About a month ago, I had the pleasure of presenting at MCPA, MA-NASPA, and BACHA’s Entry Level Professionals Workshop. I always love events like this, when I and others have the opportunity to share wisdom with graduate students and professionals new to the field of student affairs.

I selected a topic based on a concern I hear often from professionals who have spent a short time in offices: “I thought I’d have the chance to be more creative.” I understand the worry, and have absolutely felt it before. And why not? Many of the new professionals that enter these offices, are leaving graduate programs that praise highly the potential students have to make change in their offices- the difference you’ll make! The change you’ll inspire! The good you’ll do! They come in guns blazing, armed heavily with these platitudes, ready to use the innate gift they have to revolutionize everything around them.

But the reality is, good or bad- this isn’t always what new professionals get to do. Recognizing that this was a relatively common struggle, I wanted to head it off early for those in the room- with the help of IDEO’s Design Thinking principles.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.
-Tim Brown, IDEO CEO

IDEO’s design thinking model can help harness this creative impulse, force it through a set of steps that encourage it to slow down and consider external factors that the nature of inspiration often ignores. Simply put, it forces you to consider the “box” from which you’re working, and how to best prevent needlessly punching holes or knocking down walls. As the title implied, I likened this process to the story of the “orange power cord,”(meaning solutions designed to solve a problem that also create new problems in the process) one shared in a 2012 Forbes article that changed the way I thought about weaponizing my ideas as a young professional:

I ask [new hires] to keep a notebook and write down all the orange extension cords that they can see, even if nobody else does. In fact, especially if nobody else does. I want them to point out all the unsightly items, processes, and practices that don’t fit or don’t make sense.

I tell them that is why we hired them. To bring a fresh perspective to make us a better company.

I warn them. Point things out now, write them down, and stick to your guns to fix them or improve them…

Because in 6-8 weeks, you won’t see them anymore either.

Are you looking to solve a problem in your office, but feeling some worries about how the proposal will go? This walk-through of the IDEO Design Thinking process might be helpful for framing your plan of attack.

Stage 1: Discovery


Even the best-dressed entry is ruined with a trip. IMAGE CREDIT: Popsugar

At this stage, you’ve seen the orange power cord. You may have asked questions about it and not been satisfied with the answer, or maybe you’ve tripped over it a few times in a meaningful way.

But more than just noticing the problem, you have decided you’re the person to solve it. I remember hearing back in 2007 at a conference (and I’m very sad that I can’t remember who was speaking when I learned this tidbit): never report a problem without a potential solution. Even if you’re not sure if it’ll work, the prospect of playing a part in a solution moves you from despondence to action. Good employees, team members, and assets are action-oriented, so the “I have an idea” piece is crucial to seeing this process through.

Stage 2: Interpretation



Once you’ve identified a problem, the interpretation stage is key because it encourages you to answer the questions: for whom is this a problem? For whom is this not a problem? Seeking to answer this pair of queries can provide insight as to why a problem hasn’t been solved- what roadblocks exist? What procedures would change if your proposed solution is implemented? The answers to these questions may hold some weight as you debate how to operationalize your solution.

The fact of the matter is, even the smallest colleges, universities, or companies are slow-moving ships. They have a lot of pieces that have to be moving in the same direction in order for them to succeed. This is a good thing, because it means that they can do a lot and produce high quantities of work. However, large ships are difficult to turn. If all the pieces aren’t moving toward the same goal, if unknown obstacles or barriers exist, or if members of the captain’s staff aren’t in agreement, disaster can strike. To help change direction, all the parties associated with the potential change need to know to lean into the turn.

New hires are uniquely equipped to answer these questions- a fresh perspective and a need to learn the operations of a new place means the questions you may need to ask, may be received differently from campus veterans. Use this newness to your advantage! Skipping the step of finding and utilizing allies can be the downfall of any collaboration that may have previously been taking place.

Stage 3: Ideation

Armed with not just your perception of the problem, but also the perception of those who may additionally be affected by a potential solution, you can seek to create a fix that is less likely to trip others up. Create a number of solutions, each one aiming to remove tripping hazards for as many individuals, offices, or constituencies as possible.

Novices in workspaces jump to this step from step 1, skipping step 2. Again, I must caution against this. If the interpretation step is skipped, the solution that you arrive at might create more orange cords, or bigger and more disruptive ones. And as an additional word of caution: people are always wary of proposals that start with “at my old school” or “at my undergrad.” Even if there is merit to your proposal, it may be viewed as a short-sighted attempt to replicate your prior experiences. As an alternative, include your institution’s initiative in a broader benchmarking/research effort. This will help others know you’ve explored deeply…and let you know there’s more to change than creating clones of “best” or “common” practices.

Stage 4: Experimentation

IMAGE CREDIT: Letters of Note

How will your solution work in real time? Deploying something that changes how students will interact with a process, or how other staff members will complete their work, will require some experimentation. Can you test the solution under different circumstances? Can you seek out feedback in advance of launch?

Having an idea of where your solution might fail or cause confusion, will help you respond better when struggles do arise. No solutions are airtight, but this process will reveal where leaks are, and how easy they are to respond to. Another way to curry favor with this prospective change: find out what constituents your supervisors and higher-ups most seek the approval and understanding of (e.g. students, alumni, faculty), and ensure that they are consulted as you prepare to launch.

As a bonus, experimenting in daylight underscores a principle Austin Kleon calls “showing your work.” When people are privy to the details behind creating processes or solutions, it humanizes something that otherwise might seem mysterious or impersonal. The result? As mistakes or missteps occur, users have some idea of what it took to get to where you are, and these wobbles are more easily forgiven. Choose which elements of the process you’re comfortable sharing with those that will be affected, and it could ease the reception later on.

Stage 5: Launch + Evolution


At long last, your solution- your means of stowing the orange power cord- is camera ready. Celebrate this launch, and the idea that you’ve made an impact. But watch how the launch goes. Be prepared to address any concerns that may create calls for a return to the old, unsightly way. Practice responding to these worries by reinforcing the strength of the solution, and don’t allow yourself to become discouraged! The reason that the second half is “Evolution” is because tweaks and alterations are expected.

If you identify that change is needed after the solution has been deployed, the end is just the beginning. Enter the cycle again. Talk to other parties about how the change has gone, start creating possible solutions, experiment with them, and debut as needed. Change like this is iterative; a one-time shift will be insufficient to keep you going. But with a spirit of creativity, blended with attention to garnering buy-in, will provide the fuel needed to continue making an impact.

What changes have you made in your office since arriving? What did the process look like for you? 

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