By: Avery Miller
Early last month, Principal Jonathan Kanda and I had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta for AAMC’s Annual GBA, GIP, GIR 2017 Joint Spring Meeting (a.k.a. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ Annual Group on Business Affairs, Group on Institutional Planning, Group on Information Resources). Over the course of three days, we had the opportunity to learn from university representatives from all over the country and reflect on new strategies and methods of problem solving on a series of topics ranging from data access to digital teaching methods. These were punctuated by presentations that highlighted specific universities and individuals that shared their experience and initiatives.
The most compelling sessions were led by Lawrence Schall and Derreck Kayongo. Each shared a personal story regarding their own journeys and demonstrated how inventive thinking can make an impact in the community.
Lawrence Schall serves as president of Oglethorpe University, a small liberal arts school founded in Atlanta in 1860. However, he began his career as a civil rights attorney, practicing for over a decade before a string of risks and opportunities led him to the education sector. His story of taking the leap to a new career sheds a little light on his personality as an innovator and strategic thinker. After all, the ability to say “yes” to new opportunities and “feel comfortable” outside of your comfort zone are qualities that can be crucial when it comes to positive change.
Sure enough, after following the presidents before him, who all failed to reverse Oglethorpe’s crippling problems, President Schall provided a new approach that drastically changed the university’s position. In the twelve years since he was appointed president, scores have gone up, donations have doubled, and unresolved issues have found their solutions. Trained to think in a different way, President Schall was able to positively affect his community simply by offering a new perspective.
Similar to President Schall, Derreck Kayongo demonstrates innovative ways of thinking both in his position as CEO of the Civil and Human Rights Center in Atlanta, and in his non-profit, the Global Soap Project. Originally from Uganda, Derreck told the story of his first trip to the U.S., where he discovered the immense amount of waste taking place in U.S. hotels. While countries in Africa suffered from diseases spread by lack of hygiene, U.S. hotels were throwing away perfectly good soap simply because it had spent a single night in an occupied room. Derreck saw an opportunity to think differently. After calculating and communicating the savings each hotel would see, Derreck gained the confidence of hotel leadership and founded the Global Soap Project. By utilizing a new approach, Derreck tapped into a sustainable, human-centered initiative with the power to impact entire communities.
As designers, we strive to see problems as opportunities, employing innovative solutions that cater to the conditions of our projects. However, over time it can become much too easy to use the same solutions that have been effective in the past. The stories that Derreck and Lawrence shared were a reminder of the importance of questioning these solutions, and in applicable moments, incorporating personal experiences and outside knowledge. This can be as simple as soliciting opinions from different frames of reference, or speaking up for something others may have overlooked. These are by no means new concepts, but in the daily grind they quickly become low priorities. While the AAMC conference was framed around the results of innovative thinking, these presenters made me more aware of the process behind innovation and how important it is to bring outside experiences into the fold.