Founding father of design strategy Patrick Whitney on the value of immersive learning experiences

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Patrick Whitney, the former dean of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago and a founding father of the field of design strategy, about what he calls our current “Reflection Deficit Disorder” and the value of immersive learning experiences. Below is a transcription of our conversation with him.

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Ruben Ocampo (RO): Patrick, we’d like to get your thoughts on what institutions are trying to do in order to equip leaders—and I’m using that word broadly—to lead during times of ambiguity and uncertainty. Can you start by telling us about the Strategy World Tour and the genesis of that idea?

Patrick Whitney (PW): Ashley (Lukasik) and I had been working on making design relevant to organizations for a long time. We had the idea for the CEO Club where executives from companies would get together once or twice a year to be part of a conversation we would orchestrate about design and strategy. At the same time, we had been doing the Strategy Conference, which had been wildly successfully but we knew it needed refreshing. So in a sense we merged the two ideas and instead of having CEOs travel to a place to talk about design we invited a variety of people to travel with us to deal with issues in design. It started off with Detroit, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Mumbai, and it was an amazing experience.

RO: When you say it was an amazing experience, I’m curious—what were some of the intended outcomes for the people who participated? And what did you hear from those who were part of it a few years later regarding both intended and unintended outcomes?

PW: Right. Everyone got something personal out of it in that we all went to the exactly same events but the events were open-ended and caused each of us to think of things and have ideas and learn. We’re equally affected by our backgrounds, work life and personal lives. So in Hong Kong we would go into little shops selling plumbing and electrical equipment. We didn’t care about plumbing equipment but we learned about the small shops, how people lived and worked. Then we’d head off to the corporate headquarters of a place like Gold Peak and we would learn not only about Gold Peak Industries, but about the nature of work in a multinational corporation in Hong Kong. Each of those experiences were open enough that a person could create new ideas, thoughts, and plans that related to what they were doing individually before they came on the tour.

The tours are magical because they are real experiences but they are curated so it’s not like being on vacation. Even a museum tour is curated from a design point of view how to improve people’s lives or how to increase a company or organization’s ability to create value. There’s nothing else that I know of that does that. You can go to a business conference about creating value but you don’t learn about the details of people’s lives. You can go on a museum tour and learn about people’s lives but there’s no conversation about value creation.

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RO: One of the questions we are asking ourselves is what are the different institutions, not only universities but organizations and even some of the philanthropic foundations and non-profits, trying to teach people today. We hear things like “creative leadership”—something that is very needed. Leaders need the ability to pattern find and think laterally. I think—but I want to check this with you—that institutions and organizations really struggle with how to teach this. Experiences can’t be easily packaged. So I’m curious to know your thoughts on how this kind of format fits into those things we are expecting of leaders these days.

PW: You know, we’re all wrapped up with big data these days, but turning that data into knowledge or—even more important—into meaning, is essential. And the more we watch videos produced by people who build exhibitions, or classes or speeches, the less time we generally have for getting real experiences. Real experiences are wild and wooly. They’re fuzzy things normally. That’s why we turn to curated presentations and media. What this program does is gives a structure to experience, so you can more easily find meaning in it than if you were on own traveling around. And it’s much more meaningful than if you were reading about it or watching a presentation because you are living it.

You know, we’re all wrapped up with big data these days, but turning that data into knowledge or—even more important—into meaning, is essential.

 

RO: Absolutely. There are a couple of topics you’ve mentioned I want to dive into. One of them is time. Time has become something we all lack in our lives and leaders are no exception to that. So what I’ve seen is the emergence of micro learning—“just give me what I need to know right now and I’ll figure it out”. I’ve also heard you use the term Reflection Deficit Disorder, can you tell us more about this?

PW: It’s a disease we’ve discovered where all media serves to make it easier and faster to find data, share data, and create data ranging from Google to the Xerox machines of the 50’s. It’s all about speeding up and using data. What we didn’t realize is that when we had downtime while using old media, we were using that downtime to think or reflect upon what we were doing. That downtime invisibly receded or disappeared as media got easier and faster to use, thus causing Reflection Deficit Disorder.  

These trips help overcome that because it gives you a time away from your daily life to reflect, but it gives a structure so your reflections are directed to things you care about.

What we didn’t realize is that when we had downtime while using old media, we were using that downtime to think or reflect upon what we were doing. That downtime invisibly receded or disappeared as media got easier and faster to use, thus causing Reflection Deficit Disorder.  

 

RO: Having been a participant myself in the Detroit stop—and this has come up in conversations with other participants—what you call “downtime” I call the “in-between moments.” I know how intentional they were in the tour, but the time we spent in the bus or waiting for the next thing actually became quite valuable for a few reasons. One is for personal reflection and in our own minds making sense of things we are seeing. Even looking out the window. Or making connections with other participants, because a lot of the value came out of those conversations. So we’re actually adding value in the downtime because we’re engineering it out of our lives and not giving ourselves time to just think.

Ashley Lukasik (AL): I would add to that, having been in a role of customizing all kind of different learning experiences for different organizations from huge for-profit companies to large public institutions and civic organizations. The tendency amongst folks who are delivering education is a push of content. That presumes that the value is in the content and in the information you’re delivering as opposed to, as Patrick was saying, in the meaning that the recipient makes of it. So if you can reframe that, it gives you an opportunity to think about the folks who are receiving it not as recipients at all, but rather as collaborators in helping you make meaning together.

PW: Exactly. T.S. Elliot said something like “where’s the wisdom that’s lost in knowledge? Where’s the knowledge that’s lost in information?” Even below information is data. You can’t announce an executive education course unless you can say what the learning goals are, as if everyone is going to learn the same thing. If everyone is learning the same thing it makes the whole thing less valuable. Data is driving more detail and timed attendance. But meaning only comes from direct experience.

T.S. Elliot said something like “where’s the wisdom that’s lost in knowledge? Where’s the knowledge that’s lost in information?” Even below information is data.  

AL: One of my favorite things that you’ve talked about in the past, Patrick, is that if Henry Ford were alive today, the only institution he would recognize is the public school system. Because it has changed and innovated (not to use an overused word), so little in comparison to how much the world has changed and the advent of technology.

PW: Yes, the public school system takes different kids in and treats them all the same and gives them the same test at the end. It wants them to all be the same. That works when you want to teach people how to read instructions to use industrial manufacturing equipment so they can be good workers in a factory. What we need today is not people knowing the definition of words but understanding what they mean when they are put into sentences and text. The way quality control is done, the way lessons are planned, all mimic what Henry Ford did with the Ford plant.

The classrooms may have more sophisticated equipment but at the end of the day they aren’t very different from the academy of 2,000 years ago. That runs against the idea of what we’re asking leaders to demonstrate in their roles today. It’s not just about the delivery of content by the wise person in front of the room. 

RO: I would expand that comment to universities. A lot of universities run massive fundraising campaigns to build bigger, more modern looking buildings but it’s still about driving the student to the classroom. The classrooms may have more sophisticated equipment but at the end of the day they aren’t very different from the academy of 2,000 years ago. That runs against the idea of what we’re asking leaders to demonstrate in their roles today. It’s not just about the delivery of content by the wise person in front of the room.

PW: It’s generally true. Credit hours are measurements of time or they look at the number of faculty or the number of students. It’s a silly measurement. But there are two things – research labs which are very frequently inquisitive and robust and then there’s classroom teaching. In design there’s very little classroom teaching because they tend to be project oriented. In doing projects, students learn a lot - not just information that’s being so-called taught, but learning how to work together, deal with ambiguity and create new value. So studio-like education is becoming more important in traditional universities.

There’s a faculty member at Harvard Public Health, where I teach a project course, who told me they’ve never had project-based learning before at the university. They love it. They’re confused at the beginning, because it’s more ambiguous. But then you learn how to deal with the ambiguity. The tours are like project-oriented learning where people are injected into real experiences without knowing exactly what’s going to happen because no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s like a conversation. Conversations don’t have planned ends, but are an engagement between two or more people to see where the conversation takes them. Traveling to Colombia will be the same thing. We will find out what the value is after we’ve come home.

Conversations don’t have planned ends, but are an engagement between two or more people to see where the conversation takes them. Traveling to Colombia will be the same thing. We will find out what the value is after we’ve come home.

AL: Patrick, can you briefly trace the trajectory of your career as a founding father of design today, some of the work you did funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and by The MacArthur Foundation about project-based learning, and how that plays out in your work today at Harvard?

PW: Sure. I didn’t realize this until recently but my work experience has three parts. I started out trying to teach design differently. We were more concerned with product performance and how to teach communication differently than we were with the appearance of products. So we were part of a movement that taught design differently. A few years later, we expanded our activities to stretch the boundaries of design. The work with the MacArthur and Gates Foundations was like that. We were using design to rethink what learning could be. The MacArthur Foundation funded work on “digital learning and media”. We didn’t just look at electronic text books, but looked at things like Reflection Deficit Disorder and the creation of learning.

At Harvard University it’s different. It’s not doing design projects for public health. It’s trying to change the way public health works. Public health works by starting with existing scientific research papers, data sets and new research, takes those papers and data sets, re-analyzes them and comes up with new meaning and findings from the same data. They never start with going into someone’s home to see how they live and how they try to stay healthy, because it’s too ambiguous and they can’t count it.

The work I’m doing is looking at the stuff that is too ambiguous that they can’t count, applying design methods to it. Some of those projects will fail and some will succeed. We’ll take the successful projects as a basis for future projects and will find out why they’re successful. Design deals with so many variables in any given project. Even when a project works well, we have to take a guess at why it’s working. But we don’t know exactly why it’s working. We’re trying to find out why design works in public health through a structured program, using design to deal with soft and ambiguous problems of people maintaining their health and well-being.

AL: I just want to thank Patrick for his time and for continuing to support this initiative. For both of us, it was an amazing experience doing these tours but also producing them and so for me it’s a gift to have Patrick join us for version 2.0 of the Strategy Tour in Colombia where we’ll take the best of what we learned from doing the initial tours and building on that. I know that it will be valuable to have him there, so thank you so much.

PW: Thank you, Ashley. I also think it’s important to point out that you not only getting deeper meaning on these trips but you have a lot of fun and meet new friends, which is not trivial. It’s meaningful. 

AL: It’s absolutely true. We had an amazing design firm that does a lot of things in the public sector join us in Hong Kong. Then when we were in Mumbai, they took it upon themselves to curate the first evening that we were in Mumbai. It was a pop-up dinner and tour of this very old neighborhood where there is a lot of historical preservation going on. It was our “welcome to Mumbai”. Then they were back with us in Chicago for our conference encapsulating the four-city tour a few months later. So I realized I was in three different countries with these folks in the course of six months who I’d never known before. So that can be pretty powerful.

PW: You’re reminding me, it’s not only good for learning and meeting new friends, it’s also good for eating. The food is always great.

 

RO: Patrick, you’ve been exposed to what we have planned for Colombia. It’s a combination of things that have a business emphasis, some things that have a social impact emphasis and others that are out of left field to give us an in-depth understanding of how people live at an intimate level. Does anything in our schedule stand out for you?

PW: If I were going on my own, I wouldn’t know about the coffee co-op. If I did know, I’d call and they’d not be able to see me quickly. Same about the people doing the communications campaign with the FARC, which played a role in facilitating the government’s negotiations with this guerrilla group. That’s really hard to find unless the people who know about it curate it before we go.

RO: Fantastic. Thank you so much. I echo everything Ashley said. I’m very much looking forward to having you with us in Colombia. Thank you for this call.

PW: Thank you for doing another tour. It’s going to be great and I look forward to being on it.