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Author's profile photo Jochen Guertler

Coaching design thinking students

As I will enjoy tomorrow another inspiring day at the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute in Potsdam – ok, let´s call it just – I would like to share some thoughts about my  experiences of doing and coaching design thinking at a place like together with students from all around the world. What are the differences – in case there are some – to my daily design thinking reality? Are there similar challenges and problems? Where is it “easier” to do? And how different are the results?

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Let´s start with some background about coaching and teaching design thinking at the

The setup: there are two semesters – the basic track and the advanced track. The basic track is done with 80 students, who where selected during several 2 days d.camps. The advanced track is done with around 40 students, who did successfully the basic track. The general format is the same both for the basic and the advanced track: the students have two working days per week and main focus is concrete project work within teams combined with inputs about design thinking and interesting topics around. In the basic track we start with relatively short projects (1 week, 3 weeks and 6 weeks) and in the advanced track we do one 12 weeks projects. For the 6 and 12 weeks projects there are normally external project partners and sponsors giving the design challenge the students have to work on.

The students: the students are mixed and international. There are even students from South America or Asia and most of them are doing in parallel some other studies or finishing their master thesis. Which is sometimes a personal challenge for them as also the design projects are typically very time consuming. The students have really different backgrounds like business, IT, design, engineering, arts or humane sciences. So for sure interdisciplinary but nevertheless also not really diverse (as one student said in the last semester: “we are all young, well-educated, academics and globally oriented – where is the diversity?”)

The teachers: the teachers are more coaches than common teachers. As most of the time is project work in teams the main task of the teachers is supporting the students in their projects. Both on team and personal level and also on content level. As the teachers have also very different backgrounds we do also inputs about general design thinking topics or about how design thinking is used and integrated in the different backgrounds the teachers have. I had the pleasure to talk about the combination of lean thinking and design thinking last semester and in January I will talk about the challenges and the benefits of giving and receiving feedback from team members or project partners.

The environment: the basic track and the advanced track are done in different buildings and the basic track is due to the huge amount of students split into two floors and two sub-tracks, the red track and the orange track. We have one large space for the presentations and 8 team spaces and yes, it get loud sometimes – or to so it more positive: there is a lot of energy in the room. Besides that there is a brand-new prototyping space, a d.lounge, a coffee-corner and a library to read all about design thinking, innovation, teams, creativity, …

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So, what does it mean to do design thinking with students? First of all: they just do it! At least most of the time 😉

There are – normally – much less discussions about the what and the why and more “we do it and let´s see how it works out in the end”. For me as coach this means less moderation, facilitation and planning of a agenda for a day or a workshop but much more observing and listening what is currently going on in the team. This is even more important as one team is coached by several teachers and not every teacher is available for every working day of the teams. To step into a team where I as a coach are not always be part of is a really good exercise to step back first to understand the current status regarding challenge and team spirit.This is not always easy to be honest, especially if I have also ideas about the challenge in mind.

On the other side you have to handle the same issues as in the daily corporate design thinking reality: students are too late for the checkin, they have to leave earlier (before the check-out), they would like to skip the warmup and sometimes it is easier to push the own idea instead of following the good old team rules. And even (IT) students want sometimes starting coding immediately instead of investing time into research and understanding the problem.

What I really like is the interdisciplinary culture which ensures really different perspectives within a team (and also gives always opportunities for interesting talks during coffee breaks). Here I really would like to see more design thinking teams with colleagues cross the  complete company to foster this also in our corporate reality.

Are students the better design thinkers? Good question but in the end it is as always: there are really “good” ones but not every student at is automatically a “good” design thinker. Whatever “good” mean here. Perhaps they are in general more open to try new things out and do things just “for fun”. But as soon as the presentations time is coming also the most relaxed student is becoming a “finisher” to ensure good results.

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The (final) presentations of ideas and prototypes are typically really creative, full of role-plays and using all kind of media. Here I saw in the beginning for sure a big difference to the typical design thinking presentations in our corporate world but meanwhile the corporate design thinkers learnt a lot (I LIKE!) and I do not see no longer big differences in the presentation styles.

Doing design thinking at a university is for sure more open and there are less constraints as we have for typical design thinking projects within the enterprise.  This is especially true for the first 1 week and 3 weeks projects. But as soon as the project partners come into the game (with the 6 weeks project in the basic track) ) things become more serious and from my point of view this is for most of the student a really good learning experience: how to deal with project partners? What to do in case they have no real idea about the project? If they do not know what they should expect? If they are not available for regular feedback cycles? If they even do not show up for an presentation? And yes, very similar challenges for our corporate projects.

And as always: even the best validated prototype presented in in creative and inspiring presentation needs real implementation work in the end to make a concrete product or service out of it. Here I see no final “answer” how to ensure this implementation and this seems to be for both worlds (the corporate one and the one) perhaps the biggest challenge to be solved for design thinking projects.

To sum it up: I really enjoy to have the opportunity to do design thinking both in the corporate and the reality. I learn so much while doing so and the one flavor inspires me again and again for the other flavor – and visa versa.

And one final wish for the future: let´s do projects together with students and our corporate colleagues. Partly in Walldorf and partly at the would be a very interesting experiment I would love to do.

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