Zero-Based Strategy Pt. 3 of 7: True Innovation Requires Asking Expansive Questions

Good problem solving requires that we consider many options before settling on a path forward.  In schools, whether we are engaged in a five year strategic plan or working with departmental colleagues, good problem solving starts with an “expansive” or “generative” phase.  We often call this brainstorming, where participants are asked to generate many ideas and we don’t debate the validity of those ideas.

images In principle this is great; in practice, the traditional method of brainstorming is seriously flawed for two main reasons.  First, many of the ideas are offered as statements, when good problem solving ALWAYS requires that we ask questions before suggesting answers.  Second, the vast majority of ideas offered during traditional brainstorming sessions reflect the narrow range of experience of those in the room.  This is not our fault.  We are all products of our experience, and asked to offer ideas about how the future should evolve, we are trapped within our existing mindsets.  Therefore, right from the start, traditional strategy sessions limit, rather than expand, opportunities for innovative outcomes.

If there is no other sentence or idea that you and your school ever take away from reading my blog, hopefully that last one will stick.

Everything we build requires solid foundations, and, in the early stages of ANY strategy session, from five-year plans on down, if the group fails to generate a truly expansive set of options, then the entire process will be weak and flawed.  Yet this is the process that almost all schools have used for their “strategic” work in the past.

 

How might we do better?

Start with asking questions, not making statements.  Think of all the strategy meetings you have ever been in and those lead-off brainstorming sessions.  I have been in many.  Metaphorically, here is how they go:

  • A teacher says “Reduce class size.”
  • A parent says “Improve how we evaluate teachers.”
  • The business officer says “Reduce expenses over the next five years.”
  • A parent says “Teach each child as an individual.”
  • A student says “Offer more electives.”
  • …etc.

Some in the room will offer ideas from outside of their own silo of interest, but the collective grab bag of statements is almost all based on past experience.  They are ideas about how to do what we have done in the past, only betterYour organization has just killed most chances for true innovation.

Instead, have the group ask questions that promote truly expansive thinking.  As Bo Adams and I will make clear in our upcoming NAIS 2014 presentation “Mutation, Innovation, Transformation”, questions come in three flavors, and they are NOT all equal:

  • Questions from within the frame: Who? What? Where? and When?
  • Questions that inform the frame: Why?
  • Questions that expand the frame: What if…? How might we…?

 In order to TRULY brainstorm, we need to start with, or at least include, questions that help push us outside the frame of our past experience.  By focusing on questions that expand the entire frame, we go from “how do we do what we did in the past, but better”, to “how might we innovate to take advantage of future opportunities?”

In my work with school teams I start by asking “What if… questions that would fundamentally break, discard, or change something at your school.” Many of the thousands of questions we have gathered so far are quirky, wild, and unrealistic.  Many more are unorthodox but profoundly possible.  By acclimation of the participants who have generated these thousands of ideas, most have never been asked by the leadership teams in their recent, traditional strategic planning sessions.  That should really scare you. The only logical conclusion is that most schools have built their strategy around plans that limit, rather than promote, innovation.

In my next post in this series I will discuss how we begin to gather all these questions and ideas together in ways that are meaningful to YOUR school, as opposed to ALL schools.

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