I’m a design thinker.
I also happen to serve in one of the most difficult jobs to have during a global pandemic--School Superintendent.
How are these two facts related and who really cares? Good questions. Hang with me for a second.
If you google Erik Burmeister + Design Thinking you’ll see a handful of references in which I’m included or have written. (Don’t bother doing it, though, it’s not that interesting...and not the point.)
Suffice to say, I remain a big fan and know a thing or two about design thinking. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have two of the preeminent Design Labs in our own backyard--IDEO and the Stanford d.school, both of which include excellent education design hubs under their umbrellas.
Unless you shun popular culture, organizational fads, and academic thought, you’ve no doubt heard the “design thinking” buzzword at some point in the last several years. While the term is well known, not everyone understands what it is or how it would apply to education.
Still with me? Good. Keep hanging in.
As a School Superintendent in a global pandemic, my job has changed completely.
What I have experienced as a Superintendent for the four years previous…
What I was trained to do…
What I studied for the four college degrees I possess...
What topics I researched and wrote about for years in preparation for this important civic responsibility…
All of it...
...had nothing to do with what has been required of me and the thousands of School Superintendents across this nation the last 12 months.
We aren’t the only ones. This is true for many professionals.
And yet, as I look back on the last 12 months (almost to the day), with all appropriate humility and with all contextual consideration, I can feel pretty proud of where the district I lead is today compared to so many districts across our county.
And look, I’m just one person in a sea of individuals who made our success possible. However, it’s not lost on our small community that we can claim all of the following:
Before I lose you, I’m getting to my point. Here comes the connection...
So why the relative success? In a sea of negative headlines, protests, lawsuits, public battles, and recall efforts, why is it that our little district has fared so well?
There are many reasons. Not the least of which is that we have incredibly dedicated and brave staff who, when asked to embrace risk amidst challenging times with an unknown future, decided to show up. And show up they did!
But another big reason comes back to where I began this blog. I am a design thinker. And I have surrounded myself on my teams with fellow design thinkers. We grow design thinkers in our district.
What do design thinkers do differently that most certainly contributed to our successful response to the pandemic?
I am neither naive nor arrogant. I realize our approach had just as much chance of failure as it did of success. I recognize, too, that we are not yet out of the woods of this pandemic; our success hangs on a mighty thin thread some days. However, since hindsight is 20/20 and we have seven months of experience upon which to evaluate, I can honestly say that our current success can be directly attributed to the fact that our district exists with a fundamentally different mindset.
I say this not to boast. Honestly. For the record, I also want to acknowledge that there is no “right way” to do this. Teachers and leaders throughout the country have gone above and beyond even when outbreaks have happened, testing wasn’t available, or virtual learning was the only option. I share none of this to shame other districts or individuals. However, I also feel a sense of responsibility to explain to all those people who are scratching their heads and wondering, “Well, how could MPCSD do what they did?”
It was a lot of hard work. It wasn’t because we have more money than most districts (any ‘extra’ money we spent this year was provided by the CARES Act, which all districts received). It wasn’t because we are predominantly white (although, we are). It wasn’t because we got special favors (if anything, partners were more reluctant to work with a wealthier, whiter district...and rightfully so). It does have something to do with the fact that we are a PK-8 district and high schools are much more difficult (not impossible) to reopen in a pandemic.
At the end of the day it has everything to do with the fact that we grow design thinkers at every level of the organization. It’s not as if we went through a complete design process for every challenge we faced. In fact, we never really applied a complete design process to create any of our solutions. Design at its core, I believe, is about the posture with which you come at problems. I believe that design mindsets are much more important than design processes.
That’s it. When you think differently about problems, you can achieve much better solutions and much more quickly. #mindsetmatters
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.