Director's Corner | Practicing what we Preach: Using Design Thinking to Reimagine PIC post-COVID
Written by Alejandra Barbosa
For the past four years, I have been fortunate to sit through and observe all of the design thinking sessions that PIC provides to our participating principals. Our talented design thinking facilitator guides each principal cohort through the design thinking framework over the course of 7-9 months. In these sessions, principals digest their design research and multiple iterations of prototypes, small scale interventions that they are testing with a small group of students or staff. They then take what they have learned to develop new ideas and solutions to improve their campuses. I appreciate that after what has likely been 350+ hours spent in design thinking trainings, I still always learn something new. I think that is because the heart of this work is meeting human needs, and that will never get old.
So it is only appropriate that when our PIC team was faced with Covid-19 and school closures, we drew from our own design thinking acumen to reimagine PIC post-Covid. Like any good designer, we started with empathy. We reached out to our principals and through a series of focus groups and check-ins, and asked what was most challenging for them and what was working well. What we heard from principals was heart-breaking. In addition to Covid-19 fear, an economic recession and the national racial equity protests, principals were carrying the stress and anxiety of not being able to support their students and staff in person. Our principals are accustomed to being the stronghold for their campus community, where they are confident of their ability to keep children safe and engaged. However, in the current state, they were no longer able to ensure safety for students or provide the most basic need for a hug or fist bump to their staff. This was compounded by the ever-changing guidelines for re-opening school and principals having to operate in a holding pattern, as they waited for state level decisions to be made.
After conducting these “empathy interviews”, we made a few quick decisions. First, we adapted all our programming to virtual, and reduced the time of sessions. This helped give principals manageable doses of programming while tending to the needs of their campuses. Second, we added more design thinking and team brainstorming sessions that were directly focused on supporting principals through their existing challenges. These were valuable for principals to get peer coaching and strategies to work through spring and summer planning. Once these adaptations were completed, we got to work on the longer-term strategy.
We knew our principals would be dealing with a new normal, so our next phase of work was in brainstorming how to re-design the next year in principals’ PIC experience. We turned to our “How Might We” exercises and spent time brainstorming multiple options, where my personal favorites were:
By pushing ourselves with these, sometimes wacky, “how might we” brainstorms, we were able to think differently about how we support principals. Because principals are facing a new reality. Likewise, our PIC reality is that we can leverage this time as an opportunity to innovate.
Fortunately, our programming is already incredibly well-suited to serving principals through crisis. Our priorities have always been to build leader resilience, creativity and ability to inspire. These traits are crucial during crisis. We just needed to refocus on how principals used these skills to navigate their world. Our sessions shifted from principals developing long-term strategies to leading through quick, rapid decision-making with concise and clear communication. We are also bringing in new content, such as trauma-informed leadership, how to lead with a racial equity focus, and crisis communications. Once principals have created stability on their campuses, we know the new skills and confidence they will develop from these new sessions will continue to serve them for their long-term strategy. The work of a principal will often be chaotic, with crisis and volatility. So, by supporting them through Covid-19, we undoubtedly will have served them effectively for future volatility.
We know we do not have all the answers, because this work is complex. But we believe our principals are the best leaders for their campuses, because they are committed and selfless in their service of students. PIC is here to give them the space to learn, reflect and practice their leadership so that when they are on the front lines, they are ready to be Sasha Fierce.