February 07, 2015

Unplug from this. Plug back in to that #28daysofwriting

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This is Saturday's #28daysofwriting, written on Saturday February 7th, but not typed up until Monday February 9th. Why? At the weekend I make every attempt to unplug from technology. Most of my best ideas do not happen while staring at a screen, small or large, but from doing the opposite: experiencing life around me.

Stating this will annoy some of the 28 people awaiting a pitch, programme, plan, project proposal or reply. Some of them will have waited a week, as last week's trip to Canada was so intense I didn't have the energy to give them the quality of thinking and time they deserve. 

But unplugging on a regular basis, and not just splurging on an "analogue August" or "wifi-less winter" is something we should all aspire to do. Less little and often, more significant time offline and regular.

I know my own team tend to take their weekends for getting down to the beach, into a restaurant or two, or heading for brisk walks through English woods or Scottish coasts. As such, I'd never expect an email reply from them, from about midday on Friday through to mid-morning on Monday (leaving them time to prioritise first thing).

Quartz reports on an entire Connecticut-based marketing firm who had a whole-organisation offline, no device day. To be honest, I was surprised that one day offline for a team was able to make the news n the first place. But then I thought a little harder, and realised that for a whole team to decide in advance to go native (and not digitally so) was still a rare thing, even if just for one day.

The story reveals some of the reasons it might be important to take more frequent time off instead of these newsworthy splurges:

  1. Thinking benefits, not features
    “I’m having second thoughts,” a latecomer said. “I’m supposed to build a Powerpoint deck today.”

    This reveals so much. She's not supposed to be building a Powerpoint deck - it's just that this has become the usual means of trying achieve a multitude of other goals. In the creative industries it has become commonplace, mistakenly I believe, to write ideas down as Powerpoint decks. We write prose in a document, presentations on a deck. It is unlikely the Powerpoint deck was really the best way for this account director to communicate her figures, or for a creative to convey a risky idea. What else might people do in a tech-free day? I'm reminded of the gloriously analogue presentation given by Drew Buddie at one of the first London-based TeachMeets, where he extolled the virtues of stone-stacking through the use of an entire ream of 1980s printer paper.

  2. Digital snobbery
    "Disconnected from their usual feeds, two communications people walk to a bookstore to get the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Cincinnati Enquirer, documenting the three-block journey with an old-school Hi8 camcorder. On the elevator as they returned, a freelancer was arriving for the day and told the unplugged: “I’m holding. Are you jealous?”"

    This is the equivalent of the "how big / new / shiny is yours" that festoons technology use, everywhere. School systems are amongst the worst offenders. No-one outside education understands BYOD or one-to-one. No-one talks with pride of how many computers and devices their insurance company has, as a means, no less, of stating how good that company must be. And yet, that's exactly the kind of lame discussion I hear tech directors having at most meetups. I'd be more proud to come from the school that has a regular tech-free day, placing an accent on thinking first, no excuses.

  3. You're not connected. You're bored
    "In a meeting-induced boredom reflex, I pulled out my phone to check my notifications (there were very few, and none of any importance whatsoever) and immediately felt like a cad for doing so. “Our whole point was to make people feel like assholes,” Chief Creative Officer Nathan Hendricks later joked."

    Most technology use, if we were honest with ourselves (and not actually trading eight hours solid at the LSE), staves boredom, or makes more of 'down time'. Surely the oxymoron is enough - downtime is there to step your brain down for a brief moment. Boredom is there to act as the space between your ears where you can idly just think and reflect.

  4. Can you not just be present?
    "The device room wasn’t supposed to reopen until 4pm, but I am notified on a walkie-talkie that the doors have opened early because some people had to leave. This causes a bit of a reconfiguration of plans."

    If you really want to get under my skin, if you really want to have a good chance of a public shaming, leave a meeting or workshop before the due time. There are always other, more important things to do than think deeply, plan better for the future or reflect on where you've come from in your learning. Because you leave early, you will always be firefighting, coping with the latest unexpected thing. And technology is the key reason you do it. Tech can lead to everything becoming urgent and important, unless you know how to master it. And that involves taking some time out, often.

The pic on the post is mine, from Soho, London - the one place where you might get away with being both plugged in and unplugged at the same time. 

February 06, 2015

Sporf Strategy: Beware #28daysofwriting

Sporkife

I picked up this Sporf in Amsterdam Schipol airport. A spork I'd seen before, but the addition of a simple serration on the side of the fork end makes this a genuine "three-in-one" implement for eating one's full three-course takeaway meal on the plane. The sporf is no innovation; back in 1940 the "sporf" was born. It took me until 2015 to notice this one thanks to its rather pleasant design.

The sporf is a little like most strategy documents that I come across. It is one implement designed to serve a multitude of goals, but with one fatal flaw: you can only ever use one part of the sporf / strategy at any one time. With the sporf, things would get messy trying to use the spoon and knife and the same time. The knife and fork work quite well in sequence but physics prevents me using both at the same time as I can with the older technologies of knife and fork

In strategy formation, we can develop a multitude of potential purposes within one document, killer vision statement or mission. But it's important to recognise that the teams around us will only ever be able to do one thing really well at any one time. This is a lesson oft ignored by schools, in particular, as they attempt to ask educators to create an ever-more creative curriculum without having first tackled attitudes towards summative assessments throughout the year.

It is also a challenge in some of the world's most successful, but now stagnating, big businesses: they've spent decades or centuries building a reputation across a large array of devices, technologies, components or clothing, but the real strategy is working out which of the current array needs killed off to enable teams in their quest to develop something totally new, properly innovative.

It's the reason I added the "...and actually make them happen" to my "How to come up with great ideas" book. Writing a sporf strategy is easy: you just need to keep adding components. But, to actually make those strategies happen you need to thump out the timetable of development and delivery very carefully, for, no matter how talented your team, or how many bodies on the ground you have, the institution can only ever move forward on one big idea at a time.

February 05, 2015

My book is finally available on Kindle!

Book arrived

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.

The zingy full-colour iBooks version lives on, of course!

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!

"I like doing it that way" is not good enough #28daysofwriting

This morning in Edmonton I'll be giving a keynote made up almost entirely of musical metaphors for educators. I've only given the talk once, but it proved particularly powerful with my group of Swedish educators at the time, because you don't need to speak great English to understand the lessons we can learn for our own classrooms.

In the excerpt above, young pianist David Kadouch gets pushed by  pianist Daniel Baremboim. In fact, he gets a pretty hard time when he changes the dynamic - when he plays an E flat note louder than the pianissimo (super quiet) the composer asked for. When asked why he was doing it the young Kadouch replies: "Because I like it". Baremboim is not impressed:

"I'm very sorry, with all due respect, it's not good enough.

"If you had thought of a good reason... I would have said 'chapeau'. But "I like it" is not good enough.

I'm not trying to compare what you're trying to do with the way I think it should go. I'm trying to help you achieve more of what you want to achieve yourself, so that's why it's important that I know why."

Baremboim points out that, because the student has not thought of the reason he is playing something in a certain way, he cannot justify playing it that way.

When I think of teachers' practice, I hit the same kind of conversation daily. I'm no Baremboim of teaching, but I can ask "Why" to find out why a teacher thinks that planning or teaching in a certain way is the best way of achieving what they want to achieve. Knowing the why, we can then both work together to ascertain if, from the world of teaching and learning savvy that we can access, the chosen path is really the best one at all.

This is the essence of design thinking. We design (take time to consider each element of) our thinking (we actually think through for ourselves; don't just assume that the first answer is the right one). 

Alas, most days the initial response is more or less what Kadouch says: "Because I like doing it that way; Because I've always done it that way; Because I saw someone else do it that way." None of these answers is good enough.

There's no care, no design, no thinking.

Here are some simple "Whys" where "because I like it" isn't good enough. And the resultant conversation might help open up some better learning in any classroom:

  • Why do you start a lesson with a teacher's voice?
  • When people are talking why do you keep going?
  • When students are clearly producing pretty but shallow work, why do you let them give the presentation?
  • When that kid wants to make a movie again, why do you let them?
  • Why do you, and not your students, choose the resources and activities that they will undertake each and every hour they're with you?
  • Why do you assume that student-led learning of content will lead to students 'getting through' less content than if you stand and deliver it?
  • Why do you think maths students cannot undertake student-led projects as effectively as in social studies?

The full masterclass can be viewed on YouTube.

If this isn't nice, I don't know what is #28daysofwriting

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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.

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February 03, 2015

Stop thinking out of the box - the box IS the thinking #28daysofwriting

Whitebox

I can't stand it when people say they want to "think out of the box". I try my best to hide the pain on my face, muscles enter involuntary spasm, and I smile back knowing that the mission ahead is going to be a delicate one. It was adman legendaire Gerry Farrell, last Friday, who helped me understand why my buttocks clench in disappointment on hearing this. You see: it's the boxes we live with that force us to be creative in the first place.

As Gerry explained in a talk in Edinburgh, ads people tend to have the same boxes for every creative project:

  • the budget is always going to be $5000, not $50,000; 
  • the timescale will always be next week, not next month;
  • the product is the one the client has to sell, not the one the adman wishes he could sell for them.

Well, most of my work isn't with admen. It's with other creative folk and above all teachers. Educators. The ones who work with kids. They would dream of a budget of $5000 (well, anything, really). That marking is due tomorrow, not next week. The product I have is the class of thirty-three weans in front of me at 9am tomorrow, and the day after, and we only have a few chances, if that, to do our best by them. If this particular 'campaign' falls down, the cost to us all is a heavy one.

But Gerry's point - that the boxes we live by make us creative - still stands. The key is working out what the important boxes are, so that we can work well within them. Here's my non-exhaustive list of creative constraints that teachers can revel in, in order to create invigorating learning experiences for and with their young charges:

  • The Curriculum
    A curriculum is not some burden that we must carry. It can be a creative stimulus. What happens if you take page 6 with page 27, and bash them together to come up with a new project idea? So, until this point in time "we've always taught Introduction to Algebra in the third week of October". Why? What makes people do that? Ask 'why' often enough (at least five times) and most afficionados of ithasalwaysbeendonethiswayitis will be stuck for words, and explanations. Now you can start to innovate with your curriculum. Why? Why not?
  • Assessments
    Teachers and students have no idea how lucky we are. The admen would sell their grannies if they had a success criteria, printed out in advance, and laminated, to tell them what a good campaign should look like. Students can do what admen would do with such criteria - go way beyond them to keep the client happy and get the next gig. The trick is making sure that the students really understand what's meant by all the twaddle that makes up the ridiculous adjectival foreplay of most formal success criteria.
  • The boss says no
    The boss doesn't know any better until you show them, until you sell them the benefits of your idea, not just the endless features of your idea. If the benefit is clearly better learning for your youngsters, any professional outfit would encourage you to get on with it and not bother the boss with silly questions and posturing anyway. If you're in doubt, try Steve Jobs' quote for size:

    "Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.
    "Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

  • I don't have the time
    I do believe you have the same time as that person, over there, who's done the cool thing you want to do. And we've already established you're as smart as them. You have different priorities, that's all. Get them straight, and you'll never say "I don't have time for that" again. You will only be left saying "that's a great idea, but it's not for me, right now. I'm busy transforming the world with this idea over here."

    Most of the best ideas come quickly as the result of a well-identified pain point. When the pain's at fever pitch, I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas.

What other creative constraints are there? What other boxes should we stop thinking outside of, and start jumping into?

February 02, 2015

Angostura Bitters and the mistakes we live by - #28daysofwriting

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Last Friday the legendary Creative Director Gerry Farrell gave a talk about all things 'ugly', and many stories revolved around how we deal with failure, or apparent failure. In one story he talked about Angostura Bitters, an alcoholic mixer with which I had a brief relationship during a passing phase of enjoying the ladies' drink "Long Vodka". 

In the early days of the drink, the two brother team who created it decided to get recognition for their new drink by entering a contest. In an efficiency move, one was charged with choosing the best bottle for the job, the other brother placed in charge of the label production.

One small mistake: they didn't communicate on the size of anything.

When the bottle came back with a label that was far too big for the bottle, it was too late to fix. They entered the competition regardless which they promptly lost. However, one judge remarked about their "signature labelling", and the rest is history. Ever since, they have kept that original  label, too big for the bottle with too much text on it.

In most creative organisations (including schools), the 'mistake' is what kills the idea before it even gets a chance to compete. Releasing even imperfect ideas, like a blog post rushed out in 28 minutes one morning, is better than ditching the whole damned thing. And we invent lame excuses for not creating / releasing / writing publicly. If I were to replace any of your school language with the Angostura story we'd end up with:

  • Who'd be interested in (this drink)?
  • I've spent all this time thinking about making (a drink) but I don't think people will try it.
  • (The bottle) is the wrong platform for (this drink) - we need to wait until we buy the right one.
  • The boss won't like (the drink) that I've made. Better I keep it quiet, never let anyone drink it, than go let him taste it first.
  • OK, the boss hates (my drink) - it lost the competition - so we'd better throw in the towel. 
  • If I don't get permission to make (great drinks) then I just won't try it.
  • I've got too many (drinks) ideas to choose which one to make first. So I'll do nothing.

I could go on. These excuses take seconds to come up with. Actually doing something takes a lot longer.

This kick up the backside, that no-one will make your ideas happen for you, is the very thing I go into depth in, on my new book How To Come Up With Great Ideas.

February 01, 2015

#28daysofwriting - it starts with one

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A confession: our team at NoTosh has had blog guilt for years, and we keep having tense conversations about why we can't better share the amazing work the team and our clients get up to.

We developed a new website two years ago, with a flurry of writing, but haven't updated it half as much as we'd want to. We all have our own individual blogs which we update when... we have a holiday. If our time is not spent in the high energy, high adrenalin of engaging with thousands of teachers at an event, or the intensity of one business leader over the table, it is in the deep troughs of loneliness and boredom that come with sitting on planes for hours, or facing off the computer screen at the home office. 

Well, I know one thing: a good idea never came out of a computer. Great ideas come out of people's heads, and they come from experiences that have provoked them, jarred them, annoyed them, made them laugh or made them cry. The most vibrant of these experiences are not found on our Facebook walls; they are in the world around us.

My colleague Tom, who came up with this idea of 28 minutes of uninterrupted writing over each of February's 28 days, has kicked off what might become a kind of 'writers' anonymous' (indeed, I've fallen off the wagon twice already in this paragraph, helping my daughter work out how to programme her Dash and Dot). A group of fellow bloggers - writers who share their stuff straightaway - who can provide the mutual kick up the backside that no-one else is going to give you.

What do I plan to do with my 28 days? I have no plan at all. Most of my writing is planned - my 60,000 words of book writing was planned. Most of it is to deadlines - while I wrote my book I underestimated the effort it would take to also write 50,000 words of a new Masters course. A large chunk of my writing just needs done (if you've had an email from me this past week, that's you).

But my 28 days of writing, no matter how much arse-kicking my fellow blogging travellers give me, does not need done, and this is no doubt what will compel me to thump out my 28 minutes, every day, without fail.

My only foreseeable challenge with this 'writers' anonymous'? My writing is akin to an alcoholic's drinking - I go cold turkey for weeks on end, but once I start, I find it hard to stop. Keeping to just one 28 minute stint a day will be the challenge.

Here endeth the lesson / the first 28 minutes.

January 27, 2015

When you innovate are you a puzzle builder or quilt maker?

When you don't 'get' something, when there's something you've not got that gets in the way of building your idea, do you put your hands up and wait until the next piece in your puzzle becomes available, or do you just make stuff happen with the resources you've got - are you a puzzle maker who struggles when a piece is missing or a quilt maker who makes the best out of what you have? Tina Seelig explains this wonderful metaphor further. My own book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, provides hundreds of tools and skillsets you can use and develop to make the most happen with what you have.

January 26, 2015

When is the point catastrophes can be avoided?

Kxcover

One simple delay doesn't a catastrophe make. But when work elsewhere affects your team's workflow, unknown to you, and new technologies don't quite fit within the system, you can very quickly pay the price. 

The trainspotter in me enjoyed reading John Bull's dissection of the Christmas travel woes incurred as a result of otherwise 'normal' festive engineering works. For those outside the UK and insulated from this local news, thousands of trains and tens of thousands of passengers experienced horrendous delays and cancellations at one of London's key railway stations as a result of engineering works running over.

Bull's post outlines a series of poor management and leadership decisions, mostly based on the challenge of predicting likely scenarios in the hours and days ahead. Leaders in every walk of life face similar prediction challenges.

But as I read this I wondered where my own red flag would have appeared. What about you?

Much of these issues are related to the "second horizon" of implementing a great idea. The toolsets and skillsets that help implement ideas quickly, such as the 'pre-mortem' to test for potential failure points, are detailed in my book: How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen.

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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