A confession: I quietly love flying. This year, I've done 163,581 miles of it.
I love that when you fly a lot, the airport social media staff say 'hello' on Twitter when you arrive and the cabin crew on your home route (or even on the Brisbane-Dubai non-stop route) recognise you from last time. I like getting great service, and see so many things about systems-thinking that work well in airlines, that I'm happy to forgive small indiscrepancies when they occur. All that said, flying strangles our planet as much as eating too much red meat, and for many, many reasons, I've wanted to stop flying quite so much, while not restricting the spread and growth of the ideas from our firm, NoTosh.
I'm quite sure that nobody reading this blog really cares about how much I travel, but keeping an annual count on it has become a new year habit. When I started working at Channel 4, and then continuing when I created NoTosh, I wanted to keep track of what seemed like an interminable number of miles on the road and in the air. By 2012, 2013 and last year, I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever be able to get the number of miles down when they seemed to represent even more trips to the moon and back each and every year.
When you run a company based in Edinburgh with a great team living in Melbourne, you could easily spend your life on a plane - one flying to Melbourne feels better than two or more flying to Edinburgh. Indeed, in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like I really did spend my life on a plane, as I went to the moon and back in my annual travel, with anything up to seven trips a year to Australia.
But last year, I began to find it a real mental and physical challenge to deal with the length of my trips, the nights away from home and, above all, the crazy distances. I made a decision at the dinner table of my friend and client Laurie, in Nanjing, China, while on a phone call to Peter Ford, my erstwhile colleague: in 2015, I'd reduce my miles as much as I could and still keep the company growing best I could.
I've started that journey with a third fewer miles in 2015 compared to 2014 or 2012, working towards getting to 2011 levels once more. It's still a silly number of miles in the air and on the road, but I'm happy to have achieved this without sacrificing the goal of our firm, to put learning at the heart of everything we do, and keep growing that learning mindset around the world.
And here's the thing: the whole team has travelled less than in, say, 2012 or 2013, and we've lost two of our staff - one to university study and the other to an 'offer he couldn't refuse' ;-). But in spite of all that, we have grown our turnover and, with traveling less, look likely to increase our profits later next year, something we can reinvest in developing our team, communications, books and so on.
Our biggest challenge remains one behind the reason for all this travel in the first place: people still expect human contact, and think that this, rather than anything else, is "what we're paying for". I'm not convinced that's the right reason to get any consultancy firm involved with your school or company. "Having us over" is a luxury our planet can't always afford, and one that we don't always need to create stellar work. The same brains work via web conference as in a room in your school, and online learning and collaboration allows us to work in more flexible just-in-time ways, when the time is right for a busy teacher or executive. The times when I have really felt the benefit of being in the same room as people has been when we are codesigning a new programme, curriculum or learning environment, when being with each other for an extended period of time, in front of the inevitable whiteboard and post-it notes, helps make connections that we hadn't made online until that point. But for diagnostics, leading a PD session, doing a shorter length keynote talk - online still works really well for an audience that plans to actually do something with their learning (and an audience that plans to do nothing with their learning might well be less entertained, perhaps, by an online talk or workshop, but why would we want to take out days on travel for them, anyway?).
Over the past year, that is the kind of work I've been concentrating on developing with NoTosh, and I think we'll see some great new programmes in 2016 as a result of the work my whole team has been doing to save our airmiles, save the planet and save some money for our clients.
2007: 51,281 miles
2008: 81,887 miles
2009: 41,902 miles
2010: 106,372 miles
2011: 128,555 miles
2012: 242,266 miles
2013: 207,837 miles
2014: 237,195 miles
2015: 163,581 miles
A prospective client sent me a link to this in-depth article on IBM's design thinking revolution, where Phil Gilbert, IBM's General Manager of Design, has hired over 1000 designers into the firm, and pushed for over 8000 of its managers and staff to get 'trained' in design thinking. They have even created specific design centres across the firm, with design offices in most of its key locations, such as the one above. The goal is nothing short of beginning IBM's next phase of transformation, one of many in its 100+ year history.
However, all is not rosy. Despite achieving a monumental success relative to the status quo, 8000 'recognised' design thinkers in a corporation of over 370,000 souls is barely a dent in terms of changing practice. If NoTosh were to effect change in only 2% of the teachers with whom we work, we'd have packed up our bags long ago.
I'm not sure hiring 1000 designers in and of itself is the answer to any organisation trying to instil a different way of viewing the world. Here's why.
Since design thinking really began to be a thing, back in the early 60s, the designer him or herself has consistently been at the centre of the design process. Even though we talk of 'user-centred design', the actual ideation and production of a solution, and in many cases the synthesis and definition of the problem to be solve, too, are all tasks undertaken by skilled 'designers', rather than the people in the organisation who have the scope, brand, or 'permission' to play in that space. Once the designers leave the project, so does the design thinking.
There is a reason d.school sees its executive courses filled with repeat customers and firms like IDEO continue to thrive - they are resolving challenges in specific examples of services or products, but not necessarily transforming the firms and organisations who had the budget and desire to solve a problem in that specific area. Solving a problem costs money. Solving a problem and teaching the client how to do it again and again costs more than just money. That might be the greatest challenge of all.
It's not just a gut feel or my word for it either. There is ample research showing this phenomenon of 'designer at centre' of the process, and the negative effects it has on finished products and services (Brown & Katz, 2011; Leifer, Plattner & Meinel, 2013).
Where the IBM story gets interesting is the number of times the word 'study' is used: four times. Those who want to think differently have to work hard at it, and look out of their existing ecosystem to see how. But the words 'teach' or 'show' or 'share'...? 0 appearances in this article, and many like it.
As long as organisations 'buy in' design expertise, it is in the designers' interest not to teach or to show. After all, where will the next gig come from? And are all designers clear on how they can work and teach their craft to the client? In our firm, we're not only well-practiced at thinking differently, both creatively and critically, but we're also beautifully amateur in so many of the industrial domains in which we choose to play. We are not experts in automotives, fashion, television or web startups. But we are expert teachers. And, with that, we are inherently sharers and showers.
It is that nuance that will help design move from the ranks of bearded, checked-shirt, boating shoe cool kids, and into any organisation that wants to effect perpetual and significant change in the way it views the world around it. If you want to outthink the limits of what's possible, the first step might be to put learning at the heart of everything you do.
Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2011). Change by design. Journal Of Product Innovation Management, 28(3), 381-383.
Leifer, L., Plattner, H., & Meinel, C. (2013). Design thinking research: Building innovation eco-systems.
So much school strategy is thunder and lightning, no rain. Teachers don't know how to use it at 9am on Monday morning, students never see it, let alone know how to take their part in making the strategy happen for real.
Not in our latest workshop in Sweden.
We've been working with our Swedish partners Lin Education, with colleague Bonnie Stewart over from Canada, to provide a group of Malmö teachers and leaders with some deep, but brief, provocations on how media, identity, our networks and our approach to students owning more of their learning can be more likely to succeed.
They have spent the afternoon synthesising all of this to work out what the key headache they have might actually be, before defining an objective they'd like to meet to resolve that pain. Then, we've helped them work out the three or four key strategic projects they need to work through in order to get to the objective, reach their summit.
Here, the youngest teacher in each team is pitching their fifth prototype of the strategy, having received feedback all afternoon from different groups. In this session they only get the questions and feedback of colleagues, and are not allowed to reply. THAT is the serious work they'll do in the weeks to come - answering the questions and queries of colleagues to make the objective more concrete.
It's a brief, light version of what we've been doing with schools over a year or longer, tackling challenges in individual classrooms, perhaps, more than whole school ones. But the impact on these teachers is already fascinating - they're walking away having learned something, with a plan of their next actions, and the means to persuade the colleagues to join them.
The techniques we've used are described in my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.
Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.
Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.
School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.