The Understand Phase Explained

When people ask me about what we do at Greenhouse Studios, it is challenging to distill all of its ambitions into a easily digestible tidbit. Ultimately, we are attempting to change the way scholarship is produced. As a result, many of Greenhouse Studios’ features are responsive to the limitations of mainstream academic practice. In this post, I thought I would share an in-depth explanation of the Understand phase, the first phase stage of collaboration in the Greenhouse Studios design process. I will describe our current process with a degree of generality, as we are constantly evaluating its efficacy and suggesting possible tweaks. I’ll explain how this first phase sets the stage for our teams to generate innovative forms of scholarship.

The Understand phase is the first time that a project team meets each other and begins engaging with the inquiry prompt. The goals of this phase are to develop a shared interpretation of the prompt and to find mutually attractive areas of inquiry within the prompt space. One of our co-directors and project facilitators, Clarissa Ceglio, uses a metaphor wherein a group of strangers (the project team) has been dropped by helicopter into a lush meadow surrounded on all sides by unfamiliar terrain. These strangers must assess their collective resources and, together, start their journey by picking and heading toward a still-fuzzy point on the horizon of possibility.  

Members of the HCPL2 Team engage in the Understand sprint.

One of the first tasks in the Understand phase is the drafting of a collaborative charter. This is an agreement written collectively by team members establishing a handful of guidelines for a successful collaborative relationship. Each team member shares their experiences of both positive and negative collaborations. These experiences and ideas are categorized and then synthesized into an ideal collaborative practice for that particular team. This discussion helps to create transparency, promote buy-in from team members, and avoid early pitfalls of collaborative breakdown.

Teams begin to engage with the inquiry prompt in a series of activities designed to loosen up ingrained modes of thinking and demonstrate the potential of Greenhouse Studios’ collaborative model. Our prompt interpretation methods can include word association or producing a drawn interpretation of a key concept for discussion. These two ways of discussing the prompt often yield many different branches of discussion while also revealing broader conceptual connections. In another activity that draws from an improv comedy exercise, team members explore two approaches to ideation where partners respond to each other’s ideas with either “No, because…” or “Yes, and…”. This activity illustrates the benefit of constructive and generative exchanges.

Our prompt interpretation methods can include word association or producing a drawn interpretation”

To encourage consideration of public scholarship that extends beyond peer-review journal readership, teams discuss a wide range of potential audiences and their specific stakes in our work. This focus on finding communities that our work can serve follows human-centric design, one of the core principles of design thinking. As a primer for this discussion, team members are grouped into pairs to conduct an interview activity about an everyday scenario. The pairs ask each other questions with the intent of discovering the underlying human needs in each response. This activity helps the team think more broadly about who the scholarship would impact and how they might benefit from it.

A vital part of the Understand phase is developing a sense of the team’s collective capabilities. Since our teams represent a range of disciplines, this detailed conversation about what everyone brings to the table helps the team appreciate the many possible forms their project may take. We discuss talents, resources and constraints in terms of experience, hard and soft skills, access to networks and more. These discussions can even include “extracurricular” activities and interests that add an extra dimension to a team member’s contribution; one that may not be apparent from reading their CV.

The sprint concludes with the project team drafting what we call a potentiality analysis, a document that indicates a rich area of intellectual exploration and overlapping interest. This document reiterates some of the conclusions and questions raised from prior discussions. It is that “point on the horizon” that the team has decided to walk toward as it undertakes a roughly two-year journey with Greenhouse Studios. And, so it also serves as a springboard to the next phase in the design process: Identify.

Tom Lee
Design Technologist