September 24, 2010

Design Thinking Solves Impossible Problems: Best and Worst

Scottish Borders Council brainstorming
If I said that your worst solutions for the challenges you're facing might just be your best way out of a tight spot, would you believe me?

When you ask a room of teachers (or any professional for that matter) to come up with their "best" solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don't offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the team or committee.

At a time when education budgets have never been smaller, and are only going to get smaller, this kind of thinking that defaults to the "old ways" of doing things - expensive committees, organisations, meetings, 'experts' - just won't cut it any more.

But ask people for their "worst" solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all - laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.

By insisting on a "yes and" approach, rather than a "yes but" approach, a fresh set of eyes can turn these "worst" ideas into the ones that will save money, improve service, or make people happier in the workplace.

On Friday last week I used this exercise with Scottish Borders Council who, like every public body in the UK, are seeking creative ways to maintain the quality of their services for millions of pounds less (they're already top of the charts in terms of their efficiency in delivering the quality services they do). The results were brilliant, and I've challenged the 160 or so leaders, from across education, roads, infrastructure, health, social work etc that I was working with, to share their ideas on a team forum and then put their ideas into action by Christmas. Some of the best worst ideas were:

  • Reduce cleaning costs by scrapping school cleaners. Instead, we'll get the students to clean the 2 square metres around the area in which they are standing at 2pm every day.
  • Reduce the costs of maintaining school grounds by no longer using Council environmental services. Yes, and we'll get students to swap the neat lawns for some self-grown fruit and vegetables, leading to cheaper, better and fresher produce in school meals while also teaching youngsters about crop cycles and basic biology. We could even generate some extra money by selling extra produce to the community, or generate good will by giving it away to those families who occasionally struggle with the bills.
  • Reduce the money spent on transporting children to school by stopping taxi runs from remote areas. Yes, and we'll seek out parents to get some regular carsharing started. And we can make a feature of the diverse locations our students live in to create a massive start-of-term expedition to explore the area on foot, and see how close and how far students live from school.
  • Improve the quality of service provision by forming a committee made up of everyone in the community - you can call in to local radio and share who you think has made the biggest improvement in your local services (the refuse collector who always replaces the lid on your bin and cleans up rubbish, for example), but the result is given anonymously. That way, everyone in the Council thinks it might be them and adjusts their behaviour accordingly.

How one 'stupid' idea could save £12.5m a year

I don't know the precise figure spent on fruit and vegetables, cleaning and gardening throughout schools in the UK, but these ideas, applied nationally, could have a positive effect on what and how students learn, as well as saving at least a few million (window cleaning alone is £25,000 a year in one English borough, which nationally would lead to a saving of at least £12.5m a year).

The inspiration to use this exercise came from Tina Seelig's great book, Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Twenty, a manual if ever there was one of creative ways of getting others, and yourself, to look at your school, business or parenting. Why not try it in your next Council or school session, and see how you can make services better for eveyone for less.


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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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