157 posts categorized "Leadership & Management"

November 24, 2015

It's high time for designers to get out of the way of design thinking

Design at IBM

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.


September 30, 2015

Teachers make meaningful, pragmatic strategy for learning

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.

August 31, 2015

What it means to be visionary

I'm working on a project where we're trying to inspire engineers to think beyond improving the existing objects and services in our world, and invent what we don't even know we don't even know yet. We're getting them to bump into their own unknown unknowns

This Steve Jobs video, above, is from 1997, where he describes in anecdote how he has created, over the seven prior years, what we know today as cloud computing. And yet, even today, there are plenty of institutions that struggle with the notion of putting everything "up there", where it is faster to access and safe(r) from loss. 

So the question is this: do you want to be a visionary, or follow one for an exciting ride, or be around nearly twenty years later questioning the vision of those who went off and did it? 

July 07, 2015

"I like it" is not good enough

Creative conflict is the ability to agree to disagree, and use the disruption of a disagreement to make your work better. It relies on the partners in disagreement to both be on top of their game, both of them respectful of the other's views on how something might be made better.

Teachers seek this creative, quality feedback discourse every day in their students' work. But every month I bump into another educator who will not "believe" that the practice I'm sharing with them will make their students' outcomes better. The frustration of practice being negated by a simple "I don't believe this will work with my students / in math / in this school" is hard for me to mask - if you want to know one of my 'buttons', press this one.

The video clip I show in return, helps those who don't understand creative conflict get the point, without having to take it personally. It also shows the subtle difference between simply taking research "as is", and having a critical eye on the research.

Barenboim's masterclass pianist plays at a dynamic which is not written in the piece (like a teacher choosing to ignore what a piece of research says). When pushed on why he does it, he says: "because I like it". Barenboim has two options in his potential reply. One would be:

"But the manuscript says this, so play it like that".

This is the musical equivalent of what might be said by the emergent research-led cabal who wouldn't have a teacher teach a certain way unless it had been researched robustly that way first.

Instead, Barenboim asks him to reflect, to think about why he's taking the manuscript / the research and interpreting it differently, in his own style. It's an example of the fine line between virtuoso and just getting it wrong, in spite of what the manuscript suggests you might do for 'success'. And the clip makes the subtle, nuanced point in a way far more subtle and nuanced than most edu-speak can ever manage.

June 16, 2015

When a Snow Queen starts a school: the no-grades route to University


No grades (ever), no sitting down at desks, and harnessing student boredom as a motivator to create and explore might seem an odd recipe for academic success and entry to university, but that is exactly what one of Scotland's newest schools is attempting to do.

Drumdruan Upper School was created a few years ago by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, star of many a Hollywood blockbuster and forever in my mind the terrifying Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The school extends a Steiner education beyond the age of 14, and takes students through to their University years. The Observer has published a fascinating and detailed account of some of the recipe that makes this a special place and, above all, has bowled over the traditionally conservative schools inspectorate:

That is not what happened: the inspectors sat in the classes and watched the students. And if you watch the students at Drumduan, you soon notice they are confident, articulate, highly motivated and respectful. These are, in fact, the words used by the inspectors in their subsequent report. You might even believe the students at Drumduan wanted to be there. The inspectors clearly felt so, but it was when they had retired to an office to confer that Krzysztof, a master of the spontaneous gesture, delivered the coup de grace. He sang to them.

Music is something of a hallmark at Drumduan, where children participate in regular workshops – often on instruments like a wheelie bin – and start each day singing in four-part harmonies. “We were rehearsing in another room, and I said: ‘This song is terrific, we have to show these inspectors,’” Krzysztof recalls. “So we burst into their office – they were a bit alarmed – and I said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve just got to sing this song to you.’” The song was “Media Vita”, a medieval score of haunting beauty that reduced the inspectors to tears, according to Krzysztof. Bowled over by their praise – he is a man whose emotions are close to the surface – Krzysztof asked if he could give them a hug, probably a first for all of them.


“There’s no grading, no testing at all,” Tilda had explained to me earlier. “My children are now 17, and they will go through this school without any tests at any time, so it’s incredibly art-based, practical learning. For example, they learn their science by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelising onions. And they’re all happy 17-year-olds. I can’t believe it – happy and inspired.”

May 18, 2015

Do schools ever want to partner with business?



“Teachers like to agree with each other, when we talk about learning. It’s hard to change that, when the model we have wanted to make work has nonetheless been failing for 40 years.” Professor Brian Boyd

No area has remained up there in the contentiousness charts in Scotland as the notion of business and education working together to do something better for our young people.

Most schools do not ‘partner’ with colleges or universities. Instead, they are production facilities for undergraduates and college entrants. Fewer are set up to systematically provide apprenticeship opportunities as well as learning. At NoTosh, we’ve been working on a few, nascent projects to change the attitudes of schools from being these production facilities into something more of a life support - what metrics of success might we use if schools judged their success on the results of their alumni, five, ten or twenty years down the line, much like universities do?

City of Glasgow College have partnered with Newlands Junior College (NJC) to make the experience of a day in college more than what, in other circumstances, is too often perceived as a day off from school. The Junior College is called this, and not a school, for that very reason, to mark it out as a stepping stone between school and full-blown college. NoTosh helped last August to provoke the team around their thoughts of what 'unschool' might look like.

The College was backed and founded by Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s top business people. 

In the future, suggests, McColl, might be be possible to take funding of learning out of its pre-existing silos, particularly for this group of students, about 60 in every city at these ages, who just need a different approach to the traditional comprehensive approach? A crossover funding model that helps learning happen in both ‘school’ or Junior College and college or university might be interesting. In fact, some of the world’s top universities are thinking of such models for their own students: Stanford’s 2025 project talks about the Open Loop, where learning and work happen over far more than the usual four year degree, offering students a chance to grow through not just learning, but contributing to society through their work, too.

Such continuums of learning, from school to college to work, are the most rare in the world - we’re lucky in Scotland to have one in the form of Newlands Junior College. If we struggle to collaborate between educational institutions, then collaboration between those not in the world of formal education - namely businesses - feels far fetched. 

McColl is frank on his views of the traditional ‘comprenhensive’ education he received: he couldn’t get out of secondary school fast enough. In his small primary school “people cared”. He was the Dux of his class, even if, he jokes, the class only had seven pupils. Aged 16, he gained his Weir pumps apprenticeship, the choice grounded in nothing other than the fact it was the closest bus stop to his house. But, once there, the trainer told him: “Just work hard and we’ll give you all the support you need. If you want to get to the top, you just have to work hard.” He did. And in 2007 he bought the company. One might say he was successful, but not by any metrics of today’s academic race to nowhere. What he did have was a strong sense of self-efficacy, that sense that he could change the world around him, his own circumstances, through his own efforts. This is what is behind most powerful learning.

He saw that, particularly in Glasgow, poverty and deprivation were holding back too many youngsters. He held Focus Dinners with all the heads of Glasgow schools. They confirmed what he had believed: aspiration from the family was a key differentiating factor.

“Aged 14”, they said, “we can tell who is waiting to check out when they’re sixteen.”

Comprehensive is not comprehensive, he says: “We force kids who are just naturally more vocational into an academic system that doesn’t cater with them.”

The curriculum is made up one around a third in traditional core subjects of maths, science, English and technology, a third of College-based learning and the rest is Life Skills, led by Skillsforce, another partner from the world of non-formal education led by former military personnel. Each week has a theme related to doing better in life. “This week is eye contact week” explains McColl. “It’s funny at first, because they all over-emphasise things, but by the third or fourth day they’ve grown in confidence and hold conversations.”

The culture of obstacles lives on

The culture of obstacles referred to by Dr Murray, in her work engaging young people in the world of medicine, is what must be defeated, though, and it has to include the public sector. But the public sector has to do a better job not to hold back potentially useful ideas from outside its parameters. It has taken six years to get Newlands Junior College where it is today. Had the team waited for every funder and ‘stakeholder’ to give their accord, it would still be a sketch on paper. A third of local schools in Glasgow still refuse to engage with the model at all. There are also people who are too focussed on their own power games, and students are suffering in the meantime.

Compare this slow pace with the measured but impassioned ambition of McColl, who sees NJC and its future cousin schools around the country as always remaining a small family of schools, maybe 10-12 of them, and very much part of the system, an additional resource rather than an outside bolt-on to the system. 

We've got high hopes, hi-i-i-i-gh hopes...

Key to businesses’ success is their sense of high expectation - businesses with incremental improvements in mind barely get past their first tax return. This sense of high expectations is visible in everything NJC does, from its physical decor to the time and effort put into excelling at life, not just subjects. There was an almost disapproving ripple of excitement when the audience were told every youngster at NJC has an iPad. Frankly, it was the statement of entitlement to whatever it takes that was the point, not whether the kids got an iPad or an A4 pad on entry to the school.

All things being equal, are opportunities for all young people there, and are aspirations from all of those around them there? Making sure schools provide that aspiration is the key.

If you want a kid to become a doctor, get them into operations


Juliette Murray was, like me, a kid at school who got 5 “A”s, which in the West of Scotland put a certain degree of pressure on one’s shoulders to study either medicine or law. I studied European Law, and became a teacher - that's what a European Law degree does to you. She studied medicine and is today a practicing doctor, but the education bug is firmly rooted in what she chose to do next.

Murray noticed that, particularly in her local area, fewer students were applying to study medicine than the population number would suggest should. Not only that, nationally the number of medical students dropping out after beginning their course of study is increasing. She wondered if we might we persuade a more representative cross section of the community to become doctors.

Teenagers in the Operating Theatre

She set about improving the opportunities for local youngsters, aged 14/5, at the time of their work experience choices. Existing work experience for those who want to gain an insight into the world of medical doctors is a sanitised course in an educational skills centre, where bored teenagers endlessly take each other’s blood pressure. They have more chance of a realistic insight by breaking their arm and turning up to Accident and Emergency. As any dad-to-be donning surgical greens knows, getting into an operating theatre is where a passion for surgery will be born or, in my case, definitely put to one side as a career option. So, the question became: how might we offer a more realistic experience of what being a doctor, surgeon or other medical profession feels like?

Culture of obstacles
Starting with her local hospital, Wishaw General in NHS Lanarkshire, she set about overcoming what she describes as a “culture of obstacles”. Two years later, though, and students are indeed undertaking real life surgery work experience, experiencing a live operation theatre and seeing the pressure of the job first hand.

A key hurdle was finding students to populate the programme. John McGilp, head teacher at local Coltness High School, became a  partner in launching a 2015 pilot scheme, co-designing timing and content of various interventions throughout the year to find and prime students for the experience. Beginning with second and third year high school students, they had an early experience in June of the CAT test, required as part of every application to medical school, before other workshops on how to apply for the degree course and what kinds of subject requirements there might be.

120 pupils and their families came to an initial meeting of several high schools’ students, where they met with role models who raised expectations and aspirations. Above all, meeting other students from other schools in the area reinforced the idea that no-one was ‘alone’ in thinking of this ambitious path, that “people like me” did it, too.

The programme makes a point to involve other health care professionals, not just junior doctors, for those for whom it isn’t the right fit, or whose applications are not successful. And, in the meantime, more junior doctors are offering to participate, enthusiastic to help and increasing in number as word gets around.

If it's that good, why doesn't it happen everywhere?

This is a nascent and growing example of what happens when people, who no doubt have many other things going on in their busy lives, make a decision to spend that bit more effort on a mission they feel is worth while. Thankfully for Murray, she found a willing school partner early on, who put in an equal extra effort to make it work. But for ideas like this to 'scale', it requires more than a pack, website or even funding - there was next-to-no additional funding to make this possible in the first place, and not even a purchase code to buy coffee and tea for school kids.

There was just passion and perseverance to do what felt right.

Now, the team are adding to their passion with data showing how it works.

The key is whether other Head Teachers and their leadership teams feel passionate about closing the achievement gap in this way, raising aspiration of what might be possible, to set up and run a similar programme in their own area.

Does your country need you? One out of five kids say "no"


Almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. In a country that has in many ways never felt so optimistic and excited about its future, this should be a momentous wakeup call, a call-to-arms for the whole community. The line comes from the opening page of Sir Ian Wood’s report on how employers and education might manage a genuine culture of partnership, and answering this claim was the palpable bone of contention during an evening last week of discussion, talks and food, with some of Scotland’s education leaders and management, at SELMAS.

In Scotland, based on my experience and the stories told at Thursday night’s event, I’d suggest that there are three fatal blows to closing an achievement gap, most of them rooted in how education and business choose to play with each other. I'm going to walk through them over a few blog posts to come:

1. For some schools and businesses there is a lack of interest in partnering - the “what’s in it for me” just isn’t visible.

2. For other schools and businesses, there is a lack of knowledge on how to partner and what to partner on - “the what’s in it for me” is maybe agreed upon in principle, the enthusiasm is there, but what the “it” might be is the challenge.

3. Finally, for some schools, there is a genuine disdain and contempt for working with any organisation that is not their own, and publicly funded. Here, business and schools can't even agree to play with each other.

May 17, 2015

Whole-school language of learning, or everyone for themselves?


A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.

Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.

But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.

Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.

Picture: origin unknown

April 24, 2015

Keeping students at school 24/7 through the Seven Spaces of Learning


Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.

That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.

The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.


In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:


 Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:


Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.


While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:


Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:



As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing. 

Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?


About Ewan

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.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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.

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