WRITTEN BY MEGHAN CURETON
Meet Brady. He joined the iDiploma program last year as a freshman. He had aspirations to innovate something and start a business. Hailing creators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, he put together some impressive videos outlining his definition of innovation and even an idea for innovating the backpack. He said all the right things during his interview and easily convinced the iDiploma application committee that he would be an asset to the team. We were impressed.
During the first year of the program, though, we didn’t see as much growth as we thought we might. While he was still the same Brady, and had some incredibly creative ideas to share, at times he mocked the design thinking process, sometimes equating the mere use of sticky notes with the process rather than the true intent – to keep humans at the center and have a framework for problem-solving. When we asked all members of the program to start and maintain blogs in order to share their thinking and begin to build their networks, Brady was resistant. Despite our efforts to help him and his peers understand the value in sharing early prototypes/ideas and collect small wonders as treasures yet to be realized, he remained incredibly resistant to sharing thoughts and ideas on his blog. Ironically, he would continue to hold onto his backpack idea, and even wrote during a moment of personal reflection: “I will be successful in innovation diploma when I have started up my own business idea and start making myself known on media sites.” He wanted to be known. He intended to create something innovative. Yet he wasn’t leaning fully into the process nor was he taking the constant feedback from his facilitators to heart. He missed deliverables, and sometimes seemed to treat the program just as any other class.
But something has changed for Brady. This year, he and a team of iDiploma students were given a design brief from ATT Foundry that forced him to step up his game. Through the process, Brady and his team were challenged to be project managers, communication experts, prototyping wizards and collaborative innovators in a field that was completely new to them (and to me). They delivered to their client an airtight presentation highlighting a clear, user tested prototype that left their client wondering why they didn’t hire more high school students for this kind of work. It made Brady feel like his ideas were valued – and it even made him realize the design thinking process was something valuable – ATT said as much when they applauded the team’s use of the process, which is what helped them gain such a unique perspective that the company did not have.
Upon completion of the design brief, I asked the group to re-evaluate what they wanted to do next. I reminded them of the iDiploma purpose – to nurture innovators to create a better world for us all – and clearly explained something that I feel is core to the program: there is not one pathway that is right for all cohort members. I asked “do you want another design brief or do you have a personal iVenture you hope to tackle?” Brady chose the latter. I gave him two weeks to get started and put together a convincing plan to present to the team.
Today, he made that presentation, and guess what it was about? The backpack. The backpack idea he had when he applied to the program, but it wasn’t just the fuzzy and optimistic idea of “maybe one day creating this neat backpack.” No, he had something entirely different today. He stood up and shared with us the research he had done so far to come up with trends and opportunities for improvement. He was able to cite specific examples of user needs that weren’t met, interviews he conducted and he even shared the design thinking tools he used along the way. He quoted lines from books on product innovation he is reading, discussed the importance of experts he would need to connect with, and shared how he blogged each day during the process and intends to continue in order to build network, get feedback and have a portfolio to share with others. So what changed? What made it click for Brady? I’m not sure it’s something I can pinpoint, but I have a hunch it has to do with the work he’s been involved in as an iDiploma member, which has allowed him to explore questions and ideas rather than focus on giving answers and following someone else’s plan. I have a hunch that his work in iD has given him opportunities that wouldn’t be considered part of traditional school.
One of my greatest inspirations is Steven Johnson. He talks about an idea as a network, and advocates that the cobbled together ideas stitched into new forms only evolve in a “liquid network.” He argues that it’s not just time that helps the slow hunch form, but it’s also about the people you surround yourself with and the spaces where you work. For Brady, he’s surrounded by a diverse network of innovators who have chosen themselves as changemakers. He spends his days in the Hive, and is encouraged daily to share his ideas and failures.
Brady has a hunch about a backpack. He has a feeling that there is an interesting problem worth solving, and while he didn’t have the tools to tackle that problem as a freshman, I think he’s building the tools to be able to tackle it – and he’s not waiting for me or any other adult to give him permission. He’s beginning to pull together the puzzle pieces to make sense of his ideas and hunches and he’s just now beginning to build his own liquid network both in and out of the iDiploma team to help push his ideas.
His story is a reminder for me that I, too, have to have patience in the slow hunches as we continue to iterate the iDiploma program to best serve and empower each learner.