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March 22, 2018
Vol. 13
No. 14

Building a Culture of Yes: Five Strategies to Unlock Possibilities and Innovation in Schools

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Several years ago, Pacific Power & Light (PP&L), a company that provides electrical service to customers in the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Mountains region, was struggling with a major problem. Power lines were breaking due to heavy ice storms and ice hanging on the power lines every fall and spring. PP&L would send their lineman out to service the lines and shake off the ice, but it was terribly unsafe for the lineman and they all hated doing it. Realizing they needed a different solution, PP&L pulled together a diverse group for a brainstorming session.
During the session, one of the lineman was complaining about the last time he had to de-ice the lines. Not only were the weather conditions dangerous, but he also came face to face with a giant black bear and was chased for almost a mile. He was thankful to get out alive, but he was not looking forward to having to do that again! Another lineman overhead the story and jokingly suggested to the group, "Let's just train the bears to climb the poles and shake them to get the ice off the lines." To which the room exploded in laughter. Then someone else added, "What if we put honey pots on top of the poles to attract the bears?" Again, laughter. How would they get honey pots on top of the poles? "I know!" contributed one lineman, "We could have a helicopter fly overhead and put honey pots on top of each pole."
The ideas were getting outlandish. It would be tempting to shut down this conversation and get back to business, but this idea sparked something. A secretary spoke up, recalling her days of being an Army nurse's aide. She shared how the helicopters would come to pick up injured patients and there was always so much downwash from the helicopter blades that would cause dust to fly everywhere. All of a sudden, the room went silent; no one laughed at this idea. They had found their solution. After ice storms, they fly a helicopter just over the top of the transmission lines, and the vibration from the helicopter shakes the ice off the lines. An incredible solution, but one they would have never gotten to had they not entertained and built upon the ideas of bears and honey pots. PP&L still uses this solution today. [Source: "The Honey Pot: A Lesson in Creativity & Diversity" (Camper, 1993)]
In education, have we become so busy "sending out the lineman to shake the lines" that we don't have time to dream about bears and honey pots? Solving the problems we face today in education requires a fresh perspective and creative solutions. Most educators are aware that change is needed and cognitively know things need to be done differently, yet collectively we get stuck in circular conversations and comfortable solutions that have already been tried without results. Change is complex and the culture in which the change is taking place may just be the biggest predictor of whether or not the change will succeed or fail. Sadly, over time many schools have developed a culture of no. Ideas are limited or shut down due to lack of resources, time, and staffing and teachers have become skilled at identifying all of the negative reasons why a solution won't work before new ideas are even given a proper chance. How might we move schools from a having a culture of no to creating a culture of yes?
Building a "culture of yes" unlocks possibilities and creates contagious energy where ideas flourish and people grow. In a culture of yes, people are open to having conversations, feel safe sharing their ideas, and are willing to take risks. The culture of yes in its most extreme form can be seen in the world of improv. Improv is not about being constantly witty or funny; rather, it is about being in the moment, accepting offers that come your way, and building on those ideas. We offer five strategies that will help you begin to build your own "culture of yes."

Be open to a world of possibilities and new opportunities.

Opportunity doesn't just happen; we need to actively seek it out. To become a lottery winner, you must actually buy a ticket. The same is true with so many other possibilities. There are likely some winning lottery numbers hidden among our own ideas that we may miss if we don't pay attention. To spot these opportunities, we need to play and spend some time in the world of possibility. Brainstorming is a great start; however, our use could be more strategic. Let's go back to bears and honeypots. For PP&L, this was not their first brainstorming session. They had been struggling with this problem for years without a real solution, but they didn't come to the solution until they included diverse points of views and allowed a playfulness with the topic. It was a case of brainstorming done well. Oftentimes, we are guilty of doing the opposite in education. We hold one quick brainstorming session, select the best idea, and move forward with a plan. What if we lingered just a little bit longer? What if we really dreamt big? Pull your team together and do some quick and silly brainstorms. How many uses can they come up with for a paperclip? What might they create with four red balloons? How might we improve cereal? These are not earth-shattering problems, but they offer opportunities to practice creativity and possibility. With the creative muscles warmed up, you'll find it much easier to brainstorm about the real problem. To find a gem of an idea, you'll likely have to brainstorm hundreds of ideas. Don't expect to find a diamond in the rough in a 20-minute session.

Shut down the "Yeah, but …"

Don't be surprised if others get annoyed at first when you start entertaining big, wild ideas. People don't like to be pushed outside their comfort zones or asked to question the constraints they have come to embrace. Invite your team to imagine the biggest difference they could make. What might learning look like if they had no constraints? Then ask them to list all the reasons they can't accomplish the goals they've identified. These are your "Yeah, buts …" Identify the reason and who or where the constraints are coming from; teachers, the community, the union, the school board? For every "yeah, but …," brainstorm three ways to navigate around the constraint or use it to your advantage. By actively calling out the "yeah, buts," you have taken away their power and can move on. Then ask yourself, "What is the simplest thing you can do that will have the most profound effect and move you closer to your goal?"

Let go and take a risk.

Innovation requires questioning rules and a willingness to let go of control. Part of building trust in our organizations is allowing others to take the wheel and make decisions. As a site or district leader, it can feel risky. What if they fail? Think about how we message failure to students; it's our "first attempt at learning." If we want our teachers or students to take risks, we have to model it. What is one risk you could take right now that would improve learning for students? Take it! Talk about it and then give permission for your teachers to do the same.

Experiment by prototyping.

What is the quickest prototype of your idea you can create? Create it! Considering an after-school program for students? Create a parent brochure for it or a flyer marketing your event. The main thing here is to get the idea out of your head and create something tangible that will allow you to get feedback. Do not strive for perfection with your prototype, because you will likely go through several iterations. Take the feedback you collect and create a new prototype incorporating small iterations or even a change in direction.

Ask for feedback earlier.

It can be tempting to wait to act until we have a comprehensive plan of action. Then once we act, we wait for full implementation before seeking feedback. What might happen if we gathered feedback sooner? The beauty of improvisation and prototyping is that you are continually gathering feedback as you build and test your ideas. Being open to feedback helps build a flexible mindset that allows you to continue to adapt and change your plan without any emotional attachment. If you spend six months on a plan, you are less likely to be open to feedback than if you are sharing your best thinking over the course of a week. So, share sooner. Sharing your "work in progress" invites others into the journey and makes them a part of the end product, allowing them to share in your success. Nervous to put yourself out there? Try using a feedback frame. Ask people to use the following three prompts: "I like …., I wish …., What if?" This gives people an opportunity to share something they like (I like), a suggestion or improvement (I wish), and something that might take you in a different direction (What if?). When the feedback starts flowing in, there is no need for a lengthy response; a simple "thank you" will suffice.
Schools that have successfully created a "culture of yes" have a more energized faculty that is well-positioned to take on the work of redesigning learning for students. Educators at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, have created such a culture and are able to take bigger professional risks as a result. This year, all students in their middle school will participate in "Breakaway," a four-day, mixed-grade, teacher-student experience when they "break away" from conventional aspects of daily school life. The learning continues, just in a variety of different ways and places. Although Breakaway is a four-day experience for students, it is much more significant for teachers because it represents a prototype of the kinds of learning experiences teachers would like to facilitate as a more regular part of their program. It is the teachers' chance to test and prototype ideas they developed while living in the world of possibility. When developing Breakaway Week, teachers first identified the conditions of their own personal peak learning experiences and recognized how at odds many of the conditions were with school as we know it. As a faculty group, they are now pushing the boundaries, asking questions and taking risks to reimagine learning. This work is not easy, but it is possible because they have built such a strong "culture of yes."
Where does your school sit on the Yes-O-Meter, and what will you do to shift it in a positive direction?

Alyssa Gallagher co-leads BTS Spark in North America, helping school leaders across the United States and Canada access leadership coaching and professional development. Alyssa combines experience of school leadership and school district administration with expertise in leadership development. She spent 20 years in the U.S. public education K–12 sector, filling many roles, including teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. Under Alyssa’s guidance, Los Altos School District (California) became a nationally recognized leader in educational innovation, and her work was featured on CNN and by Forbes, Wired, The Economist, and 60 Minutes. Alyssa has coauthored two ASCD books: Design Thinking for School Leaders (2018) and Design Thinking in Play (2020).

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