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Advice: Common Pitfalls & Tips for Success in Design Work

by on March 2 2021

Learnings from Strategy Lab school systems using the Real-Time Redesign toolkit

The design process is transformational and thrilling – but not without its challenges. Here, we surface six common pitfalls, along with potential ways to avoid these same pitfalls, captured from school systems that completed our Real-Time Redesign process as part of the Always Ready for Learning Strategy Lab cohort in the 2020-21 school year.

Pitfall 1: Not including the right people in the process.

Too often, design processes are developed and implemented by district leaders or those in traditional positions of power, but this leaves out the important perspectives of students, families, and communities most affected by educational inequity – especially those at the margins.

How to Avoid It: Start your process with a diverse group of designers at the table, and be sure to regularly engage the larger community of students, families, teachers, and classified staff at regular points in the process to gather input and feedback. Conduct regular stepbacks as a team to ask for feedback on the inclusiveness of your process. Reflect on what changes you may need to make.

Pitfall 2: Not creating time and space for the work.

Often, because it is focused on the future, design work can take a back seat to day-to-day responsibilities. Your school system’s biggest opportunities and challenges, however, deserve focused attention and dedicated time.

How to Avoid It: Communicate the priority of this work early and often, based on a bold vision for the future and a compelling rationale for why it is important to do this work now. Block regular time (e.g., a weekly meeting) on design team members’ calendars to promote consistent commitment and accountability to this work.

Pitfall 3: Not using data to identify current strengths and challenges.

Many people start design work with a pretty clear perspective about their school system strengths and challenges. However, the assumptions we all bring to this work may be limited or outdated in perspective.

How to Avoid It: Look at a range of data – including student outcome measures, feedback surveys, interview insights, and others – to develop a comprehensive and unbiased view of your school system’s current strengths and challenges. Make the data accessible to the team by pairing it down and focusing on specific data points. This will lead to a more focused and powerful design process.

Pitfall 4: Expecting different outcomes without different inputs.

Most people start a design process with bold visions but then find themselves falling into patterns: talking to the same people, asking the same questions, or looking at the same examples. It is hard to achieve a bold vision and different outcomes unless you tackle bold and intentionally different work as part of the process.

How to Avoid It: Regularly challenge yourself and your team to think outside of the box. This might include: talking to students, families, and staff you don’t typically talk to; gleaning best practices from other schools and school systems that fly under the radar; looking for inspiration from other sectors (beyond education); letting go of assumptions and exploring “impossible” ideas.

Pitfall 5: Getting stuck in periods of indecision.

The design process can be messy, and it includes intentional periods of divergence where your research, interviews, and brainstorming activities lead to an overwhelming set of possibilities with no clear path forward. However, it is important to build tolerance for this divergence, as it is a process that expands teams’ thinking – opening folks up to brand-new possibilities – before the equally important work of converging (or aligning on a path forward).

How to Avoid It: Communicate to your team that divergence is an expected and important part of this process. Celebrate when your team diverges, as this is a sign that you are thinking innovatively. At the same time, regularly reassure people that convergence will happen, and perhaps even share a timeline, method, and decision-making approach for how you will eventually reach convergence.

Pitfall 6: Scaling too quickly.

As your design team starts to specify the change you want to make, it will be important for you to do a pilot or test-run of the idea. Some design teams pick ambitious, complex pilots – often in an attempt to enact transformational change in one swoop. However, an unwieldy pilot can sometimes be too challenging to implement, thereby putting your overall vision and goals at risk.
How to Avoid It: Don’t be afraid to start small (even smaller than what might initially seem comfortable!) and to adjust the change experienced by any one student, teacher, or family. Make sure your pilot has the desired impact for students, but recognize that you will not make every change you want overnight. Communicate the benefits of starting small, including a tighter focus on quality and the opportunity to build momentum toward the grander vision.



You may encounter these or other pitfalls along the way; however, we encourage you to keep at the work and to consistently reflect and adapt throughout your process. Navigating the challenges of a design process is an excellent way to build resiliency as a team – and developing greater resiliency within systems of teaching and learning is one of the primary goals of this work!

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