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Building an Innovation Toolkit with the 2019-20 ACE Fellows

Before and after: We split the ACE Fellows into teams to rapidly design, build, and test paper airplanes—and compete them against one another—all in under 10 minutes. The result? An immediate energy boost and surge of community.


On August 6, the Lab led a human-centered design session for the 2019-20 cohort of ACE Fellows, a diverse group of 38 aspiring leaders in higher education. We were honored to join them on the first day of their opening retreat to provide practical guidance on how they can apply a human-centered design lense to transform their institutions.

We warmed up the session by collecting everyone’s favorite karaoke songs on sticky notes as the fellows arrived to create a playlist. We then split into teams to rapidly design, build, and test paper airplanes—and compete them against one another—all in under 10 minutes. Both activities helped build energy and community among the fellows and opened the way to an afternoon exploring design tools together.

Our task was to equip the fellows with a toolkit they could employ for problem solving in the context of a changing landscape in higher ed, which would be the focus of their case study assignment later in the week.

We shared the Lab’s learnings from our latest white paper, The Learner Revolution: How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace, and introduced the fellows to five future models that we see emerging from our work with over 100 institutions. As part of a gallery walk, the fellows interacted with the five learner-driven models and considered their institution’s likelihood to adopt the models, ranking them 1-5. The Workforce Integrator emerged as the model most likely to be embraced by schools.

Building upon this context, we reviewed the Innovation Capacity Assessment quiz from the white paper and the five associated categories: student voice, product development and branding, strategic partnerships, rapid innovation, and talent development. We drew examples from our work on the ground to illustrate the categories and demonstrate the application of tools and methods. In particular, we highlighted the use of the Value Statement Canvas, Stakeholder Mapping, and Pressure Testing to inform the fellows’ upcoming case study strategy.

While some of the fellows were new to human-centered design, others were familiar with the methodology and/or recognized elements of their own approaches mirrored in the process. We couldn’t cover everything in one afternoon, but we gave them just enough to be dangerous. We can’t wait to hear how they leveraged their innovation toolkit in their case study strategy!


In need of music to get those design juices flowing? Listen to the ACE Fellows Karaoke Playlist.