Dalhousie Medical School brings design thinking into its strategic planning process for the first time

When I arrived at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Medicine just over a year ago, my first task was to deliver a strategic plan for one of Canada’s leading medical schools – a complex organization of more than 1,700 faculty and 1,000 students, with stakeholders as diverse as clinical faculty, basic scientists, students, staff, funders, and affiliated teaching hospitals.

Strategic alignment in the academic world is a true challenge, often described as “herding seagulls.” Furthermore, I was dealing with some real constraints and a tight deadline.

As a graduate of the MBA program at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, I took on the role of Associate Dean of Operations and Policy as someone exposed to design thinking, thanks in part to the influence of Rotman dean Roger Martin. His view is that traditional businesses and organizations rely too exclusively on analytical thinking in their decision-making and strategy. To truly innovate and flourish, organizations need design thinking, which provides the perfect balance between analytical and intuitive thinking.

Faculties of medicine are among the most complex, multi-layered and difficult organizations to organize or do planning for. And unlike the business world, where design thinking is making inroads, in the academic world the approach remains largely a foreign concept.

Yet it occurred to me that within Dalhousie’s large and complex medical school, design thinking could indeed be applied in our efforts both to drive excellence in management and promote action in the organization. On the premise that good design thinking creates clarity out of complexity, I decided to bring design thinking into our own education realm as an innovation.

Our goal was to create a simple plan that – unlike previous multi-page, text heavy plans – would be easy for people to use and really clarify what we were attempting to communicate at the school. We needed a single tool that would get us all planning in the same direction while telling a single, unified story to our audiences. We needed to articulate clearly what the faculty of medicine is, what do we do, what we can deliver, and what are we committed to delivering.

After a series of focused and interactive retreats, we came up with a completely new planning tool – a one-page strategic plan that combines key elements of design thinking, in terms of looking across organizational silos, focusing on action, being mindful of process, collaborating across boundaries and mapping out dialogue.
Design thinking gave us an entirely new type of strategic plan – titled The Way Forward – that in a single-page synthesizes many diverse conversations, initiatives and activities to effectively articulate our school’s history, our story and our value proposition. We are proud of the results, which you can view for yourself at http://strategicplan.medicine.dal.ca/ on the Dalhousie web site.

Our design-thinking-based strategic plan has been in place for just over one year and continues to receive an excellent response. In fact, we are now getting inquiries from other organizations – both within and beyond the academic world – that want to know how we did it and how design thinking might apply to their own organizations.

Dalhousie University’s first foray into design thinking has been a unique and exciting journey and it is one that is sure to continue.


DIANE GORSKY is Associate Dean of Operations and Policy in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and attended her first DesignThinkers in 2010.

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About rgddesignthinkers

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD) is the professional body for graphic designers in Ontario. RGD grants graphic designers who qualify the right to use the designations Registered Graphic Designer and R.G.D., a quality signal of standards of professional practice. RGD has approximately 2800 members. Attracting over 1,000 participants and a full line-up of fascinating speakers, DesignThinkers is Canada’s largest, most important graphic design event. It’s an occasion to listen, learn and interact with peers from across the country.
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