Planning For Failure

“We spend a lot of time planning.  We even make contingency plans for what to do if the main plan goes wrong.  But what if the plan goes right, and we still fail?  This is the most dreaded kind of failure, because it tricks you into thinking that you’re in control and that you’re succeeding.”  -Eric Ries

The one problem with dedicated strategy planning…

Is that we often move forward with this unfounded belief that we’ve covered all the angles.

Beginning with an attitude of ‘we have all of the answers’ is almost undoubtedly a forecast for a storm brewing on the horizon.  It sets the stage for arrogant disillusionment and disappointment in the end.  No matter how well thought a plan may appear to be, there is always going to be unforeseen difficulties along the way.  An inability to recognize and understand this up front, can often doom leaders and their organization from reaching any type of positive outcome.

You can plan extensively, prepare diligently, have everything in the right place, and the plan can still fall flat and fail.  You can reach what Eric Ries has termed, “achieved failure.”  Being so focused on the cleverness and brilliance of the plan itself, you fail to take into account the intangible factors that can impede effective implementation and acceptance.  The plan fails to take into account organizational and individual readiness, the prevailing culture, leadership influence, as well as a plethora of other factors that can doom the process and overall outcome.  Or as Eric Ries shares, you become “so focused on executing a plan that you don’t stop to work out if it’s a good plan or not.”

Today’s effective leaders move forward with the humility and humbleness to understand that no matter how much planning, discussion or meeting time goes into a plan, there will always be the need for changes and readjustments along the way.  When leaders are unable to approach their work from this reflective and vulnerable stance, they fail to pivot and make the needed changes and adjustments when necessary.  Instead, they plow.  They put their head down and push and plow forward.  They work from the belief that if they just work harder and push more, the plan will eventually be effective. The problem is…

It won’t.

And without course adjustments, “achieved failure” will be what is waiting at the end of the line.

We have to be willing to look at our assumptions, our perspectives and even our inflexibilities.  Otherwise, executing what you’ve determined to be the perfect plan can and will end in utter disappointment and failure.  No matter how much planning and precision went into the execution of the plan.

Which is why the author’s of ‘How Google Works’ believe that it is important that we focus a little less on the plan and a little more on creating the right team to implement a plan.  Or as they share, “successful teams spot the flaws in the plan and adjust.”  Which necessitates the need for more creative and innovative thinkers and less mandated implementers.  Those who feel empowered and autonomous to make changes and adjustments when necessary.  Unfortunately, we often choose the opposite in many organizations.  We put the plan before the people, instead of the other way around.  Or as they share in ‘How Google Works,’ the “plan is fluid, the foundation stable.”

More than ever, we live in chaotic and turbulent change world that requires reflective leaders who can show the courage and vulnerability to not believe that they have all of the answers.  And while the vision may remain the same, any illusion that there is a straight and linear path to this outcome, is deeply misguided.  Don’t be afraid to trust your plan.  Just be willing to trust your people even more.  Remember, nothing is written in stone anymore.

“Famous pivot stories are often failures but you don’t need to fail before you pivot.  All a pivot is is a change strategy without a change in vision.”  -Eric Ries

Purveyors Of Complexity: Design A Better Experience

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“You are the steward of your user’s experience.  Proceed accordingly.”  -Scott Belsky ‘Make Your Mark’

If educators struggle with one thing, it’s simplicity.  We can easily turn a one page strategy for next steps into a binder of change in the blink of an eye.  We do much better with addition, than we do with subtraction.  And that can be frustrating for our people and our organizations.

Especially in a world that has become more chaotic, more turbulent and less stable under the rate, force and speed of change.  

Too often we get more, when what we actually need is less.  Too often in education, we are purveyors of complexity, rather than designers of simplicity.  We need to learn to take a nod from many of the creative and innovative thinkers of our time that have learned to strip their work down to simplistic genius.  Think of Steve Jobs, Jony Ives, the Kelley Brothers, and Tim Brown, just to name a few.

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.”  -John Maeda

“Simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex.”  -Tim Brown

“Simple can be harder than complex.  You have to work to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”  -Steve Jobs

“You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”  -Jony Ive

“In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”  -Austin Kleon

Just understand that this is not about oversimplifying the complex, which can often happen.  This is about engaging the empathy necessary to not incorporate unneeded and unnecessary complexity, even though it is often in our nature to do that.  Complexity has a tendency to come much easier than simplicity.

And it is that word (empathy) that plays such a vital role in moving our work in this direction.  Unfortunately, we can be a bit limited in our understanding and incorporation of this term.  Too often we see it as a ‘soft’ term and lump it in with sympathy.  We see it only as a way of feeling.

However, empathy is much much more.  It is a perspective.  A way of seeing.  A lens that we put on to improve not only the value of what we create and provide, but to determine if our work provides value to the user and improves and enhances their work and experience.

Too often, the work we create is based solely on the perspective of the producer, and fails to incorporate the perspective and experience of the user.  Which is often a main point of contention, where breakdowns in clarity and commitment occur.  Leading to frustration on the part of the creator and the user.

When empathy is lacking in the creative and innovative process, we try to do and add too much.  We don’t know when to stop.  Often working in silos to create what we believe is the ‘perfected’ product, only to be met with concerns, complaints and criticisms.

Instead of shipping early with small, incremental experiments with feedback loops that allow us to improve our work and enhance the user experience and needs on an ongoing basis.  We try to push out a ‘perfected’ product that leads to two-way frustration.

Empathy moves us out of that mindset, out of the meeting room, out of the office, and out to those who our work affects the most.  It moves us into physical space where empathy can be engaged to determine the value, usefulness and effect of our work.

Empathy removes the pride of holding too tightly to our ideas and envisioned outcomes and moves us towards deeper understandings and recognizing that value is not determined by the producer, but by the user.  To realizing that value is created by meeting user needs and effectively generating a useful experience that enhances their ability to do their work better…and easier.

And shouldn’t that be the goal of our work, anyways?

“An empathetic approach fuels our process by ensuring we never forget we’re designing for real people.  And as a result, we uncover insights and opportunities for truly creative solutions.”  -Tom and David Kelley

The Backbone Of Creativity

The Creative Spine

Drawing courtesy of Amy Burvall

“It happens to everyone.  You’ll find yourself pacing your particular white room, asking yourself, What am I trying to say?  That is the moment when you will embrace, with gratitude, the notion of a spine.”  -Twyla Tharp ‘The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life’

In some ways, we still see creativity as a bit vague and ambiguous.  We remain a bit hazy and unclear on exactly what it is and where it comes from, which can allow us to buy into the many myths and untruths that surround it.  And for some, these myths and untruths can become deeply internalized, often causing an abundance of avoidance behaviors.

Especially in education.

Too often we can see creativity as a disruptive force.  Especially if we buy into those myths and untruths that surround it.  Which has allowed us to create this internal belief that creativity is about wild abandon and complete freedom.  We engage this notion that creativity lacks any restraints or limits.  Which produces pictures of chaos and disorder dancing through our heads when we invoke images of creative and innovative spaces and environments.

Notions we persist in entertaining in the face of current research.

What we’ve come to realize and understand is that creativity is not engaged at it’s highest level under conditions of unrestricted and unlimited freedom.  These environments actually have a tendency to hinder and depress our idea output.  Rather, it has been shown that our creative faculties are better induced when some sort of constriction or constraint is introduced into the equation.  It actually evokes more creative and innovative thinking.  Which is far from the chaos, disorder and messiness of unrestrained freedom that we often associate with creative and innovative environments.

In all actuality, when we study some of the most creative and innovative people and environments we are met with terms, such as; habits, routines, discipline, persistence, motivation, and focus.

Terms that we seldom associate with chaos and disorder (not to say that all creative and innovative people, spaces and environments include these attributes).  But what we’ve come to realize is that much of our creative and innovative output is born out of disciplined persistence and the ‘creative habits’ that we incorporate into our lives and work on a daily basis.  That creativity often gains a greater flow when we incorporate anchors (habits) and parameters (constraints) to the process.

Which stands in stark contrast to those many myths we still rationalize and believe.  

However, it is those anchors, or what Twyla Tharp refers to as the ‘spine’, that can keep us grounded in the midst of the creative process.  As she shares, “I believe that every work of art needs a spine—an underlying theme, a motive for coming into existence. It doesn’t have to be apparent to the audience.  But you need it at the start of the creative process to guide you and keep you going.”

It is that idea, that notion of the ‘spine’ that keeps us focused during our creative and innovative work.  It keeps us from wandering aimlessly.  It allows us to keep an eye on our outcome, especially when the process itself has a tendency to overwhelm.  It keeps us persistent and disciplined.  It keeps us from losing our way towards what we were originally trying to capture with our idea or thinking.

Or as Tharp shares in the ‘Creative Habit’, “The idea is the toehold that gets you started.  The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work.”  And while creativity and innovation is neither linear nor predictable, if we lack an anchor, some intention towards the work, we can easily find ourselves not only wandering aimlessly, but losing complete focus of intention towards why we were engaging the idea in the first place.  As she adds, “It lets me know when I am dawdling or digressing or wasting time.  It reminds me that everything I add is either on message or off.  Most of all, it lets me know when I’m done.”

Creative work can be engaging and fulfilling, so much so, we can get lost in the work and lose the intention of what we are trying to do, what we are trying to say, what we are trying to accomplish.  When our work lacks that ‘spine’, that anchor Tharp refers too, we can struggle to know when to stop, to know when it’s time to ship.  For in the end, while creative and innovative work can be deeply satisfying and enjoyable, we are engaging for a reason, for an outcome.

“Once you accept the power of spine in the creative act, you will become much more efficient in your creativity.  You will still get lost on occasion, but having a spine will anchor you.  When you lose your way, it will show you the way home.  It will remind you that this is what you have set out to do, this is the story you’re trying to tell, this is the effect you’re trying to achieve.”  -Twyla Tharp ‘The Creative Habit’

References and quotes taken from…

Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life. 2003. New York. Simon and Schuster.

Do We Need A Startup Mindset (In Education)?

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“How can we make a better experiment?”  -Warren Berger ‘Make Your Mark’

We live in a time where promises of stability, constancy and permanence can no longer provide our organizations and people the same foundations that we’ve been afforded in the past…and can often do more to destabilize, disrupt and disturb the current state of things.  Often more than if we would have leaned into that uncertainty, ambiguity and unknown we’re doing are best to sidestep, from the beginning.

We live in a time when taking risks is not as much an occupational hazard, as it is an occupational necessity.  As they say, “no risk, no reward.”  And yet, we try to shield ourselves from these risks with plans, policies, and strategies that promise assurances and guarantees.  We throw out mantras like, “failure is not an option,” not realizing that in the same breath we are extinguishing any hope of experimental or discovery learning.  Not realizing nor comprehending that we are institutionalizing status quo through false promises of safety and security.

Abolishing risks then, will most certainly eradicate and eliminate a questioning culture.  If we are not willing to take risks, to engage in experimentation and discovery learning, then why ask the questions that will eventually lead us down that path.  Especially when a simple answer will do just fine.  It is much easier to feed the inertia of the status quo, than disrupt that delicate balance with questions that point us down paths we are not willing to venture down.

So, if we are unwilling to take risks, or ask the difficult questions, we will definitely have a difficult time embracing or moving quickly on new, novel, creative and innovative ideas and thinking.  We will struggle to pivot and adapt with the quickness and rapidity that is necessary to match pace with the speed of change in today’s world.  Slow to move, slow to change.  A titanic mindset that makes any shifts, rotations or turns painstakingly methodical, measured, heavy, sluggish and reactionary.  A mindset that lacks the incentive to accelerate forward with type of momentum.

Inability to take risks, ask the difficult questions, embrace or move quickly on new knowledge, will hinder the possibility of incorporating cutting edge practices that make the progress and learning gained from constant reinvention possible.  As the saying goes, “why teach an old dog new tricks.”  Especially if they will neither be needed, necessary or incorporated in any systemic way.

Or we can begin to turn the tables on our thinking…

We can begin to see the need and necessity for our people and organizations to take risks, to ask deep and difficult questions, to embrace and move quickly on new information and creative and innovative thinking and ideas, to pivot and adapt in a proactive manner, and engage cutting edge practices that lead to progress and breakthroughs from more experimentation and discovery learning. We can begin to engage a startup mindset.

Or not…

“Most companies are full of ideas, but they don’t know how to go about finding out if those ideas work.  If you want to harvest all those ideas, allow employees to experiment more – so they can find out the answers to their questions themselves.”  -Eric Ries ‘Mark Your Mark’

The Time For Heavy Lifting Is Now

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“Leading innovation and what is widely considered good leadership, we found, are not the same.” -via ‘Collective Genius’

In education, we are in the midst of confronting and engaging in some of the most massive shifts and changes across the learning landscape that we may have ever faced.  Much of which has been accelerated exponentially due to the advances of technology, both in education and society as a whole.  Altering current expectations and skill-sets of today’s modern educator, often requiring major transformations in how they impart learning, as well as extracting their own learning and professional development.

As we move forward in this new world, there will be many paradoxes that we will come face to face with that will require new ways of thinking, new ways of doing and new ways of leading.

  • Being more creative while still facing a variety of stakeholder expectations.
  • Being more innovative under current accountability systems.
  • Learning and implementing new strategies and technologies in the midst of standards and curriculum changes.

And the list goes on.  Facing these shifts and changes in new, creative and innovative ways will require new perspectives, new ideas and new ways of thinking.  And most of all…

It will require new ways of leading.

Be assured, we will be unable to initiate and scale the type of creativity and innovation necessary to face these shifts and changes at any type of scale, until we take a long, hard look at leadership and the leadership skill-sets, knowledge and learning necessary to push education forward effectively into the 21st century.  Inability or unwillingness to do this, will allow many of our leaders to remain both a hindrance and obstacle, often unwittingly, to forward movement and momentum.

The mindsets we create, the cultures we establish, the organizations we build, ultimately revolve around people.  At its very foundation, education is truly about relationships and connections, pure and simple.  And when leaders don’t get this, when they struggle to comprehend this, when fail to see this as the focal point of their daily work, very little changes.

If you want to lead change, you have to understand people.

Talking about change is easy, getting people to see its value and come on board, difficult.  Understanding creativity is easy, getting those in your organization to be more creative, difficult.  Seeing the importance of moving forward and being innovative is easy, getting people to engage and adopt more innovative ways of working, difficult.

Coming up with new, creative and innovative ideas, while important, is easy.  Getting people to accept and adopt these new ideas, difficult.

Leadership is not about things, it’s not about initiatives, or programs, or plans.  It’s about people.  And if you can’t move people, you can’t move forward.

“Instead of trying to come up with a vision and make innovation happen themselves, a leader of innovation creates a place— a context, an environment— where people are willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem solving requires.”  -via ‘Collective Genius’

The Cost Of Creativity

“The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you.”  “You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created.  Neither does anyone else.”  -Hugh MacLeod ‘Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity’

Or as Hugh MacLeod adds from ‘Ignore Everybody’”Good ideas have lonely childhoods.”  And the thing is, many creatives can have lonely adulthoods, too.  Especially when it comes to sharing and promoting their ideas and thinking.  A loneliness that is often attributed to others being unable to see what you may see, as well as the possibilities and ideas that are bouncing frenetically around the recesses of your mind.  Which is why trust is so incredibly important for creative visionaries.  They have to be able to trust themselves, trust their thinking, ideas and work, otherwise self-doubt can and will eventually creep in and ultimately overwhelm.  Especially when you are often working in unknowns and uncertainty.  When you are exploring new ideas and new thinking that others may struggle considering, let alone accepting.  For which Hugh MacLeod contends, “There’s a reason why feelings scare us – because what they tell us and what the rest of the world tells us are often two different things.”

Big ideas are scary.  Not only for possibilities they engage, but for the changes they evoke and the resistance they receive.  And there is always that voice in the back of your head, the doubt-pusher pecking away…”Can I do this?”  “Can I do this?”  “Can I do this?”  And if you can get past those word walls, most often followed up with…”Who are you to think you can do this?”  “Who are you to think you can do this?”  “Who are you to think you can do this?”

Being creative and innovative is not always a joyous proposition.  Not only does it require daily dedication and perspiration to the work.  It can often lead to mental isolation, especially when your ideas don’t conform to status quo and the current culture.  Often leading to internal and external bouts of doubt and uncertainty.  You will tend to spend long periods of time questioning your own thinking and ideas…determining if these creative revelations are irrational and illogical or progressive and innovative.

But, as Hugh MacLeod imparts in his work ‘Ignore Everybody’”This is the price you pay, every time. There is no way of avoiding it.”  “So there’ll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth the support you probably need.  This is normal.  This is to be expected.”

And for these reasons, you need to search out your creative companion.  The friend that is willing to give you the feedback that is often difficult, but necessary and needed.  Not criticism that pulls you back, but honest advice that drives you deeper…with your ideas, your thinking and your work.  Especially when doubt and uncertainty begins its slow creep into the creative process.

Just understand, this creative companion is not easy to find.  Many creatives search for years, even a lifetime, and never find that other person that pushes their ideas and thinking.  That person that pushes them past the internal and external forces of doubt.  But you know that person when you find them…just don’t let them go.

“Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.”  -Hugh MacLeod ‘Ignore Everybody’


Assumptions And Adaptations

“Learn what is done.  Learn why people are doing things the way they are done.  Question the linkages and assumptions.”  -Max McKeown ‘The Innovation Book’

We live in a time and age of incredible access.  Access to ideas and thinking on a scale never before beheld or witnessed in our history.  A time of immediate and instantaneous access on a global proportion.  A fire hose of information, learning, thinking and data that can often overwhelm and disconnect, just as much as it engages and connects.

Unfortunately, many are disconnecting as much for the deconstruction and disruption this connection is causing, as for the vast and overwhelming information overload that accompanies this connection.  As much as we romanticize the new, it can be humbling and painful as it undoes the foundations and understandings that we have to come to rely and build our world upon.

A time that is requiring us to aggressively reevaluate our thinking, our understandings, our ideas…what we learn, how we learn, and even who we learn from.

Very often it is less about thinking outside the box, as it is upending the box and starting over.  A time to questions our assumptions, constantly.  The difficult and often painful part of this process will be the deconstruction necessary to move forward.  Or as Max McKeown shares in ‘The Innovation Book’, that as you move forward…”You are prepared to give up old ideas so that you can benefit from new ideas.”  Or as he adds,  To make room for new learning, there needs to be space for unlearning.”

It is a process.  We begin by first acknowledging that there is new learning and ideas worth pursuing.  The new learning requires us to reflect on our current and past ideas to determine next steps in the face of these new learnings and ideas.  Which requires us to not only question our assumptions, but to put our self in a constant state of deconstructing and rebuilding.  It requires us to become mental architects in this new and connected world.  A time when the necessity of weighing our assumptions allows us to move forward and adapt in the deluge of this access.  Or as Max McKeown adds, “Letting go of old ideas is about recognizing the relentless need-and opportunity-for adaption.”

Today’s mental architects understand the necessity of deconstructing, questioning, reexamining, and rebuilding, will be necessary to adopt and adapt in this fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving change world that we’ve created.  A time when ‘tried and true’ may no longer serve as the credo it has always been.

“The innovator is able to adapt to ever-shifting consequences-in part because the innovative mind is only loosely committed to any particular method, process or structure. Rejecting any ultimate truth-or fixed answer-allows you to fluidly move to better when you find better.” -Max McKeown ‘The Innovation Book’