I am creating an active learning workshop for educational business leaders in the fall and found myself falling into a common trap that can kill innovative practices before they have a chance to sprout: creating before destroying.
That sounds harsh, but wait a moment. How often have you and your colleagues said something like “we can’t keep adding things to the calendar (or our list of job responsibilities, or the curriculum guide) without taking something away”? Yet how often have you actually taken something old off the list before you added something new? If your school is like most organizations, the answer is “almost never”. We are great at thinking up new ways to do things, and generally lousy at letting go of what we know. Innovation is primarily an exercise in first cleaning house of the common practices that don’t contribute directly to value creation, then creating new practices that do enhance value.
Thanks to Gijs van Wulfen for his post on Innovation Excellence for reminding me to step back and discard what does not work before starting to search for new ideas. He quotes Dee Hock: “Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.” Nowhere is this idea more critical than when we lay out our approach to strategic planning. I have been through many such exercises in my career, and almost all have started with a brainstorming session where people offer up good new ideas. The problem is that innovation is not a purely additive process; more is not better. We must forcefully overcome our natural aversion to getting rid of the comfortable blankets of the here and now before we can rebuild in an uncluttered state.
Breaking things is not bad. The Hindu trinity of The Creator, The Preserver, and The Destroyer is right in so many ways. Life is not about always building and adding; that is part of our western legacy of Manifest Destiny and the Industrial Age. We are still caught up in that “rush to create” mindset, and we forget the positive progress we make when we first tear things down. Think of the act of tearing down like a natural wildfire that cleans out the old brush and allows strong new saplings to germinate.
Rather than starting with a brainstorm of ideas about how to do things better, I am going to start active learning with a brainstorm of questions. They will be questions that start with “what if” (by far my favorite kind; see Chapter on Questioning in The Falconer) and contemplate discarding or fundamentally changing something at our schools. Only after we have seen what we can cast away will we open our minds to what we can rebuild on clean ground.