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The Future of Learning will be Built on Skills Maps

Skills mapping is coming into focus as the holy grail for translating employer needs to learner pathways. It was a hot topic at the SXSW and ASU+GSV conferences the Lab has attended over the past few weeks. And our partners are looking for help understanding this emerging tool in the landscape.

So, here’s a two-minute primer:

What’s a skills map?

A skills map is a foundational map or grid that charts three or more essential variables for an educational program or offering. The three variables are skills, level of mastery of the skill, and the translation of that to job positions in the workplace.

What’s an example of a skills map?

A skills map for a business program might show the the progression of skills necessary for  marketing, finance, sales careers or entrepreneurship careers. It would take all of the essential skills for these career pathways and organize them by levels of mastery that align with career milestones. A really good map will show shortcuts or forks in the path that could bridge to different roles. And it might show how the skills map back to more traditional learning outcomes or courses.

How do educators use these skills maps as a tool to map to courses, thinking about how skill development differs from student to student?

Lab partner Western Governors University (WGU) is taking skills mapping very seriously, seeing it as the course and program design manual to guide not only program designers, but also students who need to understand skills pathways leading to mastery for certain roles. Director of Program Architecture Kacey Thorne had a great interview about this recently in Inside Higher Ed. She includes other relevant variables in WGU’s skills maps such as mindset and context.

Hult International Business School is also developing skills maps, as we learned at ASU+GSV. When you have an skills map that underlies all of your curriculum, you can create cool tools like this Dream Job Mapper, which plots the learner’s current skills and proficiency level against the skills and proficiency levels needed for their “dream job.” Hult scaffolds competencies on a 4-level scale (Novice, Capable, Adept, Independent) and recommends pathways to help you build those skills.

Example of a skills map in a business program

Fox School of Business’s RoadMap “fitbit for business school” tracks student’s competency throughout the program

Another model we’ve been following for awhile at the Lab is the Fox School of Business at Temple University’s RoadMap. This dashboard, informed by employers, shows graduate students a picture of their competency development over time. As Christine Kiely, Associate Vice Dean, said, “No single grade for a single course can capture this kind of development.”

Many of the Lab’s partners are thinking about skills mapping.

According to our 21st Century Skills Badge Toolkit Survey, 78% of respondents are looking for methods to be more intentional about teaching of 21st century skills to all learners. Skills mapping is a way to make the skills more visible, intentionally surfacing pathways to development to reach career goals. While we’ve just shared three great examples, it’s not the Lab’s goal for every institution to create their own skills maps. These should be employment sector-driven, at least regionally, if not nationally. The Lab’s goal is to find a place of convergence. Through Tee Up the Skills, we are identifying the key skills “bundle” for entry-level roles and are feeding in to efforts by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and others. But that’s only part of the puzzle. Another key step will be to associate a level of mastery with those roles, for instructional designers and learners to use as a developmental road map.

If you are also interested in working on national prototypes, please email Lab designer Tara Lifland (  

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21st Century Skill Badge Earners Poised to Test the Job Market: 5 Things We’re Learning from Tee Up the Skills

Employers fill out T-Profiles at the University of Maine in Fall 2018

7 schools. 400 students. 20 employers. 40 T-profiles. 14,000 frequent flier miles.

Our #TeeUpTheSkills travels at the end of 2018 were intense. In spite of the ambitious schedule, we traversed the country with enthusiasm. We were confident that putting boots on the ground to lead personalized design sessions with our partner schools and their employers would answer the biggest questions the Lab has about its 21st century skill digital badges.  

  • Will employers care about them?  
  • To what extent will they be valuable signals of skill readiness for hiring managers?
  • At what point(s) in the hiring process are they useful?
  • Can they provide a leg up for historically marginalized student populations?

The early results from employers (including local, national and global companies) provide encouraging answers to these questions and much, much more:

#1  Digital badges, in general, have the potential to be more valuable in the hiring process than a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree

It’s still early days for employers. Very few consistently see applicants with digital badges, but one-third of the employers we interviewed believe digital badges can be as valuable as incumbent degrees and credentials. This is big news! Learners should have multiple, meaningful ways to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to employers. For those who cannot afford a 2-4 year educational experience (either due to finances or time constraints), this is especially big news.  Higher education should see this as an opportunity rather than a threat to incumbent degrees and certifications. Digital badges could help grow your base of learners and enhance the profile of learners you currently serve. If you need to make a case for badging in your environment, it is clear employers are poised to explore their value.

#2 Employers who are just learning about 21st Century Skills Badges, believe they could help assess the skill readiness of recent college grads

According to Hart Research Associates 2018 report, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work, 76% of executives and 87% of hiring managers rate it very important that recent graduates demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings, yet only 33% of executives and 39% of hiring managers think that recent graduates are very well prepared in this area.  The Lab surveyed employers familiar with the hiring process and asked them to what extent they agree with the statement, “I am interested in new ways to assess skills of recent college graduates.” 78% strongly agreed and 22% agreed, which means 0% disagreed! They are hungry, if not desperate, for ways to do this. They are willing to experiment. They don’t need a fully-baked solution that has years of testing behind it. But, they do need to be educated.

When employers were able to ask questions and develop a working understanding of our badges (i.e., what they are, how they were developed and what learners experience), they became eager and hopeful that these badges could solve one of their biggest challenges–deciphering whether or not a recent college graduate is equipped with the right combination of “technical” and “21st century skills.” Employers cared more about what learners did to earn these badges and less about the time it took to do it (music to the ears of the competency-based education world). They were most energized by our “proving ground” assessments, which require learners to apply their knowledge of the skills to real-world, workplace experiences. Some employers even felt they could make better hiring decisions just based on the results of the proving ground, further supporting the narrative, “I know it when I see it.”

#3 Job descriptions don’t accurately reflect the 21st century skills employers are seeking

“If I had 50 empathetic applicants with a mechanical aptitude, I would hire them all on the spot.”

There are many reasons for the perceived “skills gap.” And both supply and demand can do more to address it. The Lab has one very simple, but important recommendation for employers. Ask for the skills you want on your job description. The employer quoted saying this is not asking for empathy as part of his job description for HVAC technicians, but acknowledges he could increase his business just by adding more empathetic employees. Awareness is fundamental to solving the skills gap. Employers can accelerate this by openly articulating the combination of technical and 21st century skills they are seeking.

As part of our sessions, we used our T-profile tool and asked employers to identify the most important 21st century and technical skills for their hard to fill, entry-level positions. This brief exercise challenged employers to see potential gaps between their job descriptions and their desires. Enlightening discussions invariably followed with employers admitting surprise and concerns about the disconnect. To complicate things further, some employers from the same company disagreed on which skills were most important. Job seekers use job descriptions as a guidepost, attempting to measure their qualifications against it. College students might use job descriptions as a developmental tool to build their profile. In the coming months, the Lab will be advancing its work on the T-profile and building out its library of Ts to demonstrate the power of skill transparency.

#4 Industry bundles of 21st century skills are emerging

We all know quite a bit about which 21st century skills employers value most. By the way, employers will tell you all of them are important (no argument here). But by urging them to select the most important ones for their hard-to-fill, entry-level roles (as we did during our employer sessions), it is becoming clear that we may not know enough about which skills matter most when we look across sectors and jobs.  

Part of the issue impacting the teaching and acquisition of 21st century skills is the lack of guidance as to where to start. Can industry help learning providers and learners identify which 21st century skills are valuable by sector and job? We believe they can. In fact, we’re seeing it. Trends emerge when you look at the 40 T-profiles we’ve designed with employers representing 30 different roles across multiple sectors. In the coming months, we will continue to build out our “library of Ts” for entry-level jobs and make those available on our website.

#5  Badges can be valuable signals at multiple points in the hiring funnel

We have learned from large employers that badges, at scale, will be most valuable to them when the badge assists them in finding the targeted skills in their keyword searches. This is most important to employers in the screening phase to select candidates to review more closely. When competency-based badges are more commonly used, the learner’s most important role here is to manage and be proactive about your digital footprint. What are employers able to see through your skills and experiences? Do the keywords they use best represent you as they scrape data from around the digital world?

Until badges are more commonly accepted, how can a badge earner use them? Note to badge earners everywhere: it is YOUR job to make sure hiring managers know about your digital badge. YOUR job. You cannot rely on applicant tracking systems or keen-eyed, badge-savvy hiring managers to tease it out of the sea of data points they pull from your resume. Highlight them on your cover letters and resume, on your LinkedIn page, and talk about them during any face-to-face interaction.

What’s Next?

This spring (with the help of Vfairs), we are coordinating a virtual career fair featuring participants who have earned (or are in the process of earning) 21st Century Skills Badges, to further educate employers and test the power of these targeted hiring tools. Stay tuned.

The excitement about digital badges is in part due to what they represent (discrete learning, which can be enticing to employers trying to determine a candidate’s focus or level of expertise) and how accessible they are compared to incumbent credentials (employers can quickly access the meta-data (i.e., learning and artifacts) associated with the badge). The excitement begins to wane, however, when we consider if they simply get lost in the sea of data points hiring managers review. The Lab is working with employers who are very willing to learn about badges, very willing to test them in the hiring process, and who are very excited about their potential to help them find top talent, particularly from historically underrepresented populations. For those of you who are thinking about launching or growing your badging initiative but are hesitant because you’re not sure if employers will care, the time to act is now. Employers care!

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Designing the ‘Gold Standard’ for the Thriving University

What if you designed a university to support students’ well-being?

Growing student anxiety and mental wellness are gaining attention of higher education leaders as they consider how these challenges impact both the student experience and student success.  Watching this emerging landscape closely, the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy invited the Lab to convene in New York City with a group of education experts and innovators to discuss the promising practices of a ‘Thriving University.’

Alongside leadership at GMU’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being and leaders from representatives from Gallup, Minerva, the Council for Independent Colleges, University Innovation Alliance, and others, the Lab asked leaders to identify the intellectual, social, and emotional competencies of a ‘Thriving Student,’ alongside the practices, programs, and interventions known to cultivate these qualities. Inspired by research findings delivered across the morning, teams shared transformative practices like creating opportunities for students to learn and use design thinking, badging curriculum that helps students develop resilience, mindfulness and meditation training, and strong faculty and staff relationships as all contributing to the thriving student.


The Lab asked participants to consider the analogy of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards, which have “started a movement” toward eco-friendly commercial construction. What practices and supports for the thriving student could set the bar for a ‘Gold Standard’ Thriving University and how might we build those conditions on campus. Teams shared the critical importance of visible and consistent campus leadership in the success of any institution-wide initiative, further suggesting the importance of grounding practices and campus change around students, and the role that technology plays in helping to scale personalized student support. Energized by the possibilities ahead resulting from a “Thriving University Standard”, teams contributed to a roadmap of potential pathways to build a movement, spark organic support and research to win institutional support.


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Should the Resume be Dead? And Other Big Ideas on the Cutting Edge of Skills-Based Hiring

The Lab’s Founder & President, Kathleen deLaski, spent her summer co-chairing a Connecting Credentials working group which has just released its Aligning Supply & Demand Signals Report. Below are her reflections on her experience and the team’s recommendations.

Student translating her resume to the “T-Profile”

When we visit campuses to do a design exercise we call “a world without resumes,” I am always struck by how it catches most students off guard. They are mostly unaware of the changing hiring world as are the administrators who support them. The surprise is understandable. Families are paying a lot of money for the experts to prepare them for the American Dream, for which the summative display of dream eligibility is still the analog one pager. We’ve told them to include experiences, like sports, club, jobs, study abroad. Most everything but the GPA is just a list of self-reported activities, these days also sporting links to portfolios or personal websites. As an employer, I find the rows of community projects and sports teams, or even GPA, less useful than, say, a Black Belt or Eagle Scout. Those are what badging experts are starting to call ” verified learning evidence.” That’s not what most universities are selling, yet. (Although Lumina Foundation’s pilots with extended transcriptsand Comprehensive Student Records are underway.)

Increasingly, employers are not looking at resumes until a final round. They use “applicant tracking systems” and a keyword search function to winnow down hundreds or thousands of resumes that come in for an entry-level professional role to, maybe, 10. But this filtering is where they realize, as a hiring manager from Goldman Sachs told me, that the resume is a “blunt instrument.” “Are the right people getting through the filter?” And as we travel around the country, some hiring managers are telling us they are ready for the next thing, particularly if, to quote one, “it can match us to candidates with hard and soft workforce skills and help us prioritize among them.” That’s the holy grail of the future of talent.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

And that’s why I said yes to the unfunded summer of fun with my co-chair, Matt Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment, and 25 other experts, entrepreneurs, policymakers who were bold or naïve enough to think we can contribute to this big, hairy problem: skills-based hiring–aligning what learners know (or need to know) with what employers are looking for. The project comes under the umbrella group Connecting Credentials, created by the Lumina Foundation to foster the promise of digital credentials, and supported by 120 national organizations. Five workgroups were launched in May and we’re reporting our now on trends and recommendations. Our topic was real “rubber meets the road” territory: Aligning  Supply and Demand.

How do we make the promise of digital credentials real for employers? More importantly, why? Breaking down the currency of a college degree or a graduate degree to smaller currencies makes higher education much more accessible and portable. We expect future workers to pay for a whole degree when they might only need part of it to test a career. That expectation is causing more people to opt out, or they opt for the lower cost end of the education menu, e.g. community college, and theirs odds for reaching a middle class life are seriously diminished. If we can prove that candidates can get hired with part of a degree, or a verified group of specific competencies, that’s also the holy grail. It’s happening in some technical fields already.

“Breaking down the currency of a college degree or a graduate degree to smaller currencies makes higher education much more accessible and portable.”

So, what did we see on our spirited summer journey? (Disclaimer: this blog is my diary, others from the workgroup no doubt see it through different lenses.)


On the supply side of the talent equation, there is a lot of activity: Many universities get that they need to reinvent the “career readiness” value proposition as consumers become more fixated on this as the point of college. Community colleges have been focused on workforce outcomes for years, and it is where we see much of the innovation. Groups promoting badges suggest that 1 in 5 universities is testing some form of digital badging, although not necessarily for credit.

Work group members debating design criteria for the future hiring ecosystem

On the demand side, employers, not so much activity: IBM is leading on using competency-based badging to upskill workers for fast changing or “liquid skills,” as I wrote in a recent blog. Our workgroup report describes efforts by the Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Workforce Development Council, the National Network of Businesses and Burning Glass to help their employers speak with one voice on the competencies that they want. But the work so far is anecdotal and has yet to yield many competency maps and mastery requirements to serve as roadmaps for learning institutions beyond individual companies.

Probably our group’s biggest ah-ha is that employers need to lead the way on this work, they are the customers in this equation, but we’ve started the translation party without them because they were late. They represent the more fractured, go-it-alone partner, not prone to show up at convenings to wrestle with ecosystem aspirations. We recommend next steps to map the incentives of employers and pilots with them to determine how the power of skills-based hiring can mitigate their increasing “scarcity” issues on talent and the costs of turnover and retention. They told us that would get more of them to the table to consider the equity opportunities.

Ways to Design for Equity

We list several “design principles” from which we distill recommendations. They are largely aimed at moving from the stage where we are piloting on either the supply or demand side to now do pilots that test the whole equation: Can digital credentials help people to be hired in more equitable and efficient ways than in our current systems?

For a full view, the report is here. But let’s end the blog with three of my personal favorite recommendations and perhaps the most actionable ones to address the equity issues.

#1 HotHiring Keywords Industrial Average

Remember the keyword searches I mentioned that students and colleges don’t know about? What if we could publish them, every day. So learners could see what’s trending. “Dow Industrial Average for Hiring Keywords” total transparency for all.

Would employers be willing to feed into this anonymously to help learners see the trends? The Labor Department’s ONET provides a start. We identified that the task for students who have less of a social network is getting through the filter. Just like when marketing firms tell us to “optimize our search terms” (SEO, or search engine optimization) if we want our websites to appear higher up the Google search list. However, hot debate ensued at more than one of the workgroup’s sessions as the techies among us suggested we don’t need to worry about helping learners translate their skills into employer-friendly keywords, because artificial intelligence will do the translation for them within the next decade. In the meantime, learners still need to know what employers want them to learn. Let’s try publishing them. I think of the adage “What gets measured, gets done.”

#2 How to Demonstrate Mastery of 21st Century skills?

Funders should invest in the development of consistent ways of assessing 21st century skills, or power skills or whatever you want to call the universal skills that all of us need to function in a fast changing world, e.g. the ability to learn on a dime, to show empathy, to problem solve, to collaborate and communicate. It’s pretty amazing that there are no commonly accepted employer-driven assessments (that are not behind firewalls.) The Lab has been working on 21st century skill badges for almost four years, and we have not found open-source employer endorsed assessments. But these skills can be taught and measured. But employers need to join the fun in an open source way.

#3 Let’s push the next-gen resume as a translation tool between employers and learners, so that they can speak the same language.

Employers in Michigan reacting to the “T-Profile”

We’ve had employers and students be very responsive to the concept of theT-Profilewhich helps employers translate job descriptions into the hard and soft skills and sub skills they need and helps learners map their strengths and evidence to the T-profile that interests them. In one design session with 15 Michigan employers, organized by the Michigan Colleges Alliance, the vast majority felt it would be more useful than a resume. That helps us imagine the future resume as an interactive dashboard for the student to be managing her learning evidence. The National Institute of Metalworking Skills has already piloted a resume generator to get our creative juices flowing.

If you want to pursue any of these ideas or others in the report, contact me:

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The 10 Things We’ve Learned from 21st Century Skills Badging

The Education Design Lab just concluded the latest phase of our 21st Century Skills Badging Challenge. Building off of 2015-16’s work with George Mason University (Resilience Badge) and Georgetown University (Catalyst Badge), our primary goal during the 2016-17 academic year was to “complete the suite” of digital badges that represent the skills employers hope to see from college graduates but currently have difficulty identifying on a resume or through other hiring practices. For 8 badges, with 11 schools, we continued designing the framework and learning outcomes and piloting with students. We continued to imagine the future hiring ecosystem in which the badges could be currency and played the role of advocate for a future state in which students are intentionally learning these skills and employers are hiring based upon skills as opposed to pedigree.   

To do this, we worked with a larger cohort of colleges and universities (including two in Africa!) and expanded our outreach to subject matter experts who could inform us about the skills, employers who could pressure test the badge designs, and technology companies like Riot Games, MURAL, and WRANX building in this space.  

Now that more than 300 university students have been through our pilots, and 50 plus employers have weighed in, we are more convinced than ever that the intentional development and assessment of 21st century skills can be a game changer to bring applicants and hirers together. Beyond having the ability to display this in the form of a digital badge or micro-credential, students develop a deeper understanding of themselves and a new narrative about their skills. The “pop-up” learning community helps them horizontally make sense of all their learning and weave key soft skills through the vertical formal discipline instruction. Employers are excitedly weighing in as well about the prospect of being able to use 21st century skill badges as a filter early in the hiring process and a way to better understand the potential of a recent graduate.  

We are also seeing the light bulb go off with students, administrators and employers when we ask them to imagine a world where the paper resume is obsolete, and they are buying and selling jobs through keywords where machine readable systems match candidates with employers. The concept of the T profile, where the horizontal T is 21st century, or mobility, skills and the stem is increasing levels of technical skills, is also being very well received when we ask both sides to use it as a framework to chart skills and job descriptions.

Below are the Lab’s top 5 insights from students and from employers from this past year’s work.   

5 Things We’ve Learned From Students…

1. Transparency and purpose drive student engagement.

Students take many courses in the pursuit of their degree and are also immersed in various activities and employment outside of the classroom. But do they know which skills they are developing along the way? By being explicit about the skills they can practice as part of a class, during an internship, even as part of a team, we can heighten their awareness and help them recognize that these skills are useful everywhere. We have to own the task of connecting the dots for students (e.g., tagging courses and activities) almost to the point of being gratuitous, so they know what skills they’ll be acquiring, and why. When K-12 wanted to move the needle on college enrollment, they invested energy to create a “college going culture,” which often meant hanging pennants of aspirational colleges, having teachers wear sweatshirts from their alma mater on a given day, even naming hallways or spaces after colleges. A culture shift and wholesale strategy in higher ed will help students understand just how central 21st century skills are to everything they do now and in the future.

2. Reflection makes badges (and their content) stickier–including techniques that ask the learner to critically analyze their current practices (and have others do it with them) can spur change and improvement.

Last year, students told us how powerful it was to include reflection as part of the badge earning process, so we made it a core component. This year, it became clear that reflection and meaning making when done with others is even more powerful than when it is done alone. For one, you are forced to do it. “Thinking about your thinking” can easily get pushed down the priority list if you’re asked to find the time to do it on your own. Having a peer or peers to partner with makes you more accountable. We found that watching a video of yourself giving an elevator pitch presentation (one of the practices associated with the Oral Communication Badge, co-designed by Tunis Business School and Makerere University, in partnership with international NGO, IREX) and critically analyzing it with peers generated insights you would not have surfaced on your own. Participating in a meetup to discuss a learning module (one of GMU’s successful practices) challenges you to consider other perspectives and reframe your own. A meeting with a mentor to discuss the 360 evaluation completed by 4 adults you know well pushes you to consider your strengths and confront your weaknesses. These impactful moments become memorable ones for students. They increase self-awareness and drive transformation. 

3. A focus on the sub-competencies drives learning in the areas that matter most.  

Ask a student to define “collaboration,” and it often sounds like group or teamwork, the division of labor needed to complete a task. If you ask a subject matter expert or consult the literature, collaboration is far more nuanced. Effective collaboration requires active listening, understanding diverse perspectives, strengthening relationships and being solution focused (the core-four sub-competencies the design teams have identified as part of the Collaboration Badge co-designed by University of Arizona). There is an art and a science to collaboration. Therefore, if we want to build collaboration skills for students, we have to change our eye level, stop talking about “collaboration” and start talking about the development of the core sub-competencies of collaboration. Practicing and developing those are the starting point.

Participating universities told us at the end of this year that they are willing to agree across all schools on which sub-competencies roll up to signify each of the overall 21st century skills. They are also willing to come to agreement on the learning outcomes for each one, so that employers and universities can start to align the supply and demand sides with a common language. Schools want flexibility to determine how they will best achieve those learning outcomes.   

4. 21st century skills can be developed in an online environment but curriculum requires human engagement.

To reach all students, it is necessary to leverage online environments. In our pilots, traditional learning management systems like Blackboard and D2L provided students with the opportunity to access the learning modules when their schedule permitted and engage in online discussions associated with the modules. But to “enable the interplay between offline activities and digital augmentation,” learning modules designed around and/or leveraged what students were already doing on a daily basis provided added value. This practice encouraged students to take what they learned and apply it elsewhere, creating intentional, real-world application. Even a private Facebook page (a no-cost strategy used by Tunis Business School) served as both a learning platform and a community of critical friends, providing students with the necessary “human touch.”

5. A 360 assessment has been more valuable to students than other forms of assessments. 

A raw score on a standardized assessment does not tell students how to improve and can even be unclear on what to improve upon. An assessment that provides a disposition (e.g., DiSC or Foursight) is engaging and more meaningful in that it provides a snapshot and detailed language about a student’s relationship with the skill. Checkster’s 360 assessment, however, is proving to be the most valuable type of assessment for students. The 360 provides ratings directly related to the sub-competencies from adults who know them well and a comparison point to the way in which they rated themselves. These data establish a needed (and scalable) baseline, provide insights that carry weight because they are from trusted sources, and allow students to develop a plan of action, particularly if there is consensus from their raters about an area of weakness. The 360 assessment can also be used as a pre-post assessment to better understand if students actually “move the needle” based upon the work they did to earn the badge.

…and 5 Things We’ve Learned From Employers

1. Employers are hungry for ways to assess 21st century skills.

Every year that we’ve run a pilot cohort (since 2014), employers have become more articulate about what they are not getting from traditional resumes and cover letters. The incumbent self-reported resume is a blunt instrument filled with lists of activities, but few ways to gauge competency about the skills you really have. As a result, we are witnessing the increase in pre-screening assessments like Knack, Pymetrics and other homegrown tools that measure the skills that correlate to high performance. The problem with most of these tools is that they don’t share with students and schools a roadmap for how to develop what employers are looking for. Many of the tests are a black box. You don’t know why you did or didn’t get hired. This effort to filter and de-risk hiring suggest employers see room and need for a more informative, transparent credential [like a 21st century skill digital badge] that provides validated demonstration of a prospective employee’s skills.

2. Show me the money.  

Individual employers are not likely to take the lead in helping the entire hiring ecosystem get to a common language for these skills. But industry associations are stepping up, such as the National Network’s Common Employability Skills, and the National Retail Services Initiative Competency Model. Foundations and non-profits need to push new alignment models, as Lumina Foundation is helping Connecting Credentials, a consortium of 115 organizations. As they see business gains or efficiencies from early tests with 21st century skills, employers tell us they will come to the table. (The Lab is co-leading this summer’s work group on Aligning Supply and Demand Market Signals for New Credentials.)

3. Show, don’t tell.

Employers do like the fact that students are going “above and beyond” to earn a badge [the “disciplined practice” of earning a 21st century skill badge], but they want to see evidence that you know how to apply the skill, not just talk about it in an interview; how having earned a 21st century skill badge will help you complete the task they are going to give you. Digital badges with metadata that include machine readable artifacts that help trigger the keyword searches of employer tracking systems, and then become the “show and tell” evidence to bring to an interview if you get to that stage. Providing employers with an understanding of how what you’ve done will translate into outcomes when you’re on the job (e.g., video of an elevator pitch to demonstrate Oral Communication) are most valuable.

4. 21st century skills may trump technical skills.

There is no shortage of advice for recent college graduates entering the job market and little of it has to do with applying your degree to that first job. Several employers, in all but the most technical of companies, tell us that they are currently emphasizing technical skills because their screening systems via keyword searches struggle to capture the broader skills. They “get” that the broader skills are more determinant of long term success for employees. Dre Voelkel, Marketing and Business Development Advisor for Illume Advising, says, “Since it is clear that the work force of the future will increasingly demand creative, flexible, big-picture workers, greater emphasis will be placed on social skills such as personal integrity, cultural awareness, empathy, tenacity, and grit. However, these are skills that don’t always come across on a resume.” We see tech boot camps, for example, now adding in discrete training on 21st century skills in response to employer demand.

5. Keyword hiring may become the new norm for larger companies.  

As more sourcing and screening is occurring through algorithmic keyword searches by employers, keyword literacy becomes an important gap to fill for students, college career centers and workforce programs. Digital badges provide visibility as we move to a “Keyword hiring” economy. So, language to describe a candidate’s soft skill qualifications and evidence become tools to make him or her more visible to hiring managers. When you’re a recent graduate, without much of a track record in the workforce, making sense of what you bring to the table is even more challenging. Because the transparent nature of these badges provide a window that hiring managers are currently lacking and leaves less room for interpretation, “21st century skill badges” could become an important access tool, particularly for students who lack personal employment networks and useful digital records. Potential employees need to be smart about what online data could be helpful (and not helpful) to their competency and skills reputation profile.

Interested in getting involved? Visit our page to learn more!

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5 Ways Transfer Pathways Are Broken

Every year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of students enter a community college aspiring to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree one day; most will fail to do so. Community colleges continue to be popular entry-points into post-secondary education, and the 21st Century economy increasingly requires a college degree, so the fact that so few students are successful is a national embarrassment. The learners want it; the economy rewards it. It’s time to address this challenge.


Value of community colleges

Community colleges continue to be a common entry-point into post-secondary education, especially for adult learners, part-time students, Hispanics, first-generation, and students whose families earn less than $32,000. Overall, community colleges represent 45% of all undergraduate students. Most of these students, to the tune of 80%, aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree.

In terms of cost-benefit, community colleges make sense. On average, community colleges are about a third of the cost of their four-year public peers. Several states, including Oregon, Kentucky, and Tennessee, take this opportunity further by offering pathways to a tuition-free associate degree. As more states continue to explore legislation moving towards free community college, it only becomes more popular as a route to a bachelor’s degree.


Value of a bachelor’s degree

Unlike the 20th Century, where a high school degree was sufficient for most jobs, the 21st Century has experienced “degree inflation”. Essentially, the bachelor’s degree has transformed from a currency into a key, from a luxury into a requirement, for a person to be competitive in the economy. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce, 73% of all jobs created since the Great Recession require a bachelor’s degree, and 97% of “good jobs” (those paying at least $53,000 a year) have gone to those with a bachelor’s.


The problem: Broken Transfer Pathways

We know that community colleges are an entry-point to post-secondary education for millions of students; we also know the bachelor’s degree is the key to competing for a good job in the 21st Century. So what’s the problem? As mentioned above, 80% of students who enter community colleges aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Despite these aspirations, the CCRC reports that only 25% transfer within 5 years to a 4-year college and only 17% will earn a bachelor’s within 6 years of transferring. You read that correctly: 17%. In another study from CCRC, only 100,000 students out of a cohort of 720,000 students entering community colleges in 2006 had earned a bachelor’s, a figure closer to 14%. Although they’re not attaining, these students are still racking up debt and committing time toward a degree they will not earn.

The education to career pipeline - why we need seamless transfer pathways

Even for those who do navigate the system and earn a degree, the broken pathway comes with its own costs. More than 90% of students who intend to earn a 4-year degree take longer than 4 years to do so. Each additional year costs students tens of thousands of dollars in lost salary, which PEW estimates to be about $17,000 a year. In addition to this extra time, students, on average, complete degrees with 134.6 credits even though only 120 are needed. This surfeit, which equates to a full semester’s workload, adds an unnecessary $4500 in costs. Curves in the transfer pathway—credits not transferring, course outcomes not aligning, students having to drop in and out to accommodate different campuses and services—all contribute to extra costs placed on students who enter community college and hope to earn a bachelor’s degree.


But why is this pathway broken?

Although both are institutions of higher learning, community colleges and four-year colleges differ in numerous ways that create different experiences for students that might transfer between them. We see 5 areas in particular that need to be resolved to make transfer pathways seamless:

1. Navigating admissions…twice Community colleges are open-enrollment, allowing virtually any student to enroll and start courses. But when it comes to transferring, they have to work with an entirely new admissions department, the rigor and relevance of their course of study may be called into question, they must become proficient in a new language, they have to dig up transcripts and course information…the redundancies and additions go on. The added time and frustration of trying to coordinate two admissions processes can be overwhelming and enough to pose an obstacle to transferring.

2. Blind hand-off for advising In high school, in community college, and in a four-year institution, there are separate silos of bureaucracy. Each institution advises students on the transactional requirements for their stop along the journey. No one in the K-16 ecosystem is funded to connect the dots and help students through their entire journey. And even those funded to help advise are woefully under-resourced.

3. Juggle multiple campuses A campus environment presents a safe place for a student to learn, and the comfort that comes with getting to know a place allows that learning to thrive. Having to switch to a brand new college disrupts the relationships that student has developed on-campus, deterring their future success.

4. Front-loaded services Most institutional services are designed to support a student at the beginning of their education, such as required advising for first-time registration and first-year success courses. When a student starts at a new college as a transfer, many of these services evaporate, such as opportunities for students to meet other students and early success courses.

5. Inefficiency Being a student at two institutions means double the login names, email addresses, and passwords. Course registration timelines are also different, meaning a student might need to wait for a course to transfer before being able to register, at which time classes may have already filled up and be unavailable.

A single college presents students with a closed, end-to-end experience, from entry to attainment. Because transferring involves two institutions, these experiences are broken up, creating obstacles, or seams, for the transfer pathway. Each different institution is like having to catch a connecting flight; a seamless pathway would offer nonstop service.


Making Transfer Pathways Seamless

Community colleges and four-year colleges were each founded to serve different purposes. In the historical timeline of higher education, it’s a fairly recent concept that a student might enter one and transfer to the other. But colleges haven’t caught up to this growing interest among students, and it’s time they start working together and make these pathways seamless.

A lot of work has already been done in this arena, but on a smaller scale: guided transfer pathways, articulation agreements, and transfer advising, to name a few. We want to build on this work by taking it to the next level, asking what it might look like to bring all parts of the student journey together, the community college and the four-year, and perhaps even the student’s high school or employer, to rethink, redesign, and wholly recreate the transfer experience.


Are you anxious to help solve this problem?

If you think your institution could benefit from transforming transfer pathways—whether you’re a community college or a four-year college—we want to work with you!

Want more information? Click here to learn more.

Ready to apply? Click here to access the RFP.

Want to talk to someone? Contact project lead Binh Do at


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What do learners want?

Why did MOOCs create such a stir a few years back? Why are bootcamps all the rage now? We are all looking for potential shortcuts to career success for the learner who doesn’t have access to or time for traditional learning. At least that’s the vision. (The current reality is that much of the early demand for MOOCs and boot camps has come from college degree holders, who feel they need retro-fitting.)

These trends are still nascent. But the rise of competency-based education is fueling speculation that the stackable, flexible, “stop-in-stop-out” degree or other meaningful pathway to the first career or second-third-fourth career is coming soon to a fiber optic line near you. Are we ready?

Collectively, we have not done a good job of articulating how this should or will look from the students’ or employers’ point of view. In design parlance, we call those design criteria. There is some design work ramping up to develop sub degree credentialing so that students can have the “credit currency” to build their own “stack” of coursework, certificates and experiences to prepare for one or more careers. See the Lab’s blogs, like Who Needs Micro-Credentials Most?, or Connecting Credentials and Lumina Foundation’s Beta Credential Framework, or Connecting Credentials’ Credentialing Engine. But for the learner’s journey from first course to career-worthy credentials, we haven’t gotten very far past imagining how boot camps might extend beyond coding or how MOOCs might be delivered for credit.

It is daunting. The Lab decided a year ago to start visualizing possibilities with a design challenge in one city and one sector: How might we create visible, flexible, alternative academic and training pathways within the Washington DC hospitality industry? We have learned a lot about at least what learners and employers want, and what is missing from the ecosystem. At first, you ask yourself, “If employers in the fastest growing industry need workers, and unemployed learners need jobs, why can’t we just put them together to make the up-skilling happen?

Learners have no idea what pathways are available to them short of getting a degree. They have no idea that their work experience and life experience might be credit-worthy.

In the current system, we encountered students’ (both 18-24 year-olds and older) confusion and apprehension with what will prepare them for success, training provider concern to align to the most critical skills, and employer frustration with the employee preparedness and retention.


What Do Learners Want: Make Pathways Visible and Flexible


Learners have no idea what pathways are available to them short of getting a degree. They have no idea that their work experience and life experience might be credit-worthy. Any new pathway for “opportunity youth,” 16-24 year olds who may not currently be working on a degree, include: Training programs, apprenticeships should be helping me toward a degree, because, at least today, that’s how I and my family measure my success. School or training must be low cost, must be flexible in hours, location and portability to other geographies and schools.

Adult students still working on the high school equivalency (age 25+) care less about a college degree and more about the shortest path to marketable skills. A recent National Skills Coalition report outlined that over 30% of low skill workers who want to participate in up-skilling faced logistical barriers like time or resources.


What Do Employers Want? 

21st century skills? And, by the way, could someone else pay for this?


The employer, though at times overlooked in more traditional educational settings, is the key for these types of pathways. Their involvement in the design, curriculum, and placement is critical for success. We confirmed that there is both a flexibility on hiring into entry-level roles without a college degree, but also that there must be clear pathways to gaining the critical workplace and 21st century skills, the importance of acknowledging prior learning, providing access to education, and gaining experience through internships or apprenticeships that set employees up to be successful. The bad news is that employers are reluctant to fund training programs as they see too much turnover.


Pathways are Worth the Investment


Despite the short lifespan for many of today’s alternate pathways, early signs point to improvements in retention that suggest investing in training is worthwhile for employers. Several for-profits are jumping into the corporate training aspect of this market as this is where the money is until the feds approve more bite-sized uses for student financial aid. Guild Education focuses on providing employers with college credit training programs for their workers and Degreed offers employers a slightly different twist, retention-oriented learning and development as an employee benefit.

Both startups and established education providers alike are building a footprint in this space. Taking an ecosystem approach in the technology “skills gap,” TechHire has partnered with local government, training providers, and employers to align skill development to local workforce needs. Praxis’s model targets startups focused on entry-level training and apprenticeship placement to offer alternative pathways to individuals who do not have credentials. BEST (Boston Education, Skills & Training) has created an employer-partnered training in hospitality that is gaining momentum and attention.

Our partners at the Lab have been the American Council on Education and SUNY Empire State College (focused on credit for prior learning). They are approaching this opportunity on behalf of learners who may not be in thoughtful companies with benefits. They are bringing to the forefront the impact (both around employee training, development, opportunity, and retention) that educational pathways and service providers can have in concert with employers.


Let’s Get Visual


At a January convening of 40 expert stakeholders from the community, we gathered reactions to four model concepts with pathway visualizations we created alongside with input from a dynamic and diverse set of subject matter experts representing hospitality, education, policy and community based organizations stakeholders. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive and reflect excitement around the potential impact of implementing connected pathways models in DC, and beyond. In fact, 90% of participants rated every model as “possibly viable” or “very viable” for a local pilot, and 72% of participants suggested that model concepts were viable for other industries or cities as well. You can download the document which summarizes these learnings below.

The feedback suggests that bootcamps and MOOCs are a piece of the design. Those forms of postsecondary education got us all thinking that college could be reinvented for those who can’t afford the traditional coming-of-age experience.  And we’ll leave you with the common questions all the designs hoped to address:

  • How can you get credit for skills you bring to the table?
  • How can you get credit for what you learn on the job?
  • How can you test out 1-3 careers without betting the farm with your education dollars?
  • Can your career and education goals be achieved in the same place? Or on the same journey?
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Who needs micro-credentials most? And are we designing for them?

It is sad that the traction micro-credentials are getting so far is not for the people who need them most. As Jeff Selingo pointed out in a NYT piece last month, nearly 9 in 10 jobs that have disappeared since 2000 have been lost due to automation. But neither the “forgotten” workers, as they were dubbed in the 2016 election cycle, nor their children can afford to take the work hiatus or time to meander through a part-time, 6-year path through the bachelor’s and master’s to grab the brass ring of the estimated (by 2020) 5 million unfilled highly skill jobs. Or they live in locations where those opportunities don’t exist. You can easily explain the Trump victory in the Rust Belt states by illustrating the opportunity shift from mid-skill to high-skill jobs and from middle America to the coasts. And this trend will be exacerbated over the next decade. The horseshoe will get deeper, which increases the urgency to reinvent college rather than tell more people to go and stick with it, even though we have 2.4 million a year who are trying. It’s not working for them or they did what they thought was a college track, but now they are underemployed.

As this graphic illustrates, the number of middle-skill jobs will drop relative to low- and high-skill jobs. Automation (and to a lesser degree, out-sourcing) will most greatly impact these middle-skill jobs, underlining the importance of providing pathways from low-skill to high-skill jobs.
As this graphic illustrates, the number of middle-skill jobs will drop relative to low- and high-skill jobs. Automation (and to a lesser degree, out-sourcing) will most greatly impact these middle-skill jobs, underlining the importance of providing pathways from low-skill to high-skill jobs.

Which is why sub-degree credentials are appealing. I had the opportunity to interview Sean Gallagher, author of The Future of University Credentials at the Parchment summit last week. Sean says the micro-credentials that are getting people hired or promoted in the new economy are, so far, certificates (e.g., IT, project management, supervisor) and micro-masters (e.g., Supply-chain management, artificial intelligence). If anyone has seen effective (i.e. market signal to employers) sub-degree credentials at the middle skill and low skill jobs beyond traditional trades, we’d like to know about them.

The good news is that we saw a lot of promising experimentation as we (the Lab) made the rounds to the credentialing and reinventing college conferences these past few weeks. We see four kinds of very interesting micro-credentials that could support equity goals for non-elite students and working adults:


1. Soft Skills

Levels the playing field for the 80% of high need and students of color who attend post-secondary programs that don’t attract blue chip recruiters. Can soft skill ninjas be identified through a badging process to earn an interview? We know that employers are very concerned with the soft or non-cognitive skills gap that incoming employees display, but they find them hard to hire against because they don’t necessarily correlate with GPA or elite status of the college you attended. See the Lab’s 21st century skills badging challenge for the latest on credentialing soft skills.


2. Entry Ticket

With increased interest in competency-based learning, we see a renewed interest in credit for prior learning, where a worker or member of the armed services can gain college credit for skills-based learning and shorten time to degree. Great examples of these are at Texas A&M – Texarkana, which evaluates incoming students for prior-learning credit, and My Next Move, which connects military veterans with pathways to credentials (and work) based on their military experiences.


3. Exit Ticket

Could the entry ticket work in reverse? We have some 31 million Americans who have left college in the past 20 years with no degree. Could they take competency tests on the way out to help them in the job market? Efforts like Reverse Transfer may make headway in reversing these attainment gaps.


4. Promotion Ticket

Too many Americans find entry into fields but have no way of moving up. Innovate+Educate is one organization working to map out these micro-credentials. In one example, they collaborated with Cedar Valley Community College and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority to provide pathways for entry-level employees to move into supervisory roles. Participants completed 18 credits, paid for the employer and fewer than needed for a full degree, in order to earn this “promotion ticket”.


You could argue that there are two design challenges for getting lower- and mid-skilled workers to the far side of the horseshoe. One is faster, integrated pathways (we have another blog on that coming), but the second is a new skills currency or verifiable language to create not only more mobility for workers but also a roadmap for development. Perhaps education technology tools, like IBM’s newly announced Project Esaki, can get us there. Esaki is an automated and cognitive advisor that recommends jobs to a candidate based on their skills, interests, and personality, a sort of digital recruiter and HR rep. Micro-credentials can also do that, with certificates and tickets like those described above showing the way.


– Kathleen deLaski


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The Evolution and Future of Bootcamp Education Models

The Lab is looking at bootcamps as a potential model for career pathways beyond coding. As the bootcamp movement grows in tech, it presents a range of possibilities for industries like healthcare and hospitality. Iron Yard, a bootcamp based in DC, presents a compelling model, given that 73% of their graduates report being employed full-time in a job requiring the skills learned at bootcamp. We’ve asked Brian LeDuc, the former DC campus director for The Iron Yard, to help us understand the essential ingredients and trends for this emerging model of post-secondary education. 

With 73% of bootcamp graduates finding a job within months of completion, what role might they play in the future of higher ed?

With watchful eyes on the emergence of coding bootcamps over the last 4 years, many wonder what impact this new model might have on traditional higher education.  Seeing opportunities, some universities are partnering or building their own, while others wonder if there might be other industries ripe for similar disruption. Notably intertwined is an exploration around the core values of post-secondary education, and whether the emergence of bootcamps more broadly indicates a shift away from degree programs to those focused on skill development.

While these fast-paced, immersive, flexible programs fill a critical need in the high-growth industry of software development, their successful application in other workforce development initiatives must similarly be thoughtfully aligned to their target industries.

As a higher education administrator, student success consultant, and now campus director for a coding bootcamp, there are a few design criteria for consideration to qualify the application of “bootcamp” models for education delivery in other industries or contexts. Rather than consider the specific industries or application of “bootcamp” models of education delivery, let’s first explore the design criteria that set apart the rapid expansion of code schools.

  • Coding bootcamps focus on discrete, demonstrable skills sets and their larger thematic competencies. Over the course of a student’s experience, students not only learn the appropriate syntax for the particular coding language that their course is focused on, but also how to approach problems, breaking large, complex technical requirements into their component parts and creating a solution that effectively addresses the core need in an applied project. Perhaps most notably, learning assessment in software engineering is as concrete as code working, or not. Given these underlying principles, any bootcamp derivation must involve discrete knowledge transfer with clearly demonstrable mastery.
  • Coding bootcamps serve students by representing industry. Founded in project-based apprenticeships led by industry veterans, the emergent curriculum across code schools reflects the latest trends in technology applied in a hands-on learning environment. In fact, many bootcamps engage local technology companies to hyper-customize their curricular focus, soliciting feedback on the industry needs and trends in relation to student preparedness to ensure that graduates are prepared with the critical industry needs.
  • Coding bootcamps simulate the workplace wherever possible. From hiring full-time instructors straight from industry to assisting students in acclimating to technology platforms that mimic their workflow to discussing industry trends and wearing hoodies to work, the bootcamp model has positioned itself as a workplace surrogate, building strong habits from students in their working styles, habits, and knowledge. During weekly soft-skill development sessions, bootcamp administrators and instructors help students to discern their ideal work culture, prepare their portfolios, and explore emerging industry-related topics.  
  • Coding bootcamps alleviate a substantive, identified, workforce gap that is met with openness to employment pipelines for students.  In the case of coding bootcamps, their emergence aligned with drastic industry growth, which continues today (web developer jobs are predicted to grow much faster than average at a rate of 27%).  With this incredible need for talent, alongside the tangible ability for graduates to present their knowledge, skills, and experience, technology companies are beginning to unsurprisingly reconsider the minimum expectations of new recruits.

And while these characteristics serve as a set of foundational tenets of bootcamp models for education, it is likely that successful adaptations of the model for other industries are more likely an augmentation of these practices within the context of either industry or higher education, rather than an independent disruption of either system in its entirety.  

In fact, it’s worth noting that given the recent acknowledgement of bootcamps by the federal government through the EQUIP program, as accreditation and evaluation standards continue to formalize and federal dollars enter into equation, the evolution of what we know as bootcamps is far from over.

Considering the attributes that have resulted in the rapid rise of the coding bootcamp, what other industries would you consider ripe for similar innovations?

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Where Design Thinking Meets Adaptive Leadership


How I stumbled across “adaptive design” at my Harvard reunion


I have always ignored the class reunion emails from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which I attended for two of the most eye-opening years of my life.  But this year’s pitch was different.  I saw that one of my favorite professors, Ron Heifetz, was inviting all his students (30+ years worth) to return to school for a refresher and networking weekend on Adaptive Leadership. That caught my attention.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Ron Heifetz kicking off the adaptive leadership reunion.
Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Ron Heifetz kicking off the adaptive leadership reunion.

How could I forget the young, renegade, cello-playing doctor, who talked his way into a one-year pilot in 1983 at New England’s seat of pedagogic hubris.  As a nothing-to-lose young journalist, I wasn’t afraid of the rumors that we would be lab rats for an untested, uncomfortable experiment.  It turned out that 100 of my classmates felt the same way, perhaps an early example of the misalignment of Academy concerns and consumers’ changing learning needs. So, along with mid-career students who were Army captains, police chiefs and political exiles from around the world, as well as other early career idealists like myself, I plunged into Heifetz’s first ever class. 33 years later (I know, that’s a lot of years), I can still remember having to get up and sing to find the personal narrative inside me, and learning how to observe and interpret group dynamics to visualize how I might intervene on behalf of my organization’s goals.

Today, after many career twists, I run the Education Design Lab, where we’re immersed in how to help academic institutions face adaptive challenges. We use design thinking and related tools to create disciplined collaborative processes towards models and solutions to expand modes of teaching and learning. Design thinking is well-suited to the higher education space as it provides a useful way to stay focused on student needs, but also offers faculty and administrators  safe spaces to co-create across silos and to quickly iterate solutions to test and scale.

But where design thinking can fall short is in making good designs stick.  Even when they succeed in co-creating solutions with all stakeholders in mind, our partners cite institutional culture as the single biggest hurdle to selling and scaling innovation.  Over the past year, we have built in “change leadership” and “strategic communications” training and innovation culture diagnostics, but it’s not enough for higher ed institutions that have a mind of their own.  As Heifetz quotes his colleague Jeff Lawrence, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”

But where design thinking can fall short is in making good designs stick.

In Heifetz’s parlance, now shared by hundreds of acolytes who are teaching adaptive leadership around the world, any leader selling change, even incremental change,  has to “get on the balcony” to see the dynamics of how the idea, objective or problem is moving or morphing and ask “What is my role in this?”  You have to push yourself to observe, interpret and intervene, and discern the difference in your situation between authority and leadership, influence and power. In this training, you learn to interpret the group’s behavior and choreograph your paths of influence. Whether or not you have authority or power, you learn to “turn up the heat” (but not too much), to “court the uncommitted,” to, in effect, build a movement for your cause.

While adaptive leadership is focused on the individual leader, design thinking is looking for solutions that the group can produce by following a usually democratic creative process. A research phase filters the patterns of users, specifically their needs and behaviors. The patterns dictate the design criteria for solutions. The process embraces a bias toward action, the theory that getting a prototype down on paper and testing it with users is the best way to move a group toward elegant solutions.  The focus on co-creation helps to engage stakeholders; in the best cases it also helps to build a more organic movement. So, both approaches start with a diagnostic phase, one with the needs of hundreds or millions of end users in mind, one with the actor sizing up group dynamics to influence outcomes.

So, both of these are important. It’s the “what” and the “how”, right? It led me to wonder on the way to the airport after the conference, can one process be overlaid on the other?

While adaptive leadership is focused on the individual leader, design thinking is looking for solutions that the group can produce by following a usually democratic creative process.

And then I remembered that Marty Linsky, another of my Kennedy School professors, mentioned that he wrote a piece to begin to address this very possibility. I read the article on the plane and saw that he, an adaptive leadership expert, and a colleague, Maya Bernstein, a design thinking expert, suggest two possible approaches, which they artfully label as a hybrid: adaptive design. I am initially drawn to the first approach, which recommends, in effect, using the leadership methodology to implement what the design process reveals. I think it will be less complicated and therefore a cleaner, more coherent design for participants to follow. The second approach they describe suggests a more cyclical process weaving design thinking and adaptive leadership tools together all the way through. Sounds like ninja black belt stuff: it could produce remarkable results, but may be suited for the advanced practitioner. Linsky repeatedly told us it’s early days, he is just thinking about a merger of these ideas, but he sees promise. And so do we. I am anxious to weave the thinking into several innovation and change leadership processes we are designing with universities.

A key first principles question at the Harvard weekend…Can we even teach this kind of leadership?

Many of the wonkiest among us spent Saturday night working through the research of Harvard School of Education professor Robert Kegan and built upon by lecturer Tim O’Brien, on five levels of leadership maturity and data that suggests that, with experiential learning, an adult can grow to the next level.  But the learner has to be pushed into what Heifetz calls the “zone of disequilibrium.”   Teachable moments come from being challenged, the art of this kind of leadership training is how to provide the right dose of challenges and supports so that learners don’t go over the edge or give up.  We talked about how this approach might inform how you teach high school students or undergraduates leadership development vs. adults, very instructive conversation for our design challenge on 21st century skills, particularly the Catalyst badge that Georgetown University is developing.

Can we even teach this kind of leadership?

George Papandreou, Former Prime Minister of Greece and fellow Harvard alumnus, addresses us about using adaptive leadership in the midst of a crisis.
George Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece and fellow Harvard alumnus, addresses the reunion about using adaptive leadership in the midst of a crisis.

All of this gave the 200 of us food for thought as we listened to one Kennedy School fellow alumnus, George Papandreou, address our group. He used adaptive leadership practices, when, as Foreign Minister of Greece, he normalized relations with a longtime enemy, Turkey. But when he became prime minister during the 2009 Greek economic crisis, everything moved too quickly. There really wasn’t time to observe, interpret and intervene. It was dizzying on the balcony. And he didn’t like the path he saw. He told us he felt he had no choice but to sacrifice his role and step down to save his country. Which reminds me to end on the tidbit we heard from Heifetz and Linsky: that the word “leader” originates from the Indo-European root word “leit,” the name of the person who carries the flag for an army going into battle. That person usually dies in the enemy attack, but sizes up the danger for the rest of the army.


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