Applying Design Thinking Frameworks to Program Co-Creation

In the first half of 2020, 1.3 million Canadian retail jobs were lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and retail was among the top three sectors with the largest drop in labour demand. It is also an industry where 21% of jobs are at high risk of automation with few or no options to transition into lower-risk occupations without significant retraining, according to a 2019 McKinsey study. In Canada, gaps exist in foundational skills development and training opportunities for youth looking to bridge their post-secondary to work transition. The pandemic and automation have widened these gaps, and displacement factors disproportionately affect women, Indigenous, and racialized communities, with data showing that the most vulnerable (core-aged women in low-wage jobs, marginalized populations and youth) were not only the hardest hit but are also expected to experience the longest recovery. 

The Reskilling Displaced Retail Workers Project is a project funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre. The project supports the design of a reskilling program focusing on racialized and Indigenous youth in Ontario.

This is the third report in a series of four that outlines the project’s design phase. In previous reports, we shared insights into how we established a Collaboration Framework with a consortium of cross-sector leaders, collected data for inclusive design, completed an extensive literature review, and collected relevant Canadian data to validate our problem statement and guide these subsequent phases.

In this report, we provide: 

  • Our approach to the design phase of the project, in collaboration with AdaptiveX 
  • Key elements and best practices for successful rapid decision-making and assumptions mapping sessions 
  • Insights into our processes, challenges, results, and outcomes from the design-thinking sessions 
  • Key learnings from the co-creation process and next steps for the project
Key metrics graphic

As strong proponents of design thinking methodology and external engagement, we partnered with AdaptiveX to advise on the structure of the project’s design phase. Design-thinking sessions support a mindset and framework that emphasize scalable, sustainable solutions and create immediate impact while also considering a systems change approach. 

Based on our unique needs, the AdaptiveX team led a series of Rapid Decision Making Sprints (RDMs). As a Design Sprint derivative, this framework provided a structured and focused decision-making process and a platform for collaborative ideation for participants. Three virtual sessions were successfully completed with 18 participants from 13 unique organizations for a total of 6 hours of design thinking and over 100 ideas about our proposed program model. 

Collaborators included a diverse consortium of participants, including Steering Committee members, colleagues, community leaders, VFC non-project staff, and previous consultants. Together, we worked closely with AdaptiveX to frame the challenge and develop a clear vision for brainstorming and idea generation through our problem statement:

“How might we provide career development programs for displaced* Indigenous, racialized, and equity-deserving youth with experience in retail that leads to career pathway opportunities in in-demand roles in the tech/startup sector or tech roles in the retail industry?”

*”displaced”: folks who lost jobs, left jobs, or were otherwise displaced from stable work during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We received positive feedback regarding the collaborative tools and techniques used during RDMs, which allowed for anonymity in ideation and sparked greater dialogue. Kimberly Bowman, Senior Projects Manager at Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, noted: 

“It’s hard to get online facilitation right – this session used digital collaboration tools to complement discussions seamlessly… As a participant, you could see clearly how the session could link the important decisions. It felt like a thoughtfully designed session that made good use of people’s time – not simply consultation for consultation’s sake.”

With over 108 unique program design concepts generated, the RDMs significantly accelerated our project’s design phase by providing the platform and forum for co-creation and collaborative ideation among cross-sector leaders. Following a thorough impact assessment of design concepts, we grouped concepts into “intervention” (high impact, low effort), “intermediate” (high impact, medium effort) and “impact” (high impact, high effort) clusters. This technique has influenced subsequent phases of our project by determining three distinct program models to explore in prototyping and testing.

Approaching program design without considering participants’ short-term vs. long-term needs may miss the mark on critical intervention opportunities, especially during a crisis (like Covid-19) where folks need support and services immediately. Our focus remains on intervention and intermediate programming. This approach acknowledges that building, launching, and executing a fully sustainable and high-impact program takes time, resources, multiple iterations, deep data collection, and evaluation. 

Following the RDMs and concept analysis, we engaged AdaptiveX again to facilitate two Assumption Mapping sessions with 8 participants from 6 unique organizations. The two main goals for the sessions were to: 

  1. Walk through a hypothetical program and discuss how it might look in practice 
  2. Identify and de-risk the most critical threats associated with program models 

Leaning on Design Thinking principles, we worked with collaborators to develop two unique user personas. Personifying the needs and requirements of potential program participants helped us better understand their desires, challenges, and expectations. They also helped us differentiate between types of users (avoid a one-size-fits-all solution) and prioritize context and empathy so our team could better understand participants’ habits and realities while considering solutions. 

The sessions generated 57 key assumptions and risks from which ten key concepts were identified for further testing across the user journey: 

  1. Target population is defined to address critical factors better
  2. Programming is designed using good data (employers know what jobs and skills they need going forward) 
  3. Program ensures employer partners are ready to achieve talent from diverse experiences and works to develop those competencies with employers where possible 
  4. Program offers ‘wrap-around services’ beyond career/skills development 
  5. Coaches/mentors are the right fit & have an understanding of how to work with marginalized individuals 
  6. Delivery platform/format is effective & accessible 
  7. Program provides enough opportunities to apply & exercise learnings in a practical setting 
  8. Program proactively and effectively measures/demonstrates what “ROI” is for employers 
  9. Clearly define measures of success & impact through program and participant outcomes  

We understand that complex social challenges require systemic solutions that are grounded in the user’s needs. Program designs fail when they don’t center on participant needs and realities. The next steps for the project include prototyping and testing program models that have been co-created using the design concepts generated from RDM Sprints and de-risked through Assumptions Mapping sessions. 

Through partnership and in consultation with Immiducation, a career and education network of immigrants, and an Indigenous youth employment specialist consultant and Native Canadian Centre Board of Director Member, we will test program models with input from retail workers, coaches, mentors and Canadian employers hiring for in-demand technology jobs (e.g. sales-adjacent, IT, development, technical support).

The end goal of our 15-month project is to present a well-researched, co-created, and thoroughly tested MVP program for pilot funding and to share our processes and learnings to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on reskilling/upskilling pathways and programs. A key collaborator, advisor, and participant in the research and design phases of the project, Joanne Mowat assessed the project’s approach to have:

“ excellent chance of creating an effective, sustainable, defensible program to support reskilling into employment growth sectors.”

As we work toward a solution, we remain grounded in our philosophy that cross-sector leadership, Collective Impact, and community-based participation are imperative to the project’s success. 

Read about our previous phase “Collecting Data for Inclusive Design”

Download the full report here. 


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Una Lounder Una is a graduate of the MMIE (Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship)...