Thursday, June 28, 2018


If you can foster psychological safety, the ideas flow and the innovation is real.


e aim for a generative, respectful, and psychologically safe place to learn about and explore the world of creativity. It's said that a classroom of teachers is a classroom of learners. I work to create a culture in the classes I teach that lives and breathes this idea.  As a great mentor showed me, learning is a partnership.

‍Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard
Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard element — 2018

I teach a diverse group of students. Their backgrounds and majors ranging from Psychology to Chinese. With this in mind, I asked 15 business students, 15 entrepreneurship students, and 10 graduate students to storyboard the learning experience they had over the course of the semester in my design thinking classes. I was asking for 40 takes on Human Centered Design. I received 40 unique journeys. I learned that their perspectives are completely diverse, although sometimes seemingly indistinguishable. “We’re unique by fractions of an inch” as indie music artist Owen puts it. The nuances of our differences are one of the wonderful things we noticed. Giving the students a chance to voice their experiences and their journey was a fascinating look at what design can do for the challenges we face in our lives and in organizations. It also gave us all a chance to reflect in a medium foreign, but fresh to many students: visually.

What's Your Story... Board?

With “a classroom of teachers is a classroom of learners” in mind, I asked them to “design their design work” and propose a new ability, method, or mode of Human Centered Design. Perhaps even more importantly, the students had the opportunity to make design their own. The design thinking process, popularly presented: Empathy | Define | Ideate | Prototype | Test, is an awesome introduction and a source of much-needed vocabulary. I realize some cite its flaws. However, they can be overcome. That introduction, for many of my students, is a new worldview, not just a process. The pedagogy and approach to design at leading schools like Stanford is changing, shifting to a focus on abilities more than process. I see a similar evolution in practice and through my teaching. We work to answer the question of what can you do? Not what do you know? I can prototype ideas, I learn from failure, I can come up with scores of ideas (even bad ones that inform great ones), I can gain empathy, I can define problems, I can use constraints to boost creativity.

So what abilities did they propose as their own? 40 different ideas from “regroup” to “start over”….. and “fail, now what” to “redefine.” I’m working to include their ideas in the next iteration of my course design. However, what I found most interesting, and perhaps not that surprising, is that psychological safety and the dynamic of the team was the secret sauce.

Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard
Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard element — 2018

What I learned was to give them autonomy, give them the opportunity to design their design, and to be completely in tune with the psychological safety of the team. Forget about being on task, let the students shoot the breeze. With that, and in their own way, they’ll find a safe place to create the future. It’s really all about psychological safety. If you can foster psychological safety, the ideas flow and the innovation is real.

A Prototype of the Course’s Journey Map
A Prototype of the Course’s Journey Map

Article written by:

Director of External Affairs,
Graduate Programs in Sustainability

Professor of Practice

Wake Forest University

Featured contributor:
Distance Learning
Wake Forest

Virtual Classrooms for Fall of 2021

The Sustainability Graduate Program will be offered as virtual online courses (real-time, face-to-face classes meeting in an online virtual classroom) for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Students can complete the entire degree remotely, including electives. Some in-person electives are available if on-campus classes are preferred.