Many people assume that creativity is some kind of innate trait, like green eyes or a certain height, that you either have or you don’t. Only about half of Americans see themselves as creative.
At Stanford University’s d.school, students learn that creativity is just another kind of skill. Along with Stanford grad students, the d.school teaches visiting executives and, more recently, hosts a class of fellows who are each trying to improve the world in some way.
“What we’re basically looking for are people who are expert in their area but are dissatisfied with the ecosystem in which they operate. I call them restless experts,” says Justin Ferrell, a former journalist who helped start the new fellowship in the fall of 2012. “We want to find people who are doing really interesting things that are changing the way work is done in their area, and equip them with the human centered design skills to effect deeper change.”
The fellows come from wildly different backgrounds. The first year of the program, they included someone trying to revive the family farm, someone interested in Muslim-American philanthropy, and someone working on open governance in the developing world. What they all had in common: They’re very good at what they do but wanted to learn to be more innovative.
“These are super qualified people,” Ferrell says. “They usually have great academic training, they’ve worked for good companies, they’re already doing interesting things, but they’ve spent most of their lives being sharp analytical thinkers and abductive reasoners. They haven’t worked the muscles to learn how to believe in their creativity.”
The fellowship starts by instilling what the d.school calls creative confidence. “It’s the belief that they can see a problem and take a different type of approach to solving it, which inherently leads to a unique solution,” Ferrell says. “If you use the same approach over and over again, you’re just going to have incremental ideas, and we’re really looking for disruptive ideas.”
Throughout the year, after learning a basic framework for creativity, the fellows go back and forth with their organizations building and testing prototypes of solutions, with the goal of having creative impact as quickly as possible. (The program is now accepting applications for next year’s class of fellows.)
“One thing I’ve really learned at the d.school is that we often spend too much time planning and over-thinking things and then investing too much time in building a solution before we can test it,” says current fellow Melissa Kline Lee, who works in the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. “We can engage users earlier, prototype, and learn more about what they think and need before costly investments are made. It’s something that the government could really use.”
Lee is working on redesigning the way government employees collaborate across agencies, and currently testing different models with the EPA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, and the State Department. She says the d.school has given her the confidence to be a “renegade” and is helping her quickly develop a tool called GovConnect to help break down outdated silos.
“I’m not the first person to work on this, but I’m probably one of the first people to apply design thinking to it,” Lee says. Being in the program has transformed her as much as the project. “I don’t think I’ll ever approach my work in government the same way. I am profoundly and permanently changed. I am radically redesigned.”