NoTosh doesn't just help scores of schools and private business with their strategy; we're in the process of adjusting our own course, too. What I've noticed, is that the activity known as 'wordsmithing' is normally referred to dismissively, with disdain, as something someone else will do much later on, once they "real work" of strategising is done. These leaders could not be more wrong.
Far from the afterthought or polishing to which the task is often reduced, getting the wordsmithing right as you create your strategy is vital if you want people to really believe in it.
To help me on NoTosh's own strategising I've been diving into Andy Maslen's tomes (that's his distinguished mug on the top of the post). For a copywriter extraordinaire, he tends to spend at least half his books helping the reader understand what it is they are trying to do and why the hell they're doing it. I can imagine a few strategies dying a necessarily premature death by around p.43 of most his books.
A key point that resonates as I undertake a few schools-based strategy projects, is this one:
People want to know what's in it for them (WIIFM?). They don't care how clever you are. They don't care that you are proud / humble / honoured about anything. They don't care how much excellence you promote. People want to know what's in it for them.
He suggests a couple of writing tools that will help education strategists (any strategist, really) to convey their 'why', and in turn the WIIFM, so much more clearly:
KFC: What do you want your reader / student / parent / teacher / peer to know, how do you want them to feel about it, and what do you want them to commit to?
Don't use the 'F' word - use the 'B' word Don't list off the features of your latest product / school / initiative / programme of work / technology roll-out. Tell us the benefits in our lives. This works in the same way as I suggest people should pitch new ideas to their peers: start with a 'pain', turn the thumbscrews until we're begging for an answer, and then tell us all about how your idea is going to make our lives so much better.
FAB: Grab me by the ... benefits Features first, then tell me the general advantages of working in this way might be, and then tell me the benefits to me personally.
Don't assume I'm paying attention Too many governmental policies, school strategies and "research-based" approaches to learning simply assume that the audience should be receptive to the new idea. This is a fatal flaw, and undermines even the best ideas. Assume that your audience has plenty of other far more interesting things to be doing, and write your strategy or pitch to wrestle their attention back towards you. Try starting the strategy with the words "How" or "Now" and see how people want to take part in making it happen.
The original limited edition version of my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, is down to its last few copies barely 10 weeks after we received crates of them. This was the full-colour 'beautiful' book that I had wanted to make, but its manufacture was incredibly (and surprisingly) complex. Once the last copies have been sold, we'll only reprint on special bulk orders of 70+ for this beautiful landscape paperback.
In the meantime, we've been working on producing a more simple version of the book, black and white, with no pictures, for those who want to have the book on their Kindle device, and it's finally available!
Kurt Vonnegut, writer and famous speech giver at US university graduation ceremonies, made this point to one group of soon-to-be-non-students: If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.
It is the end of a story about his grandpa who, on a summer's afternoon, would find the shade of a tree under which he could rest with a glass of homemade lemonade. The family didn't have a lot of cash, the grandpa worked hard every day of his life, but no matter how relentless the day-to-day was, he would always repeat this phrase as a reminder to those around him that, at the end of the day, this is all still amazing to be part of.
This kind of optimism, as you might call it, can often disappear in a flash in the busy-ness of business or school. Things become impossible, hardgoing, relentless(ly difficult). And the reasons we give for that busyness nearly always involve someone or something else - the system, the job, the weather...
For many years, people would ask the salutary "how are you?" and my answer was a stock one: "I'm tired."
It was my wife who pointed it out to me, presumably because everyone else was too polite to express their boredom with my reply. The fact is, most people feel tired most of the time, until they make a switch in their life. That switch is deciding that the only person who can turn that frown upside down, who can make crazy stuff happen (or attempt to, and enjoy the process), is you. And in Vonnegut's case, that switch came from saying out loud the one phrase that brings us back to the good elements in what we or our team or our family is doing at any given moment: If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.
The relationship to doing better at our work is there, too. Dylan Wiliam points out that too much teacher development resembles the doctor's surgery: let's find out what's wrong with you and work on fixing that. Instead, the research shows us, we should really be finding out what we're already doing well in and then build on that good practice to become experts in it.
It makes sense, for at that point we really can say to ourselves: If this isn't nice, I don't know what is?
Likewise, when as a Twitterer or blogger your inner snark chooses to pick over the rights, wrongs, exactitudes or impressions given by others who have chosen to write for an audience, hold him back and ask yourself: If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.
It's a great phrase. It doesn't ask "if this isn't expert / the best / the most bombastic experience of my life, I don't know what is?". It merely asks if things are not 'nice', a word I was always taught to avoid but for which there is a specific, useful purpose for us all in the midst of the busyness that can get in the way of really enjoying, embracing and smiling through the one precious life with which we can make a difference.
I'm planning some fast-paced introduction workshops to the design cycle, and how it can be used to tackle seemingly huge issues in a speedy, inspirational, creative way.
The problem is that everyone comes believing that collaboration is where innovation comes from, and that just isn't the case. Not always, anyway.
One of the challenges we sometimes see is that, in a group brainstorming exercise such as 100 Ideas Now, teams generate lots of good ideas, but then, through consensus, hone them down into relatively tame and 'safe' ideas. It's no surprise that we sometimes wonder whether any of those ideas actually get implemented back at home, outside the workshop experience. (As a side note, I'm delighted to say that I do, in fact, often hear about major timetable innovations or changed school dining experiences months after the initial workshop, but it feels inconsistent...)
We already make sure that those brainstorming activities start as individual activities, a discipline that most workshop participants find incredibly hard to stick to - they want to debate, pitch, share their ideas. Sharing is good after all, isn't it?
Even the honing exercises start individually, before becoming a consensus.
Google Ventures' Jake Knapp talks about his challenge in finding 'alone time' to generate ideas and prototype them quickly, without the need to pitch and explain himself too early on. What he does is a design sprint, by any other name, but it is one he undertakes largely alone.
This idea of using design sprints in school innovation is something I dive into in greater detail in my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas. It's a technique rarely used in big industry or schools, but those who do see how it might be used immediately get excited by the potential.
What is the project you might be doing at the moment that would benefit, not from a five year strategy, but from a sprint of a few weeks?
Finally! How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen is out, in iBooks, at least. You can buy a copy now in your local store, and get your own ideas to fruition quicker and better, with your community in mind:
Thank you to all those who pre-ordered and waited patiently for it. I'm delighted that my first book is finally out there in people's hands, and cannot wait to hear back from readers on how they develop their innovative ideas.
Here's the blurb for those of you who've not yet dived in:
How can students, teachers and school leaders in the education world innovate, share and build on new ideas, taking them out of individual classrooms to have a wider impact? What could schools ever learn from luxury fashion houses, political campaigners, global tech, media and telecommunications companies, and the world's biggest businesses of tomorrow, the startups?
You can achieve ambitious visions for learning through swift innovation by borrowing from the people who invent, create much from little, and refine their ideas with a swiftness few of those large corporations, Government or schools have seen.
Learn more through practical steps, workshop activities for your own teams in your learning environment, and plenty of real success stories, to help kick-start the innovation for you.
How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen can be purchased on the iTunes store as an iBook, and in paperback on http://www.notosh.com/books
Eureka! moments rarely come from nowhere. Creativity and insight is hardly ever a lightning strike of insight, but more often a long hard slog. But it's been frustrating to hear people write off the hard slog required for this kind of creative insight, so I've been in search of some more backup for why this hard slog, what one might call the "trough of enlightenment", is necessary.
Much of the time that I'm not working with educators or creatives in industry is spent working out what their creative actions are, how they do them and why they do them that way. Some of this is achieved by observing their creative work, some of it by reading what others have noticed. Every Sunday, I wake up to the creative delights of the Brainpickings weekly email, and this week, a book review on Jerome Bruner has opened up some lovely creative insight on the effectiveness of creative surprise:
Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
This, to me, is why my team's way of harnessing design thinking in the classroom provides a sturdy process through which the "slow accretion of knowledge and urge" is given space to develop, through a planned, deep, intense immersioninto a wide array of content and experiences. This content, in a schooling setting, is tied to curricular goals which are much broader than in a traditional classroom environment, in order that during a later period of synthesis there are, in fact, enough different dots to join together as we look backwards on our immersion, and create something knew. In this respect, I've always struggled with the idea that all of the design cycle is, in fact, a cycle. This first element - a deep immersion and synthesis - feels necessarily a linear, patient expanse of time where we do not feel the need to rush into ideation and making. We need to line up as many different areas of knowledge and concepts first, before being able to get that "surprise" connection between them and create something much more effective.
Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”
The process of design thinking is often perceived as "impossible" to put into practice in certain subjects, namely mathematics, some science and music. I've always disagreed, believe that it is merely "hard". Why? Because, the combining concepts for a fresh creative outcome is the whole point of ideation and prototyping: we combine or oppose concepts, try them out and get feedback from our working (or from others) as to whether it works. However, it fits less succinctly into a six-week "design challenge" or project. These subject areas fall more likely into this "formal effectiveness", where sudden illumination, or sudden clicking of one's understanding, comes from a much longer exposure to the various concepts that make up the subject as a whole. This is why, perhaps, there is still a need to leave some slack for mathematics teachers to consider much of their work as a collection of loosely joined parts, taught and learned separately, in isolation, even, to some degree. But the challenge comes with the learner being given a specific time and space to look backwards, and make connections, combinations and oppositions for themselves, and explain any new insights that they feel they can make. In mathematics and music, for example, are the key points of design thinking knowing when we stand back and synthesise what we've learned, before we then hypothesise (ideate) and test our hypotheses (prototype)?
The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”
The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed“combinatory play.” Bruner writes:
All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.
Finally, Bruner touches on that much larger type of synthesis, which we can achieve when we are able to bring together domains that do not normally sit side by side. Traditional schooling sets students up to find this difficult - we learn our different domains in different spaces in high school and most of middle school. However, we do see this kind of "visionary connectedness" in young learners at Elementary and Early Years, where connections between one curricular area and another are made, when the curriculum itself doesn't make that link explicit. The educators we work with have been incredibly agile in recognising these moments, and taking advantage of them, to extend projects from a simple "let's make traditional food for homeless people in the park", to "understanding why our country's culture makes us want to do this in the first place", for example. What might high schools do to help students make these larger syntheses? Learning logs are a simple device, particularly if they can be searchable (as we discovered in our Evernote experiments in Rosendale Primary School) - students are able to search for key words related to today's topic, and unearth insights from learning months, or years, earlier, that they would have otherwise forgotten.
Well, only partially true. While researching out a seminar on digital stories I thought I'd plug into Google's ngram viewer, looking at how vocabulary has evolved in the millions of books digitised by Google since the 1800s.
My first search was on ICT. Surprisingly, ICT is not a new phrase, and the C in ICT may not have been added as late as the 1990s but as far back as 1800. My question: "what did ICT mean back in 1800?"
Another interesting search, suggested by Tom, was "teaching,learning". Isn't it fascinating to see how learning has always been more important to authors than teaching. You can even see the industrial revolution kicking in, where teaching streaks ahead. Finally, the progressive movements of the 60s bring learning back to the fore. I wonder what the next 20 years hold for the balance of learning and teaching.
Two-and-a-half years ago I joined award-winning ISO Design, as their Commissioner at Channel 4, in developing an creative art, film and photography network, Central Station. It was the hardest sell of my entire time at Channel 4: those who got it, totally got it. Those who didn't, never would. You can read and view a video about Central Station on the site.
18 months in the network has proven über successful, connecting artists from the UK with those in Berlin, the Netherlands, Spain, the US and the Far East. It has continued to reflect a quality mark that most other networks could never claim: its initial members, joining through curiosity and choice, were Turner-prize winners and hotshots of the art world.
Through some incredibly careful planning about how that mix of social network, exclusive-yet-approachable, high quality but not "up itself" vibe could be reached, the team have pulled off an incredible feat, as a browse through the Collections and Portfolios shows. The Community is throbbing.
As part of its first full year in operation, I wrote an essay for a celebratory book, which I've reproduced below:
Star Alliance Art
When I started writing and publishing audio stories on my own blog I was convinced that it would be a great way to connect with people from far-off lands from the comfort of my own proverbial sofa. Half a million airmiles later I realise I couldn't have been more wrong. The growth in our online connections has in the past five years led to only one related phenomenon: in as much as we enjoy connecting virtually to people, art and artefacts, we want to connect as much with the analogue, physical elements we discover online.
For me, the highlight of this analogue-digital playoff in 2010 must be Joanna Basford's Twitter art projects. They've captured our imaginations: send a tweet, the most transient of our digital photons, and a real living artist will transcribe those binaries into a new sort of artistic physical binary of the black and white linear for which she has become so well known. You can see what she's up to - digitally - through the 24 hour welcome. 100 special customers pay top dollar to get hold of the limited edition - analogue - prints before sharing them in all their - digital - beauty on photosharing websites like Flickr.com.
Or maybe this tension between analogue and digital is best expressed through BakerTweet, designed by London-based Poke as a means of getting their local baker to broadcast when the croissants were fresh out the oven. A constructed, physical object with a mobile transmitter stashed inside, BakerTweet represents all that is artisanal and ambiently intimate in this digital age.
As we watch less television and participate more in virtual networks of real acquaintances, friends and Friends (there is a notable difference), we have gained, as journalist and sociologist Clay Shirky puts it, "cognitive surplus". With limitless choice in the virtual world we have more mental bandwidth than we've had since before the birth of television to do with what we please. That would include hanging on the every tweet of a baker's oven, or assisting in the creation of a new artwork by an artist hundreds of miles away.
The digital world lets us find these physical products more easily and we can attempt to experience them through photograph, visualisation, video or audio. But when it comes to the physical, the tangible and the experiential of the physical world, there is still a sense of scarcity, especially if the product is one of a creative or artisanal hand.
Central Station really is the meeting place of these two worlds. Behind almost every pixel is that scarcity of the physical piece. Behind every piece the even more scarce creator and maker. This community has managed to weave these two worlds together, and has managed to do so while both celebrating the real world of art, film and making stuff, and harnessing the best of the slightly transient, virtual world of click here, type there.
We can all be in each other's pockets digitally if we want, but, frankly, when the bread comes out the oven or the artwork receives its final stroke of the pen, we want to feel, meet, eat or see the physical, real, tangible product of their craft. As an artist, that's incredibly reassuring. As a bystander, it's exciting to know that the digital world will only help me get closer to the things I didn't already know I wanted to experience first hand.
Six weeks ago I met Tina Seelig at dinner in Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh, surrounded by some of the gruesome medical discoveries made over the past 300 years that have helped define modern medicine. If ever there was a dinnertime discussion point about how we build on prior lessons of life (and death), this was it.
We got talking about those life lessons, about how I only worked out I wanted to start my own company about 12 years later than would have been ideal, about how I'd always wanted to write a book ("well, what's the first chapter about?", she asked), and about never getting to the point where you say "I wish I had...".
Tina, in this mini shrink armchair moment, suggested I have a read of her latest book, which I bought there and then on the iPhone and delved into over the course of two evenings.
What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 is a gem, and I've bought at least a dozen copies as 'prizes' for people in my seminars this past month. This "Crash course on making your place in the modern world" is a collection of life lessons, examples from Tina's teaching at Stanford University's School of Engineering, entrepreneurship center and d.school, and great techniques for bringing out the best in yourself and the teams with whom you work. Here are some of my favourite elements of the book:
Need-finding is not a given - it's a process that has to be worked upon to get good at it. (I wonder if that's why I feel that learning in schools is all too often based around "fake problems", ones that have been contrived to achieve a learning point but which haven't had enough thought given to whether there's a real, actual need that would achieve the same, but have more of a profound meaning to the learner).
If you throw gasoline on a log all you get is a wet log. If you throw gasoline on a small flame you get an inferno. Are you putting your energy into something that's going to pay off?
It's not enough to just find your passion and follow that. The sweet spot is when you find your passion in the form of a talent or skill set, find that those match your own personal interests, and then find a market that's willing to harness those skills.
Lao-Tzu, Chinese Taoist philosopher: "The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both."
Lucky people are never just lucky. They're acutely aware of their surroundings like a traveller in a foreign land. They then find unusual ways to recombine their findings and knowledge.
Stories of those who have "bad breaks" and who are able to turn those into incredibly positive opportunities (like Perry Klehbahn's SnowShoe).
Those who are willing to learn can turn negative situations around (e.g. Jeannie Kahwajy's research on job interview candidates who've been knocked back for a dream job and end up truly content with what they end up doing - the same happened to me, actually, when I went for a the world's worst job interview for what I thought was a dream job. When I went to Channel 4 to meet friends and drown my sorrows with some bad coffee, I ended up with an inning to the job where I ended up kicking off 4iP).
Paint the target around the arrow - find out what people's passions are and find ways to harness the energy around that (create jobs and opportunities around that).
The Rule Of Three: Most people can only track three (important) things at once - work out what they are for you and follow through. "Avoiding the Tyranny or 'Or'"
"We're encouraged to "satisfice" - to do the least amount we can do satisfy the requirements."
Teachers show what's required and how to get there. "Will this be on the test?". We have to find interesting ways to get over that, as it's not a life skill. Or at least recognise that it's not a life skill and give it far less attention.
It's a great book, a quick read but one you'll come back to time and time again when you're needing some clever ideas for motivating a group around a challenge, or looking for some insight in where you go next.
Rahaf Harfoush's "front row seat" on the Obama campaign's social media tactics and strategy, along with skills honed in the researching of Tapscott's Wikinomics, make her timeline of digital prowess and must-read for anyone in the marketing, comms, community-building or campaigning line of work. For the rest, it's a fascinating look into the actual role of technology in the famous election campaign, and how "tech toys" were really about inspiring offline community-building and fundraising.
Some would say the book is too simplistic, but I think it's just simple: describing social media tactics for what they are, as simple, reflective and responsive actions rather than a grand strategy only gurus can prepare. If the book reads itself quickly, it's thanks to a clear, consistent design (from Scott Thomas, Obama's design lead, talking here about that experience at Behance's 99%) and a writing style that breaks everything down to its simplest components. This makes it great for those not running large marketing, comms or media budgets, but for those of us who seek to make small iterative steps in the longer term.
She takes us through
how simple thoughts on branding, and providing branding elements for fans to use, was a solid grounding from which to build online services;
how social networking elements went to existing groups and networks rather than trying to recreate everything from scratch;
the power of email, potentially the central tool in the campaign;
the emerging potential of text messaging to influence and cajole;
how blogs were used to give a voice to many people in the campaign, not just to broadcast about me, me, me...
some of the techniques to make the most of video (i.e. produce lots of it, regularly);
how analytics proved a vital element in understanding how to communicate with the audience.
Harfoush spoke last week at Lift in Geneva on the power of social networking in the campaign (I spoke there two years ago on the power of social networking for learning communities) but, as Kevin Anderson points out in the first comment on Stephanie Booth's liveblog of the talk, it wasn't the newer, more social technologies that wielded the greatest impact on the political journey - it was email. Once again, it is the lowest common denominator technology that makes the biggest impact, something both Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody and Esther Dyson have picked up on, the latter putting it as:
sometimes we call intuitive what is really just familiar.
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.