How Collaborative Innovative Thinking Led to the DEEP System

In our last post we described a new online professional development system we christened DEEP (Developing Excellence in Eastern’s Professors). Perhaps just as important as the product was the process of collaborative innovative thinking that led to it. We spend a lot of time discussing our products, and we throw around terms like “creative thinking,” “design thinking,” and here “collaborative innovative thinking.” Since the ultimate worth of a process is applicability and transferability to solving differing challenges, we thought we would explain in detail how collaborative innovative thinking works.

Related Reading: How We Are Developing Excellence in Eastern’s Professors

Innovative Thinking Defined

In our 2012 Introduction to Applied Creative Thinking (IACT), we stated, “The Creative Process, which is the emphasis of this book, consists of those learned skills that innovative thinkers employ” (p. 2). In our subsequent listing of those basic strategies of applied creative thinking—our so-called Nifty Nine—we discussed collaboration, explaining why and how to collaborate. To Nosich (Learning to Think Things Through, 2009) the research on collaboration—i.e., to break it down into its fundamental and powerful concepts—the main reason for collaboration is to improve ideation levels, with some research claiming a 600-700% improvement when two or more people collaborate.

Collaborative Innovative Thinking (CIT) describes the process of bringing two or more experts together to solve a problem, usually by creating a product that represents a solution. CIT usually involves a lot of other strategies of applied creative thinking—shifting perception, piggybacking, brainstorming, glimmer-catching, playing, recognizing pattern, and hopefully flow.

These strategies do not follow any predictable pattern either on the group or individual level, but as we say in IACT, “Most theorists believe in the notion of recursiveness—i.e., whatever the process used, it is not a one-time thing, but something to which the thinker continually returns” (p. 2). While some might see that process as too circular or even the redigging of old ground, we think of it as the lifeblood of CIT. Much like iteration aiding deep learning, returning to a few concepts helps to broaden, define, and exemplify them.

The Two Roles Theory

Implicit in any CIT is the notion that each participant will play two distinct roles, developer and assessor. In short, participants in CIT need to constantly shift between creative thinking (developing the new idea) and critical thinking (evaluating the new idea). These roles are not assigned but assumed as the group develops. Just like the players on professional sports teams who develop instinctive awareness of what teammates are doing, in CIT members go where they need to steer the idea toward product.

Collaborative Innovative Thinking Guidelines

Of course, Collaborative Innovative Thinking (CIT) will not work without some guidelines. Sometimes these are written ahead of time, sometimes they are developed as the group moves forward, and sometimes they are just understood. Here are a few we employ:

  • Keep the group small. We have worked in pairs, in trios, but rarely find success in aggregations larger than an octad.
  • Keep the group diverse. Diversity can relate to ethnic origins, but it’s also a valid concept with gender, a mixture of administrators and faculty, and a cross-campus medley of disciplines.
  • Select people who have demonstrated not only expertise in subject matter but in thinking processes. We usually locate such people in our campus-wide professional learning communities.
  • Don’t expect immediate success. Like a rock band or basketball team, new groups need time to gel, to realize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and to figure out individual roles.
  • Select a trained facilitator. Now, on some campuses facilitation refers to a specific process often represented by an outsider asking a group to brainstorm and use colored dots to rate the strengths of ideas, but for our purposes we like someone who is used to going with the flow, allowing ideas to seemingly come out of left-field, and subtly bringing those outliers into the mainstream conversation.
  • Find a mixture of developers and assessors. Ideally, you may want people who can do both, but you also want people who excel at one or the other.

DEEP Development

With DEEP we started out with a large group of 15, but some people dropped out, some were perpetually unavailable because of the administrative workload (e.g., deans), and others were over-committed (usually, the best people are over-committed). As a result, at most meetings we had around eight people. Six of them were directly involved in a program we have written much about, the Faculty Innovators. The other two were an Instructional Designer and the head of the University’s online programs. Roles were constantly switched. Sometimes a person developed a course for DEEP, but then evaluated another course. Some people worked well in throwing out ideas, while other times they were wordsmiths and grammarians. Sometimes people synthesized a lot of what was happening around campus, and other times those people were called on for a deep analysis of a single unit.

We eventually kept a core executive committee and added more individuals as an advisory committee/content experts. In fact, our organizational structure looks like this:

  • Executive Board (makes the big decisions)
  • Advisory Board (brings suggestions to the committee and reviews courses)
  • Design Teams (each team creates a course)
  • Launch Team (responsible for final proofing, checking with instructional designer, and providing publicity)

As DEEP grows, we will continue to evolve our process of creating it.



author Hal BlythePh.D Hal Blythe writes literary criticism to mystery stories. In addition to the eleven books he’s published with New Forums, Hal has collaborated on four books on a variety of subjects, over 1000 pieces of fiction/nonfiction, and a host of television scripts and interactive mysteries performed by their repertory company. He is currently co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center for Eastern Kentucky University. Meet Hal Blythe.