing prototypes of our ideas, we can not only “walk a mile” in the shoes of our students and parents, but we can also cultivate a true sense of ownership over the iteration process.

4. Be hungry for feedback.

When we encourage our end users try our prototypes, we create fertile ground for observation, and we need to harvest any feedback that we can get! Sitting and watching a small group of our students and parents go through a process of fifteen-minute, student-led conferences can tell us a multitude of things. We can determine if the physical setting is right, whether the allotted time is sufficient, if the size of the audience is appropriate, and other observable details. But we must also take advantage of having our end users there in front of us: interviewing our kids and parents for warm feedback, cool feedback, and suggestions can provide us with rich insights that only they can provide. We need to create an open and collaborative environment where they feel empowered to be specific and honest. We also must demonstrate that we value their contributions by making the changes that result from their feedback. Try having one of them carry a video camera with them when they go through the process, so you can see the experience through their eyes!

5. Put experience before product.

We can spend a great deal of time, effort and energy in creating multiple iterations of our minimally viable products. We might tweak and test our student-led conferences six or seven times as a result of numerous observations, and think we have truly “nailed it” on the final product. For example, perhaps we have created an amazing format for our student-led conferences that fits perfectly into our schedule for that particular day, but it only “works” if we keep the transition time between each conference to three minutes. However, the feedback from our test parents and students tells us that students are unable to do a proper breakdown and setup of their presentations in three minutes. Furthermore, parents with more than one child at the school would be late to their second presentation. While it can be very easy to “just go with it” and hope for the best, all of the positive work that we have done with our group can be quickly negated if clinging to a product feature (such as the time for transition) becomes more important than the experience of the user. Iterations can occur at any time during the creative process, right up until the rollout when we think we have landed on that one “perfect” solution. It is vital to ensure that we are more committed to those who are using our product than to the product itself. 

6. Make debriefing a habit.

Once the experience for our users has occurred, it is not uncommon for us to simply move on to the next task: schools are busy places, and as soon as we have crossed one item off the “to do” list, we know there will be two more to replace it. But while the experience is fresh in people’s minds, get feedback, and lots of it! Chat with people, use a brief survey, and bring in a focus group so that you and your team can get a true sense of what could be altered so that the experience is even better in the future. Even if you feel the event has gone exceedingly well, there is still much to be learned from those who participated. Make sure you revisit the initial prototype: seeing the journey from the initial to the final product is a powerful reminder of the group’s responsiveness to feedback.

Taking a human-centered, collaborative approach involving end users to co-create positive user experiences in education has many benefits. Not only will we come up with solutions that better suit the needs of our students, parents, and educators, we empower them to make a difference in the areas that truly matter – the experiences they have in our schools on a daily basis. By having our partners work with us in diverse “think tank” style groups, we develop their capacity as leaders in the design, feedback and iterative process. And perhaps most importantly, we build relationships with those we serve. So whether it is parent-teacher conferences, elementary-to-secondary transition for students, implementation of new grading software for teachers, or reviewing policy for administrators, when we adopt a more collaborative, human-centered leadership style, we can transform our classrooms, schools and districts to be truly responsive to the needs and experiences of our students, parents, and educators that learn in them.


En bref: Une expérience client positive est essentielle au succès des entreprises du monde entier. Conscientes de l’importance de l’expérience d’utilisateur, les compagnies consacrent beaucoup de temps et d’énergie à des études de marché afin de cerner les besoins de leurs clients. En consultant de multiples sources d’information sur leurs utilisateurs finals et en travaillant avec eux pendant le processus de conception, les entreprises tentent continuellement de créer des produits correspondant le mieux possible aux besoins du client. Comment pourrions-nous transposer cette « approche de conception » à l’éducation? Que se produirait-il si nous entreprenions de considérer nos élèves, nos parents et nos enseignants comme nos clients – des ressources qui pourraient nous éclairer sur leurs expériences d’utilisateurs avec nos écoles? En adoptant une approche de conception avec nos partenaires pour résoudre les problèmes qui surviennent dans le système de la maternelle à la fin du secondaire, non seulement trouverons-nous des solutions mieux adaptées à leurs besoins, mais nous développerons aussi leur capacité de diriger et de résoudre des problèmes en collaboration tant à l’intérieur qu’au-delà de notre communauté scolaire.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2016

1 “Why Human-Centered Design Matters,” WIRED (2013). www.wired.com/insights/2013/12/human-centered-design-matters

2 “How to design breakthrough inventions,” CBS News (2013). www.cbsnews.com/news/how-to-design-breakthrough-inventions-07-01-2013

Meet the Expert(s)

cale birk

Cale Birk

Cale Birk is the District Principal of Innovation for School District #73 in Kamloops, B.C. Cale works with districts across North America on instructional rounds, strategies for engaging administration, human-centered design, and his latest project, Frugal Innovation in Education. Twitter: @birklearns

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