Developing a Collaborative Culture

Corporate leaders highlight the need for a new generation of workers who can creatively solve problems by collaborating with other team-members. It’s imperative that our K-20 educational systems provide opportunities for learners to engage in a variety of strategies that help them to frame a problem, analyze information, synthesize that information into knowledge sets, and then evaluate and iterate their work realizing that there’s a good chance that the there will be need for another round of problem-solving. I had a chance to experience a good example of this type of process led by TeamBuilders Group, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, and Point Park University. The seminar represented the mixing of the problem solving approach of Human Centered Design that’s employed at Point Park with skill building approach to collaboration that’s used by the TeamBuilders Group.

Setting the Stage: Agreeing on Norms

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

To start the seminar Jordan Lippman and his TeamBuilders Group initiated a conversation around Norms – what should be the agreed upon conditions for collaboration? Examples Jordan shared included: Be present, listen mindfully, share thoughts respectively, invite help from your team, encourage everyone to participate, and trust your team. Jordan then asked the group to add their thoughts to the list of team building conditions. It’s extremely important to make sure everyone agrees to the rules of the game. Without norms trying to work collaboratively becomes a competition where some people take control or dominate. I can remember so well as a student how I became the person in charge and ended up doing most of the work.

Solving the Problem

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

For the next set of activities Eric Stennett from Point Park University took the lead. The original group was divided into three teams of four people. For the initial activity the participants were challenged to brainstorm “problems” that they faced in their educational roles. Participants were instructed to put each idea on a Post-It Note. Then each group had to cluster their ideas based on some common thread and then name each cluster. Eric “took the hood” off to explain the rationale for each exercise as it related to Human Centered Design (HCD) developed by the LUMA Institute in Pittsburgh. The group used the technique of “Affinity Clustering.” The next step tapped into the HCD strategy of “Visualizing the Vote” where each person had four large dots to place on the clusters that he/she felt were most significant problems. Three problem areas came to the forefront: Building Systems, Creating Equity, and Developing Bridges.

At this point people were given choices – form new groups to develop a strategy solution for one of the problems. It was interesting for me as an observer to see how the new groups functioned. In the process roles were not assigned but by reinforcing the norms, care was taken to ensure equitable participation. I’ve learned that when you keep groups no larger than ten, you have a better chance to engage each person. When you set ground rules that everyone agrees upon, you even the playing field and allow everyone to be not only a contributor, but also an active listener.

Reflecting

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Often a team-building process ends with a solution and there’s no opportunity to discuss how to use what’s been learned or to evaluate the process. For this seminar the group reformed into a semi-circle and spent the necessary time to process the experience and think about next steps. Jordan Lippman used the opportunity to highlight the “Trust” model developed by his team. One of the shared problems came from one of the Point Park administrators – how do you get a team of colleagues who already know each other to collaborate? The seminar included a diverse group of people who didn’t know each other and were open to accepting the “norms.” What happens when you have a group that has a history of not collaborating? It was fascinating to hear how the group used the morning experience to address the problem – start with norms that everyone can agree upon, think about using “protocols” that help the process, and have someone in the group take on the role of a facilitator.

#CollaborativeCulture is a great way to #RemakeLearning – Ani Martinez

As I think about my work with high school students around Design Challenges I can see ways that I will improve my process based on this seminar. I will make sure the “norms” are clear and explicit. I’ll make some of the strategies I use more explicit so the students can build on the process. I’ll give more time for the student consulting teams to reflect and think about how they’ll use what they’ve learned in the process of the Design Challenge. Most importantly, I’ll go back to Fred Roger’s thought: Deep and Simple is Far more Meaningful than Shallow and Complex.

 

Real World Learning: Design Challenges

For the past two years I’ve worked with the Parkway West Career and Technology Center (PWCTC) Consortium of Schools and the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) to develop a series of real world Design Challenges. There are some lessons I’ve learned:

  • Identify the students teams as consultants. Make the students aware of the role of a consultant and the importance of addressing the needs of the client. Work with the teacher facilitators to frame the problem in ways that relate to the students and allow teams to work collaboratively.
  • Bring in experts from Day 1. We have each kick-off event at the EIC. Bob Meeder, the CEO of the EIC, arranges for a team of experts, or as he calls them “bosses,” to work with the student consulting teams.
  • Frame the challenge around a Request for Proposal (RFP). In the business world RFPs are the documents that outline the expectations of the client. The consulting team has to address the project based on the client’s needs.
  • Use a human-centered design process to move the project along. I’ve had an opportunity to undergo training through the LUMA Institute. The LUMA framework, developed through a meta-analysis of the best strategies in design thinking, helps to shape the problem more succinctly and provides the focus on the target population.

Visualizing the vote for Concept Posters

Here are some ways I’ve worked these principles into a series of Design Challenges with high school students this fall. To start the challenge the student consultants walk through the Energy Innovation Center and use a LUMA strategy called “Fly on the Wall.” They use the camera on their phones to document everything that they see. At the kick-off they develop questions they need to address based on the RFP. Experts from the business, non-profit, or other arenas, begin to answer the student questions. At the midpoint I bring the students back together. (Between the kickoff and midpoint the student teams work with their teacher facilitators conducting research into the RFP issues. Sometimes the teams get together and other times they go their separate ways.)

For this year’s two Design Challenges I used a LUMA recipe – a combination of strategies – at the midpoint session. For a Food Menu Item Design Challenge where the student consultants from South Fayette, Carlynton, and PWCTC had to come up with their best ideas for the forthcoming EIC Healthy Cafe, I needed a way to identify the best choices. Each student consultant created what LUMA calls a “Concept Poster” for their food item and then had to pitch the idea to their colleagues and a team of experts that included people in the food industries. Each consultant and expert then chose the three best ideas and put dots on the Concept Poster – LUMA’s “Visualizing the Vote.” This combination of strategies narrowed the choices, but there was an issue – could the choices work in a cafe environment in a cost-effective manner? Fortunately, I had a team of student experts who were studying Culinary Arts and their teacher, a chef from the Parkway West Career and Technology Center. The chef with the student consultants then examined the top choices that would be prototyped in the PWCTC kitchens.

Concept Poster to pitch ideas

The second Design Challenge focused on the renovation of an existing space – Innovation Hall- at the EIC. The student consultant teams from Keystone Oaks and Chartiers Valley worked in four teams – lighting technologies, smart technologies, surface technologies, and furnishings. At the midpoint each team developed a “Concept Poster” and then each consultant and expert working on the project responded by placing a red note for a Great Idea, a green note for a promising idea that needed some further thinking, or a brown note for an idea that might not work. LUMA calls this strategy “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” Once the teams received the feedback from the other teams and experts, they had to revise their plan.

In both Design Challenges the LUMA strategies provided great ways to get all students involved in a collaborative manner. The consulting teams had to use communication skills that included visualizing ideas. The teams had to analyze feedback and revise (iterate) their ideas.

We’re not done yet. The final presentations will take place in the next month, but one of the Design Challenges from last year will soon have a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  What’s better than having the student consultants actually see their ideas implemented?

Sharing a prototype

Last year three teams of students worked on the installation of a windmill at the EIC. Consultants from Carlynton High School came up with a very original model using a Hummingbird Kit from Birdbrain Technologies. A second team from PWCTC’s Electrical Studies program devised a storage and power strategy for the RFP, while the third team from West Allegheny developed an educational strategy to instruct visitors at the EIC about wind energy and sustainable energies. In December members from the original Design Team will join Windstax Technologies, key members of the EIC, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and the County Executive of Allegheny County in a ribbon cutting ceremony – a great real world celebration for a challenging real world problem.