Assessing the culture of Stanford University's DesignX program


Guest post by Gabriel Aldaz, PhD candidate, Stanford

My daily life as a PhD student at Stanford university is filled with classes, attending conferences, writing grants, email, email, and more email, and the occasional hanging out (or, more likely, trying to raise a few million in seed funding for a startup). My peers and I have found that in that in the chaos that is the school year, we easily forget an important group of people we should be interacting more with: each other.

I belong to a research group called DesignX, part of Stanford’s Center for Design Research. Most of the students have technical backgrounds with a focus on design methodology and user-centered innovation. With the end of the school year approaching, I wanted to organize an introspective workshop to evaluate how we worked together as a group over the past nine months, and how we could strengthen our culture in the coming year. It was a huge boon to have Teresa Brazen and Stefan Klocek at Cooper to organize a two-hour year-end culture assessment workshop.

A week before the workshop, Cooper asked the DesignX members to complete a brief survey about our perceptions about our group’s values, vision, interpersonal relationships, practices, and physical work environment. Armed with our survey responses, Teresa and Stefan began the workshop by presenting emerging themes about how we viewed our culture within the DesignX program. They highlighted tension between self-directed work and collaboration, structure versus chaos, and focus on research versus interaction with start-ups. Following Cooper methodology, we then broke up into pairs to brainstorm practices, methods, and enhancements to the physical environment that would improve the student experience next year. Lastly, we drilled down into individual ideas with the goal of developing a list of inspiring and actionable ideas. The workshop was an eye-opening experience for many of us.

One insight was that our visiting scholars had not previously met all of our group members, despite having worked in the same building for three months. As a group, we also realized that we were not up-to-date on each others’ research. We were using each other to solve small problems, such as how to obtain a particular piece of equipment or find test subjects, but were not helping each other with more daunting tasks such as writing grants, publishing papers, or solving technical issues. Based on these insights, we generated a number of good initiatives, some of which could be implemented in a matter of hours and could have a significant and immediate impact. Examples included a social event at the start of each quarter, a yearly retreat, and making information more accessible and visible (on paper or in electronic format). Lastly, many participants expressed relief that others shared the thoughts they had about the DesignX culture, and that the workshop had brought these into the open.

One of the benefits of having a design and strategy consulting firm like Cooper run the workshop is objectivity. I would especially like to thank Teresa and Stefan not only for their time and expertise, but also for setting a positive tone from the start. Throughout the workshop, the atmosphere was very open and cooperative. I hope that our culture assessment workshop will act as a catalyst to improve the group dynamics and ultimately the quality of our research in the coming school year.

See more photos of the experience here.

A Note from Cooper:

If the DesignX workshop sounds like something that you or your team could benefit from, contact us about doing a customized culture assessment workshop for your organization.

Cooper built this workshop on collaboration methods and techniques we describe in more detail in our Design Communication & Collaboration class. This course teaches an integrated approach to design that addresses the needs and perspectives of team members in every discipline throughout the process. It reveals methods for helping siloed teams work together and communicate more effectively, tools for creating buy-in, and how individuals and teams can build credibility within organization. It will teach you how to create an environment and practices that support a thriving, creative team.

Our next Design Communication & Collaboration Course:

July 26-27

San Francisco, California