August 16, 2009

Stand There And Do Nothing

This is the second of eight posts on the theme of Where Good Ideas Come From, following on from trying to work out Why it's Important to Know Where Good Ideas Come From. Picture from Tom, who has since realised that he needed to stop and stand still for a moment.

A key point about knowing Where Good Ideas Come From is realising that they don't come from some kind of change management programme, especially in a world where technology has helped change happen quicker than most of us can react to let alone predict. As George Church put it:

"In a changing world, inaction can be the radical 'action'" (cited by Tim O'Reilly)

Or, as Euan Semple cribbed it:

"Don't just do something: stand there."

For most people at any level in an organisation, especially in times where we might all be worried about keeping our jobs, taking time out to not be busy, to not be "doing things" and "fulfilling tasks", might feel counter-intuitive, but arguably it's a key tactic in making things around us slow down long enough to spot the great opportunity, the creative gap that can be filled.

Are we simply diagnosing problems, or..?

Without fail, each day I will see ideas that fulfill needs I didn't know anyone had. Incredibly clever people with huge skill in taking some lines of code and turning them into a product have managed to find a problem that needs solved. Except, unfortunately, it's a problem that most people don't have. Sure, in this Long Tail era we need only to find the 0.01% of the masses who really do need this idea to make it a resounding success, but the reality of the net is that, unless you know where to find these people and how to get your idea across to them, your idea is the equivalent of the tree falling down in the forest that no-one has seen: it doesn't exist. All too often, the engineers have diagnosed a problem that does not exist because they have not taken the trouble to go and speak to the people who they think might want it.

One of the reasons I read so many fewer educational blogs now than I did, say, two years ago is not because I'm less interested in learning and formal, schools-based education, but because so many educators' blogs are overwhelmingly samey. The reason: they're concentrating on tools of social media: "Transformative tools", "new tools", "21st century tools".... They then let me know how these tools are the solution to a problem that has only been waiting for this tool to show up and solve.

Notwithstanding the fact that where I come from a 'tool' is a form of insult ("See you, aye, you, see you, you're a pure tool, soyar!" (and 'Bing' is a slag heap), the tools are not, and have never been, the issue for the pent up frustration of educators the world over.

"It's that 'they' don't get the things that these tools can offer", is the cry. Well, no, it's not really. Because what those tools 'allow' teachers to do has been possible for much longer than that, namely collaboration, shared responsibility for learning, access to resources beyond the one classroom textbook and teacher's brain.

It's just that formal education has struggled for hundreds of years to do things any other way than the first way Scottish priests and Ministers did it back in the 12th Century and that the misunderstanding is therefore not to do with what tool someone could be using for purpose x, y or z, but rather to do with a lack of pedagogical independence and a form of professional arthritis.

Where our starting point is not tools or code, but people, the creative results are often different. Instead of solving problems (that may or may not exist) we instead turn our minds to creating beautiful things that people don't need but want to have. The world's full of them: the iPod (more beautiful, but not really improving on existing MP3 players at the time); BakerTweet (useful for a tiny community of people around a bakery in the North East of London, but beautiful enough an idea to make thousands more laugh on seeing it):

BakerTweet from POKE on Vimeo.


... Designing solutions?

I'd much rather be designing solutions that are fun, engaging, delighting than trying to find problems in our past ways of working that need "improved". The latter is what any "Government Initiative" is about: the previous bunch got it horribly wrong, so we're going to improve it. It's a way of looking at the world that is negative, obsessed with the ills of our world instead of looking for the opportunity that we've been missing thus far. I'd much rather be seeing the gaps between the good-enough solutions others have found, than trying to bulldoze their efforts. Creating more tools is not always the best means of doing this. Creating opportunities (training, conversations, blog posts, and, just sometimes, new tools) that help others also find this positive creative path of designing solutions is much more up my alley. The creator of the tool or Big Idea mustn't have all the fun - the user, participant, learner using the idea must have just as much fun using it, if not more. If you need an example where this is not the case, think of how much fun the cast of a theatre production have putting it together, and then think of the audience that have to endure it.

When it comes to designing tools, therefore, or even just appraising them for educational use, it would be interesting to think in terms of how they fit into the existing infrastructure. This is made easy by my current employer, whose vision is encapsulated in seven words: Do It First, Inspire Change, Make Trouble. As I look through hundreds of ideas I'll often be taken with a few quite quickly, before seeing if I can comfortably distinguish them from anything else that has gone before. I use this phrase to try and hone that decision down to facts:

[My thing here] is the only [thing of its genre]
that allows [these folk]
in [this geographical or online place]
to [achieve this great experience]
at a time when [people seek x, y or z]

This means of making decisions is not about a commercial company wanting to be the first in order to make tons more dosh than anyone else. It's about designing solutions between the gaps, rather than trying to bash the competition (bashing the competition or past initiatives is also excruciatingly hard work, and not very pleasant in the process). It's no suprise, perhaps, that this self-questioning approach originates from one of the most creative minds in the advertising industry, Marty Neumeier. Here's how he uses it to describe some great, creative companies that are about designing solutions instead of seeking out problems:

Harley Davidson is the only motorcycle manufacturer
that makes big, loud motorcycles
for macho guys (and macho wannabees)
most in the United States
who want to join a gang of cowboys
in an era of decreasing personal freedom


The White Strips are the only pop music duo
that records crude yet hip rocks songs
for young urbanites
in the US and other first-world countries
who long for authenticity
in an era of overproduced, me-too music

From his brilliant book, Zag

This should be the goal of any educational institution as much as any company. Pointing out the weak points in a system and then designing a "solution" to them is often the number one priority of any (normally annual) plan or curriculum, at the total expense of undertaking any gap-filling designing. Gap-filling is therefore seen as an additional thing for educators to do, rather than part and parcel of the job. That's one of the reasons for the professional arthritis of schooling and education.

I'd now dare educational leaders to take the jump that commercial operators have done for some time: forget trying to bash the competition (or, in SchoolsLand, trying to improve constantly on the way we did things last year), and instead come up with a gap-filling-only attitude. Doing so shows that you have confidence in the core product you're offering (sound teaching) and are keen to innovate truly in the untouched territory of your professional life, rather than mucking about around the edges of something that works OK. Who knows, you might become the next educational version of the iPhone, iPod or, if you're really luck, the BakerTweet.

Finding a professional pedagogy

How one achieves this change in attitude is certainly not an answer found in our laptops or in new gadgets and tools appearing all over the workplace. It's in attitudes, and knowing where your attitude is in relation to where you want it to be. Bangalore-based Gaurav Mishra shares this view when working with professional corporate clients and has abandoned any quest to explain (again) what the difference between the uses of blogging, social networking, bookmarking, podcasting and lifestreaming might be. Instead, he's distilled a professional pedagogy, if you will, into four main jargon-free perennial stages of development in our ways of working: The 4 Cs of Social Media. Go read, and see if you can correlate the best example of what you've students capable of doing with the progression of Content, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence.

A pedagogy, scholarly or professional like Gaurav's, provides a vision set around people (the user, the learner or the participant). When we start with people, we end up designing beautiful things as a result of great ideas that come uninvited, that don't fit into our annual or three-year plan but which naturally always seem to fit our people-based (as opposed to results-based) vision. Rather than starting at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen and seeking out problems that don't exist, simply because we have a tool that allows us to do so, we are now crafting towards a known challenge that came to us.

This presents a significant challenge to those who are paid to invent curricula or frameworks or year-long (and occasionally three-year-long) plans. Given that they are no more superhuman than the rest of us how can they be doing anything other than seeking out problems that need 'sorted out'. They're certainly not given the luxury of time to let great creative initiatives come uninvited, at their leisure, based around real participants in the system.

When Michelangelo described sculpture it was as something that had to be sought out, not enforced on the stone:

The best artist has that thought alone
Which is contained within the marble shell;
The sculptor`s hand can only break the spell
To free the figures slumbering in the stone


The beauty was hidden in that block of stone, needing someone to come along and break that spell, remove the covers of rock that hid the creativity underneath. If we were to take this as our direction it would be at loggerheads with the constraints of curriculum and five-year structures. Curricula, school buildings and "creative processes" have generally been designed on spreadsheets and therefore look like spreadsheets. They have the same unresponsive, inflexible formulae as spreadsheets or, at the very least, require a master's hand to change them (hardly the stuff to inspire the masses in our organisations to take the creative lead and bend those spreadsheet columns).

Creativity is therefore a mixture. On the one hand, it's the ability to stand still and see the overarching line, the challenge that will make us achieve something beautiful while others scurry at ground level achieving tasks and 'doing stuff'. On the other, it's the desire to uncompromisingly seek out the creativity that sits before us in the blunt lumps of stone (and spreadsheets) that the quarrymen of our bureaucracies manage to produce.

The question for a leader, of course, is to work out whether they are a quarryman (or woman), or a Michelangelo. I know which one most leaders' egos would prefer to be, but for many leaders there's a need to spend some time at 35,000 feet working out where they are, and where their colleagues might want them to be.

So, should we be doing this creative leadership thinking in our creative bubble, or aiming to work collaboratively throughout the whole journey? If you're politically correct, you probably think that collaboration and creativity are exclusive bed buddies. As the next post in this series shows, you might be wrong there, too.

Related posts:

Introduction: Where Good Ideas Come From

Part One: Why It's Important (To Want) To Know Where Good Ideas Come From


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Ewan, nice blog entry about you not reading blog entries!
I think the reason there is so much sameness in blog entries is because the mass of educators do NOT know about the tools. You are seeing what I would liken to a "lagging indictor."

You of course, are on the cutting edge, so you are way ahead of most educators.

The vast majority are not even using Web 2.0 tools in their classroom.

That is why most blogs you read are about those tools.

I am glad so many people are still blogging.
At least they are doing something.

There are a couple of things in there, though, where I've not made my point clearly enough. First of all, it has *nothing* to do with knowing about tools and technology, about being on the cutting edge of all that. It has everything to do with being at the cutting edge of *thinking* about what we're doing and for whom, which is hard to do when you don't make room for thought amongst the busy-ness of touting the latest gadget or website.

Most of the blogs I no longer read are vying with each other to be the first to "report" on this tool or that website, rather than challenging us with some original thoughts on learning gaps that need filled.

The only reason I'm so against this constant barrage is a) that I was one of those folk and know that it's a distraction from the real meat of what we're trying to do, and b) nearly all the tools we have replicate largely what tools went before, yet we hear only about the tools and not why they're actually needed (it's more about telling us why teaching has to change for those tools - the wrong way around, IMHO, where we're diagnosing problems based on the tool we've just spotted).

My last point is that it's not about doing *something* and being happy with that. I'd be happier, I think, if there was a lot less doing *anything* about the same old stuff (the tone and content of educational thinking on Web 2.0 technologies have not changed in the seven years I've been most involved in that side of things) and more time DOING LESS, BETTER and for MORE IMPACT in the long run.

Great post! I just visited Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill cottage and was told a quote by her that has stuck in my mind. "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people." Maybe "and act" should be added onto the great minds part.

I really loved the BakerTweet video. Is this truly up and running in some bakery? So you will always get information on what is hot and ready from the oven?


I hate to be the killjoy in the room, but perhaps not everyone is capable of - or wants to take the time to be capable of - the original thought?

True, but that doesn't stop some deciding to take positions of power and influence and consequently smother those who are and want to have original thought. If only a proven track record of original thought was a prerequisite for those running our schools and other public institutions, we might have different outcomes (though whether they're better depends on the original thoughts they have :-)

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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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