Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Members of the Faculty Do It

Zach First, Drucker Institute managing director

Not long ago, I’d have guessed that research university professors would rank last on the list of professionals likely to engage in design thinking—a process that, as has been noted, the Drucker Institute holds in high regard.

After all, academics typically operate on very long time cycles (multiple years for a research project), face massive incentives to avoid failure (the tenure process is pretty unforgiving) and work in near-monastic isolation. “Collaborate to fail fast” wouldn’t seem to be their mantra.

Turns out I was all wrong. I recently ran a meeting of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, where I am a Fellow. This was our third of five two-day meetings over the course of three years, and the group was ready to pivot from ideas to action. (Here’s my previous post about the group.)

I engaged my fellow Fellows in rapid prototyping, iteration, failing fast and user tests, and shared some basic principles of good design. I was delighted to discover the seeds of design thinking even in the rarified air of academe. It turns out that common practices such as peer review, interdisciplinary teaching and collaborative research have some powerful areas of overlap with design-thinking methods.

The group built on these affinities to rapidly prototype and iterate a handful of different ways to shape the future of liberal arts education in America. They accomplished this in just a day and a half. And they’ll be following up before our next meeting in October to further refine and test their prototypes on their home campuses—and beyond.

More broadly, the process underscored for me the importance for all workers—even professors—to be both thinkers and doers, and to master sound managerial practices (such as design thinking). “Intellectuals see the organization as a tool; it enables them to practice . . . their specialized knowledge,” Peter Drucker wrote. “Managers see knowledge as the means to the end of organizational performances. Both are right. They are opposites; but they relate to each other as poles rather than as contradictions.”

If you’d like to learn more about the work we did at this meeting check out the story in this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education.