Staying Creatively and Professionally Focused on What Matters Through Volunteering

Volunteering and staying focused

Twice a year, I go to Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) in Grand Rapids, MI, as a guest lecturer and facilitator for the Collaborative Design program. This program is designed to help young, focused art students bridge the gap between pure art and professional work. The truth is, almost everything made in the professional arena is produced through a collaborative process. 

An interest in understanding the nuances and practical skills needed to work in a collaborative scenario probably doesn’t make the top 100 list of Reasons I Went to Art School. Talent and passion for art, creativity, and design help explain why so many students attend art school. What the good people at KCAD realized is that, in order to help their students prepare to be successful after college, they needed to begin learning how to be productive in a group setting.

Unique Project Challenges Students to Make an Impact on Their Community

In the Collaborative Design program, students are given a unique challenge – create and plan a large-scale project for the KCAD community. They are given one semester to come up with a stellar idea and gather data to support a proposed execution approach. The semester ends with a public presentation of the project plan and supporting data, which is often attended by KCAD’s top administrators, as well as serious movers and shakers in the community (think: real estate developers, city government officials, etc.). The stakes are real for the students: not only does their grade depend on the quality of this event, but these presentations have sparked meaningful change for the KCAD community over time. As we all know, ideas become words, and words become actions!

Addressing the “What,” “How,” and “Why” of the Project

This leads to where I come in. I drop into the class right at the point where the students need to convert their amazing idea into practical actions that will lead them to a successful execution. When I join the class, I listen to an explanation of their project idea and push the students to tell me why the project is a good idea. After we have this foundation, I get into what. I ask them to describe to me what they need to accomplish. Once they verbalize this, we get into the real work: the how. This is where things get good and I begin to dork-out in a  project managery sense. Using a whiteboard, the students and I start to brainstorm every little thing that will need to be done to get them to where they are going. Some of these questions include:

  • Who is going to create the survey they will use to collect data from the campus? 
  • Who will design the branding for the social media accounts that will publicize the event where they will collect data? 
  • Who will pick up the pizza that will lure their subjects in to take the survey? 
  • Who will bring the paper plates? 
  • Who will crunch the numbers? 
  • Who will speak during the final presentation? 
  • In what order will the team members speak?

As we tease out these details, I see the students’ eyes get wider and wider. I love seeing this mix of shock and realization. The shock comes from the workload they have suddenly realized is unavoidable. They’re understanding just how much work is involved to get a project off the ground, how important it is that they work together, and finally start to understand the formula that moves ideas into action. As they begin to assign and complete these actions, they start feeling empowered! I just love this moment and that is why I have been volunteering my time to jump into this year after year.

Finding Purpose in Teaching Students the Importance of Collaboration

The benefit for me doesn’t stop at the joy of seeing young people understand that they can accomplish big things; it translates directly to my professional life, as well. As I walk these students through the basics of the project management process (need -> core solution idea -> brainstorming -> planning -> revision -> execution), I feel myself becoming more grounded. Life working as a project manager and a director of a department can begin to seem pretty complicated over time. But if you let all the white noise of life fall away for a moment, you remember that everything boils down to a group of people trying to accomplish something significant. No matter the scale or stakes, the essence of what we do relies on the same simple foundational elements, and if we commit to doing the hard work needed to move through the collaborative process systematically, we can accomplish great things.

I’ve had the privilege of cultivating and encouraging a collaborative environment at CQL. With every project we take on, we not only work alongside our clients but also ourselves as a unified team. If you’re interested in learning more about CQL’s Project Management skills for your business, contact us at or by clicking the button below: