Front End and Back End Design Thinking for School Improvement

I recently had the chance to talk to a colleague in another international school in another country where they have a part-time role with the title Community Experience Architect. What a title and what a statement about that school in their desire to be a forward thinking school. Let’s break down the title for a moment. Architect is sometimes shorthand for someone who has designed something, kind of like a mastermind, but not evil. Community seems to reach beyond working with faculty to be inclusive of all stakeholders, even if their work is largely with faculty. Experience… this is the big one to me. It kind of feels like UX (user experience) and suggests that outcomes matter when measured by students and parent outcomes. Also known as the front end of designed products and services.

All of this has a nice ring to it. The facilitation and time spend on the design process to help take the same people and the same projects further, to make them better and to improve outcomes. It very much makes me think about this article that I’ve never finished until now. An article that should write itself. An ode to front loading work when putting together a new project on campus.

Front Loading Your School Improvement

The moment a problem is identified, decisions are made that lay the groundwork for anything to become the front load that a school chooses to do. For the sake of this argument, we will not deal with ignoring problems and deal with those where leaders and faculty actively seek solutions. Here is a quick checklist to help determine what front loading approach a school might be on:

  • Is quality planning time being set aside adequately?
  • Are all the relevant stakeholders present and included?
  • Do all members have a voice? (airtime and respect)
  • Has funding been addressed to maximize the outcomes, short term & long term budget and staffing.
  • Has logistics been sorted, very situational but can include transportation all the way to having enough staplers.
  • *Is there a facilitator and process designer for the duration?
  • Is the problem well defined? (Verification vs. Validation)
  • Is a successful solution well defined and measurable?

With this above checklist in mind, we can now get a picture into the process or non-process a school is about to take in the front loading of their problem solving and we can venture a guess as to how successful that problem will be solved just by knowing the answers to the above checklist. Missing any one of these points entirely can derail a process, waste resources, erode community and faculty trust and sabotage any future attempts to find solutions. Missing any one of these points during front loading only to add it on during the back end management of a project will usually stunt the impact of your work. More on that later.

Having accounted for these points above is a great starting place to know your front loading work has the ingredients necessary for success. But it doesn’t address what is taking place. The sixth point may feel evenly weighted, but it is the central figure in designing what process will be facilitated that will be directly related to the success of the project. This is where Design Thinking comes in, a well trained internal or external facilitator will work and where all active stakeholders in the process will be guided to be their very best. You see, having a sound process developed and facilitated by a “non-participant” gives your team the advantage to have guidance in the process. Meaning, this is the only hat that a facilitator should wear. They are not to generate ideas, shoot down others or add to the work at hand. Think of them as your financial fiduciary who is tasked with doing what is right for you and your money, but who doesn’t have their own stake in your money decisions. The facilitator is your guide to help you be your best. Soon after launch, the facilitator fades away and operational leadership fully takes over. It is there that the front load is also complete.

Where is the Back End of a school?

The back end isn’t describing work done too late, rather it is in fact the bedrock of front end facilitation and teaching through the development of culture, systematizing the work, aligning self interests with the organization’s interests, Building in awareness and allowances for the Triple Constraint (time/cost/scope) and finally building good relationships and pathways for those quality relationships to persist.

Once a solution, program or intervention is launched, you now have your back end up and running.

Take for example a new pick-up and drop-off scheme designed to increase traffic flow, increase safety and decrease frustrations. But your intervention at launch is moving from concept to reality while the staffing needs are quite high. You hope for a good roll out but you know that this may not go as planned. The work done to adjust, fix and maintain the new scheme during the school day, in small meetings or in individual efforts to work on the scheme is your back end. It is far away from the students, the bus drivers and the parents picking up their children, but that back end work done all year long to maintain the scheme goes on.

This back end work and the program success are both aided by having accounted for all elements of success and having had a robust process in the front end. Going back to the pick-up and drop-off example, accounting for enough staffing and budgeting of their time is critical while having measured out the lanes might be just as important. Forgetting these in front loaded work can make a back end fix very difficult and embarrassing. Having a plan prior to launch for good back end work is also necessary, again making a difficult and embarrassing fix should the back end details not be sorted.

Front End vs Back End & Front Loading

Designers of nearly every product and service we love identify the front end as generally the consumers point of view, how your customer interfaces with your product or service. With school pick-up one more time, the front end is the experience as a parent, the user of your service. So the front end is what product or service your users see and interact with, the back end is where you work on your product or service and the front loading from above is all the work you put into making the front end and back end work smoothly.

Goodness, I hope you aren’t directionally challenged!

Becoming a leader who has a vision for these three unique pieces is a leader who will be ready to thoughtfully find success more regularly and more confidently. Future reading should include the design process itself.


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