Embracing uncertainty: 'Do not jump!' (Part 1)

Beatriz Acevedo

Category: Centre for Innovation in Higher Education

20 March 2019

Although embracing uncertainty is one of the requisites to engage with design thinking, in the practice of teaching and learning, this can be quite unsettling.

We are now five weeks into the design thinking journey with a small group of seven students. Most of them are international students participating in the Erasmus exchange programme with Hanze University in Groningen (The Netherlands), together with one British student.

The method, which we have adopted from Columbia Business School (Liedtka and Ogilvie, 2010), involves four phases:

  1. What is (defining the problem and empathy)
  2. What if (brainstorming and imagination)
  3. What wows (story-telling and prototyping)
  4. What works (getting feedback from stakeholders).

In the first few weeks we have been covering the initial phase of the methodology, ‘What is’. In this phase we’ve focused on building trust among the participants, empathising, and exploring how to avoid the temptation of choosing one single solution to a problem.

Following the principles of Anglia Ruskin’s Education Strategy on active learning and education for sustainability, we asked ARU Environmental Manager, Simon Chubb, for some problems he would like us to address. Among them we chose to tackle ‘Plastic Waste in the University’. This may initially look like a straightforward problem; after all, the students could just find out alternatives for plastic and the problem would be solved! However, the design thinking approach encourages us to spend time analysing what exactly the problem is, and the different appreciations or world views of such problem.

So instead of getting attached to a ‘solution’, we encourage participants to think about the problem and spend time exploring it. This is our first warning:

Do Not Jump! – meaning not to jump to conclusions or solutions without examining the different aspects of the problem. This applies to lecturers and students alike, but it’s easier said than done. In this first of two blogs, I will describe how the students find embracing uncertainty in the application of the method a difficult task; and in the second part, I will reflect on how this approach can be unsettling for lecturers as well.


A stick-person stands at cliff edge between problem and solution

To help our students approach the problem, we devised the sessions so that prior to an interview with our client, we examined many different understandings of the problem. We wanted to identify different world views of the situation, by using elements of the soft systems methodology (Checkland, 1999; Acevedo, 2007) in order to identify different perceptions of the ‘problem’ of plastic waste. For instance, we asked the students to identify and analyse a selection of images representing plastic waste. From this exercise we realised that many of the current representations point out plastic as a moral issue, prompting actions that – although useful – need to be examined in detail. In addition, we devised a variety of exercises including a personal journey mapping of our relationship with plastics, and an ethnographic exercise understanding the ARU community’s behaviour around plastic and waste.

This process is not what you might call efficient, in the sense of finding a speedy solution, but in surveying a variety of world views, it ultimately avoids misunderstandings and allows for a wider consideration of alternatives and stakeholder views. However, this approach is also rather unsettling. Students (and lecturers) prefer approaches that allow the participants to get to the point, but this method actually asks the question, 'Whose point?'. This highlights that there are many considerations that we need to take into account, before jumping to a conclusion.

Overall, we think this approach has been positive in keeping an open attitude when talking to our client. We’ve realised that perhaps the problem is not ‘plastic waste’ as such, but the way in which decisions are driven by an emotional impulse or the latest marketing fad, without considering the different alternatives to plastic waste and recycling, including plastic. And in that way we are – as a group – in a better position to imagine, brainstorm and decide on courses of action that would otherwise be discarded at the very beginning of the process.

References

Beatriz Acevedo (2007) A Soft systems and post-structuralist analysis of the Cannabis Policy in the UK 2002-2005. Doctoral Dissertation for PhD in Management at University of Hull.

Peter Checkland (1999) Soft Systems Methodology in Action. John Wiley and Sons. London.

Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie (2011) Design Thinking for Growth. Columbia Business School Publishing. New York.

Disclaimer

The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.