Breakthrough Models Incubator Kicks Off Aided by Design Thinking

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The inaugural cohort of the Breakthrough Models Incubator convened in Seattle last week to begin work on their collective goal. It’s an ambitious undertaking. They are seeking to do nothing less than to break open the “iron triangle” of higher education using new technology-enabled business models to increase access, affordability, quality and completion for the most under-served students. And to do it not as one-off institutions, but as a group that can bring some critical mass to the work of institutional transformation in higher education.

The seven institutions selected from a competitive process range in character from traditional four-year colleges to community colleges to alternative colleges.  All have committed their top leadership teams, including the presidents, provosts and chief financial officers, to the effort.  Each team participated in two and a half days of thought provoking sessions with field pioneers Paul LeBlanc (President, Southern New Hampshire University) and Srikant Vasan (President Portmont College, Mount St. Mary’s). IDEO, an award winning design firm that has helped other organizations with similarly daunting challenges and restrictions innovate and lead human-centered change, hosted the balance of the sessions, exposing participants to strategies and lessons learned in analogous organizational environments. 

  • Thinking about the “job to be done” by the institution for their students is key to pioneering new models for higher education.

LeBlanc challenged the group to think hard about the “job to be done” by their institutions.  By that he meant reflecting on what students are trying to accomplish in their lives by earning a degree or certification.  SNHU has decided to focus on different students with different kinds of programs. The institution offers a “coming of age” experience where faculty play an important mentoring role in their face-to-face residence-based program while it hones in on the workforce development needs of a specific set of nontraditional students who need the flexibility of online programs.  Similarly, Vasan articulated a concerted decision on the part of Portmont to prepare an educational offering for students for whom “there is a will but not a way.”  Their admissions process filters for students who are high on “grit” and perseverance measures. The college provides maximum flexibility with a structure that is most likely to lead to completion because they understand their students’ reason for investing in education: to complete the degree that will provide them a pathway to sustaining employment or advancement within their current job.

Both LeBlanc and Vasan emphasized the need to separate their breakthrough models from existing/established enterprises.  SNHU’s online program and its College for America program are physically separated from the main campus to allow all the units to operate by the rules that make most sense for the job they are trying to accomplish without engaging in organizational culture clash.  Portmont College, while it maintains a close working relationship with Mount St. Mary’s College, is based in Denver and operates by very different rules than the established enterprise. 

  • Higher education can benefit from design thinking and from looking at the strategies to innovate taken by similarly situated industries.

IDEO introduced the group to some of the key tools used by designers and innovators to develop revolutionary new ideas, including a very free-flowing style of brainstorming and research of analogous industries.   Specifically for the Incubator, IDEO’s researchers, Dan Perkel and Sina Mossayeb, interviewed representatives of a variety of industries including government (The US Navy and the Department of Labor), nonprofits (Obama for America and Invisible Children) and for-profits (Walmart’s retail pharmacy group, the producers of Moulin Rouge) to see how they were all able to innovate in the face of similar constraints – bureaucracy, high levels of government regulation, decreasing budgets.  Participants listened to the various methods of breaking through adopted in other industries and then spent time envisioning how their draft plans might benefit from the same or modified strategies.  By the end of the second day, Ball State University President JoAnn Gora said, “You really can learn a lot by looking at analogous industries.”

  • There is no shortage of innovative ideas in the “traditional” sectors of higher education.

All seven teams came to the convening with ideas for breakthrough model plans, though each is at a different stage of development.  Regardless of where they started, all seven teams refined and in some cases, completely redesigned their ideas using the design thinking approach introduced by the Incubator.  What did they come up with?  Think Weight Watchers meets student engagement – connectivity and community to inspire continued progress toward a difficult goal by peppering the path with meaningful and fun reinforcements.  Or envision E-harmony meets student advising -- using predictive analytics to pair students with achievable, satisfying majors.  Or the MOOC that’s not a MOOC but rather a gaming inspired app to help students learn core skills that cut across content like time management and financial literacy. 

The convening – designed to give the participants new tools (design thinking) and new perspectives on their challenges – is just the beginning of a six-month long process to support and encourage each team as they design and implement a breakthrough model. Over the course of the next six months, teams will experience continued exposure to leading thought leaders on a range of topics, facilitated conversation with each other, consulting services support, and constructive feedback from one another on their breakthrough model plans.  Watch for the launch of those plans in 2014!  We’ll keep you posted.

Visit to learn more about the Breakthrough Models Incubator or contact Holly Morris ([email protected]).